Rogue waves are massive, unpredictable, and often mythologized as ship-swallowing monsters. But can these legendary waves truly sink or capsize a modern cruise ship?
On July 26th, 1909, the ocean liner SS Waratah, midway on her dedicated Australia-UK run, departed Durban, South Africa bound for Cape Town carrying 211 passengers and crew. She was due in Cape Town on July 29th, but never arrived.
Despite an intensive ocean search and rescue effort, she was never seen again. The reason for the ship’s disappearance off South Africa’s Wild Coast has never been confirmed, but one plausible theory is that she was struck by a rogue wave in bad weather and capsized without warning.
The waters off Southern Africa are renowned for their ferocity, with howling winds and rolling waves that grow to an immense size as they travel thousands of miles uninterrupted from Antarctica.
On the night that SS Waratah disappeared there was a tremendous gale, with a waves so high a Royal Navy frigate that left Cape Town to search for her had to turn back due to damage to the hull. These are condition ripe for rogue waves, and they occur far more often than commonly thought.
It’s therefore feasible Waratah encountered one that night. Rolling out of the darkness, it would have slammed into her with little warning. If it struck the ship beam on, it would have caused her to capsize. Loaded with a cargo of iron ore, she would have gone down with little fight.
Today, cruise ships offer passengers a luxurious and relaxing way to explore the world’s oceans. But rogue waves remain part of the popular imagination thanks to The Poseidon Adventure and its many remakes, and indeed remain a threat thanks to new research that has shown them to be far more common than was previously thought.
The idea of encountering a rogue wave can therefore be a source of anxiety for some passengers, but how common are they? And if one were to hit a modern cruise ship, would it sink like the fictional Poseidon, or indeed the ill-fated SS Waratah?
Understanding Rogue Waves
Rogue waves are massive, unpredictable, and often mythologized as ship-swallowing monsters. But can these legendary waves truly capsize a modern cruise ship? To answer this question, it’s important to explore the science behind rogue waves and their potential impact on cruise ships.
Rogue waves, also known as freak waves or monster waves, are exceptionally large and unexpected ocean swells that can reach heights of up to 100 feet (30 metres) or more. Rogue waves are not the result of a single, simple phenomenon but rather a complex interplay of factors.
They can occur in any ocean, but they are most commonly associated with areas where strong ocean currents meet opposing winds. These waves can also be generated when smaller waves merge constructively, creating a single, towering wave. They appear out of nowhere and have been the subject of countless maritime legends and real-life stories.
Encounters with Rogue Waves
In February, 1995 the ocean liner Queen Elizabeth II was struck by a 29-metre high rogue wave during a particularly severe storm in the North Atlantic. Captain Ronald Warwick described it as “a great wall of water… it looked as if we were going into the White Cliffs of Dover.”
It’s unclear how bad the damage was to the ship, but unverified reportsclaim a mast was torn from her foredeck, and the windows of one of her forward-facing lounges were smashed. Interestingly, there are few reports of casualties, while an earlier 1993 incident in which QE2 was struck by a 30-foot rogue wave led to 50 injuries.
From first-hand accounts of the two incidents, it appears the larger wave struck the ship head-on, while the earlier smaller wave may have smashed into her side, which would explain the reports of a “freak tilt” that sent all manner of items crashing across her public rooms.
Conventional cruise ships have also been struck by rogue waves, not just ocean liners like QE2, built for the extremes of the North Atlantic. In 2010, Louis Majestic was hit by three 30-foot rogue waves in quick succession, smashing the forward lounge windows and killing two passengers. The video above shows the moment the third wave hit the ship.
In 2014 the ocean liner turned cruise ship Marco Polo of the now-defunct Cruise & Maritime Voyages was hit by what the cruise line called a “freak wave”, killing one passenger when windows in one of the ship’s restaurants smashed. Although the cruise line and media referred to the incident as a rogue wave encounter, the Bahama Maritime Authority, to whom the vessel was registered, later said an in-depth investigation had concluded the tragedy was unlikely to have been due to a rogue wave.
On November 29, 2022, an unusually large wave hit the cruise ship Viking Polaris as it was sailing through the Drake Passage in Antarctica’s Southern Ocean toward Ushuaia in Argentina. The force of the wave sent passengers flying, smashed several exterior windows, flooded some rooms and led to the death of at least one passenger. This wasn’t a confirmed rogue wave as no estimate was made of its size.
Once dismissed as a nautical legend, rogue waves are now understood to be a common feature of these particular sea conditions, and are believed to be responsible for as many as 200 losses of ships during the past two decades.
Modern Cruise Ship Design
It’s crucial to understand that modern cruise ships are designed and built with safety as a top priority, making encounters with true rogue waves the size of that which hit QE2 highly unlikely. These vessels undergo rigorous testing and adhere to strict regulations to ensure their stability and seaworthiness.
Cruise ship engineers consider a wide range of potential hazards, including extreme weather conditions like rogue waves, when designing these floating cities. So that even if a real rogue wave were to hit a modern cruise ship, it would cause significant damage, but not sink it.
The Stability of Cruise Ships
One of the key factors that prevent cruise ships from capsizing in the face of rogue waves is their inherent stability. Cruise ships are equipped with advanced stabilizing systems, including gyroscopes and ballast tanks, to counteract the forces of rolling and pitching caused by waves. These systems help maintain the ship’s balance, making it highly resistant to capsizing.
Additionally, cruise ships are designed with multiple watertight compartments, ensuring that even if a breach were to occur, the ship would not sink entirely. This compartmentalization is a fundamental safety feature that allows cruise ships to stay afloat even in very challenging conditions.
Navigation and Weather Forecasting
Another critical aspect of cruise ship safety is advanced navigation technology and weather forecasting. Modern ships are equipped with radar, satellite communication, and meteorological systems that enable them to detect and track weather patterns, and captains are knowledgeable of the conditions that support the formation of rogue waves. Cruise ship captains can also often navigate around or through rough seas, avoiding the most hazardous areas (although this hasn’t eliminated misjudgement in recent years).
While rogue waves are indeed a fascinating and potentially dangerous natural phenomenon, the idea of them capsizing a modern cruise ship is highly unlikely. Of the 200 ships believed to have been sunk by rogue waves in the last two decades, none were cruise ships, for the simple reason that cruise ships generally avoid the kind of weather that can produce a rogue wave.
Cruise ships are also designed with a myriad of safety redundancies, incorporating advanced technology and engineering to ensure their stability and seaworthiness, while skilled and experienced crews and advanced navigation systems enable them to sail around or ahead of severe storms. Apart from QE2, no large cruise ship has ever been struck by a rogue wave of 92 feet, but there have been several incidents involving smaller freak waves of 30 to 40 feet.
These incidents led to significant structural damage and even death in some tragic cases, but all the cruise ships in question remained fundamentally seaworthy. It’s worth noting, however, that QE2 was the greatest ocean liner ever built, and even the largest cruise ships are not nearly as a robust, so until one is struck by a 90+ foot wave, we won’t know just how much punishment they can take.