Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Norwegian Cruise Ship Heads Right Into a Well-Forecast Storm

On January 4th, its cruise ship Breakaway (I did not make this name up!) sailed right into the most dangerous portion of an explosively deepening, intense winter cyclone off the east coast, causing damage to the ship and greatly discomforting the passengers. And it did so by ignoring emphatic warnings by the meteorological community.


Some of the videos taken by passengers were terrifying, with large waves, water cascading down staircases, and items falling off the walls.  Here are a few sample videos:




The ship has a store called the "Tides Boutique"---and during this storm it has real tides.

So what happened?  The cruise ship sailed directly into the most dangerous sector of the storm.  This plot show the NWS surface analysis (sea level pressures and fronts) at 4 AM January 4th and the position of the ship at that time.  The ship was just south of the low center in a region of very strong winds---a region that is often called the "sting jet" in the weather business.


Here is a sustained wind analysis from the NOAA/NWS HRRR model with speed shown with the color fill, wind vectors with the symbols, and the black dot my estimated position of ship at the same time (4 AM Thursday PST).  At this point, they were in sustained winds of around 45 knots (52 mph), with higher gusts.  The ship was heading northward towards NY at this time. 


You will notice even stronger winds in front (north) of them, with a long fetch---allowing the development of big waves.   That morning the WindSat scatterometer satellite, which can measure surface winds from space (using the relationship between wind and small ocean waves,) went over the storm (and ship).  Here are the winds it found (wind vectors, color coded shown).  Sustained winds from the NW of 40-50 knots at the ship position off of North Carolina.


The most dangerous location in the Pacific cyclone is to the south and southwest of the low center, in the region of strongest pressure gradient.  This figure from a NOAA document indicates the region of very strong winds (red shading).  Guess what ship was very close to the worst part of the storm?



The forecasts for this storm were excellent, days ahead of time.  The forecasts made 24 hr and 48hr before the time shown above, had good forecasts of the storm (see below). The cruise line and the Captain had no excuses for being there.
                                          24h                                                                          48h
                                              
The NOAA Ocean Prediction Center (OPC) had an excellent forecast the day before for 80 kt wind gusts and 33 ft seas in the storm area.   Waves around the Breakaway were estimated at 30 ft.

And the NOAA 4-day forecast was highly accurate.
The storm was moving rapidly to the Northeast, so a delay of 24hr would have made a world of difference.

Something is really wrong when a ship with 4000 passengers and over 1000 crew heads into an historic storm of great intensity.   Thousands of lives were endangered and everyone on board had a very unpleasant experience.   It appears that the Captain ignored highly reliable meteorological guidance and needlessly put the ship and its passengers at risk.



24 comments:

Abe Jacobson said...

Any navigator should ask the question, "Can the ship's company board (and survive on) lifeboats in the present conditions?"

If the answer is "no" or even "maybe not", then the vessel should have made every effort to avoid that situation. It is hubris to assume that a ship- any ship -can not have a mayday.

Walter Kolczynski said...

I think the worst part is this *keeps happening*.

John K. said...

Very simple.. this was the course of action they calculated would cost them the least amount of money. Case closed.

Jan Rolstad said...


Speaking as one, you can always tell a Norwegian, you just can't tell them much.

Glenn said...

Joseph Conrad's "Typhoon" is a cautionary tale for this lack of thinking.

Placeholder said...

Cruise lines are infamous for this kind of behavior. Customers let them get away with it by returning for more.

Eric Blair said...

This kind of MO is becoming quite common among many of the cruise lines operating today, and they keep getting away with it because they're not bound by any country's laws as long as they're outside of maritime boundaries of whichever country whose shores they're sailing closest. Terrible outbreaks of infection diseases, abominable non - treatment of waste emptied out into the oceans, passengers being assaulted and no one is charged, the list is endless.

Unknown said...

I am impressed that the ship did not capsize or break up. That shows it was well-designed and well-handled.

Matt said...

Why anyone would ever set foot on a cruise liner, with the (truthful) issues Eric brings up, is beyond me.

You might as well sign away all rights to everything. You have little to no recourse at sea.

BAMCIS said...

The Captain and crew are still employees and have to follow orders from their corporate handlers. To divert might have been more sensible (and better PR), but it probably would have cost the cruise line a fortune, the Captain their job and probably put a black eye on the careers of the bridge crew. Especially if what would be encountered by pressing forward was reflective of accurate weather data and was well within the design parameters of the ship as well as the seamanship of the crew. THEN, it really was a decision born of an accurate storm forecast. Meteorology actually WAS the hero here, but for completely the wrong reasons as implied here.

Sorry, Cliff.

We have probably all been on flights with major airlines flying Boeing or Airbus aircraft where the flight was horrible due to flying through rough air. We lived to bitch about it. Mainly due to the reality of there was no real danger (only perceived) and the professionals we count on in the cockpit(or the bridge) knew that in spite of the discomfort experienced by the passengers, the aircraft was within its safe parameters. Pilots don't want to become a grease stain in the middle of smoldering crater in some pasture as much as their passengers don't want to be. The same goes for this ship and its crew.

Cliff Mass said...

BAMCIS...well, they had to delay leaving a day late anyway (with repairs and cleaning the ship). If they had delayed on day, the storm would have passed....wouldn't that have been a far better economic decision?..cliff

Placeholder said...

