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How Royal Caribbean navigates bad weather with its own meteorologist

In:
11 Jul 2022

Trying to predict the weather is no easy task, and on a cruise ship, there's many more variables to consider than on land.

Cruise ship in a storm

Did you know Royal Caribbean employs its own dedicated meteorologist to guide the fleet with the best advice based on weather conditions?

Royal Caribbean Chief Meteorologist James Van Fleet is a former TV weatherman, but now works just with Royal Caribbean to give the captain of each ship the best outlook on what the weather is doing now and what it is likely to do in the near future.

On a recent President’s Cruise to Alaska in June of 2022,  Mr. Van Fleet gave a presentation on the “Art of Weather Forecasting”.

James Van Fleet with beard

During the hour long discussion on the Ovation of the Seas, Mr. Van Fleet talks about his journey to his dream job as well as the challenges of forecasting weather for an international fleet of cruise ships.

Although meteorology is heavily based in science, he takes us through the ambiguities and uncertainties associated with weather forecasting.  

With his talent for storytelling, Mr. Van Fleet recounts his journey, how he joined Royal Caribbean, and what the future holds.

How it all started

James Van Fleet

Originally Van Fleet had ambitions to be a DJ and was lucky enough to get a job at a local radio station at 18 years of age. After a while, seeking out some variety, he tried his hand at the weather.  

Some time afterward, an opportunity came up to do weather at a local tv station; Van Fleet was keen to move but was warned that his chances were slim. The preferred candidate never showed up for an interview, and he landed the job. So began his television career.

Working in weather hot spots like Oklahoma and Texas, Van Fleet gained experience broadcasting about severe weather, including tornadoes that are common in the region. Moving to Florida, he expanded his knowledge by working on hurricanes and storms. This time laid the groundwork for his future career in international cruising. Although with the last name fleet, it clearly was his destiny.

How he came to work at Royal Caribbean

Storm damage to Anthem of the Seas

In 2016, the Anthem of the Seas was caught in some unexpected bad weather at sea while cruising between New Jersey and the Bahamas. After an internal investigation of the unsettling event, the cruise line decided they needed an in-house, dedicated resource, and Van Fleet was brought onboard as Chief Meteorologist. His “dream job” as he describes it.

Hard to believe, but his appointment was an industry first. Prior to this, cruise lines used outside vendors to provide them with forecasts. However, it was felt that this was no longer sufficient.

Talking about the transition from weather forecasting on land to a company with international ships, Van Fleet says that he used to provide just over 2000 forecasts a year, and is now responsible 18,950, a momentous task. Not to mention that it is even more difficult than forecasting on land.

What’s a typical day?

Six years later, listening to Van Fleet talk, you quickly get the picture that there is no such thing as a typical day in his job. He can be in Miami, where he spends at least half the year working through hurricane and typhoon season, or he may be visiting weather specialists in Oklahoma. You may even find him flying on a NOAA hurricane hunter plane, seeking out the eye of a storm.

According to Van Fleet, he gets some ribbing from fellow colleagues about what it's like to make mistakes and still get paid. Joking aside, he is very cognizant of the ramifications of an error.

 As he describes it, there are not two days that are the same and “even when it is beautiful in Miami… there is something going on somewhere.”

Weather forecasting

Van Fleet with map

One of the biggest challenges to marine forecasting is that, unlike on land, both the weather and the ships are moving, creating far more variables to deal with.

In addition to this, they monitor the company's private islands in the Bahamas and Haiti, as well as ports where they get food and fuel or have shipyards and dry docks.

Van Fleet says it all starts with the current weather, and they go from there. He looks at plenty of maps, but predicting weather internationally has its challenges. Talking about the upcoming world cruise, Van Fleet discusses the specific challenges of this type of journey. He notes that the hardest part will be the crossing of the Drake Passage, the body of water between Cape Hope Horn, Chili and the islands of  Antarctica. He will be onboard the Serenade of the Seas for this part of the adventure.

