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  1. #1

    Giants of the Ocean (Part 1)

    Giants Of The Ocean
    Susan Casey, National Post Monday, Sept. 20, 2010

    57.5 N, 12.7 W, 175 MILES OFF THE COAST OF SCOTLAND FEBRUARY 8, 2000

    The clock read midnight when the 100-foot wave hit the ship, rising from the North Atlantic out of the darkness. Among the ocean's terrors a wave this size was the most feared and the least understood, more myth than reality -- or so people had thought. This giant was certainly real. As the RRS Discovery plunged down into the wave's deep trough, it heeled 28 degrees to port, rolled 30 degrees back to starboard, then recovered to face the incoming seas. What chance did they have, the 47 scientists and crew aboard this research cruise gone horribly wrong? A series of storms had trapped them in the black void east of Rockall, a volcanic island nicknamed Waveland for the nastiness of its surrounding waters. More than 1,000 wrecked ships lay on the seafloor below.

    Captain Keith Avery steered his vessel directly into the onslaught, just as he'd been doing for the past five days. While weather like this was common in the cranky North Atlantic, these giant waves were unlike anything he'd encountered in his 30 years of experience. And worse, they kept rearing up from different directions. Flanking all sides of the 295-foot ship, the crew kept a constant watch to make sure they weren't about to be sucker punched by a wave that was sneaking up from behind, or from the sides. No one wanted to be out here right now, but Avery knew their only hope was to remain where they were, with their bow pointed into the waves. Turning around was too risky; if one of these waves caught Discovery broadside, there would be long odds on survival. It takes 30 tons per square metre of force to dent a ship. A breaking 100-foot wave packs 100 tons of force per square metre and can tear a ship in half. Above all, Avery had to position Discovery so that it rode over these crests and wasn't crushed beneath them.

    He stood barefoot at the helm, the only way he could maintain traction after a refrigerator toppled over, splashing out a slick of milk, juice and broken glass (no time to clean it up--the waves just kept coming). Up on the bridge everything was amplified, all the night noises and motions, the slamming and the crashing, the elevator-shaft plunges into the troughs, the frantic wind, the swaying and groaning of the ship; and now, as the waves suddenly grew even bigger and meaner and steeper, Avery heard a loud bang coming from Discovery's foredeck. He squinted in the dark to see that the 50-man lifeboat had partially ripped from its 2-inch-thick steel cleats and was pounding against the hull.

    Below deck, computers and furniture had been smashed into pieces. The scientists huddled in their cabins nursing bruises, black eyes and broken ribs. Attempts at rest were pointless. They heard the noises too; they rode the free falls and the sickening barrel rolls; and they worried about the fact that a 6-foot-long window next to their lab had already shattered from the twisting. Discovery was almost 40 years old, and recently she'd undergone major surgery. The ship had been cut in half, lengthened by 33 feet, and then welded back together. Would the joints hold? No one really knew. No one had ever been in conditions like these.

    One of the two chief scientists, Penny Holliday, watched as a chair skidded out from under her desk, swung into the air and crashed onto her bunk. Holliday, fine boned, porcelain-doll pretty and as tough as any man on board the ship, had sent an e-mail to her boyfriend, Craig Harris, earlier in the day. "This isn't funny anymore," she wrote. "The ocean just looks completely out of control." So much white spray was whipping off the waves that she had the strange impression of being in a blizzard. This was Waveland all right, an otherworldly place of constant motion that took you nowhere but up and down; where there was no sleep, no comfort, no connection to land, and where human eyes and stomachs struggled to adapt, and failed.

    Ten days ago Discovery had left port in Southampton, England, on what Holliday had hoped would be a typical 3-week trip to Iceland and back (punctuated by a little seasickness perhaps, but nothing major). Along the way they'd stop and sample the water for salinity, temperature, oxygen and other nutrients. From these tests the scientists would draw a picture of what was happening out there, how the ocean's basic characteristics were shifting, and why.

    These are not small questions on a planet that is 71% covered in salt water. As the Earth's climate changes -- as the inner atmosphere becomes warmer, as the winds increase, as the oceans heat up -- what does all this mean for us? Trouble, most likely, and Holliday and her colleagues were in the business of finding out how much and what kind. It was deeply frustrating for them to be lashed to their bunks rather than out on the deck lowering their instruments. No one was thinking about Iceland anymore.

