The Power of the Wind at Sea

I read a lot about storms at sea. Waves the size of mountains crashing over ships; pounding the decks with water; washing away crew, passengers, equipment. Tearing the masts out of sailing ships. Storms of this violence provide a dramatic background for a novel almost unmatched by anything else. As a novelist, to convey the reality of a life or death struggle with the sea, I need to know what this feels like and I learn that from people who survived such experiences.

QE2 in heavy weather, 1998. This photo was taken after the ship had gotten through a severe storm and was steaming through the aftermath. Nonetheless, the weather is rough enough that the ship buries her bow into the sea.

I have no desire to go through a violent storm at sea myself. I’ve been through a bad storm but it wasn’t life threatening. Besides, I was aboard the QE2, not the SS Minnow from Gilligan’s Island. Yet I study ocean storms so when I write about them it will be as realistic as if I was there at the moment. I’ve been re-reading Knockdown: the Harrowing True Account Of a Yacht Race Turned Deadly by Martin Dugard, a book about the disastrous Sydney to Hobart sailing race of 1998 when six people died and five boats sank. And they sank because the sea tore them to pieces.

The author describes the power of the wind in a way I never knew.

As wind increases, waves increase but at an exponential rate. For every mile-per-hour wind increases, a wave’s size increases by a power of four.

That is one hell of a multiplier effect. While I have read about countless storms and have all sorts of facts and figures about storms in my head, this one stands out. It’s one the reasons I am an armchair sailor.

While this photo was taken in 2010, it will give you an idea of the what the sailors faced in the 1998 Sydney to Hobart Race. And this isn’t even heavy weather compared to what they encountered. Australian sailor Jessica Watson, the youngest individual to sail unassisted around the world, battles huge seas 60 miles off Sydney on the second last day of her 210-day journey. (Photo courtesy of Picture: Brett Costello, The Daily Telegraph / Courtesy of the Nikon-Walkley Press Photo Awards)

[Source: Knockdown: the Harrowing True Account Of a Yacht Race Turned Deadly by Martin Dugard. Image courtesy of Rob Lightbody’s Website and news.com.au.]

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Charles McCain

Charles McCain is a Washington DC based freelance journalist and novelist. He is the author of "An Honorable German," a World War Two naval epic. You can read more of his work on his website: http://charlesmccain.com/

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