Right up until 5 a.m. on April 16, the homeward voyage of the Norwegian Dawn was the sort of nightmarish vacation tale you laugh about a week later, after the nausea wears off. The boat, a luxury cruiser nearly 1,000 feet long, was pitching and yawing through a nasty storm off the East Coast. Heavy rain, high wind and tornado-like vortexes, called mini-swirls, had roiled the ocean into 25-foot waves. The crew sealed off the outside decks. Everybody was inside worrying, trying to sleep or throwing up.

Then it got really ugly. The ship was slammed by what Norwegian Cruise Line later described as "a freak wave." It was a monster, as tall as a seven-story building. Two windows were smashed, 66 cabins were flooded, water was suddenly running down hallways. Among some passengers, fear turned into panic.

"I saw a couple with life preservers on and they were clinging to this stairwell on the eighth deck," says Roseanne Hughes, who was aboard with her boyfriend. "They were petrified. And I said to John, 'Oh, my God. We are going to die on this ship.' " Actually, nobody died on the ship, though four people were injured. But the vessel was damaged enough to force an unplanned side trip to South Carolina for repairs. Some passengers were shaken, others were furious and more than a few had questions. Like, why didn't the captain steer around that storm, or just wait in Miami until the weather improved? Why the big rush to get back to New York City?

It wasn't until the boat finally docked that the unlikely culprit emerged: "The Apprentice."

Yes, the reality TV show where contestants vie to join the Donald Trump empire. The boat, as Norwegian Cruise Line later acknowledged, was to serve as a backdrop for scenes in an upcoming episode.

"We would have loved to have had them, but obviously they weren't able to make it," Trump told the New York Post, which reported that NCL had spent $1 million for a corporate sponsorship/product placement deal in the show's fourth season. The plan had been to film aboard the Dawn on the 17th, though the delays ultimately wrecked that schedule.

Wait a minute, some passengers seethed. All this for a date with the Donald? Calls were made, lawyers retained. Last month, a group of passengers filed a lawsuit against NCL, alleging that the cruise line had jeopardized their lives and caused them lasting psychological trauma, and for what? So Trump could fire some lickspittle from the sun deck? As compensation, these passengers would like some cash -- $100 million in cash.

Officials at NCL aren't talking, since the matter is now in litigation. They won't say much about "The Apprentice," either, citing confidentiality agreements. (Apparently, Trump isn't similarly constrained.) But NCL pointed to the results of an investigation by the Bahamas Maritime Authority, released in mid-June. "There is no evidence that any real or perceived urgency to arrive at New York earlier was a factor in the handling of the ship," the report found, "or that Norwegian Cruise Line did anything but support the Captain's on-scene decisions."

Certainly, the storm was vicious but nothing the ship couldn't handle, says Ted Thompson, executive vice president of the International Council of Cruise Lines. The vessel is like a floating apartment building. As for that freak wave, well, those things can't be predicted, Thompson explains -- that's what makes them freaks. And you can't hold NCL liable for a danger that can't be foreseen.

Brett Rivkind, the lawyer for the plaintiffs, isn't buying the "freak wave" defense, nor is he persuaded by that report by the Bahamas Maritime Authority, a group he believes is overly cozy with the cruise lines. He'll put more stock in the results of a Coast Guard investigation, expected soon.

"They put people's lives at risk," he says of NCL. "Just because they didn't end up killing them doesn't let them off the hook."

At a glance, the case revolves around an extreme example of a familiar ordeal: the big bummer holiday. Who hasn't been there? The trip that goes so haywire you start thinking about revenge before you get home. But it's more complicated than that.

"I don't like to talk about it, although everyone I meet these days wants me to talk about it," says Donna Johnson.

She and six other plaintiffs in the case are sitting with Rivkind around a table in a conference room in Elizabeth, N.J. In the months since they returned home, some have had symptoms that range from awful (like panic attacks) to unpleasant (creepy ocean dreams). Gathered to describe those harrowing hours on the Dawn, they look and sound peeved. They cross-talk, slap the table and scowl a lot.

The trouble started soon after they left Miami early on the morning of the 15th, a Friday. None of the more than 2,000 passengers knew it, but a storm had parked off the coast of South Carolina, a classic nor'easter with winds gusting up to 60 miles an hour, smacking into Gulf Stream currents coming up the coast and churning waves. Passengers could see and feel it by lunchtime on Friday as the Dawn sailed on toward New York.

Then the bobbing started. Sandra Krahling, a plaintiff, remembers waiters dropping plates at dinner and trying to remain calm. The staff put barf bags around the vessel, for easy access. Capt. Niklas Peterstam took to the intercom a few times, but his efforts at soothing the masses seemed to backfire. He told passengers not to worry, the ship can withstand this storm and, anyway, the Coast Guard knows their exact position.

