Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Memory of a nearshore freaque wave encounter in 1963

I was privileged to talk on the phone this morning to a retired gentleman, Michael Varvel. He told me a fascinating encounter with nearshore freaque waves in Pt. Conception, CA in 1963 when he was 14 years old. Not able to quickly jot down down what he was telling me, I asked him to write it up and email me the whole story which he kindly and promptly accommodated. I sincerely appreciate his willingness to share his memory with us. Here is his story:
As you know the scientific community and the world at large are now more accepting of the old sailor's tales of waves reaching 30-40 m in height. It's almost asking too much to believe that water could be piled up that high given its nature, but yet, I personally experienced a freak wave of this magnitude in 1963.

At the age of 14, we were living in the Lompoc, California, a small seaside community 5 miles from the Pacific Ocean. Fishing ,surfing, and other general contact with the ocean, where, and almost daily occurrences due to our proximity to the ocean. Of particular interest to my father and me, was collection of abalone at Point Conception, California. Since we are not scuba divers, these were collected off the rocks at low tide and the lower the tide, the bigger the abalone it seemed. This was quite an adventure for a 14-year-old teenager, have to scale cliffs climb down rickety ladders that shouldn't have held us at all. Then spend the day collecting abalone in 50 pound potato sacks and have to bring them back up the same dangerous cliffs and rickety ladders.

On this particular spring day in 1963, we are doing what I've already mentioned when my father who is a sailor noticed on the horizon what appeared to him to be a rather large wave. My father instantly warn me to hightail it to higher ground as he felt this way it was uncommon in size and that we were in grave danger. Me being a kid, I ducked into a hole thinking that I'd be protected. My father, thank God for his wisdom, reached and grab me by the hair and pulled me out of the hole. With no emergency in his voice. He pushed me and prodded me up the cliffside till we were as high as we could possibly get, in an effort to get out of harm's way.

Please remember that this was occurring at low tide, meaning that the water was probably 15 to 20 feet lower than normal at this point in time. We had a fishing partner with us, who was on the other side of the cliff when my father yelled to him to get out of harm's way. Instead of going to higher ground, he opted to go down to the beach and scrambled to the highest point of the beach, where beach meets Cliff. Just as we reached what my father felt was a safe area, we turned to look and watch the wave as it broke.

The point upon which we are standing at its lowest is approximately 80 to 90 feet above sea level, at slack tide. So by dead reckoning, we were actually somewhere between 90 and 100 feet above the sea level. I actually witnessed with my own eyes, this wave break over the surface of the cliff, and watched with amazement and fear as the Tower of water crashed down upon our fishing buddy on the beach. For what seemed an eternity, we lost sight of him. Then, as the wave ebbed, we saw him some 20 to 30 yards further down the beach lying in the sand completely drenched. His tackle box and fishing gear gone, his string of fish gone, but his life spared.

I've kept this memory with me for all of these years without sharing, because I didn't feel that this was something that was of interest. But then the current wave of interest that's generated on the Discovery Channel and science Channel have brought the recollection of this incident to the fore - front of my mind. I doubt I shall ever see another freak wave occurrence such as the one I have described, and quite honestly hope never to again. After everything is settled back to normal, and we resumed our abalone harvesting and fishing, my father pointed out the hole to me that I had climbed into and noted that it was now full of water 8 feet deep. Thank goodness I hadn't stayed in there I would most likely have been washed out to sea.
Here's the GoogleEarth image he sent along to show where the encounter took place:I don't think anyone would ever have any doubt about what had happened to Mike, his father, and their friend on that spring day in 1963. Thank God everyone survived so that Mike can now recall it vividly and tell us the story 44 years later. Probably because it is a happy ending case, it did not become a news item and life goes on. As the old tree-fall riddle goes: "If a tree falls in a forest with no one to hear it, then does it make a sound?" The answer is most certainly a yes! But it still needs someone around to tell the story. We can reasonably surmise that it is likely this kind of nearshore freaque wave event happens more frequently than we expect. When it happens while there are people around, results could be hazardous imperilment that needs rescue efforts or even tragic and gets into news. Or it can be just a frightening, nightmarish encounter so only those who were there during the encounter know and remember. What we'll never know, however, is how often it happens when there is no one around. At any rate when a tree falls in the forest, there will always be sound whether or not there's any one around to hear it. The moral of this story is still to let everyone beware, whereever or whenever around the edge of the ocean, watch out for the freaque waves!