    The trip was far from a loss, however. During the endless trains of massive waves, Discovery itself was collecting data that would lead to a chilling revelation. The ship was ringed with instruments; everything that happened out there was being precisely measured, the sea's fury captured in tight graphs and unassailable numbers. Months later, long after Avery had returned everyone safely to the Southampton docks, when Holliday began to analyze these figures, she would discover that the waves they had experienced were the largest ever scientifically recorded in the open ocean. The significant wave height, an average of the largest 33% of the waves, was 61 feet, with frequent spikes far beyond that. At the same time, none of the state-of-the-art weather forecasts and wave models-- the information upon which all ships, oil rigs, fisheries and passenger boats rely -- had predicted these behemoths. In other words, under this particular set of weather conditions, waves this size should not have existed. And yet they did.

    History is full of eyewitness accounts of giant waves, monsters in the 100-foot range and beyond, but until very recently scientists dismissed them. The problem was this: According to the basic physics of ocean waves, the conditions that would produce a 100-footer were so far beyond rare as to virtually never happen. Anyone who claimed to have seen one, therefore, was engaging in nautical tall tales or outright lies.

    Still, it was hard to discount a report from the polar hero Ernest Shackleton, hardly the type for hysterical exaggeration. On his crossing from Antarctica to South Georgia Island in April 1916, Shackleton noticed odd movements in the night sky. "A moment later, I realized that what I had seen was not a rift in the clouds, but the white crest of an enormous wave," he wrote. "During 26 years experience of the ocean in all its moods I had not encountered a wave so gigantic. It was a mighty upheaval of the ocean, a thing quite apart from the big white-capped seas that had been our tireless enemies for many days." When the wave hit his ship, Shackleton and his crew were "flung forward like a cork," and the boat flooded. Fast bailing and major luck were all that saved them from capsizing. "Earnestly we hoped that never again would we encounter such a wave."

    The men on the 850-foot cargo ship Munchen would have seconded that, if any of them had survived their rendezvous with a similar wave on December 12, 1978. Considered unsinkable, the Munchen was a cutting-edge craft, the flagship of the German Merchant Navy. At 3:25 a.m. fragments of a Morse code Mayday, emanating from 450 miles north of the Azores, signaled that the vessel had suffered grave damage from a wave.

    But even after 110 ships and 13 aircraft were deployed -- the most com-prehensive search in the history of shipping -- the ship and its 27 crew were never seen again. A haunting clue was left behind: Searchers found one of the Munchen's lifeboats, usually stowed 65 feet above the water, floating empty. Its twisted metal fittings indicated that it had been torn away. "Something extraordinary" had destroyed the ship, concluded the official report.

    The Munchen's disappearance points to the main problem with proving the existence of a giant wave: If you run into that kind of nightmare, it's likely to be the last one you'll have. The force of waves is hard to overstate. An 18-inch wave can topple a wall built to withstand 125-mile-per-hour winds, for instance, and coastal advisories are issued for even five-foot-tall surf, which regularly kills people caught in the wrong places. The number of people who have witnessed a 100-foot wave at close range and made it back home to describe the experience is a very small one.

  2. #2

    Re: Giants of the Ocean (Part 2)

    Even if a ship does manage to survive a 100-foot wall of water, there are no underwhelmed survivors. Big fish tales are human nature. Add to that a dose of mortal terror, honest confusion, a fear of being blamed for damage to the ship -- if, say, the wave didn't quite measure up to the "something extraordinary" test but managed to poleax the vessel anyway because the captain was below deck playing darts and drinking vodka at the time -- and what you've got is less than the scientifically immaculate truth.

    But there was a rare occasion in 1933, when a sharp-eyed naval officer aboard the 478-foot oil carrier USS Ramapo happened to be up on the bridge as an astonishing wave lurched out of the Pacific and his response, rather than screaming and covering his eyes, was to make a trigonometric calculation using the ship's dimensions relative to the wave 's crest and trough. The result was a height estimate that, if not on par with the exactitude of the Discovery's sensors, was at least defensible. And the officer's measurement? The wave was 112 feet high.

