Once dismissed as a nautical myth, freakish ocean waves that rise as tall as ten-storey apartment blocks have been accepted as a leading cause of large ship sinkings. Results from ESA’s ERS satellites helped establish the widespread existence of these ’rogue’ waves and are now being used to study their origins.

Severe weather has sunk more than 200 supertankers and container ships exceeding 200 metres in length during the last two decades. Rogue waves are believed to be the major cause in many such cases.



Mariners who survived similar encounters have had remarkable stories to tell. In February 1995 the cruiser liner Queen Elizabeth II met a 29-metre high rogue wave during a hurricane in the North Atlantic that Captain Ronald Warwick described as “a great wall of water… it looked as if we were going into the White Cliffs of Dover.”



Between February and March 2001 two hardened tourist cruisers – the Bremen and the Caledonian Star – had their bridge windows smashed by 30-metre rogue waves in the South Atlantic, the former ship left drifting without navigation or propulsion for a period of two hours.



The same phenomenon could have sunk many less lucky vessels: two large ships sink every week on average, but the cause is never studied to the same detail as an air crash. It simply gets put down to ’bad weather’.



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