Ten-metre waves and sheltering in a fjord: what happens when your cruise hits a storm


Cruises are often regarded as the most relaxing way to travel. And why not? You visit one lovely location one day and, after dinner and a show, maybe a spot of dancing, you have a good night’s sleep and wake up in a new one. Mostly this is exactly what happens. There are times, though, when things don’t go quite according to plan.

I’ve experienced quite a few storms at sea. There was the one in the Med (a sea you’d normally think of as pretty calm) when in the middle of the night, the ship lurched so far a vase of flowers flew off the table leaving me marooned on the bed amid my own sea of broken glass. Then there was the one in the Pacific (an ill-named, far from peaceful ocean) when we were confined to our cabins for four days to avoid injury. On another occasion, circumnavigating Iceland, I was thrown into the air from my bed.

Most recently, earlier this month, I travelled up the north coast of Norway when two storms converged from different directions, one coming up the North Atlantic – skimming the Scottish coast – the other straight across from Iceland. They were both, it seemed, making a beeline for my ship.

Cruising in rough seas

Cruise ships are equipped with anti-heeling systems to stop the ship listing too far and stabilizers to minimise rolling in rough seas

Storms at sea creep up on you. The sky and the waves darken, the white horses increase, the ship begins to roll (side to side) or pitch (forward and back) depending on how the weather is hitting you. As the winds pick up and the waves get higher, the rolling and pitching increase, the ship shudders or gives a sudden lurch and the spray hits even the highest decks.

On my February cruise, the conditions were pretty severe. At times, we were listing disconcertingly starboard for what seemed like several long minutes at a time; as we pitched forward, spray hit the windows of the top deck lounge. The pools were emptied, the decks were out of bounds and at times the ship began to resemble the Marie Celeste as most of the ship’s 600 passengers disappeared to the safety of their cabins.

In the meantime, our preternaturally calm Croatian captain (who has a promising second career in stand-up) kept us abreast of it all. First, it was Storm 8 (then 9, then 10). The waves were six metres (the same as a two-storey house), then it was looking more like 10 metres (three storeys). He summoned those passengers still standing (there had been quite a run on sea sickness tablets) to the ship’s theatre at midday where he would explain all.

Cruising in rough seas

Anna (second right) and her companions braved the dining room as the storm peaked

Earlier that morning, I had attended a yoga class. Strangely, I was the only person present. I suggested to the instructor that we only did seated or prone poses – just as well, given the most hair-raising bit of the session was trying to stand on one leg to put my trousers on afterwards. By mid-morning, passengers (and even some of the crew) were doing fine imitations of drunken sailors, lurching from one side of the corridor to the other and grabbing desperately for handrails.

At noon, we assembled in the theatre while the captain (only occasionally hanging on to the podium) explained he was going to alter course and head for shelter in a fjord, abandoning our next port of call in an attempt to outrun the storm. Behind him, the screen displayed windy.com – a website I recommend, a truly fascinating mine of information. It shows rainfall, wind speed, direction and gusts, the height of the waves and, in fact, everything you need to know before you decide to cut and run.

That evening, with the storm at its height and most entertainment cancelled (injuries to dancers being a worry), the cinema showed the latest Bond film, the ship’s own sudden lurches tying in nicely with the action scenes. At dinner there were quite a few empty tables, the waiters performing miracles of balance with plates and glasses. (Incredibly – and against the odds – I don’t think a single drop of wine or water was spilled.)

And so overnight, exactly as planned by the captain, we made it into a deep fjord and sheltered. Then, after hugging the coast for 24 hours, we arrived in Alesund, the skies now a clear blue and hardly a breath of wind. Thankfully, we were back to plain sailing.

What you don’t know, but your captain does

1. Up to a week before you’re aware of a change in the weather, the captain and his team are monitoring atmospheric conditions and aware of potential problems. Satellite weather data is comprehensive and detailed and not only available on the bridge but also to the cruise line’s back-up teams on shore.

2. Cruise ships are very stable and can even cope with hurricanes. They are equipped with anti-heeling systems to stop the ship listing too far and stabilizers to minimise rolling. It might be uncomfortable for the passengers, but essentially the ships can take it.

3. For the comfort of passengers, the captain can decide to reroute, missing or substituting ports to avoid the roughest seas. And generally, a cruise ship can outrun a storm and find shelter if necessary. 

Have you been on a cruise ship in stormy seas? Let us know your experiences in the comments section below

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