For those of us who are not familiar with Pt. Conception, I found this satellite image of a section of the California coast. Pt. Conception is located around 34-34-38N and 120-39-06W where the primary direction of the coastline abruptly shifts from north-south to east-west. The image shows clearly the upwelling of cool, presumably nutrient-rich waters around the point – where abalone will be plentiful there.

And the following are two scenic views of the light house of Pt. Conception from this site that tells us all about Pt. Conception:

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Pasha Bulker

Nearly two weeks ago, a wild storm lashed the southeast coast of Australia. Seven people have confirmed dead, a section of coastal highway collapsed, a 225m coal carrier, the Pasha Bulker, got wedged on a sandbar off Newcastle's Nobbys Beach being battered by huge waves as this article reported.

The bulk carrier is still stranded there while detailed rescue efforts are being planned. Fears of possible disasters abound, fortunately there's no fuel leak from the ship so far.

The case has not quite become major worldwide headline news, but it certainly becomes major news locally as this YouTube segment and this one show. Throughout it, freaque wave has not been blamed. But, of course, it will not be far behind. This morning this headline of "Fear of rogue waves" appeared.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Freak storm lashed Penang

Penang is the name of a small island located on the north-west coast of peninsular Malaysia in the Straits of Malacca. According to the Wikipedia, this island was referred to as 檳榔嶼 (Bīnláng Yù) in the navigational drawings used by Admiral Cheng Ho of Ming-dynasty China in his expeditions to the South Seas in the 15th century. I think I have heard about the 檳榔嶼 a long time ago when I was still in elementary school. I have never been there, but it seems always carrying much romantic fantasy for me whenever I heard it.

Penang is in the news today because they were lashed by an unusually strong storm yesterday of damaging wind and waves were "toppling trees, blowing off roofs, capsizing boats and forcing four flights to be diverted . . ." as this news article reported:

"Giant waves of up to 2m high hit the sea wall at the Esplanade in George Town before pounding onto cars parked along the road.

"Some tiles and a metal railing along the sea wall were dislodged by the might of the waves.

"A 10m stretch of the concrete path near the Astaka Medan Renong food court there was broken by the pounding waves.

"At Pantai Bersih in Butterworth, fishermen said 3m-high waves caused more destruction than the 2004 tsunami, with 14 boats damaged compared to one during the tsunami.

"Restaurant owner Tan Beng Gee, 45, said at least four of the five restaurants along the beach were damaged by the waves."

These damaging waves are certainly not of the freaque type. But they were devastating nevertheless. Here are tow pictures:

The above shows the fishing boats are at the mercy of the on coming giant wave. And the following shows what happened to a once smooth concrete walkway after the waves lashing.

We don't have to go all the way to southeast Asia to realize the kinds of damages wind waves can cause -- it's not even a freaque wave. Our vulnerability to hazard and perils just can not be over emphasized!

Friday, June 15, 2007

Rogue wave traps 4 hikers

When I first saw this title, I was a little puzzled. How does freaque wave got to do with hikers? Well, this article in the Seattle Times by Maureen O'Hagan tells what had happened to a group of hikers:
The group had set out Sunday for a weeklong hike on the West Coast Trail on Vancouver Island. The trail, about 47 miles long, is as beautiful as it is rugged. There is no road access. And with parts of the trail hugging the ocean, hikers must time their forays to avoid the dangers of high tide. No matter the time of day, the waves crash explosively. The area is known as the Graveyard of the Pacific because of the ships that have sunk there.
So with parts of the trail hugging the ocean, they carefully tried to avoid high tide, can freaque waves to be far behind? It almost sounds like an action movie script, but it's beyond most of the Hollywood script writers imagination:

Monday morning, they set out at 4:30 a.m., carefully timing the tides. By 7, they had reached what they considered the easy part of the hike, where the tide was low and the ocean seemingly less dangerous. There, they could hike a safe distance from the water on a sandstone shore.

