Surviving 50′ waves at sea

My life has been a series of great travel adventures, not all of them by air. The scariest experience I ever had was working on a ship at sea, and it is a bona fide business travel story. We hit a rogue wave at least fifty feet high, and I was scared out of my mind, as was every other occupant on the boat, including our Norwegian master, whom I will call Captain Berg.

Later, we hit another wave that big.

It was April, 1974, and I was employed as an Ordinary Seaman aboard Duke University’s Research Vessel (R/V) Eastward.  We were returning to the Duke Marine Lab in Beaufort, NC after three months of scientific cruises that took us all over the Caribbean and off the coast of South America, including into Lake Maracaibo, Venezuela (which is actually a bay, not a lake).

If my memory serves, R/V Eastward was 132’6” in length and real beamy.  She was designed after a tuna boat with a deep draft (16 feet, I think) bolstered by keel-set seawater ballast tanks to keep her stable in rough weather. The bridge was about 32’ above the water line.

Cruises generally ranged from 7 to 21 days at sea.  They had been booked and funded by NSF (National Science Foundation) for marine scientists from all over the USA, the most famous of whom was geologist Dr. Bruce Heezen, who was first to map the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. 

About two-thirds of the scientific cruises were geologic, which utilized piston corers with 1,200 lb head weights.  The long hollow cylindrical pipes were allowed to freefall on heavy cables to collect ocean bottom sediment samples when the core spear buried itself by gravity.

We also often dragged a type of sonar or hydrophone array from the stern-mounted hydro-winch at a considerable distance that allowed scientists like Professor Heezen to map the ocean floor by echo patterns collected by electronic equipment. Those instruments were typically run by the inevitable gaggle of grad students scientists brought with them, always twice as many as they needed, since roughly half of any group would become so seasick that they’d never leave their cabins.

The remaining one-third of cruises were biologic, usually involving collecting water samples at depth using Niskin bottles and Nansen bottles attached to hydro-winch cables.  We also did occasional small mesh net trawls. Bio results were analyzed in the well-equipped wet lab just below the bridge. 

Geology analysis tended to be handled from the more compact, but adequate, dry lab, where slices of piston corer samples were carefully cataloged, examined, recorded, and stored.  Some slivers went through a spectrometer for identification of silt materials.

Our final long cruise was due north out of San Juan into the heart of the Sargasso Sea and what is called the Bermuda Triangle.  We had beautiful weather and smooth sailing all the way north and had completed several missions not far from Bermuda (705 miles offshore Beaufort, NC). 

We were preparing to return to Beaufort when we got a USCG radio signal asking us to stand by the QE2 which had stalled close to Bermuda.  I can’t remember how that was resolved, but we were eventually “released” from standby duty and told by the Coast Guard that we could resume our homebound course. 

But that rescue standby delayed us 12-24 hours.  Again, I don’t remember how long, but that was April 3, and we would have been many nautical miles closer to Beaufort had we left when we were scheduled to.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to us, a terrific “super outbreak” of nasty spring weather was sweeping eastward across the US on April 3, 1974.  It was the storm system’s tornadoes that destroyed Xenia, Ohio (see here and also here).

By the time we were 100 miles or so west of Bermuda that system was sweeping offshore and blowing up the most enormous swells I’d seen in the nearly four months I had by then been aboard the Eastward.  Wave heights, already an impressive twenty feet, increased to thirty feet and then stayed at thirty feet. 

Thirty foot swells are gigantic and very scary.  The laconic and humorless Captain Berg, a chain smoker, sat on the bridge inhaling fag after fag and staring out into the raging mountains of water, occasionally ordering slight course deviations to make sure the boat was angling into the waters rather than encountering them bow-on.  This caused us, naturally, to take a zig-zag course, which would lengthen our homebound journey.

Berg was always loath to any course deviations, as he had been hammered on for years by Duke to keep the operating costs of the Eastward’s cruises to a minimum.  Lesson learned, he hated using too much fuel. 

For the same reason, Captain Berg NEVER ordered the ballast tanks filled, no matter how bad the seas.  Because of that, the Eastward tended to bob like a cork.  It was famous for its wild pitches and rolls, one reason so many grad students stayed seasick.  The crew called it “feeding the fish” as the students vomited over the side pretty much nonstop for days on every cruise, even in relatively “good” weather (the sea is rarely calm).

Normally, I wouldn’t question the master’s judgment, but I was sorely tempted to plead that we flood the ballast tanks to keep us stable.  The clinometer on the bridge was showing 50 degree rolls when we’d encounter a particularly confused set of swells that put us partly side-to to the wave frequency.  Being a tuna boat design with deep draft, we were used to seeing 40+ degree rolls and knew the ship would roll to, but not 50 degrees. 

