The Oceania Riviera cruise ship made a storm stop at Searsport Harbor. Credit: Courtesy of James Gillway

SEARSPORT, Maine — A nor’easter storm with heavy winds forced The Oceania Riviera cruise ship to drop anchor at Searsport Harbor early Thursday morning because conditions were too rough at sea.

Town Manager James Gillway was up before dawn when he saw something in the harbor that didn’t seem right: lights — and a lot of them — where normally there is just darkness.

“It was quite the surprise this morning,” he said. “As the fog lifted, you could see quite a large vessel.”

The Riviera, built in 2012 and refurbished in 2019, can carry as many as 1,250 passengers and up to 800 staff. It was one of three cruise ships anchored Wednesday in Bar Harbor that disembarked early because of the impending storm, according to Sarah Flink, executive director of CruiseMaine, a division of the Maine Office of Tourism.

She said that the Riviera did not have another nearby standard cruise ship port it could get to in time, and was looking for an alternative.

“The pilot, Skip Strong from the Bar Harbor area, made some calls. He found them a safe little spot there, tucked in next to Searsport,” she said.

The passengers and crew are expected to remain in Searsport until 3 a.m. Friday when they depart for Newport, Rhode Island, according to Searsport Harbormaster Wayne Hamilton. They are not expected to come ashore, he said, adding that offshore swells during the storm were as high as 27 feet.

“They wanted to make it comfortable for their passengers,” he said, adding that comfort — and safety — is why ship officials sought alternative arrangements.

Gillway said he was glad that passengers were able to find safe harbor in his town. Searsport, a small community with a strong shipbuilding heritage, has yet to become a stop on Maine’s cruise ship trail. Bar Harbor and Portland are the busiest cruise ports in the state, and Gillway said he would love for his community to become a destination.

Searsport is within commuting distance from such tourist draws as Acadia National Park, Camden and the Penobscot Narrows Bridge and Observatory in Verona. It is also home to its own attractions, including the Penobscot Marine Museum and Sears Island.

Gillway said he can imagine a future in which a cruise ship may stop in Searsport — not just because of bad weather.

“I’d love to see that eventually happen. There’s so much to share,” he said. “This is a good harbor to come to.”

Gillway said that when popular ports such as Bar Harbor are feeling overloaded with cruise ships, Searsport could be a solid alternative.