When a big storm is brewing, sailing into it generally isn’t such a great idea. Rolling the dice on a well-forecast “bomb cyclone” is just asking for trouble.
The cruise ship Viking Sky’s mayday call came midmorning Saturday just off the shore of Norway. It followed an engine failure that left the ship stranded in 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 people 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-pressure zone 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 March 23-24 between Iceland and Norway. But it wasn’t clear exactly where.
It’s not unusual for intense cyclones to develop in this part of the world in March. The equinoctial seasons are known for their vicious transitions, which often manifest as 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 test even the most experienced captains.
The forecast became much clearer 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 in Bodo to ride out the storm. Instead, it continued south and stranded, prompting an airlift evacuation. The Viking Sky arrived safely into the port of Molde, Norway, on Sunday.
A significant wave height of 43.6 feet was reported at 4 p.m. 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 — 60 miles southwest of where the Viking Sky is 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 to make it back to shore within a half-hour or so because 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 probably was not a conscious decision — unlike Royal Caribbean’s Anthem of the Seas’s infamous 2018 encounter with a bomb cyclone.
The inability to navigate or turn the ship also left the Viking Sky susceptible to being broadsided by waves. Several large breakers plowed into the ship, shattering windows. Video footage shows the ship listing 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 Investigation Board.