As our boat accelerated toward the curling lip of an out-of-nowhere wave, time got rubbery. We cleared the breaker just before it crashed and discovered why boats weren't meant to fly. As two airborne seconds stretched into eternity, the ride turned eerily smooth, and the naked propeller allowed the engine to scream as all three of us floated above the deck like an animated Dali painting. Legs and hands searched for a secure hold as the boat rolled to starboard. Splashdown came with such a jolt, it's a wonder the boat didn't shatter. Somehow only one of us - me - got hurt. But what's a few fractured ribs in exchange for an "I survived a rogue wave" bumper sticker?
That was last May. A few months later, another sneaky roller bagged me - and in the same location, off Point Loma in San Diego. Both times the waters were choppy but not overly rough. We were above a 50-foot bottom, with the wave moving up on us astonishingly fast. And both times everybody onboard started babbling about rogue waves. My wife is positive that my rogue wave stories are a cover for hotdogging too near the surf zone. To her, and many others as well, the existence of colossal walls of water that come out of nowhere remain a quaint legend of the sea, like the Green Flash at sunset (which I can also personally vouch for).
Even the law holds rogue waves in the realm of mythology. A man who blamed a rogue wave for the mysterious disappearance of his millionaire wife - a competition swimmer - was spinning a fishy alibi, concluded the Orange County, California, district attorney. Eric Bechler maintains that his wife was towing him on a body board behind a rented 19' runabout four miles off Newport Beach in 1997 when a rogue wave knocked him off the board. When he came up, the boat was circling and his wife gone. After two years of chin scratching, prosecutors finally charged him with murder.
His story may be a scam, but what if he's telling the truth? And what if the jury doesn't buy it? For Bechler, who has pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial, and us boaters as well, the validity of his story - and rogue waves - could mean the difference between life and death. And if they do exist, is there a way to survive them?