The 10 Roughest Seas in the World for Cruise Ships

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With much talk about rough seas impacting cruise itineraries, we’re going to look at some of the roughest seas in the world that are traversed by cruise ships.

Not only will this shed light on the various challenges these waters pose, but we will also cover some practical tips to avoid an unpleasant travel experience on rough seas. 

While most people associate cruise vacations with rest and relaxation, they also offer passengers an opportunity to experience a truly unique form of adventure. Not only do you get the chance to book a getaway to a unique location, you have the opportunity to spend time at sea. 

While this can certainly be exciting, not all the world’s seas offer the same conditions. Water temperatures and climates naturally alter depending on your latitude, but sea conditions can also vary from calm to incredibly rough. 

So, let’s take a look at the most dangerous seas in the world!

The Top 10 Roughest Seas Traveled by Cruise Ships

1. The Drake Passage

Location: Between Argentina and Antarctica

While it is not technically a sea, the Drake Passage, is one of the world’s most notoriously treacherous bodies of water, a body of water between Cape Horn and the South Shetland Islands. For centuries, ships have sailed through this choke point between the Southwestern Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Due to its narrow opening and the strong currents at its latitude, it regularly sees massive waves and turbulent waters.

Cape Horn
Cape Horn (Photo Credit: Steve Heap)

While the idea of passenger ships traversing the Drake Passage for pleasure would have seemed like an outlandish risk in the past, numerous luxury Antarctic cruises now pass through it as part of their itinerary. These cruises aim at more adventurous passengers who dream of seeing the flourishing colonies of seabirds and penguins and the countless icebergs and glaciers that make up the world’s least-visited continent. 

Fortunately, the specialized cruise ships that travel through this once-deadly body of water are equipped to deal with the currents, waves, and ice blocks that have made it so feared. If seeing Antarctica with your own eyes is on your bucket list, you may want to book an Antarctica cruise vacation that traverses the Drake Passage! 

2. The Remote Bering Sea

Location: Northern Pacific Ocean near Alaska

Located at the very top of the Pacific Ocean, the Bering Sea divides the top of North America and Russia. For those planning to see the wilderness of Alaska from the comfort and luxury of a cruise ship deck, there is a good chance that you will pass through the Bering Sea.

The Bering Sea
The Bering Sea (Photo Credit: Andrei Stepanov)

Like other cold-water seas that see converging currents, the Bering Sea can be incredibly challenging for ships. The rough and icy waters have made voyages incredibly difficult and deadly for hundreds of years.

Today, cruise ships are equipped to navigate the unpredictable climate and ice-cold waters of the Bering Sea, but things were not always this way.

Worth Reading: What Is the Helm of a Ship?

Bering Sea cruises tend to depart from Vancouver, Canada, or Tokyo, Japan. They travel this vast, desolate body of water while keeping passengers comfortable.

The contrast between the roughest seas in the world and the calm on board the ship can make your northern cruise adventure that much more memorable, especially between the months of February and April.

3. The Temperamental Caribbean Sea

Location: Tropics of the Atlantic Ocean 

Due to its incredible popularity as a cruise destination, it may surprise you to see the Caribbean Sea on this list, but these waters can pose some serious challenges during certain months of the year. 

Hurricane season presents some particularly rough seas for cruise ships and other types of vessels. During this period, the naturally warm waters the region is known for meet with cooler air temperatures and water currents. This mixture can lead to unpredictable and rough waters, as well as tropical storms and full-blown hurricanes. 

Caribbean Sea
Caribbean Sea (Photo Credit: Mark Christensen)

If you want to avoid these rougher seas, we recommend avoiding hurricane season, which runs from the beginning of June until the end of November. However, the winter months can also bring up some unexpected weather conditions.

Read Also: When is the Best Time to Cruise the Caribbean?

With that said, do not be put off traveling through the Caribbean during these months if you are not worried about delayed departures and rougher-than-usual seas. It can be an affordable and enjoyable time to enjoy a voyage through one of the world’s most popular cruise destinations! 

