The drama on high seas off Norway this weekend narrowly avoided turning into utter tragedy. Maritime experts believe the cruiseship Viking Sky with 1,373 people on board was only 100 meters away from grounding on rocks in a notorious bay off Romsdal.
The vessel sent out Mayday messages around 2pm Saturday, reporting that it was in serious trouble and drifting towards land in the midst of a severe late winter storm. Siri Reimers, a chief engineer in the sea charts division Norway’s state mapping agency Kartverket, was alarmed when she saw the vessel’s position.
“The ship was frighteningly far into the bay (called Hustadvika, an area where several vessels have sank earlier),” Reimers told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) on Sunday. “Warnings of dangerous waves are on all the charts, so it’s a very risky stretch of sea.”
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The Viking Sky was carrying mostly American and British passengers, many of them senior citizens. A massive rescue operation was launched immediately as the vessel lost power and was in an area with shallow water and rocks. Local residents who could see the vessel struggling in the stormy seas and have maritime experience themselves also prepared to help.
“It was a matter of minutes before it could have gone terribly wrong,” Jan Erik Fiskerstrand, a shipowner and skipper, told newspaper Aftenposten from on board his own boat, Fiskenes. He was among the first who reached the cruiseship after it sent out its Mayday call.
“If the crew hadn’t managed to restart a motor and anchor up, the cruiseship would have slammed into the rocks,” Fiskerstrand said.
Even after the anchor was dropped and fastened to the sea floor, the vessel continued to be thrashed by the strong winds and waves in the area after storm forecasts posted late last week had taken hold in all their brutal force.
“The ship was listing violently,” said another witness, Frank Einar Vatne, who could see the Viking Sky from his living room window in Hustad. “It must have been very uncomfortable to be on board.”
It was, according to reports from passengers who were eventually hoisted one-by-one off the vessel by helicopters that ran in shuttle traffic between Brynhallen near Hustad and the Viking Sky. Each helicopter could take around 15 to 20 passengers on each trip to land at Hustad, just a few kilometers away, but the rescue operation was slow and dramatic in itself for both passengers and crew.
Seas became so dangerous that other rescue vessels couldn’t approach the vessel. Two of Norway’s rescue vessels, the RS Erik Bye and RS Maersk, had to turn around as waves hit eight to nine meters (up to 30 feet) with strong winds and even lightning.
“We were called out to assist the cruiseship, but there were very high seas in the area,” Oddbjørn Lager Nesje of rescue agency Redningsselskapet told Aftenposten. “We had to return.”
By early Sunday morning, the winds had eased somewhat and the Viking Sky’s crew had revived three of four stalled engines. A total of 371 of the 1,373 people on board, including several who were injured, had been airlifted off the ship by 8am. The evacuation continued even though the situation “stabilized,” according to rescue operations leader Eirik Walle: “The ship is underway and there’s good control on board.” The vessel was moving slowly Sunday morning towards the nearby city of Molde, with escort vessels assisting.
News bureau NTB reported that a total of 17 people were taken to emergency clinics or hospitals in Molde and Kristiansund. Three passengers suffered serious fractures during the tumult on board the vessle and one man in his 70s was transfered to Haukeland University Hospital in Bergen.
Norwegian shipowner Torstein Hagen, founder and chairman of the Viking Sky‘s cruise line Viking Ocean Cruises, flew to Molde Saturday night to meet with passengers. He told NRK that he was grateful for the search and rescue operation and was relieved that tragedy was averted. Uninjured passengers airlifted from the ship were taken to hotels in the area.
Cruise line staff was working to organize travel home for all passengers and contact their families, Hagen also told VG. While most of them were from the US and UK, others came from a variety of countries. The captain of the vessel is from Finland while the chief engineer is Norwegian and the vessel also had two Norwegian pilots on board. The Viking Sky’s crew is from 45 different countries.