Tag Archives: Clare

Eagle island lighthouse-ireland_6787_600x450

Exploring freak waves

We’ve all heard (at least in Ireland) the unfortunate announcements of people losing their lives at the coast due to “freak waves”. Freak waves and rogue waves are the same thing, and are generally not what take unsuspecting people at the coast, since those are more generally set waves, which I’ve written about before, and people just don’t seem to understand that all waves around the same time are not the same size.

By the way, I’ll take this opportunity to remind you of the surfer’s saying to help ensure safety at the coast: watch the sea for twice as long as the waves are high.

Freak or rogue waves are the monsters that happen out to sea, that were long reported but generally not believed until very recently even though reports seemed to occur around the world. In Ireland the old lighthouse high up on Skellig Michael had its windows broken back in the 1950’s by waves breaking up at about 30 metres. On the 11th March 1861 at midday the lighthouse on Eagle Island, off the West coast of Ireland was struck by the sea smashing 23 panes, washing some of the lamps down the stairs, and damaging the reflectors with broken glass beyond repair. In order to damage the uppermost portion of the lighthouse, water would have had to surmount a seaside cliff measuring 40 m (133 ft) and a further 26 m (87 ft) of lighthouse structure.

VLCCs (very large cargo carriers) are notoriously lost going around Cape Horn (in the Agulhas Current), the theory is, being so long and heavy the wave can cause both ends of the ship to be suspended, (or the ends to be raised) and they break under their own unsupported weight.

In one those weird coincidences, when I was writing this, the M4 Buoy off Ireland’s North West registered a waves height of over 20 metres, truly extraordinarily large. I have seen 11 metre waves off Clare on the west coast, and, no word of lie, I remember looking out to sea and thinking to myself, I don’t remember there being an island there, before I realised what I was actually looking at. And then I went surfing.

Now the scientific and the orbital evidence (even you ignore reading and visuals) supports the existence of rogue waves after the measurement of The Draupner Wave, in 1995, (below). Here’s a scientific paper explaining the causal factors. There are a few factors, primarily high winds and strong currents.

I’m not sure if yesterday’s wave would qualify as rogue, since there were significant size waves before and after it. The strict(-ish) definition is that the wave is more than twice the significant height of the waves in the wave train, which wasn’t the case yesterday. But directly contradicting myself above, what the buoy did show was the wind blowing from the prevailing south-south-west direction. Rogue waves may occur when one wave travels in the opposite direction of the others and occur more frequently in areas with strong currents, such as the Agulhas off South Africa, the Kuroshio off Japan, and the Gulf Stream off the eastern United States. In 2000 a ship encountered an open water wave height of over 29 metres.

A Freak Wave took out the whole forepeaktank of the Norwegian tanker "Wilstar", 1974

Location is also important. VLCCs, which were too large to go through the Suez Canal have long had to take the long route to Europe around the Cape of Good Hope and some were mysteriously lost in the Agulhas Current. As many as 200 supertankers have been lost in the past 25 years, and many are now estimated to have been caused by freak waves with the SS Munchen being the best known. It also seems that the famous Edmund Fitzgerald may have been sunk by a peculiar freak wave phenomenon in Lake Superior!

A (short) YouTube clip of a collection of very large waves breaking at sea.

One scientist estimated there may be up to 10 of these waves in existence worldwide at any time, and in an important part of science, it’s been possible to recreate them in wave tanks, validating the science.

Tall Ships 2011. Leaving Dunmore East

If you’re in Ireland, you’ll probably have been bombarded by the coverage of the 2011 Tall Ships Race, which was starting from Waterford, the second time it’s started from the port.

Last time in 2006 I visited the berthed ships, but this time Clare gave me the chance to go out with her on Orca. I met her in Dunmore East yesterday morning, which was glorious.

Dunmore East, yachts and the estuary in the morning

Thinking I’d be early at 9am instead it seemed like half the country had thought the same. And my attempt to outwit the traffic by taking the coast road was a waste of time. Once parked I had to walk about 20 minutes to the fishing pier to meet Clare on the dinghy. Not a long walk … unless you are wearing deck shoes. Bleeding heels by the time I arrived.

Dunmore was very busy. Roads had been closed since 7am and access to much of the low cliffs between Counsellor’s (the strand) and the harbour had been closed.

Blue sky and warm, it was one of those brief Irish summer periods, when the whole country takes advantage of some sunshine. There were tens of thousands in town, with thousands in the park and on the road looking down.

Crowds in Dunmore

There were a few helicopters around, including the Coast Guard. Since I was late arriving, it wasn’t long after we got out on Orca and came off the mooring that the first ship arrived out from the estuary, the largest ship in the fleet, the Russian sail training vessel Mir.

Mir passing Dunmore

Mir was followed by Gloria while the CG Helicopter flew overhead.

