I was on Royal Caribbean’s Anthem of the Seas During the Winter Storm

February 6th, 2016

My wife and I arrive in Port Liberty, New Jersey after driving at little over 5 hours from our home in Pittsburgh, PA.  We’re going on a 7-day cruise!

February 7th, 2016

The winds were in excess of 150 miles per hour.  The ship was listing 45-degrees at times.  The waves outside the ship were over 30-feet high.  My wife and I were trapped in our balcony stateroom port side on deck 10, alternating the television between the Super Bowl and the “Cruise Itinerary” channel – checking the wind speeds and direction of the ship.  We gripped the sides of the bed each time the ship rocked to prevent rolling off.

The fury of the storm raged outside, awe-inspiring and magnificent.  The roiling sea was as high as our stateroom on deck 10; a combination of the listing of the ship and the height of the waves.  The wind broke the barrier between our balcony and the next, with the flimsy barrier swinging back and forth for hours, banging against the window and patio furniture – threatening to break the window.  The sliding balcony door, caught by a gust of hurricane-force wind actually pulled away from the door and threatened to fly away in the storm.  In a small burst of panic, I gripped the door, opened it enough to alleviate the pressure pulling against it, and closed it again after the gust passed.  I was soaked, but the door remained attached – but a constant scream of wind pushing in was thereafter present.

Every hour, the captain of the Anthem of the Seas, Captain Claus, came on the intercom and provided updates.  When he was occupied controlling and maneuvering the ship in the storm, the Cruise Director, Abe, came on in his place and provided an update.

Everything not nailed down was thrown across the room as the ship rocked and rolled.  We were eventually forced to put everything in drawers.  We missed lunch and dinner, and had to fend for ourselves from the mini-bar.  3 candy bars, 2 mini-Pringles cans, water, and a lot of alcohol.  Our stateroom attendant came by once during the storm, checked on us, and gave us candy bars.

Finally, after 12 hours, the storm subsided and passengers on board Royal Caribbean’s Anthem of the Seas emerged from their rooms or from the public areas where they has sought shelter to see the extent of damage the storm had wreaked on the colossal ship.

Most of the visible damage was superficial.  A ceiling in the Espalade (shopping area on the ship) had collapsed.  Displays were knocked over and deck chairs were toppled across the ship.  The pools had drained from the rocking of the boat.  Loose debris has caused minor damage across the ship.  The crew, of course, did not give us passengers line-item details of the damages, but assured us all that the damage was minimal.

Except it wasn’t all superficial.  We’d lost an engine during the storm.  The crew never acknowledged this, but I knew when it happened during the storm.  I could feel it as it shut down – and we were buffeted more by the storm.  I’m not sure what the exact problem with the engine was – maybe it was flooded?  Overheated?  Lost fuel?  For whatever reason, though, the engine quit and the trip that took a day to traverse took three to retrace back to New Jersey.

How Did This Happen?

When we boarded the ship and left port, Captain Claus came on the intercom and informed the crew and passengers that there was “weather” forming off the coast of North Carolina.  He expressed it as an inconvenience; that he didn’t want to cause any issues for us passengers.  We were going to “see how fast this ship could go” and try and get ahead of it.

It was all very routine.  Either we were going to beat the storm and have smooth sailing or we wouldn’t and have a few hours of wet weather.  There was no concern.  The captain said the forecasts indicated it was forming but that it was nothing the ship couldn’t handle.  So we collectively grinned, and set sail like water bats out of hell to beat this storm.

We didn’t beat the storm.  And the storm became much, much more severe than anyone had anticipated.

The media and many passengers were quick to blame Royal Caribbean in general and Captain Claus in particular for allowing the ship to enter the storm.  The implication was that they had knowingly and willfully put ship, crew, and passengers in danger – with the subtext being that profits trumped safety (or common sense).

For example:

When we finally made port in New Jersey, a segment of the cruise population swarmed (literally) to get off the boat in order to get media interviews and share the horror of their experience with the world.    My response to that:

Let’s Break it Down

  1. Yes; Royal Caribbean and Captain Claus knew there was a storm.
  2. Yes; they knew it had the potential to be significant, expecting it to max out at under 100mph winds.
  3. Yes; based on the forecast, there was no danger of sailing through a storm of that expected magnitude.  The Anthem of the Seas is a colossal and well-built ship that could easily withstand the projected storm with minimal passenger discomfort and negligible danger to the ship.
  4. No; the Captain and Royal Caribbean, nor anyone else in the entire world, expected the storm to magnify so quickly and with such strength.

The Choice

Royal Caribbean had to make a choice.  4,000 people had paid an average of $1200.00 USD for a 7-day cruise to Florida and the Bahamas.  4.8 million dollars spent collectively for a vacation.

Here was the choice:  Do we disappoint the passengers, lose almost 5 million dollars, and deal with that situation for a storm that is projected to be WELL within the tolerances of the ship or do we try and beat the storm or (worst case) sail through it as quickly as possible?

Do they refund 5 million dollars on a storm that a. they may be able to beat and b. can easily handle with minimal passenger discomfort?

