When Viking Cruises announced an ocean cruise itinerary that would allow travelers the "rare opportunity to explore the far north in Norway’s winter," it boasted of being "the first U.S. cruise line to offer a full-length itinerary in the Arctic Circle in the winter season."
The big attraction was what's happening the sky. Adventurous tourists head to Norway in the winter to get a glimpse of the Northern Lights, a magical natural light display also known as the aurora borealis.
But passengers last week experienced more than they bargained for aboard a 12-day cruise on the Viking Sky as the ship met with engine failure in stormy seas, issued a mayday call, evacuated about half its passengers via helicopter and finally limped to safety into the nearby port of Molde, Norway. One crew member, who spoke exclusively to USA TODAY and requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly, described a terrifying ordeal of broken glass, an airborne piano and the crew's human chain to distribute life jackets as the ship listed dangerously.
The harrowing experience raises the question of whether Viking was adequately prepared for unusual circumstances in the far north.
"The average ship undergoes dozens of announced and unannounced safety inspections per year, involving hundreds of man hours and covering thousands of specific requirements set by the International Maritime Organization and flag nations around the world," Sarah Kennedy, spokeswoman for the trade group Cruise Lines International Association, says in a statement sent to USA TODAY.
When asked if Viking Ocean Cruises took extra precautions in advance of the season to prepare for winter weather, Viking spokesman Ian Jeffries told USA TODAY: "Viking Sky is an ocean-going vessel built to the highest standards. It is designed to sail worldwide. It had onboard two experienced local Norwegian pilots who were there to advise the captain."
Norwegian officials opened an investigation into the incident Monday.
Will Viking continue winter voyages in Norway?
The next scheduled trip for the Viking Sky, a visit to Scandinavia and Germany that was expected to leave Wednesday, has been canceled.
Viking Cruises was established as Viking River Cruises in 1997, and the ocean division began operating its first vessel in 2015. The Viking Ocean fleet includes six identical ships, including one that is scheduled to do the Norway route in early 2020.
"Viking Star is scheduled for next winter in Norway. Based on what happened, I would think Viking Ocean may be rethinking this," says Mike Driscoll, editor of leading travel industry newsletter Cruise Week.
Passengers on such voyages tend to be veteran cruisers. "These are passengers who have done 10 to 20 cruises with high-end lines. They are looking for other places to go, other cruise experiences," Driscoll says. "That explains the acceptance of cruising in Norway in winter to see the Northern Lights, even at the risk of rough seas."
"Of course, no one expected this incident," he adds, "but they knew it's not the Mediterranean in summer."
Driscoll says he doubts Viking will do the same itinerary next year. "It would be foolish if they were ever going to do winter in Norway again."
Questions abound regarding engine failure
Viking touts the "Viking difference" on its website: "Ships are small to get guests closer to their destination, with more time in port and more overnights." Viking Sky is a 745-foot, 930-guest ship. With the crew, the cruise ship was carrying 1,373 people on its hapless voyage.
But the size of the ship may matter less than ship operations and what's under the hood when it comes to safety.
"Everyone is wondering what happened. We don't have any answers yet," Driscoll says regarding Viking Sky's engine issues. "When someone evacuates, it's usually because of a fire or water coming in through a hole, and none of those factors was apparent here."
When asked how the four engines of the Viking Sky could go out at the same time, Jeffries, the Viking spokesman, said that a probe is underway. "This is currently being investigated by us and the relevant authorities and at this stage, it is too early speculate."
One of the Norwegian pilots on the ship said Tuesday the weather situation was made worse when the engine problems appeared, according to The Associated Press. The ship was caught amid wind gusts up to 43 mph and waves over 26 feet.
Inge Lockert told the Vesteraalen newspaper that "everything went as it should until we got engine problems."
"It was a very big team effort," he told the news outlet. "When we got the engine running again, we realized we were going to save ourselves."
The anonymous crew member says he believes the crew's training was up to the job of dealing with the emergency. "We were well-prepared, we didn’t panic at all, we knew what we were doing," he says. "We trusted the company that we would be saved."
Passengers universally hailed the crew's efforts.
Contributing: Maria Puente and The Associated Press