The Worst Cruise Ship Horror Stories

Collision of Costa Concordia

Collision of Costa Concordia by Rvongher (CC BY-SA)

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Collision of Costa Concordia
Collision of Costa Concordia by Rvongher (CC BY-SA)

Relaxation Gone Wrong

Cruises can be a low-hassle way to get away from it all. And while most voyages go off without a hitch, ferrying passengers to sun-soaked destinations while they enjoy a range of top-notch amenities, that's not always the case, especially now that COVID-19 is in the mix. But the pandemic isn't the only thing cruises have contended with in recent years. Storms, badly behaving passengers, fires, and even grounding (as happened with the Escape this year), have wreaked havoc with cruise vacations, sometimes with tragic results. Here are some of the most notable cruise ship horror stories and foibles of the past few decades. 

Related: 15 Types of People Who Shouldn't Take a Cruise

Cruise ship in Santo Domingo harbour, Dominican republic

Ship Runs Aground in Dominican Republic

When a Norwegian Cruise Line ship, Escape, ran aground in the Dominican Republic four days into the cruise, guests were hopeful the ship would find its way again. Instead, over 2,000 people were dumped at the Porta Plata airport and, without assistance from the cruise line, were shuffled onto charter flights back to Florida. When one of the flights was canceled due to mechanical issues, unlucky passengers had to scramble for hotel rooms or their own flights out of pocket. 

Elon Musk
Wikimedia Commons

Cruise Disrupts Rocket Launch

Elon Musk probably isn't too happy about this one. The U.S. Coast Guard has launched an investigation after one of Royal Caribbean's largest ships, Harmony of the Seas, sailed into an exclusion zone drawn around the planned flight path of a Falcon 9 rocket, which was supposed to be launched by SpaceX from Cape Canaveral on Sunday. Even worse: The launch, which was called off with less than a minute until liftoff, had already been scrubbed three times thanks to bad weather, according to the New York Post. 

Related: 15 Historic Failures by Successful Billionaires

Crystal Symphony
Crystal Symphony by Trondheim Havn (CC BY-SA)

Ship Refuses to Dock in U.S. to Evade Authorities

For cruisers aboard a recent sailing of the Crystal Symphony, vacation came to an unexpected, dramatic, and inconvenient end. The ship was expected to dock in Miami, but it was diverted to the Bahamas in January 2022 in an effort to evade a federal order for U.S. Marshals to seize the vessel, part of a lawsuit over $4.6 million in unpaid fuel. Passengers were ferried to Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale a day after their scheduled return to Miami. In the meantime, Crystal Cruises has suspended sailings for the next few months. Its parent company, Genting Hong Kong, has filed for bankruptcy. 

Related: Companies That Have Filed for Bankruptcy Since the Pandemic Began

Diamond Princess in Yokohama City
Wikimedia Commons

Coronavirus Outbreak Turns Deadly

The Diamond Princess was placed under a two-week quarantine in Japan in February 2020 after several passengers tested positive for coronavirus. Testing later found at least 700 cases of the virus among the more than 3,700 passengers and crew members, and ultimately, at least seven passengers died. The quarantine was harshly criticized, with experts saying that keeping passengers and crew members confined on the ship only helped the virus spread faster. 

Related: Everything You Need to Know About Taking a Cruise Right Now

smoke over volcano,white island,bay of plenty,new zealand 6

Volcano Kills Cruisers

Excursions can be a highlight of cruising, but for several passengers, a much-anticipated stop to explore New Zealand's White Island became anything but. The island's active volcano, a tourist magnet, blew in December 2019, killing at least 21 people. Many were on an excursion from the Royal Caribbean Ovation of the Seas, which had departed from Sydney two days earlier. The company has since suspended tours of active volcanoes.

Related: 18 Ways Cruises Have Evolved in the Past 40 Years

Summer cloudy Lofoten islands. Norway misty fjords.

Winds, Skipped Ports Trigger Mutiny

Cruise itineraries are always subject to the weather, but passengers on the Norwegian Spirit were especially unlucky after departing in September 2019 for a two-week exploration of Scandinavia. High winds prevented stops in at least four ports, and fog made the Norweigian fjords impossible to glimpse. Toilets began to back up, food began to spoil, and angry cruisers demanded a refund. Norwegian ended up offering a 25% credit for a future cruise instead.

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Cruise ship "Viking Sky"
Cruise ship "Viking Sky" by Tore Sætre (CC BY-SA)

Extreme Weather Forces Evacuations

Cruises aren't always smooth sailing, a fact that passengers on the Viking Sky learned the hard way in March 2019. The ship's engines lost power in bad weather during a cruise along the Norwegian coast, and then the ship began to take on water and list so severely that furniture was tossed across the tilting floors. About half of the passengers were evacuated by helicopters before tugboats finally helped pull the ship and remaining passengers safely to port.   

