Earlier danger season in the Gulf Stream?
Though classic hurricanes are rare, April and May storms can produce dangerous waves
Norwegian Dawn experienced wave damage as high as the ship’s bridge.
Courtesy of Norwegian Cruise Line
In the course of writing two books about two different accounts of survival and death in the Gulf Stream, I noticed some parallels between the disasters. The first incident I investigated was the 2005 search and rescue case of the year, chronicled in my book Overboard! This incident occurred on May 7, in the Gulf Stream off North Carolina. The second event, told in A Storm Too Soon, occurred in 2007, on the exact same day, May 7, also in the Gulf Stream, this time off South Carolina. Both sailboat captains involved chose the month of May because it was ahead of the start of hurricane season (June 1) and both had extensive bluewater sailing experience. They thought they were being extra cautious, but it seems storms with hurricane force winds don’t adhere to the National Weather Service time parameters.
Cruise ship incident
In April 2005, the 900-foot cruise liner Norwegian Dawn encountered stormy weather while steaming through the Gulf Stream on its way to New York. Two waves, estimated to be at least 70 feet in height, slammed into the ship, breaking windows, flooding 62 passenger cabins, and panicking passengers. One of the waves actually put green water over the bridge at 10 stories high, ripping two hot tubs loose from the steel deck they were bolted to. A passenger later recounted the ordeal by describing how he had been asleep when he heard a loud boom. He woke his family and they raced to a reception area where they found other passengers huddled together wearing life jackets. A few of the passengers thought the ship was going down and they were crying hysterically. The captain diverted the ship to Charleston, S.C., for repairs. Many of the passengers disembarked, abruptly ending their vacation.
The captain of the cruise ship, who had more than 20 years’ experience, later said that he never experienced anything like the waves that damaged the vessel, and explained how no one could have predicted those giant seas would materialize so fast. Passengers, however, felt differently, many of whom filed law suits contending that such powerful waves are to be expected in the Gulf Stream during storms. Other passengers contended that because the vessel was to be featured on the Donald Trump reality TV show “The Apprentice,” the captain was rushing to New York City to make it to the taping of the show. A class action suit was later filed contending that the passengers were knowingly put in harms way to meet a schedule.
But in June 2007, a jury returned a verdict in favor of Norwegian Dawn. This followed a favorable finding from the National Transportation Safety Board, which called the incident “an unavoidable encounter with severe weather and heavy seas.”
Maritime meteorologists and Gulf Stream experts Jenifer and Dane Clark are all too familiar with the havoc the stream can cause. They believe extreme waves in the Gulf Stream are more common than previously thought and they are not surprised that the Norwegian Dawn incident occurred before hurricane season. “Some of the most intense storms we’ve ever seen happened in April and May. And waves that come up suddenly and have not traveled far over the open ocean (fetch) can be deadly. When you have big waves with little fetch, they are really dangerous because the wave period is shorter, meaning they are close together. One potential problem is that as your bow comes down off one wave, the trough is so small that the bow doesn’t have a chance to start riding up the next wave, but instead gets buried by green water. Norwegian Dawn was fortunate that the captain had reduced speed prior to the accident, and really lucky that a third 70-footer didn’t follow the first two.”
In the Norwegian Dawn lawsuit, the Clarks testified for the prosecution, explaining that informed mariners recognize that the environment in the Gulf Stream can be quite different than the surrounding ocean. “When the Norwegian Dawn entered the stream, the waves increased from 17 feet outside the stream to 40 feet in the stream within a one-hour period.”
Even during a period of relatively low wind speeds of 15 to 25 knots, the stream can be a hazard if those winds are opposing the currents. Waves of seven to 12 feet can be generated with the possibility of an extreme wave of up to 24 feet. So while the captain of Norwegian Dawn said no one could have predicted those giant waves, when you are in or near the Gulf Stream during high winds the potential for a rogue wave is much greater than in other parts of the ocean.
A short, deadly life
The Clarks watch weather patterns over the Gulf Stream and try to warn mariners when the conditions are ripe for sudden seas. “Extreme waves produced near the Gulf Stream are not like tsunamis,” said Dane. “They often only have a short life span with amplitude building before they dissipate. But in that short life they can be deadly.”
In May 2007, three sailing vessels in the Gulf Stream issued a mayday via their EPIRBs during a storm. One of the vessels with four passengers disappeared without a trace, and we can only guess what happened. However, we can make an educated guess of the nature of the disaster based on the incredible story told by three men on one of the other vessels, Sean Seamour II. These men endured two capsizings, a complete sinking of the boat, and a desperate fight for survival in a torn and tattered life raft in 80-foot seas. We know the exact height of the waves from a Coast Guard helicopter’s altimeter, and the testimony of the rescue swimmer dropped into the cauldron who almost lost his life during the rescue.
The incident in May 2005 was eerily similar. Although the waves were “only” 40 and 50 feet, they capsized both the sailing vessels Almeisan and At Ease. The captain and first mate were swept off Almeisan, dressed only in their foul weather gear. Amazingly the first mate, Loch Reidy, survived 28 straight hours of being pounded by the seas, but unfortunately the captain died in Reidy’s arms. The Gulf Stream was the culprit for producing the wave that capsized the boat, but its 70-degree water is what allowed Reidy to survive.
Mariners need to be especially vigilant when traveling in the Gulf Stream. Sailing in April or May ahead of the offical hurricane season can still put you in the sights of a major storm.
Michael Tougias is the author of several true survival at sea books including Overboard!, Fatal Forecast, The Finest Hours and his new book A Storm Too Soon. See www.michaeltougias.com.
Gulf Stream micro-climate and waves
The warm waters of the Gulf Stream heat the air directly above it, helping produce its own micro-climate. Sailors can often see the location of this saltwater river long before they arrive. Low clouds will frequently hover above the Gulf Stream due to rising warm air and water vapor. If the warm air collides with a cold front, violent thunderstorms erupt with severe localized wind, rain, lightning and even the occasional waterspout. Yet forecasting when these thunderstorms will occur is difficult due to their rapid formation.
Even worse, existing weather systems can intensify above the Gulf Stream, feeding off the warm ocean below. You don’t want to be in the Gulf Stream when this occurs. When winds come out of the northeast they produce waves surging toward the southwest, and these waves become larger and steeper when they run into the Gulf Stream’s current flowing in the opposite direction. Steep waves often mean breaking waves, and these avalanching combers can cause havoc to voyaging boats.