The Passenger: How a Travel Writer Learned to Love Cruises & Other Lies from a Sinking Ship

Book review

book cover for The Passenger

Book cover
The Passenger is the engaging story of the Viking Sky cruise ship that was struck by a bomb cyclone in the North Atlantic off the coast of Norway.

Travel Editor
The Norwegian American

I remember reading in The New York Times how the Viking Sky cruise ship, struck by a bomb cyclone in the North Atlantic off the coast of Norway on March 23, 2019, rocked and rolled toward the dangerous Norwegian coast. But the article did not elicit the response from me that The Passenger did. As a travel writer who has worked on a freelance basis, this type of harrowing event is the worst of all bad nightmares.

Everyone believes the life of a freelance travel writer is glamorous. All those free trips and gastronomic meals! The truth, of course, is more complicated. There are often long, cramped economy flights to faraway places. Sometimes there are prolonged, monotonous waits in airports to change planes. Sometimes, a press group, a mixture of people who have never previously met, is not friendly. And very often there is little cash money for the amount of time it takes to construct a good narrative. This is work, after all, not vacation fun. And, of course there is always the remote possibility of a natural disaster or human mishap that could not be foretold. 

What a difference a day makes! Kwak’s fast-paced, riveting story is deeply personal. And as he maintains, all people—whether rich or poor, tall or short, young or old—are “like reliefs that make up a frieze.” Every individual leaves behind tangled webs of lives. Just ask a child, no matter what age, whose parent has died of COVID-19. Or ask a parent, no matter what age, whose child has died of COVID-19. No one is immune. As Kwak contends, life is “a series of coin tosses and dice throws.”

And so Kwak, who was on the cruise to witness and describe the northern lights for a magazine assignment, instead takes the reader on a suspenseful, sometimes humorous, and often touching story of how the thought of imminent death on a sinking ship changes a person.

According to Norwegian Rescue Services, Capt. Bengt-Owe Gustafsson of the Viking Sky issued mayday at 2 p.m. local time on March 23, 2019, “After all, four of the ship’s engines stalled and the ship began drifting swiftly toward land.” There was no electricity. The ship rolled; every room’s contents flew. Waves were flipping beverage carts, and there was debris everywhere. About to enter Hustadvika, the dangerous 11-mile stretch of coast between Kristiansund and Molde, the ship encountered nothing to slow down the action of the waves. Saltwater sloshed around the ship’s interior as the ship wavered closer to shore. The shallow reefs could shred the ship into scrap metal. People were texting what might be last messages to loved ones while the wind blew some 86 mph.

By 4:30 p.m., help arrived, and those needing medical attention were the first to be airlifted off the ship. Many were elderly. A 195-foot weighted rope dropped from the helicopter toward the deck. Nature was in charge—and it was very scary. There were 1,372 people on board. It would take days to airlift all of them. Never mind the possibility that some might not be able to hold onto the rope to make it into the helicopter. Those in wheelchairs were taken with chairs intact. If those passengers got agitated, they could easily be thrown into the swirling water. Some couples were pulled up together, all the time embracing, as though in a death pact.

This continued until 8:30 a.m. the next day, when the captain announced, “We have successfully connected to a tugboat.” That meant the possibility of being tugged into port. The ship managed a U-turn, with two tugboats leading the way. By 11:45 a.m., the path was clear. The helicopters left, and food was once again being served. It was a cruise, after all. 

Chaney Kwak

Photo: Michael Baca
Author Chaney Kwak learned to love Norwegian cruises—the hard way.

The remaining passengers were now allowed to return to their cabins. By 3:50 p.m., the tugboats pulling the ship entered sheltered waters. There lay Molde, with people on the banks cheering as the remaining 436 passengers and 458 crew members entered port. Kwak heard the shouts of his neighbors, “We love you, Norway … God bless you, Norway!” Kwak had up to then been reserved, but suddenly, the sobs uncontrollably escaped from his body. He couldn’t stop. Soon a local citizen offered Kwak a hot shower in his home. 

The Viking Sky’s CEO, Torstein Hagen, appeared on the scene. “I hear the helicopter ride was pretty scary. You’re smart to stay on board,” he joked, and the audience laughed. He continued, “What the rescue services did … what they’ve done makes me proud to be Norwegian.”

I agree. If that situation were to happen to me, I would want to be off the Norwegian coast. Then the CEO proclaimed that the cruise was free for all, and he invited everyone to enjoy a later free cruise anywhere the company sails. Cheers erupted.

Meanwhile, those 27 hours have transformed Kwak’s thoughts of life and love. He returned home to San Francisco and with a changed perspective, left his partner of 16 years. What has been the status quo for him now seemed unbearable. 

Later, when asked in an interview about what he enjoys when not writing, Kwak answered that he is “a hobbyist beekeeper.” How fitting. The beehive carries a wealth of meaning as a mythic emblem with a utilitarian purpose. We enjoy the work of the bee with its sweet honey, but we flee from the bee’s painful sting. That is the natural paradox that we find in life and that Kwak acknowledged with the possibility of the hereafter off the Norwegian coast.

The Passenger: How a travel writer learned to love cruises & other lies from a sinking ship

By Chaney Kwak

Hardcover, 160 pages, $18.95

Godine, Boston, 2021

Available from major booksellers

This article originally appeared in the July 23, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Cynthia Elyce Rubin

Cynthia Elyce Rubin, PhD., is a visual culture specialist, travel writer, and author of articles and books on decorative arts, folk art, and postcard history. She collects postcards, ephemera, and early photography. See