The Cruise ship Carnival Sunshine Underway

Ship Takes a Terrifying Tilt

Veteran cruisers often reassure novices that they rarely feel the ship rock — after all, the boats are massive, with sophisticated stabilizers to keep things as steady as possible. But when one of those stabilizers malfunctioned during an October 2018 cruise aboard the Carnival Sunshine, the ship tilted so severely that plates shattered, tables slid across the floor, and water ran into elevators. Though panicked passengers rushed for life jackets, the situation was soon under control. Not all passengers were satisfied with Carnival's offer of a $50 onboard credit, however, and some opted to leave the boat early when it next docked.

Enjoying their night out

Baudy Crowd Takes Over Cruise

Fueled by booze and sun, some passengers get a little too raucous during their cruises. But there's nothing "little" about what happened on the Royal Caribbean Voyager of the Seas in September 2018, when a group of more than 1,300 men essentially commandeered the ship off the coast of Australia and turned it into a floating bachelor party. Passengers say the men, who worked for a data company based in India, harassed female passengers and brought aboard burlesque dancers. They also accounted for more than a third of the ship's 3,000 passengers. Royal Caribbean issued refunds and apologies after families complained that they were forced to stay in their cabins to avoid the debauchery.

Related: 1 in 4 Avid Cruise Goers: 'I'll Never Go on a Cruise Again'

bar fight

Onboard Brawls Spiral Out of Control

A cruise can be a great place to grab a drink, a lounge chair, and some much-deserved relaxation. For passengers on the Carnival Legend in February 2018, a trip along the Australian coast was more "Fight Club" than zen retreat after a series of brawls broke out on board, complete with screaming, broken glasses, and head injuries. Ultimately, authorities removed 23 people from the ship, and Carnival offered affected passengers a 25% credit for future sailings.

Scene of a House Fire

Cabin Fire Kills Retired Couple

For plenty of retirees, an exotic cruise is a reward for years of hard work and penny-pinching. So it was for a Nebraska couple who booked an Amazon River cruise with International Expeditions in April 2016. But on the first night of the voyage, a malfunctioning power strip touched off a blaze in their cabin, killing them both. Compounding the tragedy: The crew's lackluster response — it took 20 minutes for anyone to enter the cabin — and a 1920s law that limits cruise lines' liability after deaths occur in international waters.

Hospital on the ship with two beds inside the superstructure of the merchant container vessel. Used for treatment of the crew in emergency cases.
Lucia Gajdosikova/istockphoto

Man Loses a Limb Thanks to Cruise Doctor

Most cruisers take comfort in the fact that ships are outfitted with medical clinics. Sadly, a waiter aboard the Norwegian Breakaway discovered that those clinics may not always be staffed with the best doctors. The man visited an onboard doctor with flu-like symptoms in March 2016, but ended up losing his arm to gangrene after the doctor, described in court documents as "inexperienced," injected him with the wrong dose of the wrong medication. The waiter was awarded $4.6 million in a subsequent lawsuit.

A cruise ship elevator door

Electrician Crushed to Death by Ship Elevator

Imagine excitedly making your way to an indulgent cruise dinner, only to be confronted by sheets of blood streaming down the elevator doors. It sounds like a horror movie, but one Florida family encountered exactly that aboard the Carnival Ecstasy in December 2015. The cause of the gruesome scene: An electrician who fell and was crushed to death during routine elevator maintenance. Investigators later found that he had disabled a safety system before the fatal accident.

On the Yangtze River a cruise ship sets out from port on a hazy morning.

River Cruise Boat Capsizes, Killing Hundreds

Better safety regulations and systems have largely made Titanic-scale disasters a thing of the past, but they didn't stop one of the worst modern-day cruise disasters, the sinking of a Chinese river cruise ship, in June 2015. Close to 450 passengers enjoying a Yangtze River cruise on the Eastern Star were killed when the ship capsized during a storm. Though officials originally blamed a freak tornado for the tragedy, investigators later said strong winds, heavy rains, and the crew's failure to send a rescue signal all contributed to the disaster.

Museum Bardo, Tunis, Tunisia
Museum Bardo, Tunis, Tunisia by Herbert Frank (CC BY)

Terrorists Gun Down Cruisers in Tunisia

A leisurely stop along the Tunisian coast turned tragic for passengers from the MSC Splendida and Costa Fascinosa in March 2015. At least 12 cruisers from the Splendida and 5 from the Fascinosa were killed when terrorists opened fire at the Bardo National Museum in Tunis, a popular tourist destination. More than 20 others were injured in the incident, which included a three-hour hostage crisis. The attack was followed by a mass shooting at a beach resort a few months later, leading most cruise lines to scrub Tunisia from their itineraries for a year or more.

