Investigation begins into cruise drama

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Norway’s accident investigations board and the maritime directorate have already launched a probe into why all four engines stalled on the relatively new cruiseship Viking Sky while it was crossing a stormy stretch of sea off the West Coast. Questions are also flying as to why the cruiseship, with nearly 1,400 people on board, kept sailing from Tromsø to Stavanger during the storm that prompted most other vessels to stay in port.

Among them were both the north- and southbound coastal voyage vessels in Norway’s Hurtigruten fleet, which plies the Norwegian coast from Bergen in the south to Kirkenes in the far north, and has been sailing over the notoriously rough seas just south of Kristiansund for more than a century.

Hurtigruten didn’t sail
“Because of the bad weather, our captain chose to delay departure from Bergen by 12 hours,” Hurtigruten spokesman Rune Thomas Ege told newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) on Monday. That meant the northbound ship would pass the rough patch at Hustadvika on Sunday morning instead of Saturday afternoon and evening, when the storm was raging at its worst.

The captain of Hurtigruten’s southbound vessel sailing towards Bergen from Trondheim decided much the same: “Because of the weather forecasts, the captain chose to remain tied up in Trondheim,” Ege said. “We had to charter flights to get the passengers to and from Bergen.”

Pilots’ role disputed
Newspaper Bergens Tidende (BT) reported on Sunday afternoon that the Viking Sky’s captain from Finland made his decision on the recommendation of two Norwegian port pilots on board the vessel. That’s been somewhat disputed, with Pilot Master Emil Heggelund telling state broadcaster NRK on Monday that “as far as I know, there was never a discussion (on the bridge of the vessel) over whether to sail.” DN reported that the ship dropped a stop in Bodø because of the storm, but Heggelund claimed there was nothing to indicate that the modern ship Viking Sky, which had its maiden voyage just two years ago and is one of six ships in the fleet of Viking Ocean Cruises, couldn’t cross Hustadvika on Saturday.

Asked whether that was strange, when the highly experienced Hurtigruten captains both decided against attempting to cross Hustadvika in a storm, Heggelund said he didn’t know why Hurtigruten decided as it did. “But we must remember that this is a 203-meter-long ocean-going vessel that’s only two years old and built to the highest standards,” he told NRK. “There was nothing to indicate that this ship couldn’t sail and carry out its voyage plan in a safe and secure manner.”

‘Can’t understand’ why cruiseship sailed
A spokeswoman for Norwegian Coastal Administration (Kystverket) agreed and said much the same, but other maritime experts and experienced seafarers in Norway were critical that the Viking Sky’s leaders opted to venture into the storm that had been forecast for days. “I can’t understand why they did that,” Magne Sætran, a former captain for Norwegian search and rescue vessels, told DN. “Where in the world was their leadership and navigational background? With that wind strength, other vessels stayed in port, while this ship heads out to open sea. It wasn’t necessary to go out, not least out of consideration for the passengers.”

Sætran conceded that the Viking Sky’s captain couldn’t have foreseen the engine failure that left the vessel with 900 passengers and more than 400 crew members in a total blackout on Saturday and adrift amidst 30-foot waves. It all led to a frightening and dangerous situation on board as the vessel nearly grounded, and the evacuation of as many as 500 passengers who were airlifted from the ship to helicopters hovering above.

Criticism rising
While passengers seemed overwhelmingly grateful and hailed the rescue operation,  criticism continued to rise on Tuesday. Svein Kristiansen, a professor at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) in Trondheim, went so far as to call the captain’s and cruise line’s decision to sail “scandalous.” He believes it was pure “gambling” with safey to sail over Hustadvika in Saturday’s storm.

Kristiansen is a professor in marine technology at NTNU, and noted how there’s been a lot of praise for the rescue operation. “No one’s looking at the fundamentals here: A cruise ship with more than 1,300 people sails over waters in conditions and wave heights where you should realize there’s no chance of lowering lifeboats if anything goes wrong. That’s what’s scandalous here.”

Regulation debate
There was discussion in Norwegian media on Tuesday over whether the country should establish regulations for when ships should stay in port in a storm. Norway’s acting maritime director, Lars Alvestad, responded to the proposal by saying the captain of a ship must have the authority to make such decisions. He doesn’t see a need for a national standard.

Kristiansen claims there’s “an entirely different culture” in the offshore branch, where management ceases operations and carries out controlled evacuations in severe storms while they still have a chance. “It’s impossible to pound that into people’s heads in the shipping branch,” the professor claimed. “They can’t seem to think ahead, and they gamble.”

Economic considerations denied
Torstein Hagen, the Norwegian shipowner who founded and serves as chairman of Viking Ocean Cruises, denies the cruise line took an economically motivated chance in the bad weather, in order to stay on schedule and get passengers back to London on Tuesday as planned. “That’s not how we operate,” Hagen told reporters at a press conference on Sunday.

Wilhelmsen Ship Management has been responsible for the Viking Sky’s maritime personnel, from the bridge down to the engine room. A Wilhelmsen spokesman stressed that “the captain has the overriding responsibility for a ship. In this phase it’s nonetheless important to emphasize that there will be an examination of what happened.” He said it was “too early” to determine blame and responsibility now.

Cheers and an apology
When the battered cruiseship arrived in Molde on Sunday, local residents were on the dock to wave flags and cheer for the survivors still on board. A total of 28 people were injured and required medical assistance. There were no casualties.

Hagen said he couldn’t yet answer why the ship kept sailing in the storm, and passengers grateful to be alive were reluctant to criticize the decision. On Tuesday he apologized for what everyone on board had to go through during the weekend. He said he can’t thank all those involved in the rescue operation enough, and also all the organizations and private individuals who offered help and practical assistance to the passengers. He promised that Viking Ocean Cruises would follow up passengers, even thought most had left the ship and were flying home.

Hagen has been ranked by magazine Kapital as Norway’s second-wealthiest man, with a fortune of NOK 52 billion (USD 6 billion) in 2018. He now lives in Switzerland and paid just NOK 59,784 (around USD 7,000) in tax to Norway, according to his 2017 tax return. That’s far less than what one of the nurses involved in the rescue operation pays every year.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund