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Extreme Waves

Extreme Waves

by Craig B Smith
Fortunately, few of us on shore or in a boat have ever looked out to sea and seen a wave as tall as a 10-story building racing toward us, and in that instant known that there was no way to outrun it, no way to survive, and that our life was about to come to an end. Yet, such waves exist, waves that appear suddenly in the open ocean, waves big enough to break the back


Fortunately, few of us on shore or in a boat have ever looked out to sea and seen a wave as tall as a 10-story building racing toward us, and in that instant known that there was no way to outrun it, no way to survive, and that our life was about to come to an end. Yet, such waves exist, waves that appear suddenly in the open ocean, waves big enough to break the back of modern crude oil tankers or bulk container ships and send them to the bottom before an SOS can be sent. Recently two large cruise ships were front page news when they suffered damage and injured passengers after being hit by rogue waves. Still more horrific was the disaster that overtook Southeast Asia on December 26, 2004, huge waves, hundreds of thousands dead.

This book traces the origins of waves, explaining how calm seas change to stormy seas under the influence of winds, how waves propagate, the effect of currents, tides, and earthquakes, and how ships and offshore structures respond to extreme waves. There is one hundred real life stories included in the book to illustrate the important topics—stories from U.S. Navy admirals responsible for nuclear carriers, to Brad Van Liew, who sailed single-handed through the most dangerous oceans in the world, to win the recent “Around the World Alone” race. There are ships that were hit and survived, and other vessels that did not survive. Each incident entails heroism, mostly unsung, beyond that which we can imagine experiencing.

Tsunami are not a result of rogue waves, but arise from earthquakes or submarine landslides. In the open ocean, a tsunami might pass undetected; it is only as it nears shallow waters near coastlines that its true terror and power are revealed. Here, is shallower water, large waves can occur. By understanding the mechanism of tsunami formation and propagation—and knowing the warning signs—many lives can be saved.

New research using satellites to scan the world’s oceans and measure wave heights has revealed that giant waves—so-called rogue waves, 20 to 30 meters (65 to nearly 100 feet) high—are not only real and not a figment of a sailor’s imagination, but they occur far more frequently than previously believed. They can occur anywhere, when conditions are right, rising up suddenly to strike a ship, perhaps sinking it, before dissipating once again into the endless waves we are accustomed to seeing. What defines a rogue wave is exactly this—it appears suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, and is two or three times higher than that average height of the waves preceding or following it.

Sadly, there is no single standard for the structural design of merchant ships to resist heavy seas. Consequently, different classes of vessels have varying abilities to survive a rogue wave encounter. Most commercial vessels are not designed to withstand waves much greater than 10 to 11 meters (35 feet) in height, and as a consequence a surprising number of large ships are lost every month—sometimes several a week—somewhere in the world, due to rough weather and encounters with extreme waves. The tragic loss of crews—typically 30 sailors on a modern merchant vessel is a scandal that unfortunately receives scant attention.

Today, with new knowledge concerning extreme waves, we have the ability to ensure that vessel losses become a rare event. Advanced warning systems and education of coastal populations can likewise greatly reduce the death toll from tsunami.

Editorial Reviews

Smith, a sailor and author of How the Great Pyramid Was Built, intersperses occasionally dry explanations of the complex physics of waves with harrowing tales of modern-day maritime tragedies. He enumerates the many natural forces that create waves: the moon's gravity pulls on the oceans; Earth's rotation pushes them; the sun heats them; the wind tugs against their surface; earthquakes displace them. The resulting waves can propagate from one side of the ocean to the other.
Dr. Chris Garrett
Rough seas, rogue waves, and tsunamis are fascinating but dangerous. In this excellent and readable overview, Craig Smith provides a splendid blend of descriptions of historical incidents, recent personal accounts, and scientific underpinnings. Mariners, armchair enthusiasts, and those concerned with the safety of ships at sea and of coastal communities will enjoy the book and learn a lot from it.

Product Details

Dockside Sailing Press
Publication date:
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
File size:
4 MB

Meet the Author

Craig B.Smith is passionate about the sea. When not sailing, for the last 40 years he has been involved in the engineering and construction of large, complex projects. He has served as a project engineer, project manager, construction manager, or executive-in-charge on diverse projects including structural tests on offshore oil platforms in the North Sea, the California coast, and Gulf of Mexico; on seismic tests of dams and other large structures; several large facilities in the Port of Los Angeles; airport expansion programs; and the renovation of the Pentagon, before and after 9/11. His projects have taken him to many parts of the world: Brazil, Peru, Chile, Mexico, Korea, Taiwan, Philippines, Egypt, England, Germany, Finland, Norway, and others.

Smith’s professional career began as an assistant professor of engineering at UCLA. After seven years at UCLA, he co-founded ANCO Engineers, Inc. From 1988 to 1992 he was the president of FSEC, a Los Angeles architecture/engineering/construction firm, then joined AECOM Technology Corporation, one of the world’s largest architecture, engineering and construction companies, as a vice president of Daniel, Mann, Johnson, and Mendenhall (DMJM), where he served as the practice manager for DMJM’s construction and facilities management practice. He was subsequently promoted to senior vice president, executive vice president, and chief operating officer. In 1999, he was named president of Holmes and Narver, Inc. In 2001, when DMJM and Holmes and Narver merged, he became the president of the combined companies, which are now called DMJM H+N. In 2003 he became chairman of DMJM H+N. Holmes and Narver was responsible for the design, construction and some cases operation and management of several military facilities in the Pacific, including a number located on Johnston Atoll, Enwetak, Kwajalein, Guam, and Hawaii.

Smith is a dedicated sailor; having sailed in the Caribbean Sea and Pacific and explored the offshore islands of California and Baja California, Mexico in his 10 meter sailboat Dreams (a cutter-rigged Hans Christian.) His previous books include How the Great Pyramid Was Built, Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C., 2004. In 2006 his book Extreme Waves was published by the Joseph Henry Press of the U.S. National Academy of Science. His education includes a B.S. degree from Stanford University and a M.S. and PhD. in engineering from the UCLA.

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