It was so unnerving that the First and Second Mates asked Berg about the ballast tanks.  Didn’t we want to fill them to stabilize the ship? 

No, he said, sourly and scowling, and went back to chain-smoking and staring. It was at times raining so furiously that the marine rain spinners couldn’t keep a clear view—and this was during the day, although the heavy overcast made it appear to be dusk.  

Berg was already agitated because the zig-zagging was costing us time and money.  He was not then a young man and had spent his entire career in Norwegian sea service around the world on all but the Southern Ocean.  To a man with an unlimited tonnage Master’s License and four decades of life on the water, the 30’ seas were a mere nuisance.

To the rest of us, though, the swells looked and felt like sheer terror.  The scientists and grad students had been ordered to stay in their cabins, and the crew ordered to stay below decks.  Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches had been pre-packaged and left in a galley fridge—very unusual as the galley crew were expert cooks and had never missed preparing a meal. 

I talked to the permanent crew (I’d been hired only for the annual winter Caribbean cruise), and they were worried.  Not even the boatswain’s mate, a man with 10 years of experience on the Eastward, had ever experienced seas this rough.

So we pitched and rolled like a toy boat in a hurricane westward into those howling winds and rain and high seas all day long. 

Late afternoon I had just come on duty as the lookout on the bridge when we hit the first 50’ wave.  Nobody saw it coming due to the blowing rain and dim visibility.  Keeping the helm at the proper course up a 30’ swell and down the other side was not easy, and no one was looking for the wave behind. 

I sure didn’t see it coming, as my attention was elsewhere.  We were shipping water routinely over the bow with every wave as we pitched into the troughs, and I was worried that the heavy (1,200 lb) piston corers, which the boatswain’s mate and I had double-lashed to the port and starboard foredeck as the storm worsened, were going to come loose. 

I could see the huge head weights moving a few inches with every pitch and roll.  I knew from experience that any piece of equipment on board the ship that moved even a little was eventually going to be a problem.  I had become well-liked by the permanent crew because I exercised extreme care in securing items, and I was thinking how we could get out there on deck in the storm to reinforce the lashings. 

The Eastward was under command that afternoon of the Second Mate, a cheerful fellow from Harker’s Island (North Carolina).  He was young, but he had long since earned my trust in ship-handling. Harker’s Islanders are all natural-born seaman, having descended from Cornish pirates. 

I remember being alarmed when he suddenly exclaimed, “Oh, shit!”  The man wasn’t given to profane outbursts on duty.  I looked up from my study of the fore-deck to see a literal wall of water looming up immediately before us.  I remember thinking in a flash that we were all going to die, that the ship was going to sink, this was it. I have never been so frightened, before or since. 

I recall Captain Berg getting up from his perch on a secured stool and hunching over to grab some railings.  His eyes were wide—an unusual show of excitement for someone so ordinarily devoid of emotion—and his jaw grimly set.  He had let his cigarette fall to the deck—he was never without one burning—and it was rolling around, trailing a little smoke plume.  An odd observation, I remember thinking, for someone (me) about to die.

The next moments were terrifying.  The ship struggled as it pitched out of the trough—sluggishly lurched, really. The bow followed the steep swell upwards until the screws couldn’t keep up, and we stopped. The wave then smacked the ship like the hand of God. I remember the ship shuddered and shook as we were all thrown around on the deck of the bridge.  It’s a miracle that no one suffered a concussion or broken bones or at least a bloody gash or two.

Floods of water washed over the bow, the deck, and then up to and over the bridge.  I realized afterwards that we had made enough progress up the side of the wave that only the top half or so of it engulfed the ship.  If we had hit the wave while still in the trough of the previous swell, I am certain it would have ripped through the bridge and drowned us all.

The Eastward then plunged down the back side of the monster wave—we had never heard the term “rogue wave” in 1974—and we pounded hard into the next 30’ swell—almost as hard as the big one.  By the second swell after the fifty-footer, the ship seem to settle back into its previous routine—slowly but steadily going west.

I’d like to say we let out a cheer or at least a sigh of relief.  But we were all traumatized by what we had just seen and been through.  I recall the cold look of fear in everyone’s eyes, as I am sure we were all thinking the same thing:  Was that just the first of more giant waves to come?  I know that’s what I was thinking, my heart pounding like an anvil in my chest.

Several things then happened at once to distract our minds.  We had had no time to warn anyone else aboard of what was happening—the thing just came out of nowhere, with no warning—so now the comms and phones started buzzing.  The Second Mate took the engine room call first, explaining what we had witnessed and warning them to make doubly sure that everything below decks was well secured because, well, because it might happen again. He reported the engine crew was mighty upset.  I understood; it was like hell down there, and with no visibility while on duty.  It was so cramped, loud, and depressing that I hated going there even on bluebird days.

