Terry Thorton has been following Hurricane Dorian since before it was a gust of wind out in the Caribbean. As the vice president of nautical and port operations for Carnival Cruise Line, Thorton and his team in Miami, Fla., prepare for Dorian like they do every hurricane season, ensuring that the Carnival fleet is out of harm’s way.
Aiming for the eastern coast of Florida, where Gov. Ron DeSantis has already declared a state of emergency, Dorian is expected to make landfall as a Category 4 hurricane with sustained wind speeds up to 130-156 mph. By then, Carnival and other cruise lines will have already seen it coming, dispersing their fleet and changing itineraries to avoid the storm.
While the Atlantic hurricane season officially kicks off June 1 and lasts until Nov. 30, the peak for storms and hurricanes occurs between August and October. Even during hurricane season, storms will disrupt the itineraries of less than 10% of Carnival’s 1,700 cruises.
According to Thorton, the general rule for captains is to stay about 200-250 nautical miles away from a storm. Cruise ships travel 22 knots per hour, which is about twice the speed of the average hurricane, making avoiding tropical systems possible.
“We’d never get close enough where we’d have to outrun it, but we could outrun it if we had to,” said Thorton.
Thorton’s team receives real-time data both nationally, from organizations like the National Hurricane Center, which releases an update every three hours, or locally from Carnival’s own cruises out at sea. He’s looking at the forecast, tracking where the hurricane or storm may be headed and the intensity of the winds. He’s focusing specifically on the destinations and ports that could be in the storm’s path.
Once a port is closed, a cruise ship can’t dock and must find safe haven elsewhere.
There’s a sweet spot to tracking a hurricane. Because a storm can be unpredictable, and every hurricane is unique, a decision to move a ship can prove either a waste of resources, or worse, send a ship into a storm.
“Make decisions as late as you can because things have a tendency to change,” said Thorton. “We’ve seen many times that if we took the forecast of where [a storm] is going … I can bet you that it won’t do what it’s projecting.”
If a cruise line believes that a port may be affected, it’ll start booking alternative ports. A contingency plan is often made a week before a cruise sets sail, depending on storm activity, and alternative port booking begins shortly after that, in case a storm proves serious.
In a statement, the Cruise Lines International Association, the industry’s trade group, said that “while cruise ships are designed for safety and able to withstand extreme weather conditions at sea, cruise lines seek to avoid bad weather when possible for the comfort of all onboard. The expertise of our mariners is reflected in how they operate ships throughout the range of conditions experienced at sea.”
When storms kick up, cruises almost always have a safe parking spot on the other end of the Caribbean.
“When you have your own destinations, that helps to provide opportunities,” said Thorton.
The Caribbean Sea is also quite large. If a storm blows through the eastern Caribbean, a ship can head west.
Instead of an itinerary consisting of St. Thomas and San Juan, Puerto Rico, a cruise will be redirected to the Grand Cayman and Cozumel, Mexico, where Carnival owns and maintains a port. The vacation will carry on, far from the path of the hurricane.
The Carnival Victory ship, which can carry 2,764 guests, was originally slated to make a stop in Nassau, Bahamas, on Saturday but, because of Hurricane Dorian, will now be stopping in Key West, Fla., instead.
Of course, for customers who have already visited these destinations, it’s a bit of a bummer and cruise lines don’t have to provide reimbursements for itinerary changes.
“We want to give the guests as close to what they bought as possible,” said Thorton. “If they book a seven-day itinerary that includes three ports, we want to make sure they get three good ports to replace them; that’s always in our planning.”
If there’s an instance where a storm closes a cruise’s home port, the ship can be brought outside the port until the storm passes. Carnival’s currently facing that decision in Florida, where the Carnival Liberty and the Carnival Elation may not be able to return to Port Canaveral when Dorian makes landfall.
That can become costly.
If a cruise is extended for an extra day, that means that the next scheduled cruise will be forced to shorten its schedule. Instead of a seven-day cruise, it’ll become five days, with guests getting a prorated refund.
An ocean-view room aboard the Carnival Magic, which can carry 3,690 guests, is listed as $564 per person for a seven-day cruise through the western Caribbean. That’s $2,256 for a family of four, without fees or taxes. If a hurricane shortened the trip by two days, Carnival would be on the hook for a pro-rated refund of $161 per customer. That adds up to $594,617, without taking into consideration the lost onboard revenue, as guests are given two fewer days to drink and gamble.
“The cruise industry has managed this for decades; it isn’t new,” said Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst. “The challenge becomes that while they may have playbooks, each hurricane is unique.”
Scientists are predicting an increase in the intensity of hurricanes and tropical storms in the future, but according to Tom Stieghorst, a journalist who covers the cruise industry, that may not change a cruise line’s current strategy.
“They are more interested in the 72-hour forecast of where a storm like Dorian is going and how intense it’s going to be,” said Stieghorst. “Their basic strategy is to harden the ports and keep the ships out of the way of the storm; that may not be any different if the storms are stronger.”
In 2017, Hurricane Irma and Maria closed ports in Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Port Canaveral and Tampa. Sixteen of Carnival’s ships were impacted, a figure that Thorton hadn’t seen in his 33 years at Carnival. Still, everyone made it back to port.
“If we have one overriding principle, it’s that safety is the number one concern,” said Thorton. “Our ships are faster than a hurricane; it’ll never happen.”