The cruise industry tends to make the news for all the wrong reasons, especially when the weather is involved.
Although cruise ships are hugely complex and advanced resorts at sea, offering water parks, hotels, shopping malls and enough restaurants and bars for a small city, they can also be largely helpless to the whims of the weather.
Incidents such as the Viking Sky emergency off the coast of Norway in 2019, or the more recent incident aboard Carnival Sunshine this year, raise questions about how safe modern cruise ships are in storms at sea.
While cruise ships are sometimes struck by rogue waves, most recently in 2022, and while it does tragically sometimes lead to the loss of life, cruising remains a fundamentally safe way to travel because of all the redundancy built into the construction of cruise ships.
While they may not look like it, modern cruise ships can take a lot of punishment, and can even survive being struck side on by a rogue wave, as they can roll, or lean, much further over than you’d think.
But what happens to cruise ships in sustained extreme weather conditions, particularly hurricanes? Being hit by a rogue wave, or getting caught out by a sudden severe storm that leads to rough seas is different to a hurricane, which is a huge weather system that could see a cruise ship battered by high winds and waves for hours.
The Anatomy of a Cruise Ship
Before delving into this question, it’s crucial to understand the complexity of modern cruise ships. These floating cities are engineered to be resilient, incorporating advanced technology and safety features to ensure passenger safety.
Cruise ships are designed with stability in mind, featuring a low center of gravity, ballast tanks, and advanced navigation systems to minimize the impact of rough seas.
In the event that they do take water onboard due to smashed windows or other minor structural damage, they also have massive pumps to keep the water from gathering.
How storms and hurricanes are classified:
The Beaufort scale is a measure that relates wind speed to observed conditions at sea or on land. There are 12 levels (Force 1, Force 2 and so on). Force 12 is categorised as hurricane force, with winds exceeding 64 knots (73 mph, or 118 km/h) and waves higher than 46 feet or 14 metres.
A hurricane, also called a cyclone or typhoon, has its intensity assessed through a variety of methods or techniques, including surface, satellite, and aerial measurements of various kinds of wind speed.
Cyclone scales such as the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale and Australia’s scale (Bureau of Meteorology) only use wind speed for determining the category of a storm. There are 5 levels of intensity, from a Category 1 hurricane to a Category 5, which has winds of 137 knots (157 mph, 252 km/h) or higher.
Hurricane Threats and Cruise Ship Preparedness
Hurricanes are formidable natural disasters, characterized by powerful winds, torrential rain, and massive waves, so cruise lines take hurricane threats seriously and employ multiple strategies to minimize risks. If a cruise ship were to find itself in the direct path of a hurricane, it would have to be due to the failure of multiple redundancies in the system.
Cruise lines track hurricanes with precision, allowing them to adjust routes to avoid storm paths. Ships can easily change course to stay clear of the most dangerous areas.
Advanced Weather Forecasting:
Cruise ships are equipped with sophisticated weather monitoring systems that provide real-time data about approaching storms. This allows for proactive decision-making to ensure passenger safety.
Enhanced Ship Design:
Modern cruise ships are designed to withstand rough weather conditions, including moderate hurricanes. Advanced stabilizer systems and reinforced hulls help ships navigate through turbulent seas, but a severe hurricane such as a Category 4 or 5 would put even the most robust cruise ship in significant danger.
Cruise lines have comprehensive evacuation plans in place, including lifeboats and life rafts for all passengers and crew members. Drills and safety briefings are conducted before every voyage to ensure passengers know what to do in an emergency.
Onboard Safety Measures:
During hurricane conditions, cruise ships may limit passenger movement on open decks and secure loose objects. The crew is trained to respond to emergencies swiftly.
But what if a cruise ship does have to sail through a hurricane?
It’s important to note that for the reasons above, no modern cruise ships have ever had to sail through an actual hurricane. Cruise ships have encountered hurricanes in the past, but have always been able to avoid them.
