Do You Need to Worry About Rogue Waves on a Cruise?

There is a saving grace for cruise passengers

Storm at South Shetland Islands
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On Nov. 29, a suspected rogue wave slammed into the brand-new luxury expedition ship Viking Polaris on the Drake Passage, the infamously rough body of water separating South America and Antarctica. The wall of water blew out windows to cabins, unfortunately killing one passenger and injuring four others.

This is not the first time a cruise ship has been struck by a rogue wave. In 2005, Norwegian Dawn was hit by a rogue wave estimated to be 70 feet tall, flooding a number of cabins. In 1995 Queen Elizabeth 2 encountered a rogue wave estimated to be 95 feet tall. And many a ship is thought to have been sunk by rogue waves, including the freighter Edmund Fitzgerald, which sank during a storm on Lake Superior in 1975; all 29 crew perished.

Antarctic Peninsula area, from Patagonia to Antarctica, political map
PeterHermesFurian / Getty Images

So, are rogue waves something you need to be concerned about on your next cruise? 

The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) defines rogues as "waves which are greater than twice the size of surrounding waves, are very unpredictable, and often come unexpectedly from directions other than prevailing wind and waves."

Seafarers have reported the phenomenon in their logs for centuries, but rogue waves were not studied in depth until 1995, when a measuring instrument on an oil rig near Norway recorded the first data-based evidence of a rogue wave. The Draupner wave, as it is called, reached a height of 85 feet—what science, at the time, deemed a "1-in-10,000-years" wave.

Since then, data show that rogue waves occur far more frequently than that. In 2004, two European Space Agency radar satellites identified 10 giant waves during a three-week period.

Despite continued research, we've learned very little about rogue waves, and they're still effectively impossible to predict. In a 2021 study, lead author Dion Häfner wrote, "By now, we know several ways to produce truly exceptional waves in wave tanks and simulations. However, things are more difficult in the real ocean, where theoretical assumptions (such as unidirectionality) break down. The causes of real-world rogue waves are therefore still unknown, and heavily debated."

Häfner did note that rogue waves "pose a substantial threat to seafaring vessels and offshore structures." 

The saving grace for cruise passengers, however, is that it's rare to encounter rogue waves at sea. In many cases, rogue waves are relatively short-lived, according to NOAA, unlike a tsunami that may travel around the world.

In fact, I happened to be on the Drake Passage at the same time as Viking Polaris, aboard Atlas Ocean Voyages' Atlas World Traveller. While we experienced a moderate swell of about 15 feet, which is a somewhat calm day on the Drake, we did not encounter the rogue wave.

For what it's worth—though this is no consolation to the loved ones of the deceased—cruising is one of the safest modes of transportation. Between 2009 and 2019, only 34 passengers and 31 crew died on cruise ships, per a report by the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA). By comparison, 1.35 million people die in car accidents each year.

So while rogue waves are a dangerous and unpredictable force of nature that does threaten cruise ships, they don't need to be at the forefront of your mind when booking a voyage.

Article Sources
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  1. National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. "What Is A Rogue Wave?" Accessed December 9, 2022.

  2. American Physical Society. "January 1, 1995: Confirmation of the Existence of Rogue Waves." Accessed December 9, 2022.

  3. Scientific Reports. "Real-world Rogue Wave Probabililities." May 12, 2021.