Then he let the rest of the crew, including the scientific party, know what happened and warned them all to stay below and never to go out on deck, not even the bridge deck usually high above the water.

Suddenly we simultaneously noticed an acrid odor coming through the air circulation vents.  It was unmistakably formalin. 

Many five-gallon containers of formalin were stored in the wet lab to preserve biological specimens, and unlike the rest of the ship, we depended upon the scientists and their grad students to secure supplies. So we never checked to see if that lab stuff was put away properly except in port between cruises.

It was obvious that, due to the extreme forces on the ship’s superstructure by the big wave, one or more of those containers had been dislodged.  We now had five or more gallons on formaldehyde sloshing around the wet lab deck, the fumes from which were already threatening to choke us.  Our eyes were burning and lungs hurting. 

The storm was raging, but we cracked open the wing hatches on the bridge to get some fresh air before we were overcome.  The boatswain’s mate and I were dispatched below to clean it up and ordered to enter through the main deck secured hatch in order to avoid being killed by the poisonous fumes. That meant we’d be exposed out in the storm.

I remember grabbing some sort of outdated and practically useless breathing apparatus and tying ropes around the mate and me before venturing out on deck.  There we were immediately drenched by the heavy rain and seawater pouring over the side.  Ocean water sloshed around up to our waists with each pitch and roll before draining out the scuppers. 

The mate and I had to slowly tie ourselves off a few feet at the time along the lower deck to reach the portside hatch to the wet lab.  More than once I was totally immersed momentarily by water as the ship pushed through another 30’ wave.

On finally reaching the hatch, we tied other ropes to the hatch door handle and carefully released the heavy dogs before moving out of the way to let the hatch swing wide when we rolled to port.  If it had hit us in the violent pitching and rolling, it could easily have smashed our skulls.  As the hatch flew open, we quickly snatched in the slack on the ropes we’d tied to the handle in order to hold it open and keep us safe from its dangerous swinging. 

He and I then alternated again the slow and tedious (and dangerous) process of tying each other off to move into the lab to survey the damage and get it cleaned up.  Like all ship’s hatches, it was built with a high lip to keep seawater out.  Though the ship continued to move wildly in every direction as it navigated the stormy seas, the lip was enough to keep a lot of the water out.  

We stepped over the lip and into the lab with our crummy breathing masks on and were relieved to find the screaming winds had acted to draft out the worst of the fumes.  The mate and I found the loose and mostly empty five-gallon plastic container of formalin; it had a big rupture in the side.  We tossed it out onto the deck.  We then somehow got the formalin on the lab floor mopped up (mostly) and tossed the mops onto the deck as well.  Later we threw the container and the mops into the ocean.

The fumes were still pretty bad, so we tied off the starboard side hatch, too, and left them both open—one of us on each side—long enough to clear the air.  The Eastward’s air circulation system had naturally blown the fumes into every nook and cranny of the vessel, and opening both hatches, though risky due to the potential of flooding, was the only recourse.  The next day he and I were hailed as heroes by the entire crew and scientific party.  They all thought they might perish from the poisonous fumes, but were wary of opening a hatch.

After carefully re-securing both wet lab hatches, we made our way back to the bridge.  That whole lab process took an hour or two.  By then what little light we had in the overcast storm clouds was fading.  It was late afternoon.  I had the presence of mind to look again at the two heavy-as-hell piston corers on the foredeck, and one of them was now swinging back and forth a good foot with every pitch and roll.  I alerted the boatswain’s mate again, and we found more rope and chains and went back to the main deck. 

Once more we had to slowly and methodically tie ourselves off along the deck to keep from being washed overboard in the storm, but eventually made it to foredeck positions we had discussed would let us coordinate safely (well, more or less safely) getting ropes and chains around the piston corer. 

Thinking back on our operation the next day, I realized that one or both of us could and would have been killed if the twelve hundred pound cylindrical weight on the head of the piston corer had come free as it was working to do.  As it was, we had to work in near-dark conditions, in pouring cold rain, and with torrents of seawater drenching us while we tried not to slip on the deck. 

We also had to move in rhythm with the ship’s attack of and recovery from each 30’ swell, and thirty feet of ocean wave looks even bigger at near water level.  My adrenaline kept me going; I remember being excited and highly focused on not getting killed.  I wasn’t scared; I didn’t have time to be.  The job needed to be done urgently, and that’s what we did.

