Today’s cruise ships are incredibly sophisticated machinery. You can read much more about how and why they are designed in this fantastic article from Royal Caribbean. Significant attention to detail goes into building each vessel to ensure a smooth and pleasurable cruise for its passengers’ comfort and safety.
You can’t predict the weather months before your cruise. But you can increase your chances of smooth sailing by not booking during known stormy seasons (like the typhoon season in the South China Sea). You can plan ahead to avoid rough seas on your cruise.
The ship’s captain does everything possible to avoid bad weather. In the unlikely event of a big storm at sea, the captain will change the ship’s course away from storms. It’s usually pretty easy to avoid rough seas. Hurricanes tend to move at only around 8 to 10 knots, but a ship can attain speeds of up to 22 knots or more.
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Passengers might experience rough seas as their ship skirts the edges of a storm. Even long-time cruisers should always pack a favorite seasickness remedy. To help you with smooth sailing, here are the most turbulent seas you may encounter on a cruise and when to avoid them:
When Cruising Around Europe, Here’s When And Where to Avoid Rough Seas
The roughest seas we’ve had on a cruise so far were when we sailed through the English Channel (aka the Dover Strait or the Strait of Calais). This relatively small piece of water is one of the busiest shipping routes globally, if not the most active! On a clear day, you can see both the coast of England and France as it is only 20.7 miles wide.
Tides in the Channel are always strong, and the weather is quite variable. It is not unusual to have cloudy, rainy days with high winds and low visibility. These conditions are even more prominent from October to April, when winter storms make avoiding rough seas here very difficult.
Our sail through the Channel was on a somewhat smaller ship, the Azamara Journey, in September.
While going through the strait, we went to the observation deck and read while watching the waves coming up over the bow. It was quite a ride! We enjoyed the turbulence, but most other guests were less than thrilled.
If your cruise is headed through the English Channel, summer is your best bet for smooth sailing.
Bay of Biscay
Many cruises leave Southampton, England, for sailing in the Mediterranean and beyond. To get to these warmer destinations, the ships must sail through the Bay of Biscay located off the west coast of France just north of Spain.
Thanks to its exposure to the Atlantic Ocean, the bay is subject to frequent violent storms and rough seas. According to Professor Adrian New of the National Oceanography Centre, much of this results from the winds blowing from America To Europe. The waves grow as they travel the Atlantic from the west to the east as the winds blow.
Again being in the Northern Hemisphere, storms are worse in the winter months, October – March. This makes cruising through the Bay of Biscay, which takes about a day, iffier. If you stick to Spring and Summer, you will have smoother sailing in this region.
Hugging the coasts of Southern France, Spain, Italy, and Greece, the Mediterranean Sea has a lot to offer to cruisers of all types. Warm weather, great beaches, fantastic cities with incredible architecture are in great abundance wherever you go in spring, summer, and fall.
The caveats here are: these cruises are in huge demand, and the average daytime temperatures often climb into the 90⁰s (F). But if you like the sun and people, this is the time to go.
Once you move into winter, the weather changes. Gone are the warm sunny days in favor of rain and cold. The heavy showers, thunderstorms, strong winds, and rough waters make for a less than pleasant cruise. You may find yourself spending most of your time on the ship inside your cabin.
AFRICA – Rough Seas Around The Cape of Good Hope
Cruising South Africa from Maputo to Walvis Bay has always been a popular way to visit this continent. Increasingly cruises lines are doing repositioning cruises along the west coast of Africa from Northern ports like Southampton, England, and Lisbon, Portugal.
On the southern tip of Africa is the Cape of Good Hope, originally called the Cape of Storms. At the Cape, the cold waters of the Atlantic meet the warm waters of the Indian Ocean. You will likely be subjected to rough water almost anytime you cross where two oceans meet.
Around the Cape of Good Hope, you have wild currents combined with a shift in the landmass from the south to the east; you will find rocky seas year-round. But in winter (May – July in the southern hemisphere), cruises are often subjected to gale-strength winds.
Do yourself a favor; if you are thinking of a trip to Africa, plan ahead to avoid rough seas on your cruise and maybe see what New Year’s Eve is like in Capetown!
ASIA: Summer Typhoons On The South China Sea
In the South China Sea, storms frequently form from July through November. The strongest typhoons (the Pacific version of a hurricane) occur from China to Cambodia and the Philippines. Cruising the seas around China and southern Asian countries like Taiwan, Cambodia, and the Philippines can be a rocky trip.
AUSTRALIA / NEW ZEALAND: The Tasman Sea And The “Roaring Forties”
The most substantial current of the Tasman Sea is the East Australian Current. This current runs south down the Australian east coast from the tropics, specifically, the Coral Sea. The East Australian Current can be found as far south as Sydney and sometimes Eden in the summer.
The challenging conditions are primarily thanks to the currents from the Pacific Ocean and the Southern Oceans, each of which has different temperatures. Where the waters meet, the waves swell, resulting in rough and unpredictable crossings of the Tasman Sea.
A belt of westerly winds called the “Roaring Forties” brings a cold front that collides with the warmer Australian current. This event leads to seriously high waves and frequent storms.
Many sailors regard the Tasman Sea as one of the most dangerous stretches of water globally. As well as the Tasman Sea, the Bass Strait between mainland Australia and Tasmania is also known for being very rough.