There have been incidents, however, where cruise ships have been subjected to hurricane-like conditions and came out the other side with little significant structural damage. More often, it’s the passengers who are injured because they lack experience moving around a ship in rough weather.
In 2005, the cruise ship Voyager of V-Ships cruise line was caught in a severe storm when a weather system with Force 9 to 10 winds unexpectedly changed course. On the Beaufort scale, a Force 10 storm is categorized by 48–55 knot winds (55–63 mph; 89–102 km/h) and very high waves of up to 41 feet, while Force 12 packs winds above 64 knots and waves in excess of 46 feet (14 metres). This is considered a hurricane.
Cruise ships are designed to withstand waves of up to 15 metres, according to naval architects interviewed by the BCC as part of their documentary Freak Wave, so in sea conditions like this they would likely sustain significant damage, but would be unlikely to sink solely as a result of the weather, if maintained properly as the vast majority of cruise ships are.
Indeed, Voyager in the video above had been hit by a 40-foot (12 metre) wave during the night, that knocked out the ship’s bridge, rendering her helpless to the storm. Despite that, the ship did not sink, although at least four of her 776 passengers were badly injured.
In 2019, Norwegian Escape was hit by unexpectedly strong winds in excess of 100 knots, equivalent to a Category 3 hurricane, but came out the other side with only minor damage, although the experience was a little harrowing for her passengers. The ship rolled 20 degrees, causing many people to lose their footing, while unsecured items were sent sliding off tables and shelves.
More recently, earlier this year, when Carnival Sunshine sailed through a tropical depression on her way back to the US from the Bahamas, the ship was hit by a 40-foot wave and suffered significant water damage to some of her crew areas. No passengers were badly injured though, and the ship’s next sailing was only slightly delayed.
Norwegian Breakaway suffered an even more violent experience in 2018 when it was forced to sail through a severe storm with winds equivalent to a Category 3 cyclone while en-route to New York. It was one of the fastest-intensifying storms ever observed off the East Coast, and battered Norwegian Breakaway with waves of 15 to 30 feet.
The ship suffered no damage apart from minor water ingress due to the wind, but the voyage was uncomfortable for passengers, with widespread seasickness. Norwegian Cruise Line was broadly criticised for sailing into the storm knowing the conditions that awaited passengers, but what’s clear is that the ship was never in any danger.
Similarly, in 2016, Royal Caribbean was criticised for allowing Anthem of the Seas to sail into the path of a mega storm in The Atlantic. While the weather system was not a hurricane, it did hit the ship with winds in excess of 100mph, the equivalent to a Category 2 hurricane. Anthem of the Seas was only slightly damaged when part of her communications array was shorn off by the wind, but the ride was frightening for passengers.
Waves were breaking against the ship at the same height as the lifeboats, and for much of the night the vessel was heeled over at an angle of up to 45-degrees due to the wind and sea conditions. Passengers were confined to their cabins to avoid injury, and there are unverified reports that the ship’s captain contacted the US Coast Guard to notify them of a potential emergency.
Anthem of the Seas was forced to “hove to” during the storm (turn her bow into the wind and ride it out), and then turned back to port, cancelling the cruise. Four injuries were reported, though none of them were severe, and the ship sustained damage but remained seaworthy.
So, while cruise ships are certainly not invulnerable to hurricanes, and would likely suffer significant damage if they were forced to sail through one, whether they’d sink depends largely on the size of the vessel and how robust its owners have been on maintenance. It’s important to note as well that while cruise lines, such as in the incidents above, do sometimes play fast and loose with bad weather, when it comes to hurricanes they
What is certain is that the experience would be deeply unpleasant for passengers, and would result in widespread injuries, some of them potentially very serious. However, cruise ships are designed with safety in mind and employ various strategies to avoid hurricanes, and cruise lines continue to invest in technology and safety measures to enhance their ability to navigate extreme weather conditions.
Passengers can also contribute to their safety by staying informed, following crew instructions, and being prepared for the unexpected. In bad weather one should follow the old sailor’s maxim and keep one hand for oneself and one for the ship.