What Happens on a Cruise Ship in a Hurricane?

The thought of being stuck on a cruise ship in a hurricane is scary.

 

During hurricane season, the Caribbean becomes a hotbed for tropical storms. Each year from the beginning of June to the end of November, the conditions in the North Atlantic Ocean are ripe for a hurricane. If you’ve ever thought about taking a cruise at this time of year, you’ve probably wondered just what happens on a cruise ship in a hurricane.

Hurricanes are a force to be reckoned with—literally. They have the power to cause widespread destruction and devastation. As someone who has found herself at sea when a hurricane is about to hit on more than one occasion, I can understand your concerns. But I can also help shed a little light on what you can expect to experience.

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Business as Usual

cruise ship in a hurricane

If there is a storm circling the area you’re scheduled to visit, you’ll likely get a printed memo when you check in at the port letting you know that the cruise line is monitoring the situation. Throughout the cruise, it’s likely you’ll have similar notes slipped under your door or left on your bed with the daily schedule. The captain will also make the occasional announcement about the general state of affairs, just to put your mind at ease. The last thing the cruise line wants is to have 4,000 panicked people in its midst, and there’s nothing like a good distraction to take your mind off of things. So the show must go on, and that’s exactly what will happen.

If you’ve been on a cruise, you’re familiar with the elaborate entertainment that happens each day, including poolside bands, karaoke competitions, and Broadway-style shows. There’s also a spa, several dining options, special events, like Build-a-Bear workshops, and more. Each and every one of these activities will likely go on per the schedule. You’ll be so busy enjoying yourself that you won’t have time to think about the storm brewing nearby.

Change of Plans

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Rest assured that cruise lines have access to the most cutting-edge, innovative meteorological and navigational tools available on Earth. Both onshore and at sea, a crew of people are continually monitoring the path of each ship in the company’s fleet. They’ve got your safety in mind, and if I’m being truly honest, they don’t want to lose a billion dollar ship at sea.

Your captain is not going to sail into a storm. If there is a possibility that your ship is in any way at risk, the captain will alter the itinerary accordingly. I happened to be sailing toward Boston when Hurricane Hermine hit the East Coast in 2016. The first day on the ship we were at sea, and on the second day, we were scheduled to stop in Boston.

Since the storm was headed straight for Boston habor, the captain opted to sail to our second stop, Portland, Maine, instead. We doubled back the following day so we could still see Boston. It was a minor adjustment to our itinerary, but we still got to stop in all of the planned ports. We were very minimally impacted, and thankfully, so we were the people of Boston.

About a year later in September 2017, we were on a cruise ship as Hurricane Irma swept through the Caribbean. We left from San Juan on a Sunday and made our first stop in St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, the following day. The beautiful vistas and friendly people were a highlight of the trip. Just a day or so later, the hurricane tore through St. Thomas, causing mass destruction.

We continued to Barbados and St. Lucia per the itinerary, arriving a day or two behind Irma. In St. Kitts, Irma took down some trees, so our shore excursion aboard a sightseeing train was canceled due to branches on the rails. That night, we learned our final stop for the trip, St. Maarten, had been canceled, and we would spend the day at sea instead.

Looking back, I’m sure we were included in news reports of ships being stranded at sea since that’s effectively what happened, but for those of us on board, we were clueless for the most part. There was so much music, fun, games, and food, that we didn’t know the difference. Those of us who had been watching the news were well aware that many of the nearby ports were closed and the state of the port of San Juan was still in question. But the weather was warm, the sea was calm, and the skies were blue, so rather than focus on how we were going to get back home, we kicked back and enjoyed the beautiful day.

We were safe and sound and didn’t experience the threat of Irma at any time, but my heart still breaks for all of the people who have lost their homes and loved ones at her hands. The number of people aboard the ship that complained about the changes in the itinerary astounded me. There were people suffering in the aftermath of the storm—but thankfully, we were not among them.

State of the Sea

cruise ship in a hurricane

Unless you’re up to speed on current events or watching the news in your stateroom, it’s possible you won’t even know there’s a storm nearby. During Hurricane Irma, my friends and family back home waited with bated breath to see a Facebook update from me each day. They were just certain I was going to blow right off the ship into the Atlantic Ocean. Even though we were traveling nearly the exact same route as the Category 5 hurricane, we managed to avoid her wrath. The seas were completely calm and the skies were blue. Despite the devastation she was wreaking all around us, we didn’t feel a thing.

To say we didn’t notice the inclement weather when we cruised along the East Coast in 2016 would be a lie. It was windy and rainy, and at times, the ship rolled a bit from side to side. One evening as I walked on deck, the winds were quite strong, and it was difficult to open the door to get back inside the ship. The crew eventually restricted access to the outdoors due to the high winds. By that time, the evening entertainment had started, and no one even noticed we couldn’t go outdoors. It was autumn in New England and too cold to spend any length of time outside at night anyway.

That same night as I lay in bed, the ship rocked gently on the waves, lulling me into a sound sleep (which is saying a lot since I suffer from insomnia). Being on a lower deck, I could see the waves lapping against the porthole window in my cabin. They were a little higher than the night before, but barely, and they certainly weren’t atypical of the waves I’ve experienced on a cruise sailing through perfectly pleasant weather conditions.

While I know there are times when cruises hit rough waters, it’s quite rare. The chance that you will experience tsunami-sized waves and tornado-strength winds on a cruise is highly unlikely. Often the way the news is reported makes it seem different from it actually is. My point is not to diminish what people who have been in these situations experience—it’s about letting you know that you shouldn’t let fears of being on a cruise ship in a hurricane come between you and your bucket list. Book that trip! You’ll be glad you did.

If you would like to help those who have been impacted by hurricanes like Harvey, Irma, and Maria, you can make a donation to the Red Cross.

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cruise ship in a hurricane