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Royal Caribbean cruise ship steers into extreme winter storm, suffers damage

Anthem of the Seas departed Saturday, heading into hurricane-force winds that had been forecast for days
By Scott Smith   |   Feb. 8, 2016 at 2:17 PM

PORT CANAVERAL, Fla., Feb. 8 (UPI) -- One of the world's newest and largest cruise ships suffered significant damage after weathering for hours Sunday what passengers described as a "terrifying" winter storm off the coast of North Carolina.

Anthem of the Seas' captain ordered thousands of passengers confined to their cabins as a safety measure during a Sunday storm that the cruise line Royal Caribbean said was not expected to be that severe, though NOAA's Ocean Prediction Center had been forecasting the potential for severe conditions in that area for at least four days before the cruise departed.

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An official NOAA warning of hurricane-force winds in the Atlantic was issued Saturday afternoon, the day the ship left New Jersey for the seven-day trip to Port Canaveral, Fla.

Normal conditions returned Monday and the ship resumed heading south. But the cruise was canceled by mid-day and the ship headed back to port in Cape Liberty, N.J. The cruise has 4,529 passengers and 1,616 crew aboard.

Royal Caribbean is offering passengers a full refund and a future cruise certificate worth 50 percent of the fare paid.

The ship was tossed for hours Sunday afternoon and evening by waves estimated to be at least 30 feet and winds exceeding 100 mph, the cruise line reported. Hurricane-force winds are 74 mph or faster. Conditions improved by about 1 a.m. Monday.

Twitter user @NYR230 posted a screenshot of the ship's status, showing winds of 106 knots (122 mph) at 10:22 p.m. Sunday, adding "that wasn't even the worst of it."

Some passengers tweeted that winds topped out at 150 mph. Seeing all the frantic posts on social media and aware of the severe weather, the U.S. Coast Guard contacted the ship, but crew informed them that "everything was fine."

One passenger posted his harrowing experience to cruisecritic.com, writing "Captain tried to turn ship but waited too long. Captain said they are in communication with the coast guard, struggling to point ship into wind but can't move forward. All passengers told to stay in cabins; water entered ship on upper decks, large white structure broke off top of ship, landed in pool."

Passenger Robert Huschka, executive editor of the Detroit Free Press, described the experience to Florida Today, as "truly terrifying."

Huschka said the captain ordered passengers to remain in their cabins about 3:30 p.m. Sunday as the conditions worsened. He told them the ship would hold its position and try to turn into the storm to ride it out. Then he made no more announcements for the duration of the storm.

"A very nervous cruise director kept coming on," Huschka said. "He didn't sound very reassuring. He said, 'We are OK'."

Royal Caribbean responded to nervous family members on Twitter, saying the ship was damaged but remained seaworthy. "Four injuries have been reported, none severe" one tweet read.

Apologizing to passengers on Twitter "for their discomfort," Royal Caribbean posted on it blog that "Safety is our highest priority and ships are designed to withstand even more extreme circumstances than Anthem of the Seas encountered. While the weather was unpleasant, the ship remained seaworthy at all times."

The cruise line confirmed on its blog that passengers were ordered to remain in their rooms "with complimentary in-room movies offered as well as access to the minibar."

Using the Twitter hashtag #AnthemoftheSeas, passengers posted text, video and photos of the conditions aboard the ship and outside, with huge, churning seas and, later, damage aboard the ship.

Passenger Jacob Ibrag tweeted, "Don't think I've ever missed land this much. In other news, wish I took those swimming lessons..."

Ibrag also shared dramatic video he described as the "calm before the Hurricane" at 3:10 p.m. The storm is not a hurricane, though it was packing hurricane-force winds and has a characteristic hurricane-like shape.

Twitter user @angelgrk posted a video her boyfriend sent from his cabin, describing it as a "washing machine" outside his window.

The "strong and impressive storm" was moving toward New England, where forecasters have predicted more than a foot of snow and potential for blizzard conditions through Tuesday morning, with the worst weather in eastern Massachusetts.

"Deck 14 needs some work," tweeted passenger @flatgreg, showing a photo of a collapsed ceiling aboard the ship.

Huschka and Ibrag said cabin televisions still carried Super Bowl 50 without any apparent problems, which helped keep their minds off the harrowing conditions outside.

Many people posting to social media on Monday criticized Royal Caribbean and the captain for sailing into a storm so severe.

Answering queries from people with tickets for later cruises on the Anthem of the Seas, Royal Caribbean said on Twitter that it wasn't clear how long the ship would be out of service for repairs.

anthemoftheseas
Royal Caribbean's Anthem of the Seas cruise ship. Photo courtesy Royal Caribbean.
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