The Rogue Wave


I’ve been talking to people since the loss of Susie Goodall’s Rustler 36 in the Southern Ocean, and the larger subject of extreme storms and weather resulting from global warming and other factors. Invariably, we discuss the possibility of her unfortunate calamity as the victim of a rogue wave throwing her boat end over end. Hard enough to break everything on the boat and wipe her decks clean.

Most people have heard tales of rogue waves and they are as terrifying as visions of sea monsters in the early days of sailing ships and exploring the New World. Once considered quite rare, research in modern times indicates they are not as rare as once thought. With modern satellite and other scientific measuring tools, scientists now have better ways to measure these monster waves, and more importantly, their frequency.

Unfortunately those at sea who experience rogue waves seldom live to tell about it. And if it was such a wave that pitchpoled Goodall’s boat, she is one very lucky sailor to have survived.

The first scientifically-valid proof that these extreme waves exist was a rogue wave that hit a Norwegian oil platform in 1995, about 150 miles off the coast of Norway. Accurate laser instrumentation on the Drauper oil platform recorded a wave that was 85 feet tall. This rogue wave became known as the Drauper wave.

Modern ship are not designed to survive wave energy of this magnitude, and current oceanographic science believes that the loss of so many ships over the years can be attributed to rogue waves. Until we developed the scientific measurement and analysis tools to study this phenomenon over time, it was all just myth and speculation. But it now appears that the 2015 loss of the El Faro on its way to Puerto Rico during Hurricane Joaquin was due to a rogue wave. Thirty-three crew died.

The El Faro may not have had a chance against a rogue wave during a hurricane off the Bahamas.

The El Faro may not have had a chance against a rogue wave during a hurricane off the Bahamas.

The growing list of incidents now shows these waves are more common than once believed. Twenty years ago, Britain’s Institute of Oceanography maintained statistics to predict wave height. If one measured the average height of waves passing a fixed point, one wave in 23 will be twice the average height of the other waves. One wave in 1,175 will be three times the average height. And one wave in 300,000 will be four times the average height.

While these numbers may seem scary enough, they are likely obsolete, given today’s technology. The European Space Agency (ESA) uses satellite radar to monitor wave activity, and in one 2004 project, found that over a three-week period, they identified 10 waves that were 25 meters high (82 feet)…or higher. Scientists now conclude these waves are both real and common enough to cause concern. Evidence also now indicates that the infamous Bermuda Triangle, with its legendary losses of ships, planes, and men, is, in fact, somewhat of a breeding ground for rogue waves in this area of ocean.

bermuda triangle.jpg

World-renowned oceanographer, Robert Ballard, known for his work with the Titanic, personally experienced a rogue wave early in his career. Aboard a Scripps Institute of Oceanography research ship, the Orca was 500 miles off the coast of Eureka, California in a storm. They were experiencing 30-foot waves, when along came a 50-foot wave that hit the ship with such force it blew out the bridge windows, took out portholes in the galley, wiped the mast off the ship and flooded the engineering spaces. A Coast Guard cutter had to reach their position to escort them to safety.

Our technical editor, Steve D’Antonio, once retraced Shackleton’s expedition aboard what is now the National Geographic Endeavour. This 195-foot steel expedition ship is about as capable as any to operate in the Southern Ocean. The ship’s captain told Steve that two years prior, the Endeavour was hit by a huge rogue wave, which took out all the windows in the bridge, soaking the electronics and electrical equipment. Someone on board had a small handheld GPS, the only working navigation aid on the ship. The crew used it to guide the stricken ship to a port in South America. The Endeavour needed a major refit before it could set sail again.

Just imagine the size of a wave capable of taking out the bridge windows of this 195-foot expedition ship…

Just imagine the size of a wave capable of taking out the bridge windows of this 195-foot expedition ship…

The list of cruise ships that have been damaged by rogue waves include the Queen Elizabeth II, the Michelangelo, the Norwegian Dawn, the Caledonian Star and ships belonging to the Bremen cruise line.

Today many authorities and oceanographers believe that rogue waves are responsible for many of history’s ocean disappearances. It is also now believed that the Edmund Fitzgerald was overcome by such a wave on Lake Superior, no match for its tremendous power.

Back in 2009, in the after effects of Hurricane Bill, five people were swept off rocks into the sea from a rogue wave in Maine’s Acadia National Park. And a similar event happened in Sydney, Australia. Someone captured it on their smartphone as everyone in this video was swept off their feet. Three people were rescued by helicopter and taken to the hospital:

Many years ago, I spent some time with noted naval architect Ed Monk, Jr., on a tour boat as it took the PNW group around Ft. Lauderdale. The two of us discussed boat design and some of his recent projects. As we drifted into other topics, Monk told me he and his father were fascinated by rogue waves, and spent many hours calculating with whatever data existed at the time. They finally concluded that the minimum size boat they would cross an ocean on was 83 feet long, to maximize their chances of survival if they encountered a rogue wave.

With what we now know, I wonder if Monk would adjust his calculations for an even bigger boat. You see, to complete this discussion, there is a second scary element in this equation, and perhaps even more dangerous.

For every wave crest, there is a trough. Think about it. The trough associated with a very tall wave is going to be very deep, and that is a frightening situation for a small boat. If you fall into the bottom of a deep trough, and the next wave happens to break into that hole, you are extremely vulnerable. And not likely to have a pleasant day on the water.

Just something to think about when you are planning your next “adventure.”