What Happens If A Cruise Ship Is Hit By A Rogue Wave?

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Rouge waves sound pretty scary. They’re seemingly random, massive walls of water. If you’re nervous about cruising then the knowledge that these mammoth waves exist might put you off.

So, let me put your mind at ease. Let’s take a look at what a rogue wave is, how common they are, and how cruise ships are able to withstand them.

rogue wave

By the end, I’m sure that you’ll have no fears about rogue waves on your cruise holiday.

What is a rogue wave?

A rogue wave is a wave that appears suddenly on the surface and is unusually large for that part of the ocean. While research is still being carried out into their cause, it’s believed to be a combination of high winds and strong currents causing smaller waves to merge.

Rogue waves are technically defined as “waves that are at least twice the significant wave height”.

The significant wave height is the average of the largest third of waves within a particular wave record. Put simply, rogue waves are twice as large as the average of the largest waves in a particular area.

That means that rogue waves might not always be the absolute tallest waves in the ocean, but they will be unusually large for the area and state of the sea at that time. And they can get to be pretty huge.

How big are rogue waves?

Because the rouge wave definition is relative to the sea state, the official tallest rogue wave isn’t actually the tallest wave ever. Instead, scientists have decided that the title of ‘biggest rogue wave’ belongs to the wave which is biggest in comparison to the other waves nearby.

Officially, the tallest rogue wave recorded was a 58-foot tall wave off the coast of British Columbia in Canada, identified in 2020. That height put it at almost three times the height of the other waves around it. [Source]

There have been much taller waves recorded – indeed the first-ever officially recorded rogue wave was in 1995 off the coast of Norway and measured 84 feet. However, as that was ‘only’ twice the height of the surrounding waves at the time, it isn’t considered the largest rogue wave.

While records have only been kept since 1995, retrospective anecdotal evidence suggests many waves have reached heights of up to 100-feet in the past. [Source]

Suggested read: How Big is a Cruise Ship?

If you’ve ever seen photos like this on social media, you should know that these are fake – rogue waves aren’t that big!

Where do rogue waves appear?

Because of the ongoing research into the causes of rogue waves, and their formal documentation being relatively recent, it’s hard to say where they occur the most frequently.

In the 21st century, there have been recorded rogue waves in the Gulf of Mexico, the northern Pacific, the Mediterranean near Catalonia and off the coast of Newfoundland in Canada.

They seem to be mainly caused anywhere where there is a strong current running in the opposite direction of the tidal waves. But, that doesn’t line up with all of the examples – there seem to be multiple causes.

Rogue Waves Vs Tsunamis Vs Tidal Waves

Sometimes, rogue waves can be confused for tsunamis or tidal waves, but in name only. All three are very distinct.

Let’s start with tidal waves – these are actually just the scientific name for the waves caused by the tide, resulting from the gravitational forces of the moon. They are therefore completely predictable since we can know when the moon is in its different phases.

Tsunamis have sometimes been called tidal waves in the past but that is incorrect. A tsunami is a distinctive, one-off wave caused by a huge shift of water, usually as the result of an earthquake beneath the surface causing the plates to move.

That huge swell of displaced water will then rush in a large movement. It will not be too noticeable out at sea because it’s just a raised water level – it doesn’t cause single large waves to form. So, tsunamis are rarely an issue to ships out at sea.

The problem is that the huge swell will continue to coastal areas, where it forms one giant wall of water which will break on the coastline.

Rogue waves are one-off, unpredictable waves and while we don’t know the full causes yet, we know they aren’t related to land movements or the normal gravitational pull. As a single wave, they’re much more of a threat to ships at sea.

Can a rogue wave sink a ship?

A tall enough rogue wave could sink a ship, although most modern ships are built to withstand them. Smaller ships are more at risk but they are also more manoeuvrable so would stand a high chance of being able to navigate out of the wave’s path.

Since rogue waves were officially recorded – beginning in 1995 – only one ship has been struck by a rogue wave and then sunk. That was the R/V Ballena, a 56-foot research vessel which capsized in 2000 and then broke apart against the rocky shore.

Some smaller boats have capsized but not sunk – a 34-foot long fishing boat in the Bahamas in 2005, and a small shark diving boat near South Africa in 2008.

Anecdotal evidence of what could be rogue waves do tell of some ships being sunk in the past:

  • The wooden cutter Aenid was wrecked off the coast of New South Wales in 1865
  • Passenger ship SS Waratah disappeared in 1909 off the coast of Durban, South Africa with no wreckage found. It’s believed that a rogue wave capsized and sank the ship
  • US Navy cruiser USS Memphis was wrecked by three successive large waves in 1916, attributed to nearby hurricanes
  • The SS Edmund Fitzgerald, a lake freighter, sank during a storm in 1975, believed to be a result of the waves
  • Fishing boat Andrea Gail sank during the 1991 ‘perfect storm’, and was the subject of the 2000 movie starring George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg.

Check out the full list of rogue waves here.

rough sea

What size of waves can a cruise ship handle?

Cruise ships are generally built to handle most waves in the ocean – they can routinely sail through 10-15 feet waves without issues, and should handle most waves up to 50 feet with minimal damage.

Waves up to 15 feet may not sound too big when compared to other rogue waves in this article, but picture standing on the shore and seeing a wave of 15 feet coming towards you. Doesn’t seem so small now, does it?