To me, as a layperson, it was a pretty simple choice – set sail.  I’m pretty sure the decision, with many more facts and much more expertise, played out essentially the same on the bridge of the Anthem of the Seas and in the Miami offices of Royal Caribbean.

The Consequence

As I described above, we didn’t beat the storm, and it turned out to be much more intense and severe than originally anticipated.

On Saturday morning the waves were rough.  My wife and I visited the spa around noon that day and the massage therapists were commenting on how much the ship was starting to rock.  It was an inconvenience, but nothing to be concerned about.

By three o’clock, my wife and I were in the Solarium on deck 14.  The ship was starting to really rock back and forth.  I climbed in the hot tub just as the first severe wave hit the ship.  The hot tub and pools both spilled five to ten percent of their water across the deck with that wave.  The hot tub jets, exposed to air, started blowing water thirty feet across the deck.

Within minutes, the crew of the ship had shut down the pools and hot tubs.  The waves continued to build.  So my wife and I went back to our stateroom to dry off and then head up to the Windjammer Cafe for a bite to eat.

That never happened.  As I was changing in my stateroom, the Captain came on and ordered everyone to their cabins.  It was only later, as I was chatting at dinner with a New Jersey-based IT executive for a storage company based in Israel, that I heard of the pandemonium that broke out with that announcement.  Every passenger rushed to get to their cabins, often jostling each other as they went.  Senior citizens had it the worst, being unable to move quickly, being unsteady on their feet, and unable to navigate the stairs with the severe rocking of the ship.  This is where, I imagine, most of the minor injuries occurred.  Eventually everyone made it to their staterooms.

I heard later, in a separate conversation, that some passengers were so frightened that instead of going to their staterooms they went straight to their emergency muster station.

The Battle with the Storm

The Anthem of the Seas is a big ship, with a price tag of 1.5 billion USD.  According to Wikipedia, has a gross tonnage over 167,000 pounds, is over 1,100 feet long, and can hold over 4,000 passengers.  Compare that to the RMS Titanic, which had only 46,000 gross tonnage and was under 900 feet long.  It’s a big ship.

It’s also a safe ship.  It is not the RMS Titanic and it was built with all the expertise, knowledge, and modern safety considerations of the entire shipbuilding industry in mind.

As the storm grew in intensity, the captain applied multiple strategies to deal with the storm.  Initially, the ship continued to plow through the storm.  It soon became apparent that that this strategy was not viable as the boat started to list more often and more severely from waves.

Next, the captain tried to “ride the waves.”  Forgive me if I have misstated the concept here (or have it wildly wrong), but when the captain explained it, we were all rolling around the boat I had just re-seated the door to my balcony down that had almost blown away.  My full attention wasn’t on the announcement.  As best as I can remember (and someone please correct me) the captain was positioning the boat to provide the least amount of rolling between wave frequency.  At over 1,100 feet in length, the bow and stern of the boat were experiencing the effects of different waves.  Deft maneuvering could time that to reduce the impact of those waves.

That worked for a while, but the storm continued to intensify.  We could feel the engines struggling.  Finally, the Captain tuned the boat into the storm so the winds were head on instead of broadsiding the ship.  This is how we rode out the storm.

Somewhere around 3:00am, the worst was over and the ship started to calm down.  By 7:00am, people were emerging from their staterooms, wide-eyed and grateful to have come out on the other side.

The Rest of the Cruise

The pools were shut down.  The upper deck was closed.  The Northstar Observation tower was shut down, the rock climbing wall was shut down and the skydiving simulator was shut down.

We went to breakfast the next day and were given a “limited” menu.  Apparently all the eggs had broken during the storm and all we could get were the instant kind.

Initially, we were given to understand that we were going to continue on to Port Canaveral.  I assume that failure to restart the Azipod engine that had failed impacted the decision to turn around and limp back to New Jersey.  Additionally, there was another storm forming near Jacksonville, Florida that, while not projected to be as significant as the one we had just tackled, was just too much for our battered and frayed passengers.

The Captain came on the intercom on Monday afternoon and informed us that we were heading back to Port Liberty, would have the entire cruise refunded, and get 50% off of our next cruise.  My wife and I were on the pool deck grabbing a bite from Johnny Rockets burger diner on board when this news was announced.  No one in our immediate area was upset and a few cheered out loud at the news of the full refund.

Carey and I realized that we just had a free mini vacation and over $2,500.00 was coming back into our bank accounts.  We were not unhappy.

So the rest of the cruise was spent dancing, eating, attending the shows, and filling time on the free Internet Royal Caribbean provided.  Note: 4,000 people on satellite Internet is sloooowwwwww.

It soon became obvious that nerves were frayed.  The lines at guest services were always long as people tried to book early flights back home, were uncertain exactly what was was comped and what was not (our spa visits were NOT part of the refund, by the way).

Restaurants struggled to deal with greater attendance as people substituted activities with longer meals.  An old man in a scooter was upset that his dinner was delayed 15 minutes.