They soon came upon a surge channel, a gully about 50 yards long flanked by slick sandstone walls. Larger waves rush in and out of the channel, their force magnified as they push through the narrow entrance. Through the gully, massive trees are tossed like twigs.

One second they were on dry land and the next they were struggling to keep their heads above water.

"Five people and we never saw it," Peterson said of the wave that swept them in.

Never saw it coming! Yea, that's how a freaque wave made itself known. It happens all the time. No one knows how, why, what, where, and when. This group was just unfortunately encountered it unexpectedly. But fortunately one of the five was not getting dragged into the channel and set out to bring rescue. After nine hours they were all rescued by the U.S. and Canadian coast guards. A wonderful happy ending indeed!

Monday, June 11, 2007

Wave of the day!

This may not be exactly an once-in-a-life-time event. But it has to be for some one at the right place and at the right time to be able to catch a sequence of unexpected spectacular pictures like these as reported by the Gold Coast Bulletin this morning. Here's the story:

Surfer Matt Brockie headed to South Stradbroke Island with a small army of other boardriders to make the most of ideal waves pumping along the Gold Coast since Friday.

But he didn't expect to see this.

A 4m boat had pulled in close to shore to pick up a surfer when a rogue wave reared in front of them.

"They'd been going for a couple of hours and all of a sudden the set of the day has come in and almost cleaned them up," said Mr Brockie, who took these amazing photos.

"I don't think the boatie saw it coming -- he certainly wasn't trying to hit the wave, but he's just looked up and saw this wave looming in his vision.

"It was big from where I was standing so I can only imagine what it looked like from the driver's seat."

As the wave began to crest, the surfer in the back of the boat, who had just been picked up, grabbed his surfboard and bailed out.

"He went man overboard because, as far as I can tell, he must have thought the boat was going to capsize," said Mr Brockie.

"And it came bloody close. The wave was about 2m in surfer-speak and what happened with the boat could have been a lot worse.

"All hell could have broken loose."

Yes, things could be a lot worse. But it wasn't, thank God! The Editor of the Gold Coast Bulletin called this the "wave of the day." I think that could be another understatement. It is hard to describe something like this. Nevertheless that has to be a real life freaque wave, although the current academic definition of freaque waves -- i.e. greater than twice the significant wave height -- may or may not be applicable here. Our conventional freaque wave researches are way behind the real world. Of course the surfers live in a world still totally different from the researchers' world yet. At any rate, everyone is entitled to appreciate this kind of rare spectacular occurrence some time!

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Beautiful but Treacherous

The title of this article "Schoodic Point: Beautiful But Treacherous" could be an under statement. In today's edition of The Ellsworth American, the article, along with a beautiful local scenery there, told a tragic story that should not have happen . Here's the beginning of the case as reported by Latitia Baldwin:
WINTER HARBOR — Tuesday’s combers and hurtling sea spray sharply contrasted with the favorable conditions last Friday at Acadia National Park’s Schoodic Point. Under sunny skies, with the wind blowing less than 5 mph, Faith Wise and her two daughters made their way out over the granite slabs close to the water’s edge. Wise, who hailed from Trufant, Mich., and was eager to share the wild Maine scenery, held her cell phone out so a friend could hear the waves. Holding a black toy poodle under one arm and her phone in the other, the 56-year-old Michigan woman suddenly lost her footing, fell down, spun and slid into the frigid ocean.
This is not a case of freaque waves, but it again strongly underlines the danger at the ocean's edge, no matter how beautiful and enticing it might be. Late on in the article the writer asserts:
At Schoodic Point, where the surf and storm surges draw thousands of spectators year-round, drownings are rare. The last occurred in the late 1990s when a rogue wave swept two people clear off the rocks and into the ocean. At the time, the surf was extremely high and the rain-suit-clad pair were close to the edge and were letting the sea spray shower down on them.
I can not help to feel a little personal with this case because my wife Teresa and I were there on vacation a few years ago, we toured Acadia National Park and we were at one of the beach points watching breaking waves and taking pictures. We were lucky that was a calm spring day, we enjoyed the trip tremendously and did not even realize those potential treacherous dangers lurking out there. May God replenish ever more guardian angels along the world beaches all around!