4. The Turbulent Tasman Sea

Location: Pacific Ocean between Australia and New Zealand

For those looking to enjoy a cruise “down under,” exploring the Tasman Sea and its numerous islands can be a memorable and enjoyable adventure. With that said, the Tasman Sea also presents some volatile weather and fairly rough waters. 

One of the things that makes this body of water so challenging for cruise ships and other types of vessels is that the weather and waters are extremely temperamental, meaning they have a propensity for sudden changes. Planning a voyage can be difficult, as the waters can be calm one minute, then incredibly wavey and dangerous shortly after.

Tasman Sea
Tasman Sea (Photo Credit: Narrow Window Photography)

While the waters can be rough and unpredictable, don’t allow that to put you off taking one of these famous southern hemisphere cruises! Most feature a significant sightseeing component, as the islands dotted throughout the Tasman Sea have eye-catching cliffs and caves, plus the unique marine and bird species are a sight to behold. 

As a bonus, most Tasman Sea cruises allow passengers to explore the coastlines of both Australia and New Zealand. With both countries being popular bucket list destinations, having the chance to check both off in a single cruise vacation can be exciting! 

5. The Notorious North Atlantic Crossing

Location: Atlantic Ocean between North America and Europe

For those with a mind for history, it will not be a surprise to see the same waters that claimed the Titanic on our list of the roughest seas in the world traversed by cruise ships. 

The area is known for unpredictable weather patterns, which is only worsened by how remote it is. This body of water is also known to be filled with icebergs, powerful waves, and some truly intense storms. Plus, the waters can be incredibly cold during certain months of the year, something those traveling on the Titanic had to discover first-hand.

While the crossing can be incredibly rough at times, the fact that it connects North America to Europe also means that it was, and continues to be, one of the most important ocean crossings in the world. You’ll find many crossings between Southampton in the UK and New York in the US, especially by iconic ocean liners such as Queen Mary 2.

Rough Seas of the North Atlantic Ocean
North Atlantic Ocean (Photo Credit: andrejs polivanovs)

Fortunately, modern cruise ships are equipped with the stabilizers, powerful engines, and streamlined designs required to safely sail these roughest seas in the world and with minimal discomfort for their passengers. 

If you are interested in experiencing the raw power of the North Atlantic Ocean for yourself, there are numerous cruises that you can book. If you want to avoid the worst of what this crossing offers, we recommend not booking a cruise vacation that sets sail between December and February.

While some cruises still depart during these months, passengers should anticipate delays and disruptions, as well as the type of rough seas that can make those sensitive to seasickness feel significant discomfort. 

6. The Moody Mediterranean Sea

Location: Between Southern Europe and North Africa

The Mediterranean Sea is another one of those extremely popular cruise destinations that may surprise you to see on this list. While the waters can be incredibly peaceful, they can get rough between fall and winter.

High winds and frequent storms can make the water choppy during this period. When the hot air flowing from Africa meets the cooler air of Europe, the storms and winds can generate waves that have claimed countless ships over the many centuries that the Mediterranean Sea has been traversed.

Mediterranean Sea, Rough Seas
Mediterranean Sea (Photo Credit: MedeirosCyndie)

Western Mediterranean Sea cruises that explore the waters off the coasts of Spain and Italy can have a particularly tough time during the fall months, as the region can see some storms that border on tropical in their severity.

If you are looking for a calm and relaxing Mediterranean cruise, we recommend booking an itinerary that avoids these months. Instead, opt for a Mediterranean cruise that sets sail in the spring or early summer. 

7. The Windy Bay of Biscay

Location: Between France and Spain

If you have ever looked at a map of Europe, you have probably noticed an enormous gulf off the west coast of France separating Northern France and the north of Spain. This natural barrier between the two European nations is called the Bay of Biscay, and it happens to be a high-traffic body of water for cruise ships and cargo ships alike.

Even though traversing the Bay of Biscay is common for Mediterranean-bound cruise ships departing from the United Kingdom and Scandinavia, it actually presents some incredibly rough seas.

