What the Viking Sky cruise evacuation tells us about cruise ship safety

The Viking Sky, as seen from a helicopter.
The Viking Sky, as seen from a helicopter.
Image: CHC helicopters via AP
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It’s every cruiser’s worst nightmare: A cruise ship, loaded with 1,373 people, out of power and in stormy seas, in danger of drifting aground as it began a helicopter evacuation. The world watched this terrifying scenario play out on theViking Sky, off the western coast of Norway this weekend.

Videos tweeted by passengers showed heavy furniture skidding across the ship’s lounge and planks crashing down from the ceiling:

Fortunately, it all ended without tragedy. A reported 479 of the passengers on theViking Sky were evacuated by helicopter during the 20-hour ordeal, which started with a mayday call on Saturday afternoon. When the weather improved on Sunday, the vessel was able to return the ship’s remaining passengers and crew to the port of Molde with a tugboat assist. Twenty people suffered injuries, according to a statement on Sunday, with Viking’s chairman Torstein Hagen summing the incident up by saying “We’ve been lucky.”

Lucky indeed, but one might wonder why luck was necessary. The cruise industry often touts its own safety record, and cites the low statistical probability of an incident such as this. But the crisis on the Viking Sky raises several important questions: First, why did the vessel sail into a forecasted storm? Why did it opt for the time-consuming and risky helicopter rescue, instead of using the vessel’s lifeboats? And is it safe to cruise when the seas are rough?

Why did the Viking Sky sail into a forecasted storm?

The weather conditions that theViking Sky encountered were extreme, by any measure. As one meteorologist pointed out, the bomb cyclone that it was attempting to navigate through brought hurricane-force winds and waves 60 to 80 feet tall:

The company did not specifically respond to my question about why the ship sailed into forecasted poor weather, except to say that “the Viking Sky is an Ocean-going vessel built to the highest standards. It is designed to sail worldwide.” The spokesperson added that the company is conducting an internal investigation.

Captain Michael Lloyd, a former sea captain with five decades of experience and a strong advocate for improved cruise ship safety, told me that these conditions are what cruise ships should expect to encounter if they’re touting itineraries in places such as the Arctic and the North Sea at this time of year. “That kind of weather is not unusual for where that ship was, especially in March, which is a windy month,” he said, adding that had the engine not failed, things would have likely been fine onboard (if unpleasant).

That said, the Norwegian press reported that the well-known ferry companies who sail this route “chose to wait in Bergen and Trondheim because of the weather forecast for Saturday.  The cruise ship Viking Sky, on the other hand, chose to pass Hustadvika on the Møre coast in strong winds.” This is a call that the ferry companies have to make “a few times a year.”

Why didn’t the Viking Sky use its life boats?

With all the training and attention given to life boats, one might well wonder why the Viking Sky didn’t attempt to evacuate via its life boats, instead of painstakingly and slowly evacuating passengers in small batches by helicopter. Over the course of 20 hours—from 2pm on Saturday when the ship put out its mayday call, to 10am the next morning—only about a third of the people onboard were able to be evacuated by helicopter. Viking told Quartz that “the decision was taken for the safety of the passengers not to launch the lifeboats and to keep the passengers onboard and organize a precautionary evacuation by helicopter.”

Lloyd said that if the ship had been in more dire straits—if the anchor did not hold, for example, or the ship was taking on water or at risk of running aground—the crew would not have had the luxury of time to wait for the slow, airborne rescue process to unfold. But then what would they have done?

Lifeboats require some skill to deploy and pilot, Lloyd said, and it can be especially difficult in a stormy situation. “My concern [as a captain] would not be the lifeboats themselves, but the ability of [crew] to be able to lower them properly and get away from the ship in that kind of weather,” he said. Viking did not respond specifically to a question about whether its crew are trained to deploy lifeboats in dangerous conditions such as this past weekend’s.

Also, while lifeboats are ostensibly designed for situations when the ship must be abandoned swiftly, Lloyd notes that many of the International Maritime Organization standards that govern lifeboats are based on the assumption that weather is fine and visibility is good.

As Lloyd wrote in a report about the mistakes learned from the Costa Concordia disaster in 2012, in a scenario where the ship must be abandoned, “lifeboats, which are allowed to carry up to 150 persons, must be boarded in 10 minutes. Which is 15 per minute or if you like, a passenger every 4 seconds.” It’s hard to imagine thousands of panicked passengers, many of them elderly, and many having never been on a boat before, boarding so efficiently and swiftly in unstable conditions.

Is it ever safe to cruise when the seas are rough?

The Viking Sky’s predicament was unusual, no doubt: With just bad weather, or just an engine failure, the crisis would have been much less dire.

The safety drills that are done when passengers first set off on a cruise serve the dual purpose of teaching safety protocols and giving the passengers faith that there is a backup plan if something goes wrong. But the reality is that getting thousands of inexperienced seafarers into lifeboats in bad conditions is something that industry critics, like Lloyd, fear isn’t possible.

In the 1994 sinking of the cruise ferry MS Estonia in a severe Baltic storm—the second deadliest peacetime maritime disaster of the 20th century, after the Titanicnone of the ten lifeboats were deployed. This was determined to be due to “the angle of heel and the lack of coordinated action by the crew.” The ship capsized and sunk, killing 852 of the 989 passengers and crew onboard.

As the maritime attorney and cruise ship critic James Walker wrote, though power losses on cruise ships are not uncommon, “fortunately, most power failures occur in the Caribbean during calm weather. Losing power in rough weather like this current situation is potentially a disastrous situation. It is virtually impossible to safely evacuate over a thousand passengers via lifeboats during a storm in these type of wind and wave conditions.”