By A. Pawlowski,
March 5, 2010 1:11 p.m. EST
(CNN) -- The terrifying moments on board the Louis Majesty, a cruise
ship hit by 26-foot waves off northeast Spain, may be prompting second
thoughts among travelers considering a vacation at sea.
Two passengers were killed and 14 people were injured when water
violently crashed through the windows of some of the ship's public areas
The incident brought to mind scenes from "The Poseidon Adventure," a
movie in which a wall of water completely flips a cruise ship.
But could that actually happen away from a Hollywood movie screen? And
how well are cruise ships equipped for extreme weather?
Experts said waves like those that struck the Louis Majesty are
extremely rare and should be of little concern to the average cruise
"Cruise lines are operating on a weekly basis, they're always at sea and
there's a very, very, very low frequency of these incidents happening,"
said Cmdr. Buddy Reams, the chief of the Coast Guard's Cruise Ship
National Center of Expertise.
"We have a really rigorous safety protocol that we go through for each
of the cruise ships that operate [in the U.S.] and it's primarily
because they're carrying so many passengers."
Several industry insiders weighed in on common questions travelers may
be asking about the safety of cruising after this week's incident.
How likely would it be for a cruise ship to encounter a wave that might
tip it over?
Not very likely. In fact, Richard Burke, professor and chairman of
engineering at the Maritime College of the State University of New York,
said he would be as worried about it as an asteroid hitting the Earth.
"Encountering a storm at sea and having the ship moving around and
possibly getting seasick, those things happen. But we're talking about
waves of extraordinary magnitude that are very, very rare," Burke said.
Giant waves: Tall tales or alarming fact?
The chances of a "Poseidon Adventure" disaster happening on a modern
ship are virtually nonexistent, said Harry Bolton, captain of the
training ship "Golden Bear" at the California Maritime Academy.
The only way that it could happen is if the ship were in extreme weather
and positioned sideways to a 70- to 100-foot wave that would have the
potential of rolling it over, Bolton said.
"I guarantee you're never going to be in those kinds of waves anyway,"
he said. "[Cruise ships] avoid bad weather like the plague. They don't
want the passengers in peril, they don't want to risk any injury or
How far can a cruise ship lean over to one side and still recover?
Pretty far, though most passengers will likely never experience the extreme.
Cruise ships can list a lot so they can withstand heavy waves, said
Teijo Niemela, editor and publisher of the "Cruise Business Review,"
which follows cruise ship design.
In extreme cases, a ship can actually list 60 degrees and recover, Burke
said. (An angle of 90 degrees would be the ship lying on its side.)
"If you've ever been on a ship that's listing 20 degrees, you almost
can't walk on the ship. Walking up a 20 degree slope is like mountain
climbing," Burke said.
"So if a ship heels more than that, your real problem is that you're
going to get thrown off your feet and a lot of equipment and furniture
is going to break loose and go flying around. So the possibility of
injury is very high when that happens. But the ship should right itself
without any problem."
The biggest roll Burke has ever experienced during his time at sea was
45 degrees, he said. "I really don't want to go through that again."
Cruise ships seem to be getting bigger and taller. Does that affect
It may appear that cruise ships are top heavy visually, but naval
architects design them in such a way that all of the heavy liquids,
machinery and the main engine are positioned very low, Burke said. So
the ship's center of gravity is also low even though it looks like the
structure goes up high.
Modern cruise ships also have very intricate anti-heeling systems,
"It literally blasts water from one side of the ship to the other side
so that you can take a ship that might be rolling 20 degrees and you
turn on the anti-heeling system and it'll knock that thing right down to
a 5 degree roll. It's incredible," Bolton said.
Niemela, who has sailed on the huge new cruise ship Oasis of the Seas a
couple of times, said it's very difficult to feel any kind of movement
If there is a tsunami warning, like the one last week around Hawaii, is
a cruise ship in danger?
Not unless the ship is still docked in port. A tsunami would go by
entirely unnoticed on the open sea, Burke said. But if the ship were
still at port, an arriving tsunami would be devastating.
How are passengers notified if there's an emergency at sea?
Before a ship leaves port, the crew holds a fire and boat drill for the
passengers. They sound the signals that would call people to their
lifeboat stations if there is an emergency so everybody gets to hear the
sirens before the ship leaves, Burke said. They're very loud and they're
located throughout the ship.
"It's really important if you take a cruise that you participate in the
drill and you do see where your lifeboat station is and you know how to
get there," Burke said.