A massive storm exploded in intensity just off the south-east US coast on Sunday afternoon, driving hurricane-force winds and whipping waves into a frenzy. And in the middle of this monster storm was a cruise ship on its way to Florida – rocking, roiling and taking a major beating from the most powerful storm seen in the western Atlantic this northern hemisphere winter.
A large trough in the jet stream had been pushing towards the US 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.
Cruise ship battles mega-storm
Royal Caribbean's 'Anthem of the Seas' battled hurricane winds and huge seas off the south-east US coast on Sunday afternoon.
Some compared it to Hurricane Isabel, which was fitting because on Sunday afternoon it was boasting 160km/h winds – the equivalent of a Category 2 hurricane.
Somehow a cruise ship had steered its way into the storm: Royal Caribbean's Anthem of the Seas, a giant vessel which holds more than 4000 passengers. The ship was on its way from the New York City area to Port Canaveral, Florida, when it not only encountered the storm, but really 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 forecasters 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 lifeboats 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 probably 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.
The Coast Guard was aware of the incident, though not because Royal Caribbean contacted them, but because they saw alarmed passengers posting to social media.
"After seeing pictures and people's comments on Twitter and other social media platforms, the USCG contacted the Royal Caribbean's Anthem of the Seas to check in," spokesman Mark Barney told ABC News. "The ship said that everything was fine, and no distress calls have been issued.
Robert Huschka, the executive editor of the Detroit Free Press, was on the cruise and said that passengers were told to remain in their cabins about 3.30pm on Sunday. Huschka said 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," Huschka said.
In a statement, Royal Caribbean said the Anthem of the Seas will turn around and sail back to Cape Liberty, New Jersey, adding that passengers will receive full refunds for their fares and additional benefits. The company apologised to passengers and noted the ship remained seaworthy at all times.
"We are optimistic that they will have a smooth sail home," the statement added.