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Rogue Waves: Anatomy of a Monster

Mar 1, 2018

Rogue Waves: Anatomy of a Monster
by Michel Olagnon
Bloomsbury 2017
160 pages

Unpredicted and thus far unpredictable waves of vast height and sudden destructive power have long animated the imagination and concern of deepwater sailors. They kill or injure crews; they sink ships and yachts.

As long ago as 1967, the noted yachtsman and maritime author Adlard Coles wrote what was then the definitive bluewater cautionary guide for intrepid voyagers. The book was called Heavy Weather Sailing. In it, Coles devoted a chapter to the most feared of oceanic phenomena. The term he coined for them was “freak” waves.

Now, half a century later, a book by Michel Olagnon, an engineer at the French Institute of Maritime Research, attempts to unravel the mystery of these terrifying occurrences while at the same time offering yachtsmen unlucky enough to encounter the monsters some practical tools for dealing with them.

The book provides a good deal of anecdotal evidence that the so-called rogue wave actually exists. But at the heart of Olagnon’s research are the chapters that explore what the author describes as the “life” of all waves and the full-blown development of catastrophic, or rogue, waves out of what he calls “honest” waves.

The thrust of the text is technical and its translation from the original French at times plodding and stilted. Nevertheless, readers would do well to persevere. Olagnon’s work is an important resource for oceangoing mariners. The men and women who sail for pleasure or for profit will glean from his study valuable information about a deadly and poorly understood force of nature that is as old as the sea itself.

The major topics covered include the creation and eventual death of skyscraper-sized waves as well as practical means of avoiding or mitigating the full force of their impact. And in an epilogue, Olagnon discusses worldwide research efforts now underway that are designed to create computer simulations of rogue waves based on mathematical models.

The objective, he tells us, is to predict. He quotes Kristian Dysthe, a meteorological researcher working in Bergen, Norway, as saying that scientists eventually will discover a means of pinpointing and timing the birth and life cycle of rogue waves.

“Of that I am sure,” Dysthe asserts. “It is what the equations tell us. But it could take a while. We need more powerful computers. Sure, we have here an excellent [mathematical] theory which will soon be validated.”

Yet for Dysthe and other workers in the field of oceanic research, the “why” of the giant waves remains elusive. “I am afraid,” he says, “we will never know [beyond computational modeling] if this is really what happens out in the wild.”

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