THEORY AND REALITY
The hair on the back of my neck didn't rise until I called Richard Seymour, a research engineer who teaches at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography's Center for Coastal Studies, San Diego, California, to talk about different types of waves and how small boats should best approach them. When I asked him if he ever saw a rogue wave, he answered yes - once off Point Loma, in the same vicinity as the one that has it in for me.
For him and most oceanographers, the idea of a rogue wave is no joke. "This is a wave that a good seaman wouldn't anticipate," explains Seymour, who helped assemble the Coastal Data Information Program (CDIP) Web site (cdip.ucsd.edu), which uses weather buoy data to model and predict inshore wave activity along the West Coast. Although some oceanographers maintain rogue waves occur only during intense storms, the term has been extended to include any freakish wave that's substantially larger than the surrounding seas.
So how likely is the average recreational boater to encounter a rogue wave? A classic rogue, the kind that peaks up to 75 or 100 feet, smashes the bridge windows of supertankers, and turns aircraft carriers into surfboards, generally occur only in storms. Bluewater mariners can go a lifetime without seeing one.
On the other hand, there was that 18'-high, 27-mile-long wave that lurched up out of the Atlantic on the night of July 3, 1992, smashing hundreds of cars and injuring 75 people in Daytona Beach, Florida. But seismologists attributed it to an undersea landslide. If it had happened during the day, dozens of boaters would have gotten an instant lesson in tidal wave seamanship.
A true rogue results when two or more waves of different sizes, moving generally from the same direction, meet at one point for an instant. "It's like rolling the dice," explains William Van Dorn, professor emeritus at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, whose book, Oceanography and Seamanship, is a bible for offshore boaters. "An accumulation of waves into a rogue, which always breaks, is a random occurrence."