Cruise Ship vs Giant Wave – How Do the Ships Survive?

Affiliate Disclaimer

Just looking at a cruise ship makes people wonder how it doesn’t capsize during harsh weather conditions. It looks incredibly top-heavy. So, what happens when a cruise ship hits a giant wave? Who will be the victor in this scenario?

How Cruise Lines Prevent Ships From Tipping Over

Well, before we get into that, there are measures that are put into place to prevent the worst-case scenario from occurring. Cruise lines put a lot of money and effort into ensuring that guests and crew are always kept safe.

Preventative Measures: Monitoring Weather

Modern cruise ships contain the best weather forecasting equipment available. This is far better than what can be searched on your smartphone.

The command center (bridge) has a plethora of satellite images with storms, weather maps, computer models from NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), and third-party meteorologists. Plus, the officers and crew constantly monitor the forecasting equipment.

Cruise Ship Bridge
Photo Credit: Philip Schubert / Shutterstock

Safety is always a priority for cruise lines. Many use additional layers of precautionary measures in case they encounter a rogue wave. For example, Royal Caribbean hired James Van Fleet in 2017 as the first industry-dedicated meteorologist. James previously worked for 20 years as a television meteorologist.

During seasons of high typhoons and hurricanes (June to November), James is in Royal Caribbean’s Miami headquarters monitoring a wall of weather screens.

He shares this information with 26 different ships plus an executive team. James reports that he can see storms from 7-10 days out. He can advise other ships on ways to avoid it.

Prevention: The Overall Design

Modern ships are designed to withstand heavy weather and remain on schedule. Hurricanes are the largest and most dangerous type of storm any crew may face. No one wants to be caught in the middle of one.


Cruise ships are made of heavy steel, making them quite weighty. Add passengers and crew, and the ship is even heavier. With all this weight, the vessel can easily roll through rough waters or a rogue wave. It’s more dangerous to be on an empty ship as the additional weight acts as a balancer in rough seas.

Spectrum of the Seas at Meyer Werft Shipyard
Photo Credit: Royal Caribbean

In the roughest waters, the worst that can happen is a ship may tilt to one side. However, this is unlikely. Shipbuilders will test the center of gravity and buoyancy while the ship is being constructed. This involves placing scale models of the ship through different types of storm simulations. They ensure that all cruise ships are designed to handle storms even when it is hurricane season.

Center of Gravity

If the entire weight of the ship was evenly distributed, the center of gravity would be in the middle. However, machinery, engines, fuel stores, and other items weigh more than passenger areas, cabins, restaurants, theaters, etc.

This drags the center of gravity downward. Therefore, a cruise ship’s center of gravity is at the bottom half of the vessel.

Center of Buoyancy

When examining the center of buoyancy, one looks at what parts of the ship are underwater to locate it. All that is needed is finding the center of its water plane area. This involves finding the center of the part of the ship located underwater.

Cruise Ship Bow
Cruise Ship Bow

The buoyancy of anything on the water depends on density. If the object is denser than the surrounding water, the item sinks. If it is less dense, the object floats.

Read Also: Port and Starboard – Which Side Is Which?

What prevents cruise ships from sinking is the opposing upward force and water pressure. The upward force weighs about the same as the displaced water, preventing the cruise ship from sinking.

What Happens During a Storm?

Bad weather can push a cruise ship to one side. The ship remains upright because all the heavy equipment is located below deck, providing a low center of gravity. The shape of a cruise ship’s hull is rounded and wide. This enables it to move smoothly through ocean waters with minimal drag.

A rounded edge increases the stability of a ship, preventing it from rocking and swaying. It also reduces motion sickness.

Cruise Ship Waves
Photo Credit: Steve Heap / Shutterstock

When it comes to balance, cruise ships contain ballast tanks. They have water that can be pumped to either side of the ship. In emergencies, they help keep ships balanced, reduce rocking effects, and counter large waves. Larger vessels will contain several ballast tanks.

What prevents a ship from capsizing is a combined effort of having a low center of gravity, a cruise ship’s buoyancy, and ballasts.

When Will a Ship Be Rerouted?

Unfortunately, captains can’t always avoid every storm. There are many factors at play, like being on a tight schedule, running low on fuel, and trying to minimize costs associated with fuel.

While safety always comes first, captains must assess the situation and do what is best. This involves examining all variables and minimizing potential damage.

Cruise ships will stick to destinations where bad weather can be avoided, like the Caribbean in the winter or the Mediterranean during summertime. However, going to Caribbean destinations is popular with families when children are on summer vacation even though they may face unpredictable weather during hurricane season.

Princess Cruise Ships
Photo Credit: STUDIO MELANGE / Shutterstock

However, if the seas become rough, ships have the technology onboard to stabilize themselves. If there is a serious storm ahead, a cruise ship will try to avoid or outrun it. Ships can be steered away from fog, hurricanes, typhoons, and huge storms.

Even when they encounter the weather, cruise ships will attempt to find the calmest patch of sea. If the storm is unavoidable, the itinerary may be changed, which could involve heading into a different port or lengthening or shortening a cruise by a few days.

All decisions are made in collaboration with the captains, with the safety and comfort of passengers the top priority. Ships can dock in alternate ports, ports can be skipped altogether, or sometimes ships remain at sea for a few hours prior to reaching port.

There are various ways that the captain and crew can handle the situation.

Hurricanes: The Worst-Case Scenario

Storms are a part of life at sea. For the most part, the ship’s captain and crew pay close attention to weather reports. They make informed decisions on their navigation and may need to make some adjustments along the way due to inclement weather. The captain may decide to slow down to miss a storm or change course.

Hurricane in the Caribbean
Photo Credit: Mike Mareen / Shutterstock

But there may be times when a course correction cannot be completed in time and the cruise ship is destined to hit a storm.

The worst storm to encounter is a hurricane. While it is rare to experience this on a cruise ship, we did include it for those who are curious about what would happen in the worst-case scenario. Entering a hurricane would be one of them.

So, who would be the victor between a cruise ship vs giant wave? Cruise ships are designed with proactive measures in place, enabling ships to avoid the effects of going through a storm.

Cruise ships are designed with measures put into place to ensure they’re kept afloat. For the most part, a cruise ship should be able to handle turbulent environments.

Haiyan Ma
Haiyan Ma
I absolutely love cruising with my favorite ports of call being in the Caribbean. As a former crew member for Disney Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean, and Carnival Cruise Line I can continue my passion by sharing my experiences with readers. Find out more about us here.


Free expert cruise tips and news from Cruise Hive! We'll send you the latest cruise updates daily to your inbox.

Don't Miss Any Cruise News!

We'll send you the latest cruise updates daily to your inbox.

Copy link