Cruise Ship Engine Explosions
Written by: Paul Motter
With the Nordlys incident in Norway this week the number of cruise ship engine incidents is beyond coincidental.
Update: the ship has now been rescued and whether or not an engine explosion was the cause of the fire is now in question. Still, several engine room control panels have also been problematic, so the issue remains much the same.
The Nordlys, a popular Norwegian cruise ship owned by the Hurtigruten line caught fire two days ago after an engine explosion. Two crewmembers were killed in the explosion, nine injured, and it blew a hole in the hull where the ship is now taking on water. Fortunately, no passengers were killed or injured in the blast. All were evacuated safely as the ship was close to the port city of Alesund where the ship is now docked.
But now the ship is now listing (tilting to one side) at an angle of 21.7 degrees – well beyond what is considered to be the safe-zone of up to 20-degrees. Workers have placed pumps on board to remove the water that is coming in, but so far the hole in the hull is winning. There is now a real fear that the ship could tip over, and once the interior of the ship is breached it will fill with water very quickly and sink almost instantly.
That is a serious problem, but fortunately the immediate danger to human life and safety has already passed.
But my concern is the frequency of recent cruise ship engine room fires that have been caused by engine room explosions. To the best of my knowledge, one company, a German maker named Wartsilla, makes the vast majority of engines installed on large ships, but I am not going to blame them just yet because I do not have the ability to verify the specifics of each ship or what actually caused the the individual explosions. In some cases the explosions or fires were not the actual engines, but the control panels used to manage the power systems.
The following ships have suffered engine room explosions or fires that resulted in a loss of power to the ship for varying lengths of time:
MSC Opera – this beautiful cruise ship built in the STX shipyard in France suffered an engine failure in the Swedish archipelago when it was sailing towards Stockholm just last May. In this case there was no explosion, but there was a failure in the electrical panel that controls the engines. The entire ship lost (electrical) power, meaning there were no working toilets, lights, etc., beyond the emergency power made available through an auxiliary generator system each ship keeps. The ship was towed to Stockholm and the rest of the cruise was cancelled.
In April of 2011 a Mexican cruise ship, the Ocean Star Pacific, had a generator fire when it was sailing off the west coast of Mexico near Mazatlan – no one was injured but the entire passenger contingent had to be evacuated by lifeboat.
November, 2010, we saw the most extensive damage an engine explosion can create when the Carnival Splendor lost all power off the west coast of Baja California in Mexico. In that incident over 3000 passengers and nearly 2000 crewmembers were stuck on the ship, which had no electrical service, for over three days. They were forced to live on cold food and could not take showers the entire time.
In the case of Splendor, it was decided that the people aboard would be safest staying on the ship rather than trying to evacuate them. The ship was at a point about 50 miles from shore when the explosion occurred, but making matters even worse, during the overnight wait the powerless ship drifted nearly 100 miles in the wrong direction. As a result the ship had to wait almost 24 hours before the first tug-boats could arrive from Mexico. The ship was towed back to San Diego (the cruise had originated in Los Angeles) where it sat docked for nearly two months before it could sail up to San Francisco (under its own not-full power) and get a new engine installed which took an additional three weeks.
The following month, December 2010, the mighty Queen Mary 2 had a “leaky capacitor” in another engine room control panel that resulted in an arc flash that blew the steel doors off of the control room. Fortunately no one was injured, but the ship lost all power and floated adrift off the coast of Spain for about 30 minutes.
Many people also forget that the Norwegian Epic had a main generator engine explosion in the STX shipyard in France just before it was delivered to NCL. That incident required cutting a hole in the hull, taking out the engine and replacing it with a new one – the same steps as were taken in dry dock for the Carnival Splendor.
Of course, the most famous cruise ship engine explosion ever was in 2003 on the old SS Norway. But in a way this one does not count since that ship used older “direct-drive” steam-powered propellers. Those styles of engines have always been notoriously dangerous, which is why all new ships are built with a different system. That blast killed four crewmembers and injured 21 others, but fortunately no passengers were injured.
How Cruise Ship Engines Work
The engines where we are seeing explosions on these ships are not the kind of engine you have in an automobile or a propeller-driven airplane. Rather, they are electrical generators which create a current that in turn drives the propeller systems with separate motors powered by the electricity generated by the “engine.” You can imagine the amount of electricity that must be generated to turn a propeller fast and hard enough to move the 150,000-ton Queen Mary 2. That ship actually has five separate propellers mounted to external pods below the stern of the ship.
This pod system is now used on most new cruise ships, including the Carnival Splendor and MSC Opera. Strangely, the Norwegian Epic uses the older style “screw-driven” propeller coming straight out of the ship, but those propellers are still driven by electricity – not steam powered as on the old Norway.
In any case, all of the electricity aboard any ship is the same power that drives the propellers and heats up your hair dryer. It is generated below deck in very large engines that burn a very raw grade of diesel fuel called “bunker fuel.” This fuel is so thick it must be heated before it can even flow into the engine to be burned. But the engines quickly burn the fuel to turn turbines that create electrical power – the same as the small generator you see attached to mobile homes in remote areas. The rate of burn (if memory serves) can be over one ton of fuel per hour. To be more specific, Oasis of the Seas has six Wartsilla engines and each consumes 1377 gallons of fuel per hour.
Those are the “engines” that have been exploding – and I have to say I have been expecting to hear more from the manufacturers of the engines by now. The rash of recent incidents has been somewhat staggering.
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Posted: September 16th, 2011 under Paul Motter.