Viking Sky: Passengers airlifted to safety after cruise ship breaks down off Norwegian coast

Patrick Sawer
Passengers on board the Viking Sky, waiting to be evacuated, off the coast of Norway on Saturday - Michal Stewart

A cruise ship that broke down in rough seas off the Norwegian coast with some 1,300 passengers and crew on board has restarted three of its four engines and will be towed to port, emergency services said Sunday.

"Three of the four engines are now working which means the boat can now make way on its own," emergency services spokesman Per Fjeld said.

The Viking Sky sent out a mayday signal on Saturday, after it began drifting towards land, prompting a huge evacuation operation in which rescue helicopters evacuated passengers and crew to safety. Among those airlifted were believed to many British tourists. 

The airlift was continuing in the early morning, Fjeld said.

Nearly 338 of the 1,373 onboard were evacuated by helicopter by early Sunday morning. They were flown to a village just north of the town of Molde, on Norway's west coast.

According to the latest figures from the rescue services, 17 people had been taken to hospital with injuries.

Earlier on Saturday lifeboats were forced to turn back en route to the ship due to the "brutal" conditions.

Later, reports emerged that a cargo ship with nine crew members was in trouble nearby, and the local Norwegian rescue service diverted two of the helicopters to that rescue.

Two hundred Britons were believed to be among those on board the Viking Sky ship with Norwegian media suggesting the majority of  passengers were British and American tourists. 

Derek and Esther Browne, from Hampshire, said the "whole boat was swaying, it was very rough" before they were airlifted to safety.

Mr Browne told BBC Radio 5 Live's Stephen Nolan: "We had a few people on stretchers, several with cuts, two with broken limbs, but fortunately we were alright. We were airlifted onto the helicopter which was quite a frightening experience."

He added: "I'd never been in a helicopter before, there were a lot of high winds, hovering overhead and the winchman came down and we were then collected up and so I shut my eyes as we arrived into the helicopter and there were 15 of us for about a 20-minute ride."

The stretch of water known as Hustadvika is known for its fierce weather and the shallow waters are dotted with reefs. The Norwegian government is currently deciding 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 Norwegian billionaire Torstein Hagen.

Several vessels and four helicopters took part in the rescue and extensive facilities were set up on land to receive passengers.

All search and rescue teams in the region were mobilised, including 60 volunteers from the Norwegian Red Cross, a spokesman said.

Passengers on board the Viking Sky, waiting to be evacuated, off the coast of Norway on Saturday Credit:  Michal Stewart

The ship, built in 2017, belongs to Viking Ocean Cruises, part of the Viking Cruises group founded by Norwegian billionaire Torstein Hagen. According to the company website, its passenger capacity is 930.

Several vessels and four helicopters took part in the rescue and facilities to receive passengers have been set up on land, the rescue service said.

Wind was blowing at a speed of 38 knots, police told Norwegian newspaper VG.

All search and rescue teams in the region are mobilising, including 60 volunteers from the Norwegian Red Cross, a spokesman said.

A Viking Sky spokesperson said: "We can confirm that as of 10am (Norwegian time) today, 24 March 2019, the vessel, Viking Sky, is safely travelling to Molde under its own power. The ship is being  accompanied by two offshore supply ships and one tug assist vessel. The evacuation of passengers has ended and there are currently 436 guests and 458 crew onboard.  

"The 479 passengers who were airlifted from the vessel are currently on shore and arrangements have been made to fly them home, with the first passengers leaving today. Currently we understand 20 people suffered injuries as a result of this incident, and they are all receiving care at the relevant medical centres in Norway, with some already having been discharged. 

"Throughout all of this, our first priority was for the safety and wellbeing of our passengers and our crew. We would like to thank the Norwegian Redningssentral and the Norwegian emergency services for their support and skill displayed in managing the situation in very challenging weather conditions. We would also like to thank the local residents who throughout the whole process have been extremely supportive and hospitable.

"We are in the process of updating the website with the latest information.  If you have questions or concerns about any guests, please visit  https://www.vikingcruises.com/ oceans/my-trip/current- sailings/index.html"

Family members search for passengers on board

As the phone batteries of passengers dwindled and died, and some on board were injured and taken to hospital, the relatives anxiously waited for news.

Many used Twitter in the hope of contacting missing loved ones.

While some remained missing:  

 Others were found safe and sound, and were enjoying free wine and food in a local hotel as they made plans to return home after the ordeal:

There were complaints about lack of information from the cruise operator, as family members of passengers complained that they were not told about the injury status of their loved ones:

 Passengers show chaos on the ship

Pictures posted to social media show the chaotic sleeping arrangements as passengers curled up in life jackets to try to get some sleep as they waited to be airlifted to safety.

Destruction on the ship was also plain to see, with broken glass on the floor and doors torn off their hinges.