We were a good team of two.  The boatswain’s mate and I used up a lot of chain and rope to get the corer firmly back against the port foredeck transom.  Once done, we moved to the starboard side to add more chain and rope to those corers, too.  We were assuming the first fifty footer wouldn’t be the last and later joked that we had wanted the boat to go down with everything shipshape and secured.

It was pitch dark by the time we finished.  Might have taken an hour, maybe two.  I lost track of time, and I was soaked through, numb from the cold rain, the cold seawater (we had not yet reached the eastern edge of the Gulf Stream), and the incessant gale-force wind.  The rigging was not just singing, but howling, which I was told only happened when the wind exceeded 45 MPH.  My legs were like rubber from the constant need to keep my balance on the violently rolling deck.  But the danger and excitement kept me going, and we were just as slow and careful roping ourselves back along the starboard main-deck as we had been going out.

I remember shivering uncontrollably when we reached the bridge.  The Second Mate had towels ready for us, and everybody was by then giddy because we were still alive.  We all knew that one big wave wasn’t likely the only one out there, but we had rescued everyone from asphyxiation and from dangerous heavy objects that might have caused a lot of damage.  The work had been so dangerous and exciting that it took the edge off the sheer terror I had felt when we hit the rogue wave. 

I devoured a sandwich or two, and my relief came to the bridge.  I went below because I had no choice once off duty.  I was exhausted, mind and body, anyway.  As the lowliest seaman aboard, my tiny little bunk was in the forecastle adjacent to the anchor locker, so I usually couldn’t sleep in rough weather due to the constant pounding of the anchor against the hull.  But I fell into a deep sleep that night.

About 12:30 AM I was startled to consciousness as I was thrown from my bunk over the bed board onto the steel deck as the ship was pounded by a second rogue wave.  Once again the ship shuddered and vibrated like it was going to come apart. 

My heart racing again, I remember listening to see if we would recover and tried to sense whether the Eastward was righting itself.  It did, slowly, and kept going, just like before.  I crawled back into my bunk in a cold sweat as the terror returned.  I was pretty sure it was only a matter of time before the ship went down. 

I’d been out on the deck working and knew I could not survive the cold water even wearing a life vest.  I didn’t sleep until 4:00 AM when my shift began (we worked 4 hours on, 8 hours off, 7 days a week and periodically rotated shifts). 

Things still looked bad at four, but by eight that morning, the seas were noticeably abating—by then down to about 20’ swells—with the cloud cover thinning.  It was only when I went off shift at 8:00 AM that I thought we probably would not die and slept a solid seven hours even though it was daytime.  But I was nervous all the way into Beaufort.

That episode has stayed with me.  I’ve never felt so alive as when I stepped onto the dock at Piver’s Island, home of Duke University Marine Lab.  It was the last act in a nearly four month adventure of a lifetime that included a lot of other adventures.

Like breaking into the captain’s cabin to commandeer penicillin to treat a shipmate’s gonorrhea that he contracted in San Juan. (No, it wasn’t me; that old colleague is now a grandfather.)

Flying from San Juan to St. Thomas with a beautiful woman on an Antilles Air Boat Grumman “Goose”.

Getting so drunk on Singapore Slings in some port I don’t even remember that I passed out on the bar stool and fell backwards onto the floor.  My shipmates carried me back to the gangplank where I was supposed to be standing watch and did, after retching a time or two.  

Seeing the most astonishing bio-luminescence over the entire ocean on a moonless night in the Sargasso Sea. 

Riding a motorbike around Nassau to pristine Bahamian beaches that I am sure have long since vanished into resort hands.  

Chipping rust and then red-leading every square inch of steel on that damn boat, the R/V Eastward.

Walking the boat deck at dawn every morning that we were in the tropics to collect buckets of big fat flying fish that had collided with the hull and giving them to the cook to fry for breakfast.

Exploring the mangrove marshes of the Caroni Swamp in Trinidad to witness thousands upon thousand of Scarlet Ibises, a sight one never forgets.

It was all glorious, made more so because I survived two fifty foot walls of water.  I grew up going out on the ocean fishing and hunting and crabbing, and even some shrimping.  I’ve seen weather change from sunny to stormy in 15 minutes, almost before I could react and get my boat to safety.  But seeing what the ocean is capable of pushing up to kill you makes me glad I didn’t make my living going offshore.  Once was enough.

It was, however, good preparation for what was to come in my life: many millions of miles in the air.  After surviving rogue waves I’ve never been a nervous flyer.  Even in the worst turbulence, I can sleep like a baby on airplanes. 

2 thoughts on “Surviving 50′ waves at sea

  1. This is a great recount of a terrifying adventure in rough seas. Those who have never been on a boat in squalls or hurricanes certainly get a good taste of the terror when man challenges mother nature by being on the water when he shouldn’t. Goos writing.

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