The open seas can go from being calm to viciously wild, and choppy waves have been the norm for shareholders of Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings (NCLH -0.52%) in the new normal. The pandemic has rocked -- and then buoyed -- the cruise industry, but where would you be if you managed to get in on the country's third-largest operator at its IPO?

The good news is that you would be sitting on a paper profit. The bad news is that you would have lost pretty badly to the market in that time. Let's look at Norwegian Cruise Line's market debut in 2013 and where that would leave you as an investor today.

An outer stateroom with a balcony on the NCL Jewel cruise ship.

An outer stateroom aboard Norwegian's Jewel. Image source: Norwegian Cruise Line.

Walking the plank

Let's start at the beginning. Norwegian Cruise Line hit the market in early 2013, decades after its two larger peers went public in 1987 and 1993. Underwriters priced Norwegian Cruise Line's offering at $19. The stock's very first trade happened at $25.10 (hot IPOs do tend to pop at the open), but for our purposes, let's use $19 as the starting line even if it was fairly difficult to get in on an IPO as a regular retail investor at the time.

Norwegian Cruise Line has had its ups and downs over the years. As an investment, the stock's all-time high of $64.27 came in late 2015. You can probably guess where you have to go to find the low. Shares of the cruise line operator bottomed out at $7.07 on March 18 of last year, exactly 14 months ago from today, just as the industry was suspending sailings as the COVID-19 crisis became a stateside reality. 

The bad news is that Norwegian Cruise Line and its fellow operators have yet to make a full return to business. There are a handful of ships in overseas markets offering scaled-back sailings with limited passenger counts and ports of call, but for the most part this continues to be the last of the travel and tourism stocks to resume meaningful operations. 

Now let's turn to the good news. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is finally easing up on its reopening guidelines for the industry. Norwegian Cruise Line and its peers could be making revenue-generating sailings as soon as this summer if things go according to plan. Investors have also largely discounted a recovery. The stock has more than quadrupled over the past 14 months, with Norwegian Cruise Line closing at $28.88 on Monday. 

If you grabbed a piece of the Norwegian IPO, you would be up 52% right now; your $1,000 investment would be worth $1,520 today. It's better than being down, of course. This snapshot would've looked a lot more bleak when the industry's shutdown began early last year. However, since the stock hit the market on Jan. 18, 2013, this translates into an annualized return of just 5.15%. 

Unlike its two larger rivals that were paying quarterly dividends before suspending the payouts last year, Norwegian Cruise Line has never made cash distributions. Your total return would be 52%. The S&P 500 has soared 181.1% since the day that Norwegian Cruise Line sailed onto the New York Stock Exchange, turning a similar $1,000 investment into $2,811 -- or an annual return of 13.2%.

Norwegian Cruise Line IPO investors can't be happy knowing that they would've fared a lot better taking on a lot less risk and collecting dividend checks along the way if they had just walked up the gangplank of an index fund. Thankfully, there are things far worse than turning $1,000 into $1,520 in a little more than eight years.