The Royal Caribbean Crew

Were fabulous.  Many first-time cruisers were confused, scared, and uncertain.  Others were offended that they had suffered through the storm.  The crew, all of them, were the focus of every petty grievance the passengers had – magnified by the stress of the storm.

The crew never broke.  They were polite, informative, and smiled in the face of all adversity.  They should all be commended for their professionalism and commitment.  The Cruise Director, Abe, stepped up his game and fell back on self-deprecating humor to acknowledge the situation and show the human side of Royal Caribbean.  He didn’t deny the stress the passengers felt or tried to explain it away – and his example was emulated by the entire crew.

My Parting Thoughts

Royal Caribbean made a sound decision to set sail into the storm.  There was no ill-intent.  The captain would never put his ship and crew in danger intentionally, let alone the 4,000 passengers on board.

Captain Claus and Royal Caribbean were not negligent.  They were aware of the potential severity of the storm just as the rest of the world was.  The Anthem of the Seas was designed to handle weather and nothing in the forecast indicated that winds would top 150 miles-per-hour.  Blame El Nino or climate change or a freak occurrence – while the storm may have been avoidable, no amount of prognostication would have let the cruise line or captain know that this storm would swell into a monster.

Once the true extent of the storm was known, the highly trained captain, bridge crew, engineering crew, and safety crew kept the ship not only safe but minimized the inconvenience to the passengers as much as possible.  The rest of the crew, stateroom attendants, entertainers, and staff went out of their way to ensure all passengers were safe and as comfortable as possible after the storm.  Royal Caribbean made it right for the passengers with a full refund and discounts for future cruises.

Royal Caribbean and Captain Claus should not be vilified for this.  They should be commended.  I would sail under Captain Claus again and I will definitely sail Royal Caribbean again.

I’ll leave you with some images and tweets from our time on the boat.  Some are mine and some are from others.

Some Media from the Anthem of the Seas

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This guy…..I love him! #cruising #husband #love

A post shared by Carey Sparks (@careysparks) on

 

Ron Sparks

Ron Sparks

Science Fiction & Fantasy Author
Ron Sparks is a science fiction and fantasy author and poet. His book "ONI: Satellite Earth Series Book 1" was recently published and is available on Amazon.com. For more info on Ron, see: https://www.ronsparks.com/about/
Ron Sparks

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One thought on “I was on Royal Caribbean’s Anthem of the Seas During the Winter Storm

  • February 13, 2016 at 11:56 am
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    Hi Ron, thank you for this post. I appreciate your attention to detail and level thinking.

    I did want to share my perspective as a meteorologist, albeit not an ocean weather forecaster, but rather as an operational emergency preparedness meteorologist in the VA/NC area with a distinct professional interest in near coastal storms. You rightly note the storm was well forecasted, as well as the inescapable pressures to sail.

    You stated “nothing in the forecast indicated that winds would top 150 miles-per-hour”. On the surface, this appears true, but in fact it is not. Winds with this strengthening storm were well forecasted, with the National Ocean Prediction Center predicting 55-65 knot winds along the path of the the ship south of Hatteras Sunday evening, and seas in the 29-31 foot range before the ship sailed. The meteorologist in charge, as well as the Captain, know that these winds represent 10 minute average winds at 10 meters above the ocean, and are intended to communicate the large scale wind environment (like generalizing a wind forecast for a medium-small sized state). The navigational meteorology instrumentation is ~60m above the surface on Quantum class ships, and looked to be reporting either 3 sec or 60 sec wind averages on the trip itenary channel. Converting the forecasted winds to what the ship would measure gives us 76-90 kt sustained winds with gust of 90-110 kts common, and a few stronger gusts of 110-130 kts possible, particularly in any areas of heavier precipitation (convection). That is just based on the base forecast. Of additional interest to the meteorologist in charge / Captain would be that the center of this anticipated rapidly intensifying low would be unavoidably very close to the path the ship would take, thanks in part to the coastal geography of NC. Based on your post the captain seems to acknowledge this in his initial statement to the passengers. Winds near the center (core) of such rapidly strengthing lows are known to be stronger and more variable than the more widespread wind field even a relatively small distance away. If the ship passed near the core of the storm, winds would at the very best be at the upper end of the forecast, and very likely worse – 20-30% worse would not be an unreasonable expectation at all. If we assume the peak gust was 145 kts true wind speed (the reported apparent winds are also influenced by the ships orientation and various motions, including forward speed and the pitch and roll from the wind and waves), this would corespond with 10 meter, 10 minute average winds of roughly 90 mph, which is 33% higher than forecasted. This result is not surprising at all given the well understood and forecasted nature of this storm, and the ships location relative to the storm when experiencing the worst conditions.

    Was it bad luck that the ship sailed into the worst part of the storm? Maybe a little, but it was bad luck of the captain’s own making. This is far from the first time finiancal pressures and “get-there-itis” has put passengers of ocean going, air, and even space craft in peril of their lives. Thankfully in this instance there were no tragedy. However, it is exactly this type of successful failure that if allowed to be considered ‘normal’ and acceptable, eventually leads to tragedy.

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