Hundreds of passengers have reached the safety of dry land after an uneasy night being tossed about on a cruise ship stranded off the coast of Norway, waiting for their turn to be rescued from the stricken vessel.
Norway’s maritime rescue service said the Viking Sky, which had nearly 1,400 passengers and crew on board, sent out a mayday signal as it drifted toward land on Saturday.
The rescue service said the crew were later able to restart one engine and the ship was at anchor about 2 kilometres off Norway’s west coast.
One by one, 479 people were hoisted from the deck of the vessel in harrowing helicopter airlifts and flown to a village just north of the town of Molde.
Hundreds of others remained on board throughout the night, but the luxury cruise ship finally docked at the town’s port on Sunday.
A total of 1,373 people had started the voyage and about 900 people were still on board as the ship arrived.
Helicopters hover over Viking Sky as it is pummelled by waves (YouTube: Odd Eirik Hegge via Storyful).
Australians were on stranded ship
Three of the ship’s four engines were eventually made operational, and rescue services used tugboats to tow it into the port.
“It was very nearly a disaster. The ship drifted to within 100 metres of running aground before they were able to restart one of the engines,” local police chief Hans Vik told Norwegian TV2.
“If they had run aground we would have faced a major disaster.”
Founder and chairman of Viking Cruises, Norwegian billionaire Torstein Hagen, met some of the passengers who had been hoisted from the ship’s deck. Many of them were elderly.
“They’ve had a bit of a shocking experience,” Mr Hagen told TV2.
“Most of our passengers are senior citizens … imagine what it’s like to hang there on that wire.
“It must be a terrible experience but they seem to have handled it very well.”
The ship was carrying 915 passengers, including some Australians, according to the cruise company.
Some 20 injured passengers were taken to hospital, Viking Cruises, while others suffered minor cuts and bruises.
One was taken to St Olav’s Hospital in the town of Trondheim, which is central Norway’s most advanced medical facility. Others were taken to local hospitals in the region.
“Many have also been traumatised by the experience and need care when they arrive on shore,” the Norwegian Red Cross said in a statement.
Norwegian TV said one 90-year-old-man and his 70-year-old wife on the ship were severely injured, but did not say how that happened.
Video and photos from people on the ship showed it heaving from side to side, with chairs and other furniture being thrown around.
Passengers were suited up in orange life vests as the waves broke some of the ship’s windows and cold water flowed over the floor.
‘Chaos’ as storm smashed windows
Passengers described the moment when the ship’s engines stopped, and the evacuation that followed.
“We were having lunch when it began to shake. Window panes were broken and water came in. It was just chaos,” American passenger John Curry said.
“The trip on the helicopter, I would rather forget. It was not fun.”
A second vessel, a freighter with a crew of nine, was also evacuated nearby after suffering engine failure, diverting helicopters and thus delaying the cruise ship airlift, the rescue centre added.
Two purpose-built vessels operated by the Norwegian Society for Sea Rescue had been forced to turn back due to the severe weather, the service said.
Waves were 6-8 metres high, with wind blowing at 24 metres per second at their height, but had improved by Sunday afternoon (local time), according to the Norwegian Meteorological Institute.
Tweet from Alexus Sheppard: Battery dying and people sleeping everywhere. Probably my last tweet of the night.
The stretch of water known as Hustadvika and surrounding areas are known for fierce weather and shallow waters dotted with reefs, and Norway is evaluating whether to build a giant ocean tunnel through a nearby mountain to improve safety.
The Viking Sky, built in 2017, belongs to Viking Ocean Cruises, part of the Viking Cruises group founded by Mr Hagen.
The ship was visiting the Norwegian towns and cities of Narvik, Alta, Tromso, Bodo and Stavanger before its scheduled arrival on Tuesday in the British port of Tilbury on the River Thames.