HERITAGE MATTERS

Rogues of the ocean seas

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  • The <I>Marques</B>, leaving Bermuda in the 1984 Tall Ships Race. (Photo by Richard Lee)

    The Marques, leaving Bermuda in the 1984 Tall Ships Race. (Photo by Richard Lee)

  • Bird's eye view: Rogue wave approaches the Pacific Fortune, captured on camera by Allan Davidson in early 1960.

    Bird's eye view: Rogue wave approaches the Pacific Fortune, captured on camera by Allan Davidson in early 1960.

  • The Italian cruise liner Michelangelo, with damage to her bow and bridge from a rogue wave in 1966. (Photo by Allan Davidson).

    The Italian cruise liner Michelangelo, with damage to her bow and bridge from a rogue wave in 1966. (Photo by Allan Davidson).

  • Ill-fated tower: Twenty miles southwest of Bermuda, ĎArgus Islandí under construction, from the air on July 13, 1960. (Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Pinning).

    Ill-fated tower: Twenty miles southwest of Bermuda, ĎArgus Islandí under construction, from the air on July 13, 1960. (Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Pinning).


Waves rise as mountains

And rise to the heavens,

And with horror drops glances

Into instantly dug abysses

A disturbing force like passion,

does not know of a centre point,

Now to the sky, now into the precipice throws

A boat without an oar or rudder. Poem by AK Tolstoy

For eons, sailors have told tales of frighteningly freakish, humongous waves emerging out of the blue. They have described completely calm ocean waters seconds before a “rogue” wave suddenly rises steeply at a height six or more times greater than usual waves. ‘The wave appears, it destroys whatever is in its path, and then it's gone,' says Kaplan. Until the 1990s, the phenomenon remained a mystery. In 1995, however, a rogue wave was measured hitting an oil-drilling platform in the North Sea off the coast of Norway. The wave had formed 26 meters [85 feet] in height as tall as a ten-storey building while most waves in the region were seven metres (22 feet) high.Physicist Lev Kaplan, Tulane University, 2009

Bashed by the Atlantic Ocean from time almost immemorial, or at least for a million years or so, Bermuda may have experienced a number of rogue waves over the course of its existence. As far as we know, no such extra-large wave has crashed against our shores since Juan de Bermudez discovered the place for humans in the late autumn of 1505, while on his way home to Spain after a period in the “New World” of New Spain in the Caribbean. By present times, such waves had achieved something of a mythical status but it was only in 1995 that scientific evidence was had of such occurrences on the ocean seas. On New Year's Day, a giant wave hit the Draupner oil platform in the North Sea and a laser sensor machine, with a paper tape record, caught the event for the first time in history.

In a body of water where waves up to 39 feet are not exceptionally, the New Year's Day swell topped out at 85 feet, causing some damage to the oil rig platform. Near to home, a piratical swell struck another type of ocean platform, built on Argus, or Plantagenet, Bank, one of the three peaks of Mount Bermuda, some 20 miles to the southwest of the island in 1970. That platform, sometimes erroreously referred to as a ‘Texas Tower', was constructed by the United States Navy in 1960s to spy on Russian submarines passing Bermuda on their way to Cuba. Argus Island, as the platform was named, was built in 1960 by engineers J. Ray McDermott in Louisiana to withstand waves of up to 50 feet in height. In 1970, a 70-foot wave smashed into the Argus platform, following which it was abandoned, as it had become destabilised. It was toppled onto the underwater seamount four years later. Its end would have come in due course anyway, as the Soviet empire collapsed in 1989, negating the need to track its submarines off Bermuda.

Another incident related to Bermuda that occasioned a serious loss of life was the swamping of the “tall ship” Marques, which was taking part in an ocean race out of the island in 1984. Jerry Kirshenbaum wrote on the event in Sports Illustrated soon after.

“Hopes were rapidly fading early this week that any additional survivors would be found from the mishap in the Atlantic that befell the 117-foot British square-rigged bark Marques. The ill-fated ship, one of 42 entered in the Bermuda-Nova Scotia leg of a series of Tall Ships races, sank in stormy seas early Sunday morning 80 miles north of Bermuda. Of the 28 people aboard, including 13 Americans, nine were rescued. One body was recovered and 18 other people were missing, among them the American captain, Stuart A. Finlay, his wife, Aloma, and 15-month-old son, Christopher. Although a 3,600-square-mile search for survivors continued, a US Coast Guard spokesman said on Sunday: ‘Chances are not looking too good for those who are still missing.' If no more survivors are located, the death toll would be 19, equaling the loss of life in the storm-racked 1979 Fastnet, Britain's classic offshore race.”

Kirshenbaum went on to write: “The next leg, 800 miles to Halifax, Nova Scotia, began last Saturday afternoon. The following morning the ships, representing some 20 nations, encountered 35- to 40-knot winds and seas of 20 feet or more. These conditions forced three other ships to abandon the race, one of them after taking on water. Marques was stricken worst of all. As survivors later told it, the ship was hit by an especially fierce squall, and an ‘all hands on deck' alarm was sounded. Moments later the ship was knocked down by a devastating wave, according to at least one account. The vessel then was walloped by yet another wave and began to sink. Crewmembers on deck jumped or were washed overboard, and some of them clambered onto the ship's rafts, where one used a flare to signal for help. Most of those below decks apparently were trapped aboard the ship as she sank.”

As reported in The Royal Gazette a few weeks ago, a “freak wave” hit the supertanker Aegean Angel on December 30, 2010, killing two members of the crew; a third was airlifted to Bermuda for medical treatment. In early 1960, Bermudian master mariner, Allan Davidson witnessed a rogue wave, probably in excess of 60 feet, strike his ship, the 498-foot Furness Withy cargo vessel Pacific Fortune, and managed to take a picture of it from the bridge. One of the last Italian trans-Atlantic passenger ships, Michelangelo, hit a rogue wave in April, 1966 en route to New York and two passengers were killed immediately, with considerable damage meted out to the bow and superstructure.

Perhaps the most famous of modern ships to be affected by a rogue wave was the World Glory, one of the first supertankers. While transiting around the Cape of Good Hope in June 1968, fully loaded with crude oil, the ship encountered the wave, which, passing under the vessel, left its bow and stern suspended in mid-air. The World Glory snapped in half, causing one of the worst oceanic oil spills in history; only ten of its crew of 34 survived.

Probably Bermuda's most enduring connection with rogue waves is the infamous “triangle” of ocean seas to the southwest of the island. It is possible that some of the unexplained sinkings of ships in that legendary area were due to rogue waves, pure and simply water, not some science fiction type of devastating agent.

Edward Cecil Harris, MBE, JP, PHD, FSA is Executive Director of the National Museum of Bermuda, incorporating the Bermuda Maritime Museum. Comments may be made to director@bmm.bm or 704-5480.

Useful websites: www.bmm.bm

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Published Feb 12, 2011 at 9:00 am (Updated Feb 12, 2011 at 9:43 am)

HERITAGE MATTERS

Rogues of the ocean seas

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