Tools of the trade

An invaluable tool in weather forecasting is computer models. There are more than a dozen weather models, and they don’t always agree, which is why viewers see differing forecasts, especially as it relates to hurricane modeling.

Meteorologists also use radar, but Van Fleet cautions that infrared radar can have issues as it relies on temperature differences. On a foggy day, you won’t necessarily see it on a radar, which can be a problem for a ship.

The other issue in understanding weather, especially at sea, is that there are plenty of data gaps. On land, there are weather sensors everywhere, but there are many places on the sea that do not. This means, in a way, you can be flying blind.

Why you can’t go to Perfect Day at CocoCay

Sometimes ships need to change course and skip a scheduled port stop. This can be a big disappointment for Royal Caribbean guests who love the cruise line’s private destination in the Bahamas, Perfect Day at CocoCay.

Van Fleet explains that weather can be difficult to predict in the Bahamas. He has even tapped into a local weather resource, the Bahamas Spotter Network, who use old school walkie talkies to communicate about impending bad weather.

Wonder of the Seas docked at CocoCay

Another variable is the ship class. Royal Caribbean has 5, soon to be 6 classes of ships, and their characteristics mean that they respond to weather differently. The larger ships of the Oasis class are better able to navigate turbulent water than smaller ships.

It also depends on what is going on that the dock and pier assignments. It's fair to say that if you miss a port, it is because it's not safe to dock. 

Communication

Storm in Port Canaveral

Communication with guests is a big part of Van Fleet’s job at Royal Caribbean. Whether it is supplying information for a cruise compass or on social media channels.

This is something he is also working on with the ships. He has embarked on a campaign to visit the officers of all the ships, so he can get to know them better. He also does a fleetwide call every week to make sure they are on the same page. During the pandemic, he designed a course, Marine Meteorology Training, for bridge offices.

Van Fleet acknowledges that the weather business receives a lot of blowback about hurricane forecasts gone wrong.   As he says, errors expand with time, but he feels like there is an opportunity to better explain to viewers why there is a range of impact zones, especially the farther out you go in time.

Looking to the future

Water slides on Adventure of the Seas

Meteorology has improved by leaps and bounds, especially as it relates to forecasting storm landfalls. According to Van Fleet, the next big challenge is understanding and predicting the rapid growth in intensity. What causes a tropical storm becomes a category 3 storm overnight is one of the most pressing challenges in forecasting.  

There are also unexpected events, such as the 2021 eruption of the La Soufrière Volcano in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. Van Fleet worked on coordinating ship efforts as Royal Caribbean assisted inhabitants in getting off the islands. He also had to monitor the potential impacts of ash and smoke on the company's ship cruising in the Caribbean.

As he closed out his presentation, you can’t help but come away with the impression that Van Fleet loves his job and his passion for it is boundless. He made a special thanks to Royal Caribbean cruisers who “ do a phenomenal job in sharing pictures on social media”, a great help to him. 

Watch the entire talk

Cruise FAQ: Weather

In:
18 Mar 2021

Few things can put a damper on a cruise like bad weather. At their best, poor conditions can mean that your fun day in port is rained out; at their worst, your itinerary could be heavily altered or canceled completely.

When it comes to weather, you've got questions, and we've got the answers. Read on to find out what to expect. 

Will a cruise line cancel a cruise due to weather?

The safety of passengers and crew is always the top priority, so if weather conditions are severe enough to warrant it, yes, cruise lines will cancel sailings. If that happens before you set sail, you will be given a full refund.

However, because cancellations result in unhappy passengers and a logistical nightmare -- not to mention a financial hit -- for cruise lines, ships will most often attempt to reroute if bad weather is on the way.

That could mean something as simple as swapping the order of ports on the itinerary, canceling certain calls altogether or switching the sailing region completely from, say, a Caribbean voyage to one that instead visits Canada and New England.

It's crucial for passengers to understand that they should prepare to roll with the changes.

Alterations made to the planned cruise schedule because of weather are beyond cruise line control and, therefore, affected travelers are not entitled to compensation. (This is one of many solid reasons to purchase travel insurance.)