Like the Tasman Sea, the Bass Strait is heavily influenced by weather patterns. The severity of the waves varies depending on which side of the strait you are on. The probability of encountering 3 meter or higher waves is approximately 30% at the western end of the waterway compared to around 15% in the North East.
Again, the weather conditions are always worse in the winter. Fortunately, cruise lines typically sail the waters in the Southern Hemisphere’s Summer (November – March). While bad weather can happen anytime, sailing in the summer lessens the chance of encountering rough seas.
The Americas – Both North And South
One of the more popular places to cruise in North America is Alaska. The cruise lines send many of their ships up here in the “season,” generally from May through September.
Some ships do round-trip cruises out of Vancouver, Canada, calling in at quaint ports like Ketchikan and Skagway, along the Inside Passage. Cruisers are awed by the abundant wildlife, from whales to grizzly bears.
Other ships cruise south from Seward, Alaska, quickly crossing the Gulf of Alaska heading for the “Inside Passage. These ships usually end up in Vancouver or Victoria, Canada, then turn around with a new group of cruisers and do the route in reverse.
The Inside Passage is generally relatively calm. The ships are protected from high winds and tides by the surrounding landmasses. But suppose you have booked a repositioning cruise from San Francisco or Seattle to Anchorage in spring or fall. In that case, you are likely to experience some rocking and rolling.
Crossing the Gulf of Alaska is always a little rocky. You are at the edge of the Pacific Ocean and in open waters. High winds and frequent storms are common here. The Gulf has some of the roughest seas to navigate between October and February. Happily, this is after most cruise ships have repositioned away from Alaska.
Hurricane season in the Caribbean runs from June to November. And that most of the storms occur near the Bahamas and the British Virgin Islands? It seems like if you’re planning to cruise in the Caribbean, you might get caught in a storm.
Yet, almost all cruise lines sail the Caribbean almost year-round. Why don’t more ships get tossed about in these storms? Simple, good planning. Hurricanes are slow-moving storms and usually move in reasonably predictable paths.
The cruise lines and the captains that command their ships are well experienced in these waters. Also, with today’s state-of-the-art technology, predicting when and where the storms are is easier than ever.
As mentioned at the beginning of this post, most ships can easily outrun a storm or choose a different path to keep their passengers and crew in calmer waters. I’m not saying you won’t see any rain or feel like a drunken sailor trying to stay upright walking around the ship. Still, you probably won’t be in any danger. So go ahead and book that cruise!
At the southernmost tip of South America lies Cape Horn. Drakes Passage is somewhat in the same area but closer to Antarctica.
Both seas are located where the Atlantic and Pacific oceans meet. The meeting of these two oceans results in strong currents and high winds. These phenomena can create waves up to 30 feet (9 meters) high!
If you are cruising in this area of the world, you are probably here because you have Antarctica on your bucket list. You planned for this trip for a while and prepared for the rough seas and colder weather.
Sometimes the weather conditions are calm enough for a safe passage. Keep in mind that even if the ocean conditions seem calm, there is always the potential for things to change quickly. Violent storms are known to form very quickly in this area, so always be prepared for the worst!
If you’re not comfortable cruising on rough seas, you can do a few things to avoid them. One option is to sail around Cape Horn during the summer months when the weather is usually calmer. Remember, summer in the Southern hemisphere is the opposite time of year from the Northern hemisphere.
Most passenger cruise lines plan ahead to avoid rough seas and schedule their Antarctic sailings in December, January, and February. Just because these months are considered “summer,” don’t expect warm weather. After all, the 7th continent is nothing but ice and snow.
When To Take A TRANSATLANTIC or TRANSPACIFIC Cruise To Avoid Rough Seas
The weather and seas are always a spin of the wheel when crossing these large oceans. Lack of landmasses means the Atlantic and Pacific oceans are not protected from winds and storms.
The Atlantic Ocean ranks second in the catalog of the most dangerous ocean waters globally. This ocean water is usually affected by coastal winds, water surface temperature, and water currents. The Winter months are the most intense, with cruise ships hitting very rough seas from November through February.
When doing a Transpacific cruise, chances are you will be in the South Pacific. You’ll want to see Fiji and Tahiti, and other exotic locations. This ocean is turbulent from November through April and is subjected to cyclones frequently.
If the excitement of crazy storms is not for you, plan ahead and make your Transpacific cruise in May, when good weather is almost a guarantee.
Did you know there is a big difference between the construction of a cruise liner and an ocean liner? These differences could be a post all on their own, but suffice it to say those ocean liners are built with streamlined deep v-hulls and generally about 40% more steel in their structure. These changes in engineering allow the ocean liner to move faster and be more agile.
The difference in construction is noticeable. Just take a look at Queen Mary II compared to the Celebrity Edge.
Knowledge Of The Oceans Is The Best Way To Avoid Rough Seas On Your Cruise
So, now you know it’s not uncommon for a cruise ship to sail through rough seas with 10 or 15 feet waves. And you also know modern cruise ships are built to handle waves like this without incident. Don’t worry; your ship is not going to sink!
Now that you’re armed with this information, you can plan ahead to avoid rough seas on your next cruise. It’s time to pack your bags and set sail. You can relax and enjoy your vacation. Bon Voyage!