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The trip will not go on: Ship hits iceberg in Alaska, derails cruise for thousands of travelers

June 28, 2022
6 min read
Norwegian Cruise Line Sun
The trip will not go on: Ship hits iceberg in Alaska, derails cruise for thousands of travelers
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As icebergs go, it wasn't all that big. But it was big enough to ruin the vacation plans for thousands of would-be Alaska tourgoers.

Norwegian Cruise Line on Tuesday canceled the next Alaska sailing of its 1,976-passenger Norwegian Sun, citing damage to the ship sustained over the weekend when it hit a small iceberg near Alaska's Hubbard Glacier.

The line also is ending the vessel's current sailing early.

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Norwegian Sun was sailing toward Hubbard Glacier on Saturday in foggy conditions when it plowed into the low-lying chunk of ice, which Norwegian has characterized as a growler.

A growler is a type of very small iceberg that only rises a meter or less above the waterline and is often difficult to see from the bridge of a ship.

From video of the incident posted by passengers on Twitter, the ice chunk appeared to be about the size of a bus with most of its body underwater.

In the wake of the incident, the vessel skipped its Saturday visit to Hubbard Glacier and a subsequent Sunday call scheduled for Skagway, Alaska, and sailed directly to nearby Juneau, Alaska, for an assessment of damage to the exterior of the vessel.

After the assessment, the line concluded the ship would need to undergo repairs at its home port of Seattle before continuing its summer schedule of Alaska cruises.

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A spokesperson for Norwegian wouldn't comment on the extent of the damage to the ship or the repairs that were needed. But authorities have certified that the vessel is seaworthy. It departed Juneau late Monday for Seattle, where it is due back on Thursday.

"The ship was given clearance by the United States Coast Guard and other local maritime authorities to return to Seattle at reduced speed," Norwegian said Tuesday in a statement sent to TPG. "All guests currently onboard will disembark in Seattle as originally planned."

No one was injured during the incident, a spokesperson told TPG.

Cruise ships are equipped with radar designed to detect floating objects in the water that could be a hazard, and the bridges on cruise ships are staffed around-the-clock with crew members tasked with scanning the horizon for obstacles.

But growlers and other small icebergs known as "bergy bits" (the latter a tad bigger than growlers) can be difficult to detect by radar due to their small size.

Norwegian didn't respond to questions from TPG about why Norwegian Sun hit the iceberg.

Related: The ultimate guide to cruising in Alaska

Cruise ships are designed to withstand damage from colliding with ice at sea, even in cases where the ice pierces the hull of the vessel and allows water to enter. All cruise ships in the modern era have been built with multiple compartments that can be sealed off using watertight doors, allowing a vessel to stay afloat even when taking on water.

Some cruise ships, particularly those designed to operate in the polar regions, are built with extra-tough hulls that allow them to regularly bump through floating ice and even run up onto ice sheets. Some of the hardiest cruise vessels, known as expedition cruise vessels, are able to break through floating ice.

Related: This cruise vessel is so tough it can beach itself on floating ice

Ship collisions with growlers and other small icebergs are not uncommon and usually don't result in major damage to a vessel. The chunk of ice that Norwegian Sun hit over the weekend was, notably, almost imperceptibly small when compared to the icebergs that have sunk vessels in the past.

The iceberg that sank the Titanic in 1912, for instance, is estimated to have stood 100 feet above the water line and have been 400 feet long. That would make it a couple hundred times bigger than the piece of ice that Norwegian Sun hit over the weekend.

Serious ship accidents involving icebergs have been very rare in the modern era. It's been 63 years since a passenger on a ship has died after a collision with an iceberg. The last known passenger ship sunk by an iceberg with casualties was the Hans Hedtoft, in 1959. All 95 passengers and crew on the Danish cargo and passenger vessel perished after it hit an iceberg on its maiden voyage off the coast of Western Greenland.

Norwegian Sun was on a nine-night sailing to Alaska out of Seattle that began on Tuesday when it collided with the ice chunk. The trip was scheduled to include calls at the Alaskan towns of Sitka, Skagway, Juneau and Ketchikan; Alaska's Icy Straight Point; and Victoria, British Columbia, in addition to a visit to Hubbard Glacier.

Passengers only had the chance to visit Sitka and Icy Strait Point before the trip was cut short.

Norwegian said passengers on the current sailing of the vessel will receive a full refund of their fare plus a future cruise credit in the amount of 100% of what they paid.

Passengers on the ship's next sailing, which was scheduled to begin June 30, will receive a full refund plus a future cruise credit in the amount of 50% of what they paid, as well as up to $300 per person in reimbursements for any airline cancellation or change fees they incur.

Built in 2001, Norwegian Sun is one of Norwegian's oldest and smallest vessels. It's one of five Norwegian ships currently assigned to Alaska sailings for the summer.

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Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.