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Are Modern Ships Totally Safe: Rogue Waves & Naval Architecture

written by: Dr. Crystal Cooper • edited by: Lamar Stonecypher • updated: 5/27/2009

Can a ship that is 956 feet and weighs 57,271 tons withstand the might of a monster wave bearing down upon it? You might be surprised to know that even modern naval architecture hardly takes into account the dangers to a ship due to monster waves

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    Rogue Waves and Naval Architecture

    You may be surprised to learn that modern naval architecture does not take into account the existence of monster waves, despite their frequently being the cause of shipping disasters.

    To recall, throughout most of history, rogue waves were thought to be myths only. Rogue wave on Lake Erie   When scientists grudgingly admitted to their existence, they also claimed that rogue waves rarely occurred. Even today, not enough data is being collected on them, such that the incidents of their appearance are still in dispute, with figures ranging from as low as ten a year to as high as one or two a week. This lack of consensus is based on limited observations, the use of data grid points that are approximately 15.5 miles apart, and calculations done using incorrect statistical methods. These assumptions on rogue wave frequency affect the way ships, offshore platforms, and coastal houses are designed and built.

    For example, ships and platforms, in accordance with international standards, are typically built to withstand waves of no more than 15 meters or 49 to 50 feet from crest to trough. International strength standards also recommend that ships withstand a maximum pressure of 15 tons per square meter or 3,072 pounds per square foot. To give a sense of perspective, a rogue wave may manifest pressures that are 100 tons per square meter, which is 20,480 pounds per square foot. Not even ships 200 - 295 meters (656 - 956 feet) in length are built to withstand forces of this type.

    For more information on modern day naval architecture, check out this Bright Hub article on risk based design.

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    The Future

    The discovery of the frequent occurrence of rogue waves has led governments and non-profits to place more resources into their study. Grand Haven Light House   The generation of proper mathematical models, numerical simulations, and the use of more satellites and sensors and other appropriate technology will help us understand monster waves better.

    You may learn more on the subject by exploring the recommendations in the resources section. Additionally, do a Google search on "rogue wave", "freak wave", and "monster wave". Use these same keywords on YouTube to find true-life accounts weathered by fortunate survivors. The number of incidents will astound - and dismay - you.

    It is to be hoped that one day science will help to prevent future tragedies such as that endured by the men of the Andrea Gail, whose bravery will be remembered throughout the generations.

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    Elements of Oceanography by J. Michael McCormick and John Thiruvathukal

    Freak Waves on

    Monster Waves on

    Rogue Waves in the Ocean by Christian Karif, Efim Pelinovsky and Alexey Slunyaev

    Image Credits

    House near Lake Erie October 30 1996, National Weather Service Forecast Office in Buffalo from

    Grand Haven lighthouse during storm, taken November 10, 1975, the same day the Edmund Fitzgerald sank. Photographer: Carl TerHaar, courtesy of NOAA.