Bay of Biscay
Bay of Biscay (Photo Credit: LucieOde)

This is due in part to the enormous bay’s volatile weather and high winds. Ships traversing the Bay of Biscay also have to contend with the swirling and fast-moving currents of the North Atlantic Ocean. 

This combination of strong winds and powerful currents being funneled into the bay can generate high waves and other serious challenges for cruise ships. This has led to the Bay of Biscay developing a bit of a reputation amongst cruise passengers for bad weather and rough seas.

One of the more notable of these events took place in 2019. While crossing the Bay of Biscay as part of a transatlantic journey, the crew manning the Norwegian Escape cruise ship were forced to take emergency precautions. This involved securing loose objects and calling for passengers to meet at indoor muster points.

8. The South China Sea

Location: Between China and the Philippines

The South China Sea connects the Pacific and Indian Oceans, so it is an important maritime route for Southeast Asian cruises. While the South China Sea is no stranger to cruises, it can pose significant challenges for cruise ships and other large vessels. And this comes even with territorial disputes over one of the roughest seas in the world.

South China Sea
South China Sea (Photo Credit: Legend_G)

This is partially due to the fact that the region is prone to violent tropical storms, monsoons, cyclones, typhoons, and other types of serious storms, especially between the months of July and November. This unpredictable and harsh weather can cause major disruptions and delays for cruise ships that are scheduled to travel through this important Pacific Ocean corridor. 

9. The Ice-Cold North Sea

Location: Between the British Isles and Northwestern Continental Europe

Due to the fact that it borders some of Europe’s most populous and affluent nations, the North Sea is a common departure point for many European cruise lines. Despite the fact that numerous cruise lines include passage through the North Sea in their itineraries, it can be incredibly challenging and among the roughest seas in the world to navigate.

Rough Seas of the North Sea
North Sea (Photo Credit: mirhelen)

The ice-cold waters can get particularly rough during high winds, which occur on a fairly regular basis. The navigation crews of cruise ships voyaging through these waters need to pay close attention to weather conditions for the safety and comfort of their passengers; however, rough waters can be unavoidable at times.

This partially explains why the North Sea has a reputation for being fairly choppy. In some cases, crews will even advise passengers to stay inside the ship.

One such example of this occurred in 2018 when the iconic MS Marco Polo got caught in extreme weather conditions, such as heavy swells and rough seas, as it traveled from the Netherlands to Norway. In response, the ship’s crew sounded alarms and kept passengers indoors.

10. The Furious Gulf of Alaska

Location: North Pacific Ocean along the Coast of Alaska, USA

Most people associate Alaska with harsh weather and a demanding landscape. Unsurprisingly, the waters off the coastlines of this rugged land can also pose extreme challenges to those navigating them unless you’re enjoying the stunning views of the Inside Passage, which offers protection from the open seas thanks to a series of islands.

Read Also: The Best Time to Cruise Alaska

Due to the Gulf of Alaska’s position along the curved coastline of southern Alaska, it faces strong and swirling currents from the North Pacific Ocean. It is also regularly exposed to high winds and intense storms.

Gulf of Alaska
Gulf of Alaska (Photo Credit: Nick Pecker)

This combination often results in towering waves and some of the roughest seas on the planet. On top of that, the water can be filled with icebergs and ice floats, which pose their own challenges.

Cruise ships and their crews need to be thoroughly prepared in order to navigate this remote and unforgiving body of water.

What Is Considered a Rough Sea for a Cruise Ship?

While you may assume that the label “rough sea” is a subjective term, there are actually defined measurements for how calm or rough a body of water is.

The main system is known as the Douglas Sea Scale and it is used by cruise ships, as well as other vessels, to measure how difficult it will be to navigate through certain waters at a given time.

Cruise Ship in one of the Roughest Seas in the World
Photo Credit: Toni Arsovski / Shutterstock

The scale was developed in 1917, and its entire purpose is to measure how rough waters will be for navigation purposes. The scale accounts for wind estimates, as well as other conditions like the height of waves and sea swells.

Measures are expressed on a 10-degree scale, with ‘Degree 0’ being completely calm seas and ‘Degree 9’ being extremely rough seas.