    If a 112-foot wave isn't freakish enough, consider that this one had leaped out of 45-foot seas. Thus it was more than twice the average size of anything else in the Ramapo's path, which matches the scientific definition for a freak (or rogue) wave. For centuries mariners had spoken of the "hole in the ocean," a cavernous trough at the base of an abnormally large wave, and the "three sisters," a series of freaks in rapid succession. To scientists this kind of folklore was a hard sell. The numbers didn't add up. Maybe, just maybe, a once-in-an-eon wave triple the size of its surrounding seas might exist -- but there was no way traditional oceanography could accept this as a typical occurrence. As for the notion of mutant walls of water showing up in sets, that was not even worth discussing. Then something happened that no one could ignore.

    On January 1, 1995, the North Sea was feisty due to a pair of storms, a brutish one crawling northward and a smaller one moving southward to meet it. Statoil's Draupner oil-drilling platform sat somewhere between them, about 100 miles off the tip of Norway. For the crew who lived on the rig it was a New Year's Day of 38-foot seas rolling by, as measured by the laser wave recorder on the platform's underside. Unpleasant, perhaps, but not especially dramatic -- until three o'clock in the afternoon, when an 85-foot wave came careening over the horizon and walloped the rig at 45 miles per hour. While the Draupner sustained only moderate damage, the proof was there. This wasn't a case of laser malfunction or too many aquavit toasts the night before. It was the first confirmed measurement of a freak wave, more than twice as tall and steep as its neighbours, a teetering maniac ripping across the North Sea.

    They were out there all right. You could call them whatever you wanted -- rogues, freaks, giants -- but the bottom line was that no one had accounted for them. The engineers who'd built the Draupner rig had calculated that once every 10,000 years the North Sea might throw them a 64-foot curveball in 38-foot seas. That would be the maximum. Eighty-five-foot waves were not part of the equation, not in this universe anyway. But the rules had changed. Now scientists had a set of numbers that pointed to an unsettling truth: Some of these waves make their own rules. Suddenly the emphasis shifted from explaining why giant waves couldn't simply leap out of the ocean to figuring out how it was that they did.

    This was a matter of much brow sweat for the oil industry, which would prefer that its multimillion-dollar rigs not be swept away. It had happened before. In 1982 the Ocean Ranger, a 400-foot-long, 337-foot-high oil platform located 170 miles off the coast of Newfoundland, was struck by an outsize wave in heavy weather. We'll never know how big the wave was exactly, for there were no survivors. Approved for "unrestricted ocean operations," built to withstand 110-foot seas and 115-mile-per-hour winds, considered "indestructible" by its engineers, the Ocean Ranger had capsized and sank close to instantly, killing all 84 people on board.

    In the nautical world things were even more troubling. Across the global seas ships were meeting these waves, from megaton vessels like the Munchen -- oceangoing freighters and tankers and bulk carriers -- down to recreational sailboats. At best, the encounters resulted in damage; at worst, the boat vanished, taking all hands with it. "Two large ships sink every week on average [worldwide], but the cause is never studied to the same detail as an air crash. It simply gets put down to 'bad weather,' " said Dr. Wolfgang Rosenthal, senior scientist for the MaxWave Project, a consortium of European scientists that convened in 2000 to investigate the disappearing ships.

    While Rosenthal's numbers may be high, his point is well taken. Given the lack of survivors or evidence, exact statistics of ships scuttled by giant waves are impossible to come by; but it is clear that every year, on average, more than two dozen large ships sink or otherwise go missing, taking their crews along with them. (If you also consider smaller vessels, the numbers are vastly higher.) In particular, a type of ship known as a bulk carrier is vulnerable: On one infamous occasion in March 1973, two bulk carriers were lost within an hour of each other in the same area of the North Atlantic.

    When I first read about the missing ships, I was astonished. In the high-tech marine world of radar, EPIRB, GPS and satellite surveillance, how could hundreds of enormous vessels just get swallowed up by the sea? And furthermore, how could this be happening without much media notice? Imagine the headlines if even a single 747 slipped off the map with all its passengers and was never heard from again.

    Clearly, there was something extraordinary going on out there. After the Draupner incident, it became undeniable: No one really had a clue as to how waves behaved in their most extreme forms. Yet lives depended on this information. As the scientists scrambled and the oil companies mobilized and the naval architects double-checked their calculations and ship captains worried the horizon, I imagine they thought to themselves: So the old stories were true after all.

    -Excerpted from The Wave. Copyright 2010 Susan Casey. Published by Doubleday Canada, an imprint of the Doubleday Canada Publishing Group, which is a division of Random House of Canada Limited.

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