Maybe you remember the video below — it went fairly viral — but imagining how badly that ship must be getting tossed to create that kind of chaos got me thinking about well, what could actually cause a modern cruise ship to sink?
First off, it's actually happened. In 1980, the MS Prinsendam went down in a very remote span of the Gulf of Alaska when an engine room fire broke out. There was some bumbling by the crew as far as getting an SOS out and, while eventually help did come, the ship was unsavable. It capsized and sank. A total loss, but no one died. Then of course there's the Costa Concordia earlier this year, but that seems a special case for a whole list of reasons.
Since 1980, safety standards for cruise ships went way up, via the updated international Safety of Life at Sea agreement. The new regulations are mainly fire-based and cruisecritic.com lays them out as such: "two means of [escape] from all atrium levels; low-level lighting systems; installation of smoke detectors, sprinklers, fire detectors and fire alarm systems in all accommodations and service areas; and fireproof enclosures around all stairways."
So there's that. The deadline for every cruise ship in the world to hit these standards was 2010. But, SOLAS or not, there've been at least two major shipboard fires in the past 15 years, the last being the Star Princess catching fire in 2006. One person died and several went to the hospital for smoke inhalation-related health issues. The ship survived.
So, what about more palpably scary things like iceburgs and giant waves. Well, as far as iceburgs go, ships now—all of them, by older SOLAS standards—are build under specific guidelines for how many and how tall a ship's bulkheads can be. If you'll remember, the Titanic went down because the iceburg managed to pierce through enough bulkheads to fill enough of the ship to overwhelm her. With the innards of a ship being vastly more compartmentalized, it would have to be many iceburgs from many directions to actually sink a cruise ship.
So, how about waves? The video should go pretty far in proving that it would take a really, really big wave to take down a cruise ship. Why? Because a cruise ship is really, really big and really, really heavy. But, there are things called "rouge waves" which could, theoretically, flip or break an ocean liner. A rogue wave is just what it sounds, an abnormally big wave, defined as any wave more than twice the height of a "significant" wave in any given sea state. So, it's relative.
But in a big storm, with already pulverizing waves, a rogue wave could be, say, a hundred feet tall and that could eff a cruise ship right good. Stories go that the RMS Queen Elizabeth 2 had to literally "surf" a rogue wave in 1995's Hurricane Luis to keep from flipping over. Rogue waves are also called "100 year waves" because they were thought to be that rare. But modern radar imaging has show them to be rather more common.
The video below is of a ship called the Louis Majesty when it hit what was probably a rogue wave in the Mediterranean earlier this year.
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