For many years the phrase Rogue Wave was considered a myth by scientists, but ask any sailor they are real, powerful and destructive.
A rogue wave is an isolated wave that is larger than the current sea state and can be twice the size of the waves at the time, they happen fast and generally with little or no warning.
I experienced one of these waves sailing in Explorer Of The Seas in 2014. She is a wonderful ship, owned by Royal Caribbean with a first class crew.
We joined the ship at Newark for a fifteen day, Re-positioning Cruise. The ship was being moved from Newark to begin winter operations from Cape Canaveral, with stops in St. Maaten, Antigua, St. Lucia, Barbados, Curacao, Bonaire and Aruba. Because the ship was not returning to the port of origin, the cost of the cruise is generally a bit cheaper.
We normally travel with another couple and this trip was no exception, Steve and Agnes have been good friends for what seems a lifetime. When we arrived pier side at the cruise terminal on 1 November 2014, we were greeted in Royal Caribbean’s usual way and made to feel at home immediately. Explorer was commanded by Captain Rick Sullivan from Canada, talking with Capt. Rick we discovered we had both crewed in the tall ship, St. Lawrence II.
This was our second time sailing in this magnificent ship and was a personal milestone for me. When we sailed in Explorer Of The Seas in 2010, I spent the sea days in the lounge on the top deck, enjoying the 270 degree view of the North Atlantic and wrote the first three chapters of my book, White Ensign Flying. But that is another story!
We slipped our lines after the life boat drill, with over 3000 passengers and 1300 crew aboard, sailed out of New York harbour, past Lady Liberty and the incredible city skyline. The outer decks were almost vacant as the cold and rain kept most vacationers inside the ship. By supper we were into the North Atlantic.
The sea state was as expected with waves running about 10 to 15 feet. This may seem large, Explorer is 1,025 feet long and a beam of 157 feet, she is a very stable ship. She is capable of smooth sailing in much higher sea states and with her stabilizers extended, it is nearly impossible to spill your rum.
The first three days of the cruise was at sea, a glorious time for me, especially with a lively deck below my feet. I am happiest at sea and miss it terribly. Many sailors can understand this.
Day two began cold and rainy, the seas had remained about the same over night. Activity in the ship was slow as many of the landlubbers had started to feel the “motion of the ocean” and had taken to their racks. For our party of four, we were enjoying the uncluttered spaces and I was in my happy place.
As the day wore on, the waves slowly gained in size and by supper were nearly 20 feet, our wives joined many of the vacationers and skipped supper. Steve an I dressed for dinner and met some very friendly folks from Scotland and Ireland at one of the bars. We enjoyed Crown, scotch and whiskey, respectively. It was a great night, until I made the mistake of asking, “What is the best scotch?”
That night, or should I say early morning, I returned to my cabin. I could feel the ship under me and knew the waves were running a little over 20 feet. This movement of the ship was still quite comfortable for me. I had been in HMCS OTTAWA at 366 feet in length during a North Atlantic winter storm, we where looking up at the crests of the waves from the deck, estimated at over 60 feet. Explorer was gently rocking and I quickly settled into a deep sleep.
Suddenly Rhonda and I were awakened by a thump and a slight shiver. Rhonda startled, asked, “What was that?” I responded, “I big wave.” I knew it was a good size wave that had hit us and nothing more. Moments later, with a loud crash, Explorer leaned heavily to starboard, cabinets in our cabin burst open, wood groaning and the entire ship shuddered and vibrated from the depths of her keel. Again Rhonda asked, “What was that?” This time with genuine concern. I replied, “A really big wave.” Just as quickly, the cruise ship settled back to her rhythm of working her way through the sea and we both settled back to sleep, rocked by the ocean into blissful slumber.
I woke later and went to the top deck for my morning coffee, Steve joined me as our wives decided to remain in the cabins, as many of the passengers had chosen. About 0800, Explorer’s Skipper came on the PA system and announced he had an update of the morning events. At 0530 the ship had been struck by two rogue waves, the second was estimated to be over 50 feet, striking the ship on the port side. It had floated two life boats on deck six, sending one into the deck head above and crashing the second onto deck five, both were in-operable. The force of the wave had broke through the glass doors on deck five, shipping an estimated five tons of water into the main centrum.
The skipper went on to explain that the damage to the lifeboats could not be repaired at sea, the ship had more lifeboat space than passengers, we still exceeded the number of lifeboats required by law. The ship had responded as she was designed, the water had moved to the lower spaces and pumped out. At no time was the ship or passengers in danger.
Steve and I immediately headed down to deck five to explore. We found the crew hard at work, drying carpets. Speaking to the cleaning party, they explained, the water had come through the doors and flooded the area, flowing down the stairway to the crew quarters, where many of the crew was still shipping water. The aft elevators were turned off until they were inspected, the glass doors had already been boarded up and the watertight doors leading out to deck five were closed and secured.
The after section of the boat deck was cordoned off and one lifeboat was lashed to the deck and secured. A large steel stanchion having holed the bottom of the lifeboat. The other lifeboat was secured into the davits, with damage to the top of the boat.
Needless to say the rogue wave was the talk of the ship. Some of the passengers in cabins in the higher decks had been tossed from their beds, cabins were a shambles. Life in the ship quickly returned to normal and as we headed south the weather steadily improved and as the long sleeve shirts were replaced with bathing suits the talk turned to sunburns and the upcoming ports of call.
Arriving in St. Maarten two days later, the port authorities delayed disembarkation of the passengers to conduct a thorough inspection of Explorer. While ashore we learned of how the rest of the world perceived our adventure on the high seas. Through CNN and social media it was publicized that we had been crippled by a rogue wave, lifeboats were destroyed. A quick call home was in order as we related our sea shanty to the family.
Every port we arrived in for the duration of the voyage created an interest in our adventure and scrutiny from the local port authorities. We arrived at Cape Canaveral to a waiting repair party from Royal Caribbean, with prefabricated stanchions and two new lifeboats. The ship would be repaired and ready to sail on time later that day for her next adventure.
Having served at sea with the Royal Canadian Navy, all sailors know that this is a life of training, drills and evolution’s. For the crew of a cruise ship this is no different. The passengers are there for an exceptional holiday, but the crew, true seafarers, are living a life at sea, they train, drill and prepare their ship for sea and the eventualities they may face.
Captain Rick Sullivan and his crew in Explorer Of The Seas handled this situation admirably, the damage control parties were incredible, the professionalism of the sailors was first rate. The rogue wave that burst upon us, although serious was nothing more than a hiccup in the operation of the ship and has provided us with many a great sea story to tell.