Can cruise ships withstand storms?

Modern cruise ships are equipped with the latest technology to help them anticipate storms. Officers on the bridge carefully track and monitor any systems that creep up, allowing them to quickly maneuver their vessels out of the way.

Additionally, some lines have their very own shoreside meteorologists (such as Royal Caribbean's James Van Fleet) and command centers to assist with weather predictions and relay important information to all ships that are sailing in the area. 

Should a ship be caught in a storm, there are several safety mechanisms in place to help it stay afloat.

Cruise ships are built to include stabilizers, which minimize the rolling (side-to-side leaning) passengers feel in choppy seas. Vessels are also constructed with water-tight bulkheads that seal off areas where unwanted water might enter, as well as water expulsion systems that allow H2O to be pumped out of the vessel to make it more buoyant or from one side of the ship to the other to further minimize rolling.

Ultimately, most ships would have to list more than 60 degrees to either side in order to be in danger of sinking -- something that, to date, hasn't ever happened to a modern cruise ship as a result of weather conditions.

Read moreThings not to worry about on a Royal Caribbean cruise

What happens if it rains on a cruise?

Unfortunately, cruise lines can't control the weather, and rain happens. You're entitled to pout, but what you're not entitled to is compensation for bad weather, so don't expect a refund for your sailing -- even a partial one.

When it does precipitate, crew do their best to swab the decks and put down non-slip mats to reduce the risk of passengers' falling.

If conditions are bad enough, some outdoor attractions like surf simulators and rock climbing walls may be shut down until the rain stops and the crew deems them safe to use again. But don't worry -- you'll find plenty of onboard activities taking place inside, so you won't be bored on sea days.

On port days, excursions might be canceled. If that's the case and you booked your tour through your cruise line, your money will be refunded. If you booked independently through a third party or directly through your tour operator, you'll have to check with them to ask about cancellations and refund policies.

If you haven't booked an excursion and don't feel like traipsing around with an umbrella all day, you can either seek out something fun to do inside, such as a museum tour or shopping, or you can simply elect to stay onboard and take advantage of a less crowded ship (and, often, spa discounts).

Read more: Help! It's supposed to rain my entire cruise!

Do you feel waves on a cruise ship?

Some cruisers are more sensitive to ship movement than others, but you're sure to feel at least some minor movement while cruising. Ocean conditions are almost always the determining factor when it comes to the amount of movement you'll experience.

Although some movement is inevitable, mainstream cruise vessels are built and operated with travelers' comfort in mind. Passenger vessels are equipped with stabilizers that extend off the ships' sides to reduce the amount of rolling.

If you suffer from seasickness, book a cabin with a view on a lower deck and near the middle of the ship. Invest in an ear patch or a motion sickness bracelet, or pack some Bonine or Dramamine pills

Read moreHow To Avoid Getting Sick on a Cruise

Do cruise ships get cold at night?

This depends entirely on where you're sailing and where you spend your time indoors in the evenings.

If you're out on deck at night in Alaska, it's likely to be cold. In the Caribbean, it can be chilly after the sun goes down, thanks to the ocean breezes, but chances are good that you won't ever need a down parka to stay warm.

When it comes to the ship's climate control, each cabin has its own settings, which are determined by the passengers staying in them. That means you dictate the temperature in your own room.

However, ships usually keep public areas, such as restaurants and theaters, at cooler temperatures to offset the humid sea air and warmth from the crowds of people who tend to gather there.

Regardless, we recommend packing a blazer, cardigan or pashmina to wear at night, just in case you find yourself suffering from a case of goosebumps.

Read moreYes, it does sometimes snow on cruise ships

What is hurricane season on a cruise?

Hurricane season is the span of time between June and November when hurricanes are most likely to form in the Atlantic Ocean.

Caribbean, Bahamas, Bermuda and Mexican Riviera cruise fares are generally the least expensive during this time because passengers have to be more flexible, knowing that a storm could force an itinerary change at a moment's notice.

