What Are Rogue Waves

What Are Rogue Waves
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The Perfect Storm is a movie based on the book of the same name by Sebastian Junger.

It is the true story of the Andrea Gail, a commercial fishing ship that left port from Gloucester Maine late October 1991, heading for the North Atlantic. Its captain was Billy Tyne, and he had a crew of five hardy men. While they are in the process of pursuing their livelihood, they are unexpectedly caught in a very intense storm pattern. Their tragic demise has been attributed to a disastrous encounter with a rogue wave.

What Are Rogue Waves?

Rogue waves are also referred to as freak waves or killer waves by sailors, and as extreme storm waves by researchers. Unlike tsunamis, which are considered shallow water waves, they are deep water wind waves, because they are generated by the wind, and have a restoring gravitational force.

The Esso Languedoc

Rogue waves are characterized by heights more than twice the size of the waves surrounding them, with directions different from that of the wind and other nearby waves. They are also unusual because of their ability to achieve extreme heights. Normal ocean waves typically average heights of no more than 12 to 15 meters ( 39 to 49 feet), even in storms. Rogue waves however, can be much higher, and it is not unusual for them to be 80 to 100 feet. For a while they have been thought to be myths only, despite having been observed by sailors throughout the ages.

They were also once thought to be uncommon, occurring over a period of thousands of years, but this has been found to be false. More recently, it was speculated that there were about ten rogue waves in existence every year. However, ten of them were once spotted in a three week period, contradicting this belief. More importantly, satellites have now shown that they are a frequent, natural occurrence that happens not only during fierce storms but also in calm seas, and they are known to suddenly appear without any warning.

Rogue waves are no respecters of geography; incidents have been recorded in the North Atlantic, the South Atlantic, the Pacific, the Antarctic, and the South Indian Ocean. They are most common in the latter, particularly around South Africa.

In part two, we will look at rogue wave disasters on the sea and dry land.


Elements of Oceanography by J. Michael McCormick and John Thiruvathukal

Image Credits

An 18.3 meter (60 foot) rogue wave off the coast of South Carolina courtesy of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

The Esso Languedoc supertanker encountering a rogue wave off South Africa, by First Mate Philippe Lijou


True Life Video Where A Cruise Ship Encounters a Rogue Wave (Caution: not for the faint of heart!)

This post is part of the series: Introduction to Rogue Waves

An introduction to rogue waves, including discussions on their composition, history, tragic consequences, and their appearances in art, film, music, and literature.

  1. Rogue Wave - The Deadly Sea Monster
  2. Rogue Waves in Sea and Land Disasters
  3. Rogue Waves' Connection to Music Charts and Fantasy Art
  4. God’s Fist - Physics of Rogue Waves - I
  5. Dangers in Marine Navigation: The Physics of Rogue Waves II