The "Viking Polaris" seems to have survived the impact of the wave largely unscathed, only shattered panes testify to the impact of the water masses
Photo: Alexis Delelisi / AFP
The "Viking Polaris" appears largely intact, only in the lower part of the ship shattered windows can be seen.
This is shown by pictures from the AFP news agency, taken in the port of Ushuaia, Argentina's southernmost city, where the cruise ship is currently anchored.
It specializes in cruises to Antarctica.
Just a few days ago, the "Viking Polaris" was on the way at Cape Horn when it was said to have been hit by a giant wave late Wednesday evening (local time).
One person died and four others were injured, the Viking group said.
There have long been reports of huge waves piling up like walls of water.
Long dismissed as a sailor's yarn, it is now clear that waves like this actually exist, and they can reach heights of up to 35 metres.
The phenomenon is called »monster waves« or »freak waves«.
"Such waves can actually always arise," says Norbert Hoffmann from the TU Hamburg to SPIEGEL.
Monster wave only means that a wave is two to three times larger than the surrounding waves.
"There's always a storm in the region"
Therefore, if the waves are only one meter high, even a three-meter wave falls into this category because it is so much larger than the others.
"However, it would hardly be dangerous," says Hoffmann.
It is different when the waves are already beating faster, for example during a storm.
The "Viking Polaris" is said to have been driving through a storm when it hit the wave.
Strong westerly winds prevail around Antarctica.
"There's always a storm in the region," says Hoffmann.
The ship is still brand new - it was only built this year.
It can accommodate 378 guests and 256 crew members.
There are several mechanisms that favor particularly large waves.
For example, when individual waves overlap or build up in a current.
Some giant waves appear out of nowhere, experts speak of self-focusing.
"A wave absorbs the wave energy of the previous and following waves, so to speak," says Hoffmann.
The wave piles up and suddenly disappears again.
The phenomenon is well known in physics and mechanics.
"But when you see it for the first time, it's surprising," says Hoffmann.
Expert does not believe in an accident with a monster wave
Some companies are already working on systems that can predict rogue waves.
A few years ago, people thought that was impossible, says Hoffmann.
However, computer simulations have now shown that waves behave in a predictable manner.
"If you analyze a wave field in detail, you should be able to predict within a few minutes whether a monster wave will build up," says Hoffmann.
But the technology is still in its infancy.
In his experience, operators of cruise ships have had little interest in this so far.
Such systems are currently being tested primarily on offshore platforms.
However, they are not yet marketable.
But did the "Viking Polaris" actually hit such a monster wave?
"I think that's nonsense," says Hoffmann's colleague Stefan Krüger, who also works at the Hamburg University of Technology.
The problem is not the extremely high waves, says the engineer at the Institute for Ship Design and Ship Safety, but the ships themselves. You don't need a monster wave to smash the pane of a ship like the "Viking Polaris", it's enough an unfavorable course to the waves and a rather moderate wave height.
At the beginning of the year, a comparatively small wave broke the window pane of a Hamburg harbor ferry.
The video showing what happened spread rapidly on social networks.
Cruise without a window?
"The windows are the weak points of the ships," says Hoffmann.
Shipbuilders have long tried to develop windows that can withstand the force of such waves.
But there are legitimate doubts as to whether this can be achieved at all.
The best protection would be to do without windows altogether, but that is not in the interest of holidaymakers and cruise ship operators.
After all, when you go on a cruise, you want to see something.
Outside cabins often cost a lot more than berths without windows.
As long as the final investigation into the accident in the case of the "Viking Polaris" is pending, he can only speculate, says Krüger.
But judging by the pictures, a wave with relatively high impact energy could have hit the ship.
The wave must not have been particularly high, the lower windows are only a few meters above the water surface.
Cruise ships are fundamentally in a conflict of goals, says Krüger.
They are trimmed for energy efficiency and comfort, seaworthiness is secondary.
When it comes to safety considerations, rough seas hardly ever come up, he criticizes.
“Anyone who goes on a cruise,” says Krüger, “must realize that they are not just cruising in a floating hotel.
He goes to sea.'