@BAMCIS, the airline pilots try to steer around or above turbulence when they can, as opposed to cruise ship captains who act as if they couldn't care less.

Tom Butler said...

No, no, no, BAMCIS airliners avoid severe thunderstorms because they are dangerous both to the passengers and the integrity of the aircraft. There have been several crashes due to structural failure or engine failure due to water/hail injestion. My guess is that you have only experienced moderate turbulence < 1G because of this policy. If you have ever been in severe turbulence >3 Gs like I have in Europe you would not want to do it again.
And the Norwegian cruise ship is not designed for heavy weather. Compare it to the the Queen Mary 2 and you will see significant differences in the lines of the ship to make it more seaworthy. Cliff is exactly right on this one and kudos for bringing this up.

BAMCIS said...

Hard to say. Depends on how much fuel had to be burned to divert around the weather. The fuel economy is probably measured in feet per gallon!

BAMCIS said...

Plus it's different to delay a day in a different/foreign port with passengers on board versus just the crew in homeport.

John Marshall said...

As someone who has spent a lot of time at sea in a small boat, those conditions (based on the video) were not severe for a extremely large (gigantic) 145,000 ton ship. But admittedly, more severe than its pampered passengers might enjoy in their floating hotel that's supposed to hide the fact that it's floating on water. Likely no more dangerous than light to turbulence in a modern jetliner.

Aircraft make decisions to fly through areas of light to moderate turbulence all the time when they could theoretically avoid any risk (at a cost in time, schedule and fuel). And unlike ships, a number of aircraft fly every year into truly nasty stuff that gets people and crew injured.

If you can walk around a ship in weather without having to constantly hang onto something, and if the plates and glasses stay on the table, then the conditions aren't dangerous. The video showing liquid tilting slightly in a glass was a joke. Heavy weather is when the glass hits the wall and the plates turn into frisbees.

While I agree that this is a case of a ship's captain deciding to take his ship through forecasted heavy weather when he didn't have to, I didn't see any safety implication to passengers. Mostly just inconvenience and a bit of cleanup and another chance for people to bash the cruise industry (which is still doing very well, despite being piled on by the media).

Mark Anderson said...

Recommended reading: Typhoon, by Joseph Conrad. The captain "having just enough imagination to carry him through each successive day, and no more" simply can't imagine a storm large enough to fear. Great read.

wff255 said...

I understand the economic implications of delaying or changing a cruise ship's course and itinerary. But given the amount of water damage on the inside of the ship I would say that sailing into the storm cost the cruise line much more than a 24 hour delay. They lost thousands of dollars of retail product and art on top of damage to carpets, woodwork and wall finishes. The ship will be out of service while everything is repair. Structurally it appears that the ship handled the storm just fine.

RLL said...

I am not an expert, but cruise ships, by design, have a lot of 'sail effect' from the many stories of staterooms. But unlike sails they cannot be trimmed in the face of heavy storms. They are not as seaworthy as a more conventional or old fashion sea liner. In layman's terms, top-heavy and over-sailed. They obviously have taken a lot of punishment and survived is some of these notable events, but still, they are going through seas beyond what is wise and sane.

Pete Van Voast said...

A similar storm occurred in December 22 1853 thru January 16 of 1854. The steam ship "San Francisco" was wrecked at sea by a tremendous wave. It swept 230 people to their death. Many people were stranded on the ruined ship for weeks as the storm persisted. They were ultimately saved by another ship. My great grandfather, James Van Voast, was a young lieutenant as part of an artillery company of 500 men. I have a lot more details of this if anyone is interested.

Alan Miller said...

Wow!! I would seriously pay extra to experience this! And even more if I was allowed out on deck in full rain gear and a safety rope to experience the full brunt. This, my friends, is WEATHER!!

Pete Van Voast said...

There was a similar storm with much worse consequences in the winter of 1853-1854. In this storm, the new steamship "San Francisco" was wrecked at sea. At the height of the storm a huge wave wiped out the ship's upper structure and swept 230 people to their death. The ship survived as a wreck at sea from December 22 until the rescue in January 16. My great grandfather, James Van Voast, was a young lieutenant as part of a 500 man US Army regiment. He survived and I'm here! I have a lot more information about that 19th century storm if anyone is interested.

K.R. Burgess said...


BAMCIS is correct !
The Cruise Line Companies have schedules to keep. Other passengers have traveled to their next Port of Entry,for the next departure,and a 2-3 day wait is more than inconvenient. Most,if not all,have taken a flight to the destination point,and have to board,as soon as possible,or "Try" to find 4,000 hotel rooms ?
The Cost would be overwhelming ! ! !

BAMCIS said...

Well, there is talk of plenty of litigation. "Pain and suffering" etc. The cruise line claims the weather was stronger than forecast. Which is now in the "Tell it to the Judge" category. Insurance will pay for most of it probably and still might be a significant savings versus fuel burn. It all depends on how it all cost constructs out.

God Bless America.

As far as turbulence goes, nothing beats flying into Denver in April or flying through the Inter-Tropical Convergence zone. No fun. Planes are pretty tough though. As implied, pilots like to land safely as much as their passengers do.