Woman suffering from sea sickness and feeling headache while on boat
Piyapong Thongcharoen/istockphoto

Norovirus Sickens Hundreds

Long before cruisers had to worry about coronavirus, norovirus dominated cruise-related headlines. There have been several outbreaks over the years, but the Royal Caribbean Explorer of the Seas dealt with one of the worst in January 2014. Close to 700 passengers and crew members came down with the bug, which causes vomiting and diarrhea, forcing the ship to return to port early. Some guests were even confined to their staterooms. Royal Caribbean refunded all passengers half of their fares and offered half off a future cruise.

Carnival Triumph in the Gulf of Mexico
Wikimedia Commons

Fire Turns Voyage Into 'Poop Cruise'

There was nothing to celebrate aboard the Carnival Triumph in February 2013, when a fire in the engine room cut power to the entire ship and left it adrift in the Gulf of Mexico for four days. Conditions deteriorated rapidly: Overflowing toilets left passengers to dispose of human waste in plastic bags, and many slept in makeshift tents on the decks to escape the smell and rising temperatures inside. Carnival refunded the cost of the trip, later nicknamed the "poop cruise," and offered $500 and a free cruise to passengers.

Lifeboat fixed on board the ship
Vera Tikhonova/istockphoto

Rescue Boat Mishap Kills Crew Members

A safety inspection turned deadly while the Thomson Majesty was docked at La Palma, a port in the Canary Islands, in February 2013. Crew members were inspecting a lifeboat suspended alongside an upper deck of the luxury ship when it suddenly became untethered, plummeting 65 feet into the water. Five of the crew members drowned after the lifeboat overturned when it hit the water, trapping them underneath.

public transportation in Mexico
Marilyn Nieves/istockphoto

Gunmen Rob Passengers During Excursion

Cruisers who went ashore for a guided jungle hike in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, got a different kind of adventure in February 2012. Nearly two dozen passengers from the Carnival Splendor were traveling back to port after the hike when masked gunmen boarded their bus and robbed them of their cash, passports, and other valuables. Carnival suspended the excursion and reimbursed affected guests after the incident.

Collision of Costa Concordia
Collision of Costa Concordia by Rvongher (CC BY-SA)

Ship Runs Aground in Italy, Killing 32

There were no rough seas to navigate when the Costa Concordia left the Italian port of Civitavecchia in January 2012, but that didn't prevent the ship from running aground, killing 32 passengers. The captain ordered the ship to steer close to a nearby island as a "salute," a decision that proved disastrous when rocks ripped open the hull. An investigation later found that passengers weren't told to abandon ship for more than an hour after the ship hit the rocks. The captain was charged with manslaughter and abandoning ship, and Costa Cruises said the change in course had been unauthorized.

Cruise Ship enters San Juan Harbor

Ships Strand Passengers as Hurricane Looms

It's a cardinal rule of cruising: When in port, you'd better get back to the ship on time, or you get left behind. But in 2011, for passengers of the Royal Caribbean Serenade of the Seas and the Carnival Victory, keeping an eye on the clock didn't matter. Hundreds of cruisers were left stranded in San Juan, Puerto Rico, when port authorities ordered the ships to leave hours early to avoid Hurricane Irene. While Carnival offered free hotel rooms and flights to its stranded customers, Royal Caribbean left most passengers to fend for themselves since the incident was weather-related.

Ship wrecks in the port of Bossaso Somalia
Vidas Pocius/istockphoto

Pirates Attack Luxury Ship

A luxury cruise along the African coast sounds like the adventure of a lifetime, but it's unlikely that pirate attacks ever made it into the brochures. Still, the Seabourn Spirit faced exactly that as it sailed down the Somali coast in November 2005. Passengers were sent below deck as heavily armed boats ambushed the cruise liner, firing machine guns and launching grenades. The Spirit was able to outmaneuver and outrun the pirates, though one crew member was injured by shrapnel.

Norwegian Dawn Cruise Ship
Valerie Loiseleux/istockphoto

Massive Wave Floods Cabins

Choppy seas are one thing, but passengers on the Norwegian Dawn got a true taste of Mother Nature's wrath in April 2005. During a voyage from the Bahamas to New York, the ship was battered by a freak seven-story wave that flooded 62 cabins, ripped away whirlpools and tossed furniture. Four passengers were injured, and even the captain's offer of free drinks all night couldn't keep everyone on board — 300 left the ship early once it docked for repairs. All passengers received a 50% refund and half off a future cruise.