Happy New Year! On New Year’s Day 1995, a sea monster capable of sinking ships and sending sailors to their deaths was documented for the first time. I am not speaking of a mythical serpent or another beasty, (which may or may not yet be discovered.) I am referring to a rogue wave — a wave often three to four times higher than any other wave in a given sea state. Rogue waves have been reported by sailors for thousands of years. Until recently, however, they have also been dismissed by scientists and even by other sailors as wild exaggerations and mere sea stories. All this changed on New Year’s Day in 1995 when a 60′ wave hit the Draupner gas platform in the North Sea.
What was different this time was that the platform was equipped with a downwards-pointing laser sensor which accurately recorded the wave. For the first scientists had an accurate plot of the wave shape and height. It fit exactly the descriptions given by sailors of a very steep and huge, breaking wave. The recording of the wave’s shape resolved once and for all the argument over whether rogue waves were real. The wave has become known as the “Draupner Wave” or the “New Year’s Day Wave.”
One of the reasons that scientists discounted sailor’s tales of rogue waves was that their standard mathematical model for estimating wave heights, a model that was pretty reliable most of the time, predicted that a wave of the size and shape of the reported rogue waves would only come along once every ten thousand years or so. In 2001, satellite laser scans of the ocean observed ten rogue waves during a three week period. “We thought we’d have difficulties finding so many large waves,” said Wolfgang Rosenthal, a research scientist at Germany’s GKSS research center. “But roughly two ships each week are affected.”