"That really freaked people out," says James Neaves, another plaintiff. "It suddenly seemed more dangerous than we thought."

People slept, tried to sleep or just walked around and fretted. At some point between 5 and 6 a.m. on Saturday, the captain's voice boomed again from the intercom. The five plaintiffs differ on the exact language, but the gist was this: The ship is about to try a maneuver. Everybody get down on the floor. Get down now!

They could feel the Dawn turning. Within a minute or so, the 70-foot wave crashed into the bow. The force was stunning, like a car accident. Moments later, the captain was heard again, this time sounding relieved. The group in Elizabeth remember something like, "We're okay. The ship is okay." Then this: "Code alpha, deck nine."

They still don't know what that means. But soon crew members wearing boots were cleaning up those broken windows and drying those flooded cabins.

Passengers gathered on the main deck, where people were shouting, grabbing life jackets, sobbing. Krahling spotted a woman offering tranquilizer shots, though she has no idea if the woman was a nurse or worked for the ship.

Then as the ship headed for shore, and away from the storm, the bobbing and the panic eased. When the Dawn docked in Charleston, S.C., for repairs, a few passengers left the ship and were set upon by a scrum of TV news crews.

"It was pure hell," a passenger identified as James Fraley told CNN that day. "Just pure, pure pandemonium."

NCL eventually gave full refunds to those whose cabins were flooded and half-refunds to everyone else.

Cruise lines are lawsuit magnets. With $25.4 billion in revenue in 2003 -- the latest figures available from the International Council of Cruise Lines -- the industry has what lawyers call deep pockets. Some of the cases sound laughable. One passenger sued after slipping on a grape dropped by someone impersonating Carmen Miranda. Another went to court because there wasn't enough low-fat cream cheese on board.

"Welcome to the world of litigation," says Donald Trump. He's on the phone, in his office on Fifth Avenue. "There's a lot of frivolous litigation in our society."

Trump won't say whether NCL will be part of the upcoming season of "The Apprentice," but he sounds like a fan of the company. And though he doesn't know all the details about the Dawn, he's unimpressed by the lawsuit.

"It doesn't sound appropriate to me," he says. "I'm sure the cruise line took the most appropriate path in terms of safety and everything else. It's a fine company and a fine ship."

The case of the Dawn surely isn't cream-cheese silly. But is it serious enough to warrant a $100 million payday? The case might never make it to a judge or jury, because cruise lines frequently settle out of court to avoid bad publicity, which is part of what makes the industry such an appealing target for lawyers. But if NCL fights, it is likely to argue that the wave that hit the Dawn was what's known in the law as an act of God, a disaster that could not have been predicted.

Rivkind, the plaintiffs' lawyer, isn't buying it. "There is no such thing as a rogue wave," he says.

Until recently, meteorologists agreed. For years, rogues were the Loch Ness monster of weather. Most of the evidence for their existence was breathless, first-person accounts from people who sounded like they knew nobody would believe them. Scientific models predicted that the sea would produce a deviant wave of such unholy proportions just once every 10,000 years.

"There was some skepticism for a long time," says David Feit, chief of operations at the Ocean Prediction Center of the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration. "They were treated in the wave modeling community as more or less folklore."

But last year, the European Space Agency changed that. For three weeks the agency used radar satellites to study every square mile of ocean. Ten rogues were spotted in 21 days. Not only are they real, there are far more of them than anyone realized. Now the goal is to figure out a way to predict where rogues will pop up, which is going to be tricky.

"It's just like when you fill up a coffee cup close to the top and you're walking down the hall," Feit says. "There are little ripples taking place, but you've got it under control. Then all of a sudden there is a splash, and you're wondering, where did that come from?"

The random coffee splash analogy doesn't work for Rivkind. When he talks about rogue waves, he talks about boxing. You're in a fight, you need your guard up, and if you're knocked down by a punch that you didn't see, were you KO'd by a freak punch? Or should you have known better, given that you're in a ring?

"If a ship rides into a storm with 30-foot seas," Rivkind says, "the captain should know they could run into a 70-foot wave."

So Rivkind sees the hand of Trump. NCL sees the hand of God. And both sides see in their opponents the hand of Greed.

Abby Murphy's T-shirt says it all as she and the rest of the Norwegian Dawn's passengers finally reach New York after weathering a 70-foot wave.

The Norwegian Dawn sails up the Hudson River on April 18, too late for its appearance on "The Apprentice."

The plaintiffs, clockwise from lower left: Donna Johnson, David Kozal, James Neaves, Deidre Petuck, Rosanne Hughes, Larry Feldman and Sandra Krahling. The lawyer, Brett Rivkind, below. And the Donald.