Mir & CG Heli passing LE Aoife

Gloria passed the Irish Navy’s L.E. Aoife and the crew lined up on the bow for the three gun salute that each of the first few ships received. With almost no wind, Clare iron-sailed out with the fleet. Tall ships, traditional fishing vessels, large yachts, old sail trawlers, pleasure crafts, modern yachts, ribs, pleasure cruisers and kayaks. (And a couple of those jet skis that practically every other marine person hates).

Europa with backed sails


Of the tall ships only Europa had sails raised, but with a very slight Force One onshore they were backed so she was sailing under power against the wind.




Orca from the bow


The line for the race start was actually five miles offshore and quite long. Clare has some problems with barnacles in the engine intake of Orca, so we had to stop twice to sort it out.




At that stage it realised we weren’t go to got the full way out the start line. And with almost no wind the start itself was delayed anyway.



By now we were about three or four miles out from Dunmore, past Hook Head and the lighthouse. The Hook Lighthouse is the oldest operational lighthouse in the world.

The Hook Light

We were well east of Tramore Bay. About six miles from the Metalman and three from Brownstown Head which were quite hazy.

Brownstown Head from the east

By now the revised start time had been announced, 3.30 pm. Because of the poor wind and forecast, the fleet hove around to sail up the east coast instead.

Orca heading out of Dunmore

We were well on our back by this stage, and indeed most of the inshore fleet had already returned.

Clare dropped me off on the pier so she could sail back to Dungarvan.

Dunmore strand

Dunmore still had lots of people enjoying the remainder afternoon and the weather. It’s Ireland. It might rain for weeks from tomorrow. The VW camper van cost me a lot to arrange to be there just at that time for the photo.

From above, the estuary looked great in the sunshine.

I’m always happy to sacrifice a day’s swimming for a day’s sailing. But this day was the best of both, as I still had time to get across to the Guillamene for my first warm swim of the year there, as the water in the cove had warmed up in the low tide and sun to 13.5 °C. Outside it was about 13 °C. Even the previous day it had only been 12 °C.

I swam around the headland again, and into the entrance of another of the sea caves, the largest one, first time I’ve been into that one for some time. A couple of guys on an outcrop on the cliffs about three-quarters of the way out seemed astonished to see someone swim past because I could see them silhouetted against the sky as I went around Seal Rock, still watching me. (Seal Rock is what I call the rock outside and below the Metalman because of the shape of two rocks on the top of it. I’ve no idea what it’s actually called, but this is Ireland so every rock has a name. (Pictures if ever I can afford a waterproof camera.)

I picked up my first proper sting of the year, right across the nose, (which to be honest I’d forgotten about until I wrote this).

A good day messing about on and in the water.

Rule Number One

I don’t want to be accused of hypocrisy, given my own habits and the site name.  So I deliberately didn’t write much originally about Open Water Rule Number One, though I’ve mentioned it in passing quite a few times.

But I would also be less than honest if I avoid it completely.

Open water swimming Rule Number One is: Never Swim Alone.

Okay, so it’s obvious why I want to be careful.

In fact it was in my mind the day I started the site, so that context might be useful again.

Though there a few experienced people along the Waterford coast, I started swimming OW with and because of Clare, (as she is sick of me saying, I think). I also had years of surfing experience, something which led to me feeling fairly comfortable along much of our coast.  At the time there only a few OW swimmers here, most of whom were focused on doing the Helvick swim. And I wanted to learn so I started swimming more by myself, gradually trying to learn the spots myself. At the start Clare introduced me to Ballinagaul so I only swam there for a few months. Then I added Ballydowane, Sandycove and then the Guillamenes. Sometimes I pushed myself in areas I didn’t know well. Yes I swam Sandycove before the Guillamenes. (My very first swim of Sandycove was solo lap, my second swim there was a solo double lap). Each time I swam them in various conditions and tides and studied them a lot, using my surfing eye to watch for channels, rocks and rips. By the time I started the site, I knew all these locations (and more like Bunmahon, Tramore beach, Annestown, Kilmurrin, Dunmore) like the back of my hand.

Some locations are very predictable (e.g. the Cunnigar, very safe, left), some take more experience (the Metalman) and some are dangerous (Bunmahon).

As I have often said, and including in my first post, while I love swimming with my friends, I also like swimming alone. So there’s no point in me pontificating and sticking the usual caveat “never swim alone” at the bottom of my emails, or on every post. We’re all adults. We make, in as much as the world and our psyches allow us, our own choices.

I do tell inexperienced swimmers to be careful, to swim with others.

The sea is dangerous and we shouldn’t forget that. It also boons an extraordinary freedom and sense of peace. To explore and enjoy the marine coastal environment, knowing it as well as you can is a good start. The HowTos on the top menu bar should be useful for some of you to so do.