The science and history of rogue waves, part three

I found another good video on YouTube about rogue waves, and this one actually talks at length about the dangers to offshore platforms and people on shore from rogue waves, using actual recent historical examples.

This is from the series When Nature Strikes Back and is an episode titled Freak Waves.

Sadly, that incident on the Irish Coast they described is not all that uncommon in lots of places.  Here in New England we hear about people being hit by waves and swept out to sea from time to time.  I remember a story from 2009 when a rogue wave generated by Hurricane Bill came up on a group of some 20 people at Acadia National Park in Maine.  At least 11 of those people were injured, and three people ended up in the water.  A seven-year old girl from New York City died after she was pulled from the water.

The documentary also talks about the Ocean Ranger disaster.  A rogue wave struck the Ocean Ranger (as it turns out, the same wave had just damaged another oil rig nearby, the Sedco 706) during a storm on 14 February 1982.  A porthole was damaged, letting a considerable amount of seawater into the ballast control room.  The damage caused short circuits that began opening and closing valves on the ballast tanks at random.  At 12:52 AM on February 15th, the Ocean Ranger sent out an SOS, and at 1:30 AM the crew announced that they were heading to the lifeboats.  It is unknown how many men made it off the rig before it sank just after 3 AM, but there were no survivors from the 84 man crew.  Some 22 bodies were recovered from the water.  All of the bodies recovered indicated the men had suffered from hypothermia before drowning.  In the same storm, a Soviet container ship also sank, with only 5 of the 37 crew members saved.

As scientific evidence for the reality of rogue waves mounts, it is still not enough to convince everybody that they are something that we should be concerned about.  Frequently the problem is the eternal trade-off between what is safe and how much it costs.

A good example of this is the way freight vessels are treated on the Great Lakes. Because the Great Lakes are inland bodies of fresh water, safety standards have generally tended to be a bit more lax than they are for seagoing vessels.  For example, most bulk carriers on the Great Lakes do not have separated watertight compartments the way an oceangoing vessel might.  And because ships do not suffer the same level of corrosion that they would in salt water, ships tend to last a lot longer.  The down side of that is that these older ships, with their older (and I would argue, unsafe) designs tend to be used far longer than similar ships would be out on the oceans in salt water.  An outstanding example of this is the bulk freighter SS St. Marys Challenger that was finally retired in 2013.  The ship was the last one on the Lakes to still be powered by steam.  It had originally been built in 1906 as the SS William P. Snyder.

Many of the improvements to safety on the lakes are due to the number of shipwrecks that took place in the 1950’s, 1960’s, and 1970’s.  Of course, the most famous of these is the SS Edmund Fitzgerald, which went down in November 1975 with all 29 crew members, and the shock of such a large vessel going down with its entire crew apparently inspired the song by Gordon Lightfoot.  The Edmund Fitzgerald is (so far) the largest ship ever to sink on the Great Lakes.  And although it is still not 100% certain, it is increasingly likely that the “Big Fitz” was sunk by a rogue wave when less than 18 miles away from safe harbor. Certainly scientists have determined that rogue waves do occur on Lake Superior.  I have embedded one of the better documentaries about the “Big Fitz” below.  Note the description of the giant waves by the captain of the Arthur M. Anderson, the closest vessel to the Edmund Fitzgerald.

Now, all of this doesn’t make me afraid to ever take a boat out to sea or anything like that.  But it does help me understand part of the risk, the same way that understanding the risks when I get behind the wheel of my car makes me a better driver.  It’s knowledge that has a practical sort of use, at least if you ever spend any time at sea.  And if nothing else, it shows how you would be a fool to take mother nature for granted, especially when you’re talking about the ocean.



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