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Rogue Waves

By Daria Blackwell
Don't look now, but there's a wall of water heading our way!

Rogue Waves and Expectations for Safety at Sea.

It seems that the climate is definitely changing. The oceans are heating up, the winds are increasing, the waves are rising, the rain is falling. I know that global warming is disputed by some, and known to be caused by greenhouse gasses by others. My own personal theory is that the earth is doing this all on her own. The Indian subcontinent, which is moving alot each year, has caused two major catastrophes this past year that we can relate directly to the tectonic plate movements: the tsunami in the Indian Ocean and the earthquake in Pakistan. Each time this happens, does some magma leak out, warming up the environment perhaps? And what about all the events we don't know about under the oceans. Okay, so it's a wild theory. But why was the ocean so much warmer this past year, creating hurricanes unlike any recorded time before?

Rogue waves are more common than previously thought, or are they?  Are they reported more frequently because there are more ships out there, or are there truly more giant waves than previously thought?  That seems to be a question repeated in many different areas as our population continues to expand to earth-devouring proportions. Just this past week, there were reports of a yacht destroyed by a rogue wave, which brought the idea back to mind.

The incident of a cruise ship hit by a seven story wave that reached as high as the tenth deck last year brought the issue to light in a curious way. Passengers described it as “pandemonium”, with furniture flying, Jacuzzis going overboard, and people cowering in the hallways in lifejackets.  Norwegian Cruise Lines and the Captain of the vessel said this was to be expected at sea.  The passengers who booked dream vacations on a cruise ship so they could scale artificial mountains, get a daily treatment at the spa, eat to their heart’s malcontent, and boogie all night disagreed all the way to their attorneys’ offices.

It’s remarkable that no one was seriously injured, and that virtually everyone thought the captain was responsible for not knowing there was a storm and waves out there.  Excuse me.  This is the North Atlantic , an ocean with waves and storms.  Of course he knew there were waves out there.  It sounds like he was the only one aboard who recognized this as a possibility with eyes wide open.

Weather prediction, no matter how great it has become, is still more of an art than a science.  And nature used to be something that was respected and awed.  What happened to these expectations?  Where is our respect?  Are we becoming so comfortable with technology that we no longer have that healthy dose of fear of Mother Nature’s fury? 

Our cloistered little lives have taken us to a point at which we expect a cruise ship to be just like our local spa and to be able to handle anything – to be “unsinkable” in the famous last words.  We expect the captain’s judgment to be infallible.  We expect the weather to be controlled.  And we do it all to go to a spa at sea and pollute the oceans with its chemicals?  I don’t get it. 

It’s just like we expect the pharmaceutical industry to cure our illnesses, which we have spent a lifetime creating with unhealthy lifestyles despite knowing the risks.  And we expect the cure to come completely without risk and without cost (even though a cable TV subscription costs more than most life saving drugs for a year).  Yet, we’ll take any volume of herbal and nutritional products because they are natural.  Excuse me, but they are chemicals extracted from plants.  Where do you think many of the pharmaceuticals come from? The herbals just aren’t as well studied and controlled so we know a lot less about them.  Much like the oceans.  Why would you put yourself at risk that way in either case?  But I digressed.

Results from ESA's ERS satellites helped establish the widespread existence of 'rogue' waves in July of 2004 and are now being used to study their origins.  Severe weather has sunk more than 200 supertankers and container ships exceeding 200 metres in length during the last two decades. Once dismissed as a nautical myth, freakish ocean waves have recently been accepted as a leading cause in many such large ship sinkings.

Despite the number of cruise ships plying the oceans, cruise-ship damage is rare, but in recent years some ocean liners have been hit hard by rogue waves, including:

    • The Explorer sailing in the North Pacific, was damaged in January 2005 when the ship, carrying almost 700 American college students, was struck by a wave that came out of the darkness in the morning and crashed into the ship hosting Semester at Sea. It was estimated at 55 feet tall about 650 miles south of the Aleutian Islands . The wall of water smashed into the bridge of the 591-foot ship, knocking out windows and damaging the ship's controls and power. The U.S. Coast Guard reported two crewmembers were injured, but the wounds were minor and no students were hurt. The ship diverted to Honolulu for repairs.
    • The Caledonian Star, sailing in the South Atlantic in 2001, was hit by a rogue wave estimated at 100 feet; it caused extensive damage and flooding to the bridge and navigation controls as it swept over the ship. The ship was left drifting without navigation or propulsion for a period of two hours until it finally limped into port in southern Argentina . No serious injuries were reported.
    • A smaller expedition cruise ship, the Bremen , was hit by a rogue wave also in the range of 100 feet in the South Atlantic in 2001. The wall of water damaged the ship and knocked out power. No major injuries were reported; the crew was able to restart engines.
    • The Queen Elizabeth II was struck by a rogue wave estimated at 90 feet — about eye level with the ship's bridge — in 1995 in the North Atlantic . Captain Ronald Warwick described it as "a great wall of water… it looked as if we were going into the White Cliffs of Dover."  The large, well-built ship suffered little damage, and few injuries were reported.

Mariners who survived similar encounters have had remarkable stories to tell. Most of us have read or seen The Perfect Storm and understand the power of the sea for those who do not heed its warnings or get caught out by surprise.  Those of us who sail a lot have our own stories to tell.  And I’d wager that none of us holds our captain responsible for the encounter with a giant wave in the North Atlantic .  What we do hold him or her accountable for is getting us through it with as much dignity, honor and safety as we can muster together.  Sailors are a different breed.  We respect the elements, we rely on each other, and we know to be humble.  We understand the risks, we appreciate the rewards, and we do everything we can to learn how to deal with them both. 

So, let's pray to gods of the oceans – Poseidon, Mannanan, Neptune – to keep our vessel and its occupants safe in these coastal waters.  (You never know what’s going to help, do you?) Please, gods, keep that loco-motion out on the ocean! Next, report all rogue waves to the proper authorities, and build an ark that can withstand them. But by all means, go out sailing. Rogue waves or not, chances are we coastal boaters aren't going to be losing those jacuzzis overboard. At any rate, the chance of us running into a ‘real’ rogue wave near the coast is pretty small. Now you can thank the gods for that small favor.

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