On a cruise ship though, you would be absolutely fine, unless you suffered from seasickness. With 15 feet waves you’re going to want to tap into any techniques you have for handling your sickness. This includes spending time on a low deck.

Rogue waves can be a lot higher, and cruise ships may take damage from them. But the damage will be minimal and would be very unlikely to be a safety concern for passengers. At worst, a rogue wave will just mean that passengers will be told to remain indoors, and the ship may be diverted for repairs if there is damage.

The officers on a cruise ship are very experienced sailors and will know what to do in the event of a rogue wave. They will make sure to keep passengers safe and prevent as much damage as possible to the ship.

This video shows what it could be like on board a cruise ship on the roughest seas…

As you can see from the amount of damage done to the fixtures and fittings and the potential for minor injuries from the debris, a situation like this is something that a cruise ship captain will certainly want to avoid!

Can a wave flip a cruise ship?

It is highly unlikely that a wave could flip a cruise ship. They are built to be wide and have a heavy enough ballast on lower decks that they will survive rogue waves. It would also rely on the negligence of the crew to allow the ship to hit perfectly on the side.

The only way that a cruise ship would be able to be flipped over is if it took the wave hit perpendicular on the port or starboard side, along the beam. Most of the time, ships will aim to hit a wave bow-first.

And the thing about rogue waves is that they might be unpredictable and sudden, but you can hardly miss them. The job of the navigation crew is to be on the lookout for hazards such as rogue waves and to react to them, so they wouldn’t be caught off-guard by a huge wave suddenly coming for the ship.

Modern cruise ships also have wonderfully advanced steering and propulsion methods that allow them to turn quickly. Providing the crew haven’t all fallen asleep or abandoned their posts, they will have plenty of time to react to a rogue wave and make sure the ship takes it safely.

That doesn’t mean that a rogue wave would leave a cruise ship completely untouched, though. There’s likely going to be some damage, depending on the height of the wave. But, she wouldn’t flip, and passengers would be generally safe. In the past, only a few minor injuries have resulted from cruise ships being hit by large waves.

Has a cruise ship ever hit a rogue wave?

Cruise ships have been hit by rogue waves in the past, but it is not a common event. Since official records of rogue waves began in 1995, four cruise ships have hit rogue waves. All suffered damage, and some reported injuries, but no cruise ships have had any fatalities from a rogue wave.

Two of the instances happened in the same region and in the same year, both involving small cruise ships. Both the Caledonian Star and the MS Bremen were hit by rogue waves in the South Atlantic in 2001. These were pretty huge waves, measuring almost 100-feet tall.

Both ships suffered smashed windows on the bridge, along with losses to power and navigation controls. Neither ship reported any serious injuries though, with the crew of the Bremen able to restore engine power. The Caledonian Star did have to limp back to port for repairs.

Of the larger cruise ships, Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth 2 was hit by a 90-foot tall rogue wave in 1995 caused by Hurricane Luis. Because the ship was big and built to modern standards, she suffered minimal damage. There were a handful of injuries to those on board, but nothing believed to be too serious.


Suggested read: How Big is a Cruise Ship?

The most notable and recent instance was when the Norwegian Dawn was hit by three freak waves off the coast of Georgia in 2005, one of which was around 70 feet tall.

It reached the 10th deck of the ship, breaking two windows (caused by balcony railings breaking free) and flooding over 60 cabins, along with some public areas. There were a handful of injuries but nothing serious and the ship was able to sail to port without any further trouble for repairs to be made.

Can a cruise ship survive a rogue wave?

A cruise ship will survive if hit by a rogue wave. All modern instances of cruise ships encountering rogue waves have resulted in only minor damage. Cruise ships carry experienced crew and have modern steering systems to allow ships to meet the wave bow-first, causing the least damage.

The safety of passengers is always the priority of a cruise line, which is why only highly experienced crew are hired who know exactly what to do in any situation, even one as rare as a rogue wave.

Because of this, cruise ships have so far never been capsized or wrecked by a rogue wave. Ships have always managed to navigate the wave in a way that reduces the impact on the vessel.

The fact that cruise ships are so large and so well-built means that it would be extremely difficult for a rogue wave to counter the ballast to the point of capsizing it, and they’re strong enough to not break apart as well. So, while there are never any guarantees, it would be a true freak incident if one ever was to capsize due to a rogue wave.

How many ships are lost to rogue waves?

Most ships that have encountered a rogue wave have survived with minimal damage. Since rogue waves were officially classified in 1995, only one ship has been recorded as completely lost to one – the 56-foot research vessel R/V Ballena.

Other small boats may have been lost to rogue waves, and there are a handful of anecdotal instances of ships being sunk by rogue waves prior to 1995, but it’s a rare occurrence. Most large ships take the brunt of the wave with minor damage, especially modern ships that are much tougher and able to withstand the pressure of the crashing water.

The Bottom Line

Rogue waves are intimidating if you’re on a small boat, but cruise passengers don’t have anything to worry about. The technology that cruise ships have, and the experience of their crew, mean that they can always minimise the risk of a rogue wave.

Yes, the largest waves may cause some damage, and potentially even some minor injuries, but they’re such a freak occurrence that in almost 30 years only two large ocean cruise ships have experienced them.

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