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Hughie, the weather god!

I learned about Madame Pele, the goddess of fire, many years ago when we visited Mauna Loa on the big island of Hawaii. This morning I just learned another one, Hughie, the weather god!

It is clearly an Australian mythology as it is not even included in the Wikipedia yet. According to Australian National Dictionary Centre of the Australian National University, "Hughie is the rain god, and this appeal (first recorded in 1912) comes from farmers when rain arrives after a long drought. Recently surfers have used it, imploring the weather god for good waves. Theories about the origin of the word Hughie range from alterations of the names Jupiter, Zeus, or Yahweh, to the classical Greek huei ‘it is raining’."

I wonder what do the surfers consider as "good" waves. I would certainly prefer to see Hughie keeping the ocean all calm and smooth for us all the time when I go cruising! If I knew about Hughie before going to Lorne to attend the WISE meeting in April, I might have tried to work it into my presentation to mention Hughie over the inability of science. Anyway I came across about Hughie from reading this interesting article entitled "The Vengeance of the Weather God" by the cruise editor Nancy Knudsen of the Sail-World.com. Knudsen is currently on a Southern Cross between the Galapagos and the Marquesas where she filed all kinds of interesting articles about her trip including this one about Hughie.

What intrigued me about this article is her rather humorous way of describing encounters with freaque waves -- attribute to Hughie:
Hughie, as you probably know, is the weather god, and this is a warning to those who go sailing: Beware of Hughie. Several days ago, I cast aspersions on the perfection of the weather where we are sailing, between the Galapagos and the Marquesas, and Hughie has been wreaking his vengeance ever since. My mistake was intimating that the perfect weather we had was – dare I say it? ... b – o – r – i – n – g.

The first thing that happened was that I thought I saw a ship on the horizon, dipped my head to get a better look at the same time as Hughie sent a roguish wave slapping the boat, crashed my chin into a winch putting my tooth through my bottom lip. This gave me a somewhat lopsided look and a bit of a lisp.

The next thing was that the wind piped up to something more than pleasant, and another freak wave slapped against the boat, lurching me across the saloon to break a middle toe on a piece of the furniture. Now I have three big toes, only seven small toes, and a bit of a limp – not to mention the gritted smile.

So those waves was sent by Hughie to slap agqainst her boat as a vengeance. May be freaque wave research should also be looking to Hughie for real understanding of the nature of freaque waves. Since whatever god or goddess of science have done were not very helpful so far! At least in this article Nancy tried to communicate with Hughie, :-), in her continued adventure:
So after a day or two of this the seas rose to amazing heights behind the boat, threatening our equanimity and our still-dry decks. When the boom started a love affair with the higher waves, and worse, my cup of coffee took off airborne across the cockpit depriving me of its contents and colliding with the coaming, it was time to let off the boom vang and, for good measure, put a double reef in the main.

In the meantime I had started apologising continually and profusely to Weather god Hughie, promising I would never never complain about perfect weather again.

I am glad to say that this strategy worked, and we are now back in 15-20 knot winds, the sun is shining, we are drifting along at a pleasant six knots.

I have stopped lisping, my toe is happily secured in a very protective sailing sandal, our decks are dry, the coffee is remaining in its coffee holder, and the boom is riding high and dry. So are we. Am I complaining? No way!

Yes indeed, Nancy, keep Hughie happy, God speed, and smooth sailing!