Thursday, December 17, 2009

The encounter of RMS Lusitania

The next issue, January 2010 issue, of Scientific America carries the follow news from the magazine 100 years ago:
WAVE VS. SHIP— “Was it a last despairing protest of Old Ocean, when he lifted his giant hand in the blackness of night on January 10, and smote the Cunard liner ‘Lu­sitania’ a blow which racked and splintered her lofty bridge and pilot house, 75 feet above the sea, and crushed down her forecastle deck and decks beneath, giving them a permanent depression of several inches? When the mass of the wave struck the breastworks and pilot house, every one of the stout wooden storm windows was burst in, the woodwork being stripped clean to the sashes—and this, be it remembered, at an elevation of 75 feet above the normal sea level. We are inclined to agree with her captain in his belief that many smaller and less stoutly built ships which have disappeared utterly at sea, may have been sent to the bottom by the crushing in of their decks under so-called ‘tidal waves’ of these dimensions.”
with the following footnote:
[NOTE: The Lusitania survived the rogue wave but was torpedoed and sunk by a German U-boat five years later.]
I guess the fact given in the above footnote that she was torpedoed by a German U-Boat is well-known at the time, while the encounter of Lusitania with a freaque wave seems not. But actually the New York Times on Sunday, January 16, 1910 has a detailed Page 1 story entitled "Lusitania Battled by 80-Foot Wave " with this relevant description:
On Monday evening, when the Lusitania was plowing through high head sea, whipped up by the westerly gale, an accumulative wave struck the vessel. She was buried in a mountain of water. . .
"When I left the bridge," said Capt. Turner, "the vessel was going nicely through the high head seas. The wave came as a surprise. The ship was going down when she met the sea, and it is hard to estimate the height of the wave. The water came to the top of the wheel house, which is 80 feet above the deck. I have heard of tidal and accumulative wave before, but I never met one in my experience."
So the expression "a mountain of water" has been around at least from a 100 years ago -- long before freaque (freak or rogue) had become a household media word. It is interesting to see the descriptions they struggled to use in the old days: tidal, accumulative wave, and high head sea. That was nevertheless an unmistakable freaque wave Lusitania encountered. It is also of interest to note that the encounter of Lusitanis had been missed from recent studies when they tried to account for known cases of freaque wave encounters.

By the way, here's a picture of RMS Lusitania:

It is rather sad that people generally did not pay much attention to her freaque wave encounter when there were only minor damage and injuries. Only when they were torpedoed by the German U-Boat were they managed to become the second most famous case after Titanic.


Percy Chris said...

My dad was on the Lusitania when it was hit by this wave. He recorded it in his notes about his life as follows:

"Another exciting trip to the States was on the "Lucitania". I had a berth on B deck which is the top but one and I was just undressing at midnight having had a long session at cards when there was a fearful crash and the ship seemed to stop and shiver and water poured through my ventilator and down a stairway and into my cabin. I thought we must have run into an iceberg and rushed out to see what had happened and found the long corridor packed with screaming and hysterical women. We were soon informed that there was no danger but a huge wave had struck the ship, but I could not help thinking how impossible it would have been to have women in the boats first for it would have taken a long time to get them to the boats.
In the morning we discovered that the wave had knocked the Captain's bridge right back and all the fixtures on the foredeck had been washed away."

[My dad was 41 then, and traveeld to the US quite a lot, buying timber. I'm 71 and was born when my dad was 74 if you are puzzling over the dates]

FreaqueWaves said...

Thank you so much for sharing your father's note with us. That's truly priceless to have a real eyewitness's personal note on what had happened. Thank God for "there was no danger but a huge wave had struck the ship"!

DrBB said...

I actually think "accumulative wave" is a pretty accurate description from everything I've read about these things. Much better than "rogue" from an analytic standpoint, though "rogue" is more emotionally vivid.

And Percy, thanks for your comment as well. I'm reading Larsson's book about the Lusitania and the passage about this encounter sent me over here. Too bad Larsson didn't have your dad's description to add to his account.

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