Warning Signs Showed Trouble As Norway Cruise Ship Sailed Into Cyclone

The storm system that would eventually terrify cruisegoers aboard the Viking Sky didn't come without warning. It didn't materialize out of nowhere.

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Warning Signs Showed Trouble As Norway Cruise Ship Sailed Into Cyclone

A cruise ship Viking Sky drifts towards land after an engine failure in Hustadvika. (Reuters file)


The Viking Sky's mayday call came midmorning Saturday just offshore Norway. It followed an engine failure that left the ship stranded in the harsh conditions. Waves topping 60 feet and winds exceeding hurricane strength buffeted the crippled vessel. The storm had the air pressure of a Category 3 hurricane.

The storm system that would eventually terrify cruisegoers aboard the Viking Sky didn't come without warning. It didn't materialize out of nowhere.

And it didn't develop on a whim. Instead, the sprawling low was hinted at by weather models up to a week in advance.

Simulations as early as March 16 indicated a wave of low pressure would rapidly intensify sometime around the weekend of the 23rd and 24th between Iceland and Norway. But it wasn't clear at the time exactly where.

It's not unusual to have intense cyclones develop in this part of the world in March. The equinoctial seasons are known for their vicious transitions, oftentimes manifest by violent open-ocean storms. The northeast Atlantic is a notoriously rough patch of maritime real estate in the late winter and early spring, often spinning up gales that can threaten even the most experienced captains.

The forecast became much clearer last Wednesday into Thursday, when it appeared obvious that the central coast of Norway would be hard-hit.

The Viking Sky departed Bergen, Norway, on March 14, bound for a port-hopping excursion northward up the coast. It would then turn around and hit several cities on its way south, eventually steaming to Tilbury, England, where it was slated to arrive Monday.

But Saturday's system was on a crash-course with the Viking Sky's desired path. The ship could have remained docked on Bodo to ride out the storm. Instead, it continued south, becoming stranded and prompting an airlift evacuation. The Viking Sky arrived safely into the port of Molde on Sunday.

A significant wave height of 43.6 feet was reported at 4 pm local time Saturday at the Heidrun buoy by weather.us. This reflects just an average of the biggest waves and several may have been taller, even topping 60 feet.

Waves are a byproduct of wind, and they take time to build to such impressive heights. Thirty-foot waves occurred for an astonishing 17 consecutive hours at the same station.

The winds were extreme, measuring 87 mph over the open ocean and clocking in closer to 70 mph nearest to shore. At Svinoy fyr - 60 miles southwest of where Viking Star is currently docked - winds hit 69 mph.

In ordinary circumstances, the Viking Sky can cruise at 20 knots, or 23 mph. That would have been enough time for it to make it back to shore within a half-hour or so, since most of its journey was spent in sight of land. The issue in this case was the engine failure, which could not have been planned for. So while the ship did continue to operate in treacherous weather, it likely was not a conscious decision - unlike Royal Caribbean's Anthem of the Seas' infamous 2018 encounter with a "bomb cyclone."

The lack of ability to navigate or turn the ship also left the Viking Sky susceptible to being broadsided by waves. Several large breakers plowed into the ship, smashing windows and shattering glass. Video shows the ship listing to and fro at nearly 20 degrees to the horizontal. That's because the ship's 95-foot width tucked it in between wave crests, exposing the vessel to maximum sideways rocking motion when a wave passed through.

The storm system has since dissipated, weakening over the Norwegian and Barents Seas.

The incident is set to be probed by the Norwegian Accident Investigations Board.



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