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No. 66: Nov-Dec 1989

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Rogue Waves

"Shortly before dawn on Sunday, June 3, 1984, the 117-foot, threemasted Marques sailed into a fierce squall about 75 miles north of Bermuda. Heavy rain began to pelt the ship, and a furious wind sprang up out of nowhere. Squalls were nothing new to the Marques, one of 39 tall ships participating in a transatlantic race. But as a precaution, Stuart Finlay, the seasoned 42-year-old American captain of the ship, shortened the sails. The Marques was carrying a crew of 28 - half of whom were under 25. At the helm, Philip Sefton, 22, fought the angry waves that now confronted them.

"Suddenly a heavy gust of wind pushed the Marques down on its starboard side. At the same instant 'a freakish wave of incredible force and size,' as Sefton later described it, slammed the ship broadside, pushing its masts farther beneath the surging water. A second wave pounded the ship as it went down. The Marques filled with water and sank in less than one minute. Most of the crew were trapped as they slept below deck. Only Sefton and eight shipmates survive."

Accounts such as that above are part of sea lore. Waves 50-100 feet high have been frequently reported over the years. Most often, they are encountered in rough seas, but some walls of water have smashed ships in relatively calm waters.

Tanker encountering a steep-sided giant
A tanker encountering a steep-sided giant wave in the Aguhlas Current of the African coast.
Until recently, oceanographers were confident that any unusually large wave was just the chance addition of two smaller waves. Now, a consensus is emerging that at least two other factors are important: seabed topography and ocean currents.

To illustrate, perhaps the most dangerous stretch of water in the world lies off southeast Africa, where the fast (8 feet/second) Agulhas Current often runs into storm waves surging up from Antarctica. The African continental shelf is so shaped that it funnels the current directly into the storm waves. Immense, steep-fronted waves have broken many a ship here.

In sum, the old statistical theory about the origin of rogue waves has been jettisoned, but a new approach is still in the formative stages. (Brown, Joseph; "Rogue Waves," Discover, 10:47, April 1989.)

Comment. But can any theory explain giant, solitary waves on calm seas. For more on this subject, see GHW in Earthquakes, Tides, Unidentified Sounds. To order this book, visit: here.

From Science Frontiers #66, NOV-DEC 1989. 1989-2000 William R. Corliss

Science Frontiers Sourcebook Project Reviewed in:


  • "A sourcebook of unexplained phenomena is therefore a valuable addition to a collection of scientific literature. William R. Corliss has provided this in the past with his source books of scientific anomalies in several subjects, and now he has provided it for astronomy. He has done an excellent job of collecting and editing a large amount of material, taken in part from scientific journals and in part from scientific reporting in the popular or semi-scientific press." -- "The Mysterious Universe: A Handbook of Astronomical Anomalies", reviwed by Thomas Gold, Cornell University, in Icarus, vol.41, 1980

  • "An interesting, systematic presentation of unusual weather [..] This book is recommended for a general audience" --"Corliss, William R., Tornados, Dark Days, Anomalous Precipitation, and Related Weather Phenomena, Sourcebook Project, 1983.", revieweed in Choice, September 1983
  • "..the science is necessarily somewhat speculative, but Corliss's symthesis is based on reputable sources." -- "Corliss, William R. (Compiler). Lightning, Auroras, Nocturnal Lights, and Related Luminous Phenomena" reviwed by Joseph M. Moran, Univ. of Wisconsin in Science Books and Films, Sep/Oct 1983

  • "Before opening the book, I set certain standards that a volume which treads into dangerous grounds grounds like this must meet. The author scrupulously met, or even exceeded those standards. Each phenomenon is exhaustively documented, with references to scientific journals [..] and extensive quotations" -- "Book Review: The moon and planets: a catalog of astronomical anomalies", The Sourcebook Project, 1985., Corliss, W. R., Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Vol. 81, no. 1 (1987), p. 24., 02/1987