Call anything rogue or monster and it immediately assumes a thrilling unreality found in science-fiction and horror tales. And yet, as we roll into summer and another hurricane season, the talk of rogue and monster ocean waves has been gaining, with scientific researchers in England and Germany recently publishing evidence that these waves might be much larger and more frequent than previously thought.
Technically, a rogue wave occurs when strong wind charges the ocean with its energy. And some rogues seem to derive energy from the depths of the ocean. Inshore boaters would seem immune from such nightmarish conditions.
But on June 7 off Harwichport, a 34-foot fishing boat, Chamy, called the Coast Guard because a rogue slammed into it so hard that its pump system was disabled, and Chamy was taking on water. Since the fishing boat was only about 10 miles from land, the rescue was not difficult, where 100 miles offshore the story might have had a different ending.
Then there was the case last August of a fishing boat near Nomans Island (off the southwest corner of Martha's Vineyard) on a day described as moderately inclement with winds between 10-15 knots out of the south. There was a small-craft advisory, but those conditions rarely keep boats from going out.
Scott Terry, a 52-year-old commercial fisherman from Martha's Vineyard and his teenage mate, Mitchell Pachico, left the dock before dawn on a 24-foot twin-outboard fishing boat. As they made their way from Gay Head toward Nomans -- a former Naval bombing target about 3 miles off Martha's Vineyard -- Terry said a ``good swell" began to run, but nothing severe. A lobsterman pulling his traps in the area, says Terry, who added that while he goes to the best fishing grounds possible, he would never test himself, his crew or his boat with conditions he considers dangerous.
Terry and Pachico were bouncing live eels off the bottom to entice striped bass, when, out of nowhere, a wall of water 15-20 feet high rolled into them, lifting the boat to the top just as the wave crested, flipping the boat. Though not a rogue because of its location, the wave did conform to one rogue characteristic: It was more than twice the height of any of the other waves.
Terry and Pacheco saved themselves by clinging to the bottom of the boat as long as they could, then making it safely onto the rocky shore of Nomans, where the Coast Guard picked them up in a helicopter. Luck and clear thinking helped save them, but if the incident occurred farther offshore, the outcome might well have been different.
Some people believe the sudden upheaval of water might have been created by the meeting of a coastal riptide and a large, incoming swell. Terry, an experienced fisherman, told the Globe last August:
``I've seen lots of swells and a lot of big waves. I've fished in a lot of tough conditions before. But I've never seen anything like that. It just came out of nowhere."
As the ocean stretches get exponentially larger offshore, so do the waves, and the rogues encountered at sea can be as high as 10-story buildings. The scientists are trying to make out whether there are more such waves today, or whether they're just being tracked more readily with newer technology.
In September 1995, the Queen Elizabeth II, en route from Cherbourg, France, to New York City encountered a pair of rogues, possibly spawned by Hurricane Luis, which had forced the liner to alter its course. Still, it had run into seas averaging nearly 60 feet before encountering the first wave around 4 a.m. It smashed out the ship's grand lounge windows, over 70 feet above the water line. Then, according to the ship's log:
``At 0410 the rogue wave was sighted right ahead, looming out of the darkness from 220 [degrees]. It looked as though the ship was heading straight for the White Cliffs of Dover. The wave seemed to take ages to arrive but it was probably less than a minute before it broke with tremendous force over the bow. An incredible shudder went through the ship, followed a few minutes later by two smaller shudders. There seemed to be two waves in succession as the ship fell into the `hole' behind the first one. The second wave of 28-29 meters [95 feet] whilst breaking, crashed over the foredeck, carrying away the forward whistle mast."
Once in a decade such a wave might not be especially threatening. But according to scientists who have begun using satellite tracking techniques to record rogue or giant waves, the occurrences are becoming more common as reports of encounters with ships have increased in the last few years. In one three-week stretch, 10 rogue waves were tracked on satellite.
``We thought we'd have difficulties finding so many large waves," Wolfgang Rosenthal, a German researcher told National Geographic, ``but roughly two ships each week are affected."
This spring, the British team released a report of storm waves so huge in the North Sea near Scotland that they exceed the design specifications of safety standards for ships and oil rigs.
Reported in Spiegel magazine, a team from the National Oceanography Center of Britain became pinned down in a Force 9 storm around 155 miles west of Scotland in which the waves -- according to recording devices aboard their 300-foot ship -- hit heights of 98 feet. Said project leader Naomi Holliday, not only were the waves much larger than expected, they came in clusters. ``We were shaken up by these waves for 12 hours," said Holliday who reported that the ship lurched and rolled so violently that a 50-man lifeboat was torn loose and the chair in her cabin landed in her bunk.
In ``The Perfect Storm," a fictionalized account of the Gloucester fishing boat Andrea Gail sinking after a meeting with a giant wave off Sable Island, a very rare alignment of weather conditions conspired to kick up such freakish conditions. But according to a growing body of meteorological evidence, such rogue waves are neither as freakish nor as rare as the boating world once took comfort in believing