Skippers and captains from the earliest of times have reported freak waves of monstrous proportions, slamming into their ships sometimes causing massive amounts of damage and perhaps sometimes sinking them with little or no warning. For many years, these waves were thought to be mythical in nature and that there must have been some other logical explanation for the damage inflicted upon these ships or their sudden disappearance. It wasn’t until the last few decades that the answer was finally discovered; they are most certainly real.
I wasn’t sure myself until I was watching an episode of the Deadliest Catch on the Discovery Channel. It’s a show about crab fisherman, their life aboard a fishing vessel and the dangers of working in the Bering Sea. Each ship has two cameras constantly rolling, observing the deckhands and the skipper. On this particular stormy night, the 100 foot long Aleutian Ballad was broadsided by a rogue wave knocking it on its side, almost sinking the 100 foot ship. It was caught on video (see below).
They aren’t that common, but for those who encounter one, an indelible impression will forever be imprinted within their mind.
Large swells form when the wind is blowing strong, in same direction, for a long period of time. When happens, swells can grow to 50 feet or more. A swell of this height usually doesn’t “break” in full height, but the top of the swell may form a whitecap.
Rogue waves on the other hand do break. What causes rogue waves is a bit of a mystery, but it’s believed they form when normal large swells, as mentioned above, interact with a strong ocean current. This forces the swell vertically which can reach heights of 100 feet or more. Theoretical mathematical models indicate rogue waves could potentially reach heights of 190 feet.
Another way in which large waves, perhaps rogue waves, form is when two swells combine into one large swell for a short period of time. This is called wave reinforcement and can cause relatively large waves to form in small seas. For example, if the seas are averaging 15 foot swells and if two 15 foot swells collide with one another, a 30 foot swell is produced. This isn’t that common because swells usually propagate in the same direction. But in confused seas where two currents collide, wave reinforcement can occur and form abnormally large swells with little or no warning.
During World War II, British cruise liners were converted to carry troops from the United States to Europe. One such vessel was the “RMS Queen Elizabeth.” A rogue wave struck the ship near Greenland in 1942, shattering windows 90 feet above the waterline and nearly rolling the ship. It recovered and narrowly averted an unprecedented maritime disaster — the ship was carrying more than 10,000 troops at the time
It’s now believed that rogue waves have probably inflicted more damage on ships throughout history than previously thought. Many believed throughout history captains over-exaggerated wave heights, perhaps not on purpose but due to the fact it’s difficult to gauge wave height when there is nothing around to provide a frame of reference. However, after analyzing radar images of worldwide oceans taken over a period of three weeks, the ESA’s MaxWave Project found 10 waves 82 feet (25 meters) or higher. That was an astonishingly high number for such a relatively short time span; it forced scientists to seriously rethink their ideas on rogue waves (Source: How Stuff Works).