Beware of the Sea

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In the 1970s, one of the first successful disaster movies was "The Poseidon Adventure," the story of survivors on a cruise ship that was upended by a giant wave.

Rumors of giant waves suddenly appearing in otherwise calm seas have persisted for years, but most scientists pooh-poohed the idea as something that happens only once in a millennium.

Those scientists were wrong. The giant waves do exist. European scientists decided to do a study, and in Project MaxWave assigned two satellites to look for giant waves. In one three-week period, the satellites spotted 10 of them, all more than 81 feet tall.

Like me, you were probably unaware that during the past 20 years, more than 200 supercarrier cargo ships have been lost at sea. These losses do not get the study or attention that airplane crashes get. They are usually just written off as due to "bad weather." Now scientists think that these mysterious giant waves might be a factor in some of the losses.

Sizable ships are lost on an average of two a week, according to Wolfgang Rosenthal of the GKSS Research Center in Germany, where the MaxWave project is headquartered. He said that recently two cruise ships were badly damaged in the South Atlantic by giant waves.

All of this merely confirms my own disinclination to ride a craft in deep water, which I define as anything over my 5-feet-8-inch height. Of course, I have been to sea. I’ve crossed the Atlantic twice in ships and several times by air, and I’ve been a guest on carriers and destroyers during brief deep-water cruises. Nevertheless, my seafaring has always been a necessity of my job, not a recreational choice.

I love to read sea stories for the same reason other people like to read horror stories — for the vicarious thrill of being scared. I could easily be persuaded to leave an airplane if I had a parachute, but it would take considerable effort to pry me loose from a ship at sea. The sinking of the Titanic remains for me one of the all-time biggest horror stories, and two adventures I am most happy to have missed are the "Murmansk Run" during World War II and sailing through the Magellan Strait at any time.

The Murmansk Run was the effort by the American merchant marine to resupply the Soviet Union by threading the gauntlet of German submarines into the Arctic seas surrounding Northern Russia. If there is anything I hate worse than deep water, it is deep water that is killing-cold. The Magellan Strait is that stretch of cold, stormy water at the bottom of South America.

I am a great believer in conforming to natural law, and there is a reason God made man without gills or webbed feet and hands. We are land animals. Dry earth is our natural habitat, and the sea belongs to the sharks and other critters of the deep. Since sharks are kind enough to stay out of my back yard, I stay out of theirs. I believe this so deeply that despite growing up in a Navy town, when my turn at military service came along I chose the Army. I’ll take a rifle and a shovel any day over a life jacket and a thin steel plate between me and thousands of feet of dark water.

At any rate, the Europeans are continuing their study, hoping to learn what causes these mountainous waves to arise suddenly out of a calm sea and to find out where they most often occur.

I thought you ought to know about this, as well as the fact that piracy on the high seas continues at a very high rate — another phenomenon the news media do not cover — just in case you were contemplating a sea voyage.

We might have learned how to destroy the life of the sea with appalling overfishing and pollution, but the seas retain the ability to destroy our lives, too. I have nothing against the cruise industry, but there are plenty of lovely places to visit within the high-water marks on our Atlantic, Pacific and Gulf shores. As for the sea, I prefer the view from the shore, preferably through a plate-glass window.

Charley Reese [send him mail] has been a journalist for 49 years, reporting on everything from sports to politics. From 1969—71, he worked as a campaign staffer for gubernatorial, senatorial and congressional races in several states. He was an editor, assistant to the publisher, and columnist for the Orlando Sentinel from 1971 to 2001. He now writes a syndicated column which is carried on Reese served two years active duty in the U.S. Army as a tank gunner. Write to Charley Reese at P.O. Box 2446, Orlando, FL 32802.

© 2004 by King Features Syndicate, Inc.

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