Keep in mind that the safest place for a ship during a hurricane is at sea, where it can steer well clear of the storm. Ships that are docked are at greater risk when severe weather hits because they have less room to move and are in proximity of other vessels, piers and the shore, which all create the potential for collisions.

So, if your ship has to change course due to a weather event, relax, enjoy the fact that you're still on vacation, and trust that your ship's officers will do all they can to keep you out of harm's way.

Read moreWhat to know about cruising during hurricane season in the Caribbean

Yes, it does sometimes snow on cruise ships

In:
01 Feb 2021

Did you know cruise ships do occasionally get snowed on?

A massive winter storm is moving through the east coast of the United States, and snow is usually inspiration enough to look for a warmer escape.  

Royal Caribbean's cruise ships typically sail to very warm destinations in the winter, but they also offer cruises year round from ports in the Northeastern United States that can experience a wintry mix on embarkation day.

Whether sailing from Bayonne, New Jersey or Baltimore, Maryland, some cruisers have had the "opportunity" to start their cruise with snow, ice, or a mix of both.

Read morePacking for a Royal Caribbean cruise in the Winter

The good news is any signs of winter on your ship will quickly fade once the ship begins heading south and before you know it, tropical weather is the norm.

If your cruise is departing during winter, this is a good reminder to plan to arrive to your cruise port at least a day ahead of time to avoid weather delays preventing you from making it to your cruise.

Photo by Allison Marie

Photo by Timmie Gibson

Photo by Janine Dee

Photo by Mary Starr Schwarz

Photo by crew member Damir

If all of these photos have you concerned, the good news is encountering snow on your cruise is very unlikely.

Even if your ship does get some snow on embarkation day up north, temperatures quickly warm up as your ship heads south. 

If you happen to sail on Anthem of the Seas from New Jersey, there are two indoor pool areas that allow for swimming regardless of the temperature outside.

Has it ever snowed while you were on a cruise ship? Share your memories or photos in the comments!

First time cruisers: It's supposed to rain my entire cruise!

In:
16 Oct 2017

A reoccurring concern among first time cruisers that book a Royal Caribbean cruise in the warmer months of the year is they see a weather forecast that looks something like this.

Does this mean your cruise is ruined? Not so fast.

Understanding rain in the tropics

The tropics have two seasons: the dry season and the wet season.  During the summer months in the tropics, it rains every day. This means there is a high chance of rain, but it is not an all day soaker event.

Unlike rain storms in the north, where fronts move through and saturate the area with rain for much of the day, rain storms in the tropics are sporadic and short-lived.  They pop up during the afternoon, move quickly and have been known to actually rain while still sunny.

These sort of afternoon pop up storms are incredibly difficult to predict, so most weather forecasters simply attribute a high percentage chance of rain and hope for the best.  Pop up storms are so sporadic that it is too difficult to know exactly where it will rain, so forecasts often look worse than they really are. Despite the fact you see rain in the forecast everyday, it does not mean it will actually rain at all on you, nor will it rain for a long time.

How to plan your day

This may sound crazy, but ignore the forecast.

Seriously.

Rain in the tropics is so common and so unpredictable that it is simply not worth concerning yourself with prior to your trip.  Since it is often short-lived, if it does actually rain on you, you can wait it out (with a cocktail in hand) and before you know it, the sun will be back out.

On sea days, often the Captain will take routes to follow the sun and avoid clouds so that guests can enjoy the kind of sunny day they dreamed about when booking the cruise.  Of course, the Captain can only do so much to help, but if it can be helped, he will do what he can.

The exception to all of this are tropical storms (hurricanes), but your Royal Caribbean cruise will not be anywhere near these storms to begin with.  Royal Caribbean detours its ships well away from the path of the storm.

Royal Caribbean provides total eclipse preview from cruise ships

In:
16 Aug 2017

Royal Caribbean's Chief Meteorologist shared a forecast for what eight cruise ships can expect to see when the Great American Eclipse occurs later this week.

