A massive storm exploded in intensity just off the Southeast coast on Sunday afternoon, driving hurricane-force winds and whipping waves into a frenzy. And in the middle of this monster storm was a comparatively tiny cruise ship on its way to Florida — rocking, roiling and taking a major beating from the most powerful storm we’ve seen in the western Atlantic so far this winter.
A large trough in the jet stream had been pushing toward the East Coast late last week. Then the storm deepened rapidly when it hit the warm waters of the Gulf Stream and blew up on satellite imagery. Meteorologists didn’t know what to follow on Sunday night, the Super Bowl or the strengthening storm.
Some compared it to Hurricane Isabel, which was fitting because on Sunday afternoon it was boasting 100-mph winds — the equivalent of a Category 2 hurricane.
Others were in pure awe of the storm, which was going through a process that we call bombogenesis, when mid-latitude cyclones undergo a drop in surface barometric pressure at a rate of 24 millibars in 24 hours.
Unbelievably, there was a poor cruise ship that steered its way into the storm: Royal Caribbean’s Anthem of the Seas, a giant vessel that holds over 4,000 passengers. The ship was on its way from the New York City area to Port Canaveral, Fla., when it not only encountered the storm but sailed right into the heart of it.
What makes this story so inexplicable is that this storm has been in the forecast for days. Weather can be an uncertain science, but this was the one thing we knew was going to happen early this week.
One passenger posted an account of his harrowing journey to cruisecritic.com. “Captain tried to turn ship but waited too long,” the passenger wrote. “Captain said they are in communication with the coast guard, struggling to point ship into wind but can’t move forward. All passengers told to stay in cabins; water entered ship on upper decks, large white structure broke off top of ship, landed in pool.”
The passenger said that at the height of the storm, waves were breaking over the tops of the life boats and the whole ship was listing to almost 45 degrees. The passenger said the wind and sea spray made it look like a total white out.
“Some passengers sitting in muster stations,” the passenger added, though they were likely doing so out of fear and not by order. Muster stations are where passengers assemble on a ship in the event of an emergency, usually in preparation for evacuation.
Robert Huschka, executive editor of the Detroit Free Press, was on the cruise and told USA Today that passengers were told to remain in their cabins at about 3:30 p.m. Sunday. Huschka told USA Today that the captain said “the strength of the storm had surprised everyone and that the ship would hold position and try to turn into it. The captain then was unavailable for announcements as the storm raged into the evening.”
“I’m not going to lie. It was truly terrifying,” said Huschka.
On Monday, Royal Caribbean said the Anthem of the Seas will turn around and sail back to Cape Liberty, N.J. “This decision was made due to weather forecasted for the next few days that is likely to impact the ship’s original itinerary,” Royal Caribbean said in a statement emailed to the Washington Post. “We are also sensitive to the fact that our guests have already been through an uncomfortable ride. Returning to Cape Liberty minimizes the risks of further bad weather affecting our guests’ voyage; we are optimistic that they will have a smooth sail home.”
Four injuries were reported, though none of them were severe, and the ship sustained damage but the ship remains seaworthy. Royal Caribbean said that guests will receive a full refund for their cruise, and a 50-percent-off certificate for a future cruise.
This post has been updated with statements from Royal Caribbean.