Freakwaves — The Underestimated Danger of Monster Waves

Once dismissed as a sailor’s yarn, freak waves are now recognized as a serious threat to shipping. How dangerous are they?

René Junge
May 30 · 4 min read
Photo by camila castillo on Unsplash

When sailors used to report encounters with monster waves over twenty meters high on the high seas, their descriptions were dismissed as pure sailor’s yarn and exaggeration.

Until 1995 it was believed that the maximum possible height of waves on the open sea was fifteen meters. That’s what the ships were designed for. In addition to tolerance, ships built until then could withstand waves of 16.5 meters in height at the most. Then, in 1995, two incidents occurred in quick succession in which freak waves could be documented beyond doubt for the first time.

1995 — the year in which the monster waves showed up

The Draupner E oil rig is a platform like many others around the world. Draupner E is located in the Baltic Sea — a much-frequented sea that is well known and explored.

In 1995, however, the platform suddenly became famous in the scientific world, and the north sea showed a face that had never been seen before. This is since modern oil drilling platforms are equipped with sensors for the height of the waves.

These sensors are intended as safety devices. If the swell is too high, additional safety measures are taken on the platform. They are not intended for scientific documentation.

One day, however, when these sensors measured a single wave of gigantic twenty-six meters, they provided the first irrefutable, objective proof of the actual existence of a myth — the monster wave, or freak wave.

As if that wasn’t already exciting enough for science and disturbing enough for shipbuilding engineers, only a few months later in the same year another incident with a monster wave occurred.

The world-famous cruise ship Queen Elizabeth 2 was hit by a gigantic wave on a crossing to New York. The wave is said to have been almost thirty meters high, and yet the ship survived.

It was damaged after the hit, but still maneuverable. Any small ship would almost certainly have destroyed by this monster. Most likely, this event was not just a single monster wave, but a variant called “the three sisters.” Three Freak waves follow in extremely short distances. This assumption is based on the statements of some crew members and data from a nearby weather buoy.

How frequent are monster waves anyway?

The Institute for Coastal Research is located in Geesthacht near Hamburg. Here, in 2001, the first research was carried out into how often freak waves appear at all. After all, estimates by experts attribute the monster waves to the two hundred losses of large ships over the last twenty years.

Given the size of the seas and oceans to individual ships, they cannot be so rare.

To track down the monster waves, the scientists used ESA’s weather satellites. These can use radar to scan the surface of the oceans and measure precisely how high waves are when they occur. The result was shocking, to say the least:

In an observation period of only three weeks, ten waves with a height of more than twenty-five meters were documented. That was a lot more than anyone had expected.

So monster waves are no exception. They can arise at any time and in any ocean, including the North Sea and the Baltic Sea.

Meanwhile, the monster waves have been further explored, and some favorable factors for their formation have been identified.

High risk exists when waves meet strong currents or water vortices and near sandbanks. The mathematical models that must be used to explain the origin and development of these waves are highly complex and in some cases, even making use of quantum mechanical approaches.

In 2008 a model was developed to calculate the probability of monster waves in a defined area.

This model has yet to be reviewed, but its confirmation would be invaluable for shipping companies and insurance companies as it would allow the riskiest shipping routes to be identified and bypassed.

After all, according to a prediction of this model, the probability of a monster wave usually is one of ten thousand regular waves, whereas at so-called “hotspots,” i.e., places with unfavorable conditions, a ratio of three to one thousand can occur.

Even today, the danger of monster waves should not be underestimated. Increasingly, however, the question of whether and how the advancing climate change could influence the occurrence of freak waves in the future is coming to the fore.

According to many researchers, it is quite probable that ocean warming and the associated change in the vast ocean currents could also affect the frequency of monster waves.

Shipping companies and insurance companies would, therefore, do well to continue investing money and time in research into this natural phenomenon.

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René Junge

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Thriller-author from Hamburg, Germany. Sold over 180.000 E-Books. get informed about new articles:


By Medium Partner Program Friends — a publication about what unites us all.