By Corey Sandler
Viking Sky departed Tromsø to begin our voyage back to the River Thames and the Port of Tilbury near London still aglow with the warmth of the cold Norwegian north.
Instead, something wicked our way came.
Heavy winds caused us to cancel our scheduled call at Bodø.
Then Captain Bengt Gustaffson chose to sail along western Norway’s spectacular inside passage where we would be somewhat sheltered from the winds and high seas.
By Saturday noontime we were in a gale, with 40- to 50-knot (45 to 55 mile per hour) winds, and 9 meter (29 feet) seas.
And on the inside passage we had little room to spare. In some places the channel was only a few hundred meters wide.
We entered the notorious stretch of coast known as Hustadvika, a shallow 10-nautical-mile stretch with hundreds of islands, reefs, and skerries.
The winds picked up, and at precisely the worst possible time the ship’s four engines–generators which produce electricity for the ship’s propellers and most of the other functions of the vessel–shut down.
UPDATE: Norwegian maritime authorities say the engines shut down automatically because sensors detected low lubricating oil levels. The problem was apparently caused by the unusually rough seas and motion aboard ship. In a statement, Viking Cruises said it accepted the finding and would make appropriate changes to procedures across its fleet.
Viking Sky began to drift toward the rocky coast. With just moments to spare, Captain Gustaffson managed to put down two of the ship’s anchors and we lurched to a halt.
Viking Sky in trouble, seen from the shore in western Norway
No power, rolling seas, high winds. There was significant damage to most of the public spaces on the upper decks including the pool grill and World Cafe buffet. About a dozen people sustained injuries.
Very quickly came first the crew broadcast, “Code Echo”, the call to alert the crew to an imminent emergency.
Perhaps a minute later, about 1:30 in the afternoon, the blast of the ship’s whistle: seven short and one long.
After a lifetime of travel and hundreds of cruises around the world, it was the first time I had heard the call to muster stations in a real emergency.
And up on the bridge, two things occurred: the captain issued a mayday call to Norwegian authorities and an abandon ship order.
The winds and seas were so rough that it was decided not to use the lifeboats immediately.
Norwegian rescue helicopters were on the way to pick up 20 guests at a time and take them to shore.
By pick up I mean just that: guests were hoisted one-by-one from the dark, rolling, and cold upper decks of the ship. It was a process that required nearly an hour for each copter and at times there were two in service at different locations.
Guests gathered in the ship’s main restaurant were quickly scattered when water breached the window wall. Some guests were swept along with the water and furniture.
That muster station was abandoned and cold, wet passengers were moved to join the rest of us.
At the other principal muster station, the Star Theatre, we put on our life vests and listened as the captain and other officers detailed the plan. But the dark, wild night meant the evacuation was very slow.
The helicopters could not land on the ship’s deck and they had great difficulty with the gale force winds. The guests who were evacuated were hoisted up to the hovering machines.
The operation was suspended several times when the weather became too treacherous. And just to add to the drama, a second ship, a small freighter, also abandoned ship nearby, and helicopters were diverted because some of their crew were forced into the cold, very rough seas.
As we waited for groups to leave our ship by helicopter, a small flotilla of ocean-going tugboats headed out to lend assistance.
It was not until about 1 a.m. that the first tug arrived, and conditions were too rough to allow her to fully attach to our ship. A second and then third tug came with dawn, about 5:30 a.m.
The purpose of the seagoing tugs was to assist the ship in maneuvering, and to be on standby if the engines were to stop again.
Finally, after about 475 of the 900 passengers had been brought to shore by helicopter, the captain decided we were safely secured to the tugs and could proceed to shore with the rest of us.
And so we did.
We had been at our muster stations from about 1:30 Saturday afternoon and remained there more than 22 hours.
When we slowly moved to the dock in Molde, the shoreline was filed with locais, many waving Norwegian flags.
We were safe. Grateful for the efforts of a fine crew. And ever more appreciative of the strength of nature in Norway and the gracious help of its people and its superb rescue services.
This cruise is over, two days early. It will take a while to repair some of the damage to the ship. But our spirits today are high: the morning after the night to remember.
Safe travels to all of our guests. I look forward to sailing with you again somewhere, sometime, in calm seas and fair winds.
In the morning, after the all-clear, passengers returned their life vests to a celebratory heap in the theatre.
Captain Bengt Gustaffson poses with some of the crew who served all night to help keep guests safe.
Photos by Corey Sandler, 2019. All rights reserved. All contents copyright Corey Sandler and Word Association; this website is not produced or endorsed by Viking Cruises.
A Norwegian rescue helicopter lands near Molde with passengers taken from Viking Sky. Svein Ove Ekornesvag / AP)