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Rogue Waves: Peril At Sea

by Dr. Tim G Williams

posted in Reference and Education

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It was Ancient Mariners that first recounted tales of sea monsters engulfing whole ships, monstrous waves, or other fascinating descriptions of disaster at sea. Until just recently no solid evidence of any of these descriptions ever existed. But like most tales of gigantic sea monsters and other visions of impending doom though have been pretty much dispelled. But other unexplained mishaps still occur on a regular basis in all oceans of the world. On average over 200 ships still manage to disappear without a trace around the world every year. Some are due to poor seamanship, poor construction of vessels while others are due in fact to rogue waves colliding with and engulfing any ship that happens to be in its path.
Miraculous tales of survival have sustained folklore for centuries of individuals who managed to live through one of natures most violent forces on the planet. It wasn't until on a cold November night in the North Atlantic that we had actual proof of such a monstrous force when it slammed into the Draupner Oil Platform. A lone rogue wave measuring over 95 feet high just managed to avoid plunging this rig into the cold sea. All who witnessed this phenomena couldn't believe that such a force of the sea existed until now. Ever since then the suspicious nature into the sudden disappearance of vessels around the world could now begin to be explained by a single force of nature so great that any ship is in grave peril if it encounters a rogue wave.
Not only can this occurrence happen in just the oceans of the world but their has been significant evidence to suggest that rogue waves have occurred in the Great Lakes of the United States. The fate of the Edmund Fitzgerald that sunk in 1975 in Lake Superior has been documented that what happened to that vessel when she disappeared. A rogue wave so huge and powerful split that boat in half in a matter of seconds and she consequently sunk with all on board.
One of the more miraculous tale of survival happened of the coast of Africa in 1942 when The Queen Marry carrying over 15,000 service personal managed to just miss from capsizing when a wave so huge slammed into her. We now know that what happened is that a massive rogue wave almost took the lives of over 15,000 military and naval personal on that fateful night in 1942. In 1978 those on board the MS Muncher weren't so lucky. A massive wave is thought to have hit this vessel leaving only fragments and a lone life raft with no trace of any survivors. In 1995 the Queen Elizabeth 2 managed to escape unscathed because of the seamanship of her Captain. Somehow he maneuvered the Queen Elizabeth so that this ship was able to surf that huge wave and escape.
So what are rogue waves? Why are they so dangerous to any ship that happens to be in their path? The first question has to do with how they are formed. A noted scientist Al Osborne in his Theory of The Schrodinger Equation better known as Al's Theory indicates that rogue waves are based on the notion that in certain unstable conditions around large bodies of water waves can steal energy from neighboring waves. Adjacent waves shrink while the one at the focus can now grow to enormous size and height. It is not uncommon for this wave to reach a height of over 100 feet. Osborne concluded that there are two kinds of waves out in the oceans of the world. The classical undulating type and the other a unstable nonlinear or monster wave that can start being created by sucking energy from surrounding waves producing a towering force that has lethal potential for any thing that comes in its path.
Now the question remains how do we design ships to withstand the enormous pressure that these waves can inflict? Today's ships are designed to withstand a pressure of only 15 tons of pressure per square meter. Rogue waves can exert over 100 tons of pressure per square meter. This means that today's ships are in very big trouble if they encounter any rogue wave. Like in the movie "The Poseidon" depicts a very accurate portrayal of what would happen to a vessel as large as the Queen Elizabeth 2 today if a rogue wave appeared out of nowhere and broad sided that ship. There would be no hope that this ship would survive. All of the ocean going cruise and merchant ships are currently constructed to withstand waves that only reach 50 feet. Now we must access how to avoid and if one should appear how would any captain maneuver a vessel to be in a position to survive? Vessels with stabilizers are essential for comfort of all and stability of any ship. What is now of great importance is to install side thrusters so that an opposite force could be applied if any ship was confronted by a large enough wave approaching to either the port or starboard side to assist that ship from capsizing. Reinforcing helms and glass enclosures to have more air tight compartments is also a vital step in securing any vessel from the onslaught of water crashing through glass causing massive flooding that reduces buoyancy resulting in the sinking if the flooding becomes to great.
All of these steps in preparing for the eventuality of rogue wave encounters it is the capabilities of her captain and crew as well as the technology of today that will ultimately determine whether that ship will survive. Satellite tracking systems are now able to pinpoint accurately the location of rogue waves and their trajectory. With the help of today's meteorologists all ships will now have the information needed to change directions to avoid disaster.
Scientists today have been tracking the frequency of rogue waves in various locations around the globe. The fishing grounds in the Bering Sea in the months of December through January are particularly active for massive wave action. The Bermuda Triangle is another hot spot for the formation of rogue waves. The area where the Indian Ocean merges with the Pacific as well as the tip of South Africa are all very active with rogue wave formations, If the conditions are right rogue waves can erupt anywhere in large enough bodies of water at any given time. With the help of today's science and technology many tragic occurrences can be now avoided. But there will always be those instances even with all these advanced warning systems won't matter because vessels will continue to be lost at sea due to the unexpected rise of a rogue wave.
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