Few boating regions inspire more mystery and speculation than the Bermuda Triangle. Since the days of Christopher Columbus, stories of everything from strange fires and the lost city of Atlantis to sunken ships and vanishing planes have come out of the 500,000-square-mile patch of water bordered by southeast Florida, Puerto Rico and Bermuda.
Now, with some help from a three-part British TV documentary called “The Bermuda Triangle Enigma,” a researcher with the National Oceanography Centre at the University of Southampton is putting forth a theory: Rogue waves may account for at least some of the unsolved boating mysteries.
“These things do occur,” Simon Boxall told Soundings, “and they can explain some of these disappearances.”
Here in the United States, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) says rogue waves were the stuff of legend for centuries, until just the past few decades. NOAA defines rogue waves as being unpredictable, more than twice the size of surrounding waves, and often coming from directions opposed to prevailing wind and waves, but it
doesn’t have any more definitive information, because the chance to do actual measurements and analysis of a rogue wave is extremely rare.
Boxall agrees that getting real data is tough: “A rogue wave exists for a moment in time, a minute or two. They’re very hard to measure. You have to be in the right place at the right time to measure one.” But he adds that modern satellite technology has proved they exist. That data, along with accounts from some professional seamen who’ve encountered rogue waves, have provided some clues about where and how they form.
“The places where you get more rogue waves than anywhere else, one is off Cape Horn and the other is off the Cape of Good Hope,” Boxall says. “That’s based on physics and satellite imagery.”
Any single storm in any single ocean can produce waves of about 30 to 40 feet, according to Boxall. “That’s still pretty big. But if you get storms in different places at the same time, waves interact with each other. They add up. They cancel out. If you get two or three waves coming together from different storms, you can get a big wave, a 100-foot wave.”
The Bermuda Triangle, he says, is vulnerable to this type of occurrence. Storms can come from the north or the south, from across the Atlantic or from “Hurricane Alley” in the Caribbean. “It is an area where we do see a lot of tropical storms coming across,” Boxall says. “You get the tail end of those bordering on hurricanes at the south end of the triangle. And the Bahamas do get little hurricanes, and that can cause disappearances.”
Rogue waves, he adds, only ever occur with storms. “You’re never going to have a flat-calm sea and then suddenly the yacht gets hit out of the blue by this big wave. That doesn’t happen.
Even professional sailors who immerse themselves in weather forecasts sometimes get caught off-guard by fast-forming storms, not to mention storm convergences. Boxall recalls talking to Volvo Ocean Race sailors at Cape Town, South Africa, and having a crew recount a rogue wave as the scariest thing they’d ever come across. “They described it as falling through air,” he says. “They looked down and there was nothing there between them and the ocean.”
Volvo Ocean Race boats have every modern technology for communications, weather forecasting and more. Still, the crew had no warning that they were about to be hit, and no time to react or radio a message about what was happening. In other words, if the wave had sunk the boat, nobody would ever have had a firsthand account of why it was gone. This is the exact type of information gap that mysterious boat disappearances typically have in common.
“You’re not sending a Mayday. You’re falling,” Boxall says. “Through the Volvo Ocean Race, we did know that a yacht fell off one of these waves, but it’s the only time I’ve heard a direct report of it. And I’ve been an oceanographer for 40 years.”
And if that’s what happens to the professionals, he adds, then imagine what happens to inexperienced, untrained boaters who may be navigating by sight and using only a cellphone for communications in one of the busiest boating regions on the planet.
“If you look at the boat-owning public in America, something like just under one-third of all privately owned boats and yachts, from the dinghies to the super yachts, are in the Bermuda triangle—Florida, Bermuda, the Bahamas, that whole area,” Boxall says. “There’s a huge density of privately owned boats.”
Boxall thinks about that volume of marine traffic in an area subject to rogue waves when reading things like the U.S. Coast Guard’s 2017 Recreational Boating Statistics, which showed that 81 percent of fatalities happened on boats whose operators had received no boating safety instruction.
“That’s the biggest problem: a high proportion of leisure sailors and boat users, probably a higher proportion there than anywhere else in the world, and a lot of them are inexperienced,” Boxall says. “Put them together and you have disappearances.”
He adds, “As an oceanographer, we get a lot of inquiries on this. People ask if the Bermuda Triangle is real. The science behind it is, yeah, you get some striking seas there, but it’s an area where you have a lot of people who don’t know what they’re doing.”
Boxall’s advice to boaters who fear rogue waves is simply to stay ashore if storms are in the forecast, and to bone up on seamanship skills as frequently as possible. Because contrary to legend and lore, he says, what’s going on in the Bermuda Triangle is actually “pretty logical stuff.” —Kim Kavin
This article originally appeared in the November 2018 issue.