How Fast do Cruise Ships Go?

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Aerial View of a Cruise Ship traveling at a fast speed

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If you’ve ever sailed on one of these huge floating cities, you know the feeling of relaxing on the top deck and looking out over the horizon as your ship travels to its next port.

As you sail through the open seas, you’ve likely wondered, how fast do cruise ships go?

How Fast Do Cruise Ships Go?

Norwegian Cruise Line cruise ship sailing at a fast speedPin

The average cruising speed of a modern cruise ship is approximately 21 knots, which is equivalent to about 24 miles per hour. A cruise ship’s top speed is two to three knots higher than its cruising speed. However, cruise ships rarely reach maximum speed except in specific situations like emergencies, avoiding bad weather, or sea trials​​.

Cruise ship speeds vary depending on the specific ship. For instance, Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas travels at about 20.2 knots, while Norwegian Cruise Line’s Norwegian Jade can reach speeds up to 24.6 knots​​. However, it’s important to note that cruise ships generally prioritize passenger comfort and fuel efficiency over speed.

Thus, cruise ships often travel at slower speeds than their maximum capability. Slower speeds conserve fuel and provide a smoother ride for passengers.

The fastest cruise ship currently in service is the Queen Mary 2, capable of speeds up to 30 knots​.

Factors That Affect Cruise Ship Speed

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Several factors can affect the speed of a cruise ship:

  1. Cruise Itinerary: Cruise ships must arrive on time at each port of call. Arriving late at a port leads to substantial fines and unhappy passengers who miss their shore excursions. Alternatively, arriving early uses excessive fuel consumption as the cruise ship travels faster than necessary.
  2. Weather Conditions: Adverse weather conditions, such as high winds or rough seas, can significantly impact a ship’s speed. Sometimes, ships must slow down to ensure passenger comfort and safety in rough waters​​​​. Cruise ships also travel faster to avoid hazardous weather systems. It’s one of the few times a cruise ship will reach top speed.
  3. Sea Conditions: The condition of the sea, including currents and tides, can either aid or hinder a ship’s progress. For instance, sailing with a strong current can increase a ship’s speed, while traveling against it can slow it down.
  4. Fuel Efficiency: Cruise ships travel at speeds that optimize fuel consumption while arriving at port on time. Higher speeds consume more fuel, so ships may travel more moderately to maintain fuel efficiency, reduce environmental impact​​, and decrease fuel costs.
  5. Navigational Restrictions: Certain areas, like narrow channels or environmentally sensitive regions, may have speed restrictions to ensure safety and minimize environmental impacts.
  6. Passenger Comfort: Cruise ships focus on passenger experience. Cruise ships travel at speeds that ensure the most comfortable journey, minimizing vibrations and motions that can cause discomfort or seasickness for crusie passengers​.
  7. Safety Regulations: Safety considerations, such as avoiding collisions with other vessels or navigating safely through congested or hazardous areas, can also dictate a ship’s speed.

Each of these factors is considered by the ship’s captain and navigation team to determine the most appropriate speed for a given situation, balancing efficiency, safety, and passenger comfort.

What is a Knot?

In maritime and aviation travel, a knot is a unit of speed. It is defined as one nautical mile per hour.

What is a nautical mile? It’s a unit based on the Earth’s circumference, equating to one minute of latitude. This means it’s about 1.15078 miles or 1.852 kilometers.

To understand this better, imagine the Earth’s circumference divided into 360 degrees, and each degree further divided into 60 minutes. Each of these minutes is a nautical mile.

When navigating, a nautical miles are often called “minutes of arc.”

How does this compare to the familiar land mile? Well, a knot is roughly 15.1% longer than a mile on land, also known as a statute mile.

Knots are preferred in sea and air navigation as they align with Earth’s latitude, making them more practical for long-distance travel where Earth’s curvature matters.

The history behind these measurements is fascinating. The land mile dates back to Roman times, defined as 1,000 paces, only counting the left foot. Later, Queen Elizabeth I in 1593 fixed the statute mile at 5,280 feet. The term “mile” itself comes from the Latin “mille passus,” meaning “thousand paces.”

On the flip side, nautical miles, established in 1929, are tied to the Earth’s latitudinal degrees – one nautical mile equals one minute of latitude.

According to the NOAA “Using latitude and longitude coordinates is more practical for long-distance travel, where the curvature of the Earth becomes a factor of accurate measurement.”

Why Do Cruise Ships Use Knots Instead of Miles Per Hour?

Vessels that travel long distances, such as ships, planes, and rockets, use latitude and longitude for measuring distances on a map.

Nautical miles are the preferred measure of distance at sea because they allow sailors to quickly access distance on nautical maps which use longitude and latitude.

Fun fact: Air and space travel also use nautical miles to measure distance.

How to Convert Knots to Miles Per Hour?

To convert a speed in knots to miles per hour, simply multiply the knots by 1.1508. The result is the speed in miles per hour. 

What is the Fastest Cruise Ship?

Cunard Line's Queen Mary 2 the world's fastest cruise ship anchoring off the coast of Saint LuciaPin

Many people consider the fastest cruise ship to be Cunard’s Queen Mary 2, which has a top speed of 30 knots. But, the Queen Mary 2 isn’t actually a cruise ship – it’s an ocean liner.

The ship was originally built to transport passengers across the Atlantic. Its pointed bow, reinforced hull, raised lifeboats, and lower center of gravity are all hallmarks of an ocean liner.

Compared to a cruise ship, an ocean liner is defined as a ship whose primary purpose is transportation, while a cruise ship is built for leisure.

There is no official fastest cruise ship as far as I can find.

And there doesn’t need to be.

Cruise ships are supposed to be leisurely. While I’m sunbathing on deck, enjoying a tropical drink, I’m not concerned about how fast our ship is traveling.

So what does it matter which cruise ship is the fastest?

What’s the Fastest Ocean Liner in History?

SS United States the world's fastest ocean linerPin

Although the Queen Mary 2 is the fastest ocean liner in operation, it’s not the fastest ever built.

During the post-war years of World War II, ocean liners were competing for the fastest crossing of the Atlantic.

In 1952, the SS United States became the world’s fastest ship maintaining an average cruising speed of 35.5 knots and a top speed of 39 knots. A record it still holds today!

Article by

Marcello De Lio

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