James Van Fleet provided an update on when guests on eight Royal Caribbean ships can witness the eclipse. Not all eight ships will be able to see the full eclipse, but at the very least a partial view is possible.

In addition, Van Fleet shared on his Facebook page a weather forecast for August 21, which has Oasis of the Seas placed in a clear-skied position.

Royal Caribbean has been planning for Oasis of the Seas to follow the eclipse route and provide a perfect viewing angle of the meteorological phenomenon.  In fact, the Oasis of the Seas sailing has been themed around the event, with special events and performances by Bonnie Tyler and DNCE.

With this latest forecast, guests can plan on when they can be on deck to view the eclipse when it happens.

Royal Caribbean selects WeatherOps for fleetwide weather decision support

In:
13 Jul 2017

Weather Decision Technologies, Inc. (WDT) announced that Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. (RCL) has selected WDT’s WeatherOps risk mitigation system to implement on all of the ships in the Royal Caribbean International fleet, as well as in the emergency operations centers in Miami as of November 2017.

WDT’s WeatherOps platform was chosen to support RCL’s global cruise line operations after real-world validation and the approval of each captain in each division. RCL’s shore side team in Miami will also utilize WeatherOps to support captains across the fleet and ensure that logistics and weather safety across all aspects of the company’s operation are handled with respect to any weather hazards or delays.

"We are extremely excited to be using WDT’s innovative technology to ensure that our ships and Captains can plan the safest route possible for our guests and crew members," said James Van Fleet, Chief Meteorologist, Royal Caribbean International. "Our goal is always to make sure our guests have the best vacation possible, and this technology helps us do that."

Video: Royal Caribbean Signs on First Chief Meteorologist

In:
23 May 2017

Casting a watchful eye on the world's weather around the clock is a tall order, and James Van Fleet is the meteorologist for the job – the first of its kind in the cruise industry. Royal Caribbean’s Chief Meteorologist develops forecasts for the cruise line’s fleet of 24 ships. Translating technical data into digestable information is second nature for Van Fleet, who’s a veteran TV meteorologist with more than two decades of experience. With his guidance, captains have the added support to continue making informed decisions and delivering the best possible vacation experience for the cruise line’s guests.

Royal Caribbean changes cruise ship itineraries due to Snowstorm Jonas

In:
22 Jan 2016

Royal Caribbean has been forced to change the itinerary for some of its cruise ships due to the path of Snowstorm Jonas.

Grandeur of the Seas will return to Baltimore, Maryland, one day later than originally scheduled. The next sailing will now begin on Monday, January 25. Guests on the upcoming cruise should arrive to the terminal on Monday. A letter with additional details on Grandeur’s itinerary will be provided at check in.

Anthem of the Seaswill return to Cape Liberty in Bayonne, New Jersey, one day later than originally scheduled. The next sailing will now begin on Tuesday, January 26. Guests on the next sailing should arrive to the terminal on Tuesday during their scheduled check in time. A letter with additional details on Anthem’s itinerary will be provided to guests at check in.

Royal Caribbean will continue to closely monitor weather conditions and will update this information if there are any changes.

Royal Caribbean posts Superstorm Nemo blizzard update - no changes yet

In:
08 Feb 2013

Royal Caribbean is monitoring the effects that the large winter blizzard snow storm that is impacting the northeast of the United States.  There are no changes to any cruise ship itineraries yet.

Royal Caribbean International is closely monitoring the severe winter storm affecting much of the East Coast, which will impact travel in the region. Currently, all Royal Caribbean ships are scheduled to depart this weekend as scheduled.

Guests who did not purchase their air transportation through Royal Caribbean and have flights scheduled from the East Coast should contact their airline directly to check on the status of their flight.

If you are sailing this weekend and you feel you will not be able to arrive to your ship before its departure, please call us at 1-800-256-6649 in the U.S., and +1-305-539-4107 internationally.

Royal Caribbean will continue to closely monitor weather conditions and will update this information if there are any changes.

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