The Douglas Sea Scale

Scale MeasurementSea Conditions
Degree 0No measurable waves, no winds, perfectly calm (glassy) seas
Degree 1Waves 0.0 – 0.33 feet. Low winds. Slight ripples in water.
Degree 2Waves 0.33 – 1.64 feet. Low winds. Smooth waters
Degree 3Waves 1.6 – 4.1 feet. Slight waves, low winds.
Degree 4Waves 4.1 – 8.2 feet. Low to medium winds. Moderate and manageable waves.
Degree 5Waves 8.2 -13.1 feet. Medium winds and rough conditions
Degree 6Waves 13.1 – 19.7 feet. Very rough waves and high winds
Degree 7 Waves 19.7 – 29.5 feet. Very rough waters
Degree 8Waves 29.5 – 45.9 feet. Extremely rough seas and very high winds.
Degree 9Waves over 45.9 feet. Phenomenally rough seas. Dangerous for navigation.

The navigation crew aboard your cruise ship will use this scale to plot their course and determine if the seas are safe to travel through.

If the ship comes across seas that have a higher-than-expected rating on the Douglas Sea Scale, they will take the appropriate actions to keep the ship and its passengers safe. This could include changes in itinerary, efforts to navigate away from a storm, or closing outside decks to passengers.

How Can You Avoid Rough Seas During Your Cruise Vacation?

Now that we have taken a look at some of the roughest seas in the world, we want to offer a few tips that can help you avoid experiencing the side-to-side and up-and-down motion that tends to go with cruising in rough waters.

Book Your Cruise During the Right Season

Each region has a different time of year when the waters are roughest. If you want to enjoy some smooth sailing, we recommend doing your research and booking during the most optimal months.

Carnival Cruise Ship Debarkation
Carnival Cruise Ship Debarkation (Photo Credit: ThePhotoFab)

Avoid peak storm seasons, and make sure you are researching the exact area you plan on traveling to. Remember that booking during these calmer months can be more expensive, but it can be a worthwhile expense if you are nervous about traveling in rough seas.

Be Prepared for Seasickness

While this tip won’t help you avoid rough seas and extreme weather conditions, it can help you prepare for them. Anyone who spends significant time on the water will tell you that conditions can change quickly, so you should expect the unexpected. 

Be proactive and pack the appropriate remedies ahead of time. You will be much happier if you have them when they are needed! 

Be Flexible in Your Planning

While it’s always nice to book a cruise when it coincides with a particular event, the less flexible you are with dates and locations, the higher the risk is that you will be caught traveling when the seas are at their most rough.

Cruise Passengers

By being willing to book your vacation at another time of the year or in a different location, you give yourself the best shot of avoiding rough seas and harsh weather.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Yes, if you have comprehensive travel insurance, either through a third party or the credit card you have booked with, any disruptions to your cruise that are related to weather or sea conditions should be covered.

On top of that, most cruises will refund passengers if their cruise is canceled; however, costs related to weather delays could go uncompensated if you do not have protection through some form of travel insurance.

How do cruise ships stay stable in rough waters?

Modern cruise ships can stabilize themselves in the roughest waters in the world by employing stabilizers – underwater wing-like features that help counteract the rolling motion caused by waves and rough seas.

The stabilizers are adjusted in real-time to help make the rolling motion less perceptible to passengers on board the ship. They use a gyroscopic control system that can react to differing conditions.

On top of that, modern cruise ships are also designed with a wide hull and low center of gravity. This design ensures that they are much more stable and safer than ships of the past. 

Final Words

Now that you know more about some of the roughest seas in the world, you can truly appreciate just how incredible modern-day cruise ships are. These engineering marvels allow passengers to explore waters that once were feared in comfort and style.

Read Also: From Mishaps to Maydays – Cruise Ship Accidents

Their stabilizers and unique designs ensure that passengers enjoy a calm and memorable experience, even as the waters below appear stomach-churning and terrifying.

With that said, we would still recommend avoiding the worst these waters have to offer if you are sensitive to motion sickness. Now, all you have to do is plan your trip and prepare for an experience that could last a lifetime. Bon voyage!

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