Rogue Waves

Rogue Waves

Poseidon Rolls

The fictional Poseidon is engulfed by a rogue wave, rolling onto her port side and killing all but a few of her passengers and crew. (From the Warner Bros. film Poseidon)

For centuries, seamen have told tales about encounters with astonishing waves. Perhaps because some sailors have a penchant for exaggeration, all too often such stories were dismissed as absurd. However, in more recent years, the facts about what are now known as “rogue waves” have become clearer: among newer items added to the growing list of “knowns” are photos and video of rogue waves in action, as well as hard evidence in the way of damage done to ships that survived encounters. With more encounters, and more details, there has also been increased awareness in film and media.

On May 12, 2006, the Warner Bros. film Poseidon, (1 hr. 38 minutes, rated PG-13 [US]) was released in the United States. A remake of the 1972 Irwin Allen production, The Poseidon Adventure, itself based on a novel by Paul Gallico, the film was directed by Wolfgang Petersen (director of The Perfect Storm, which itself featured a rogue wave for the film’s finale, and Air Force One). It starred Kurt Russel, Josh Lucas, Emmy Rossum, Jacinda Barrett, and Richard Dreyfuss.

PoseidonAMany fans of the 1972 film savaged the 2006 remake, apparently filled with ardor over many or most of the film’s details, acting, plot, and the like. However, one thing about the film that is truly astounding is its depiction of how the ill-fated Poseidon meets it demise. In this latest re-telling of the fictional story, an enormous cruise liner – the design of which was roughly based on the Queen Mary 2 – is swamped by a rogue wave, whereas the 1972 version of the film had the ship being lost to a tsunami caused by a sub-sea earthquake. How realistic was this modern day big-screen depiction?

Viewing the film itself without knowing anything about rogue waves, the enormity of the wave in a calm and sea might strike one as positively absurd, like the embodiment of all complaints of Hollywood exaggeration for the sake of awe-inspiring special effects. However, what might be surprising is that the depiction was actually a very accurate one. In fact, the 120-foot wave shown in the film was created by digital effects company ILM. They closely studied the behavior of water in order to develop new special effects software with the help of scientists from the Stanford University. The fact that the wave in the film struck during otherwise calm seas is not unheard of, either, for rogue waves.


In one of the most terrifying scenes of the film Poseidon, the capsized ship’s dining room windows implode, sending a cascade of seawater into the doomed vessel’s hull. (From the Warner Bros. film Poseidon)

Beyond Hollywood, we know of real ships which survived encounters with rogue waves. Indeed, in retrospect, it seems that the Lusitania encountered at least two rogue waves during her career. (The incidents are discussed at length in my book Lusitania: An Illustrated Biography.)

In recent years a number of ships and their passengers and crew have also survived rogue waves, bringing back hard evidence of the damage they caused, as well as photographic records of them. In April 1966, the Italian liner Michelangelo  encountered an unusually large wave and took significant damage; three people were killed. Some of the ship’s lighter steel was torn through like paper; it was replaced with tougher steel when the ship was rebuilt, and other vessels were given similar strengthening, as well.

On September 11, 1995, Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth 2 had a terrifying encounter with a rogue wave. The ship was west-bound in the Atlantic, set to arrive in New York the following day. Hurricane Luis was churning up heavy seas and large waves; Captain Warwick reported 130mph winds and wave heights of 40 feet. At 4:10 a.m., a rogue wave nearly 100 feet tall – which looked like the “white cliffs of Dover” – was sighted right ahead, at eye level with those on the Bridge. It took some seconds for the wave to close in and break over the bow. At least one other large wave was hard on the heels of the first; the ship fell into the trough behind the first, and the second wave then crashed over the bow, tearing off the whistle mast and wreaking further havoc.

Canadian weather buoys in the area measured a rogue wave with a height of 98 feet, helping to confirm that the height of the waves which struck the QE2 were no exaggeration.

Other cruise ships have had similar encounters. In 2005 the Norwegian Dawn encountered a rogue that was roughly 70 feet high; in 2006, the Norwegian Spirit encountered another off Tortola.

On Wednesday, March 3, 2010, the cruise ship Louis Majesty encountered a series of three “abnormally high” waves while sailing in the waters off the northeast coast of Spain. At the time she was reportedly carrying some 1,350 passengers and 580 crew. The Louis Majesty is a 40,876 gross ton vessel with a length of nearly 700 feet — in other words, a rather substantial cruise ship only somewhat smaller than the Titanic. The waves reportedly damaged the public portion on deck 5 of the ship, killing 2 and injuring at least six.

Fortunately, in each of these cases, the cruise ship survived. However, it is probably only a matter of time before one of these rogue waves catches a cruise ship broadside, instead of head-on. What could be the outcome of such a scenario? The film Poseidon explores that very real threat. Also of interest, the History Channel aired a documentary called, Rogue Waves which deals with these monsters, and discusses the accuracy of the movie itself. Some of the Blu-ray editions of Poseidon have the History Channel documentary as a bonus on the disc.