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Soundings - - Contents - Kim Kavin

con­tends rogue waves may ex­plain some of the mys­ter­ies of the Ber­muda Tri­an­gle.

Few boat­ing re­gions in­spire more mys­tery and spec­u­la­tion than the Ber­muda Tri­an­gle. Since the days of Christo­pher Colum­bus, sto­ries of ev­ery­thing from strange fires and the lost city of At­lantis to sunken ships and van­ish­ing planes have come out of the 500,000-squaremile patch of wa­ter bor­dered by south­east Flor­ida, Puerto Rico and Ber­muda.

Now, with some help from a three- part Bri­tish TV doc­u­men­tary called “The Ber­muda Tri­an­gle Enigma,” a re­searcher with the Na­tional Oceanog­ra­phy Cen­tre at the Uni­ver­sity of Southamp­ton is putting forth a the­ory: Rogue waves may ac­count for at least some of the un­solved boat­ing mys­ter­ies.

“These things do oc­cur,” Si­mon Box­all told Sound­ings, “and they can ex­plain some of these dis­ap­pear­ances.”

Here in the United States, the Na­tional Oceanic and At­mo­spheric Ad­min­is­tra­tion (NOAA) says rogue waves were the stuff of le­gend for cen­turies, un­til just the past few decades. NOAA de­fines rogue waves as be­ing un­pre­dictable, more than twice the size of sur­round­ing waves, and of­ten com­ing from direc­tions op­posed to pre­vail­ing wind and waves, but it doesn’t have any more de­fin­i­tive in­for­ma­tion, be­cause the chance to do ac­tual mea­sure­ments and anal­y­sis of a rogue wave is ex­tremely rare.

Box­all agrees that get­ting real data is tough: “A rogue wave ex­ists for a mo­ment in time, a minute or two. They’re very hard to mea­sure. You have to be in the right place at the right time to mea­sure one.” But he adds that mod­ern satel­lite tech­nol­ogy has proved they ex­ist. That data, along with ac­counts from some pro­fes­sional sea­men who’ve en­coun­tered rogue waves, have pro­vided some clues about where and how they form.

“The places where you get more rogue waves than any­where else, one is off Cape Horn and the other is off the Cape of Good Hope,” Box­all says. “That’s based on physics and satel­lite im­agery.”

Any sin­gle storm in any sin­gle ocean can pro­duce waves of about 30 to 40 feet, ac­cord­ing to Box­all. “That’s still pretty big. But if you get storms in dif­fer­ent places at the same time, waves in­ter­act with each other. They add up. They can­cel out. If you get two or three waves com­ing to­gether

from dif­fer­ent storms, you can get a big wave, a 100-foot wave.”

The Ber­muda Tri­an­gle, he says, is vul­ner­a­ble to this type of oc­cur­rence. Storms can come from the north or the south, from across the At­lantic or from “Hur­ri­cane Al­ley” in the Caribbean. “It is an area where we do see a lot of trop­i­cal storms com­ing across,” Box­all says. “You get the tail end of those bor­der­ing on hur­ri­canes at the south end of the tri­an­gle. And the Ba­hamas do get lit­tle hur­ri­canes, and that can cause dis­ap­pear­ances.”

Rogue waves, he adds, only ever oc­cur with storms. “You’re never go­ing to have a flat-calm sea and then sud­denly the yacht gets hit out of the blue by this big wave. That doesn’t hap­pen.

Even pro­fes­sional sailors who im­merse them­selves in weather fore­casts some­times get caught off-guard by fast-form­ing storms, not to men­tion storm con­ver­gences. Box­all re­calls talk­ing to Volvo Ocean Race sailors at Cape Town, South Africa, and hav­ing a crew re­count a rogue wave as the scari­est thing they’d ever come across. “They de­scribed it as fall­ing through air,” he says. “They looked down and there was noth­ing there be­tween them and the ocean.”

Volvo Ocean Race boats have ev­ery mod- ern tech­nol­ogy for com­mu­ni­ca­tions, weather fore­cast­ing and more. Still, the crew had no warn­ing that they were about to be hit, and no time to re­act or ra­dio a mes­sage about what was hap­pen­ing. In other words, if the wave had sunk the boat, no­body would ever have had a first­hand ac­count of why it was gone. This is the ex­act type of in­for­ma­tion gap that mys­te­ri­ous boat dis­ap­pear­ances typ­i­cally have in com­mon.

“You’re not send­ing a May­day. You’re fall­ing,” Box­all says. “Through the Volvo Ocean Race, we did know that a yacht fell off one of these waves, but it’s the only time I’ve heard a di­rect re­port of it. And I’ve been an oceanog­ra­pher for 40 years.”

And if that’s what hap­pens to the pro­fes­sion­als, he adds, then imag­ine what hap­pens to in­ex­pe­ri­enced, un­trained boaters who may be nav­i­gat­ing by sight and us­ing only a cell­phone for com­mu­ni­ca­tions in one of the busiest boat­ing re­gions on the planet.

“If you look at the boat- own­ing pub­lic in Amer­ica, some­thing like just un­der one- third of all pri­vately owned boats and yachts, from the dinghies to the su­per yachts, are in the Ber­muda tri­an­gle—Flor­ida, Ber­muda, the Ba­hamas, that whole area,” Box­all says. “There’s a huge den­sity of pri­vately owned boats.”

Box­all thinks about that vol­ume of marine traf­fic in an area sub­ject to rogue waves when read­ing things like the U.S. Coast Guard’s 2017 Recre­ational Boat­ing Sta­tis­tics, which showed that 81 per­cent of fa­tal­i­ties hap­pened on boats whose op­er­a­tors had re­ceived no boat­ing safety in­struc­tion.

“That’s the big­gest prob­lem: a high pro­por­tion of leisure sailors and boat users, prob­a­bly a higher pro­por­tion there than any­where else in the world, and a lot of them are in­ex­pe­ri­enced,” Box­all says. “Put them to­gether and you have dis­ap­pear­ances.”

He adds, “As an oceanog­ra­pher, we get a lot of in­quiries on this. Peo­ple ask if the Ber­muda Tri­an­gle is real. The science be­hind it is, yeah, you get some strik­ing seas there, but it’s an area where you have a lot of peo­ple who don’t know what they’re do­ing.”

Box­all’s ad­vice to boaters who fear rogue waves is sim­ply to stay ashore if storms are in the fore­cast, and to bone up on seamanship skills as fre­quently as pos­si­ble. Be­cause con­trary to le­gend and lore, he says, what’s go­ing on in the Ber­muda Tri­an­gle is ac­tu­ally “pretty log­i­cal stuff.” —

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