A Rogue Wave is a large, spontaneous wave that occurs in the open ocean. It poses a threat even to large ships and sea liners. They used to be thought of as legendary, but now people know they are real things. A Rogue Wave is a natural occurring phenomenon in the oceans. They are not rare phenomena but they are rarely encountered.
Dan Butterfield (05) relates what happened in 1961 when his submarine did encounter one out in the Atlantic:
I assumed the evening OOD watch after climbing the 20ft ladder up to the top of our new fiberglass sail. Most Guppy IIA subs like mine, the USS Bang (SS-385) home ported in New London, CT, were having this sail modification in the 60’s. Serving on watch with me in the new sail’s cramped bridge space was a young enlisted man performing duties as lookout. It was moderately breezy on a relatively calm ocean with a cloudless, star-lit sky. I still hadn’t gotten used to being so far above the water in this higher sail superstructure, and found the rapid “fireman style” descent down the 20 ft steel ladder using only the handrails when clearing the bridge to dive to be quite exhilarating. With unlimited visibility to the horizon in all directions the conditions were ideal for a very comfortable 4-hour watch. The virtual canopy of stars overhead reaching down to the horizon in all directions was breathtaking. However, due to report of an approaching storm the Captain had ordered for all personnel standing the evening and early morning bridge watches the wearing of rubberized cover-all “poopy suits” and to be secured by safety lines. These suits also provided protection from the freezing ocean spray that reached us even at 35 ft above the water!
Heading in a northerly direction we were roughly 300 miles off the Atlantic seaboard. About two hours into the watch my binocular-aided visual sweep of the horizon suddenly showed a strange ocean disturbance approaching. It appeared to be an unbroken line of white breakers stretching across the horizon. As it approached at great speed I turned to away to ask the lookout what he made of it… but moments later as I looked back I saw that the sky and stars were being blanked out by a dark ominous mountain of water towering above us with white breakers along its top. A second later I grabbed the young lookout by the waist and hugged the alidade compass pedestal shouting “this is it…” and automatically took a deep breath as we were engulfed by a wall of seawater. All I can remember of what followed underwater was seeing many tiny bioluminescent organisms all around me as I was being tumbled violently while struggling to find the ocean surface. Miraculously just as suddenly as all this had happened I found myself floating on the ocean surface. For a few moments I was unable to make out much of anything in the darkness. I called out for my fellow watch stander and fortunately saw him floating nearby in the same bewildered state-of-mind uttering “What happened? Where’s the sub?” As I stared out into the blackness trying to regain my senses I discerned our whole submarine lying completely on its side! It must be sinking being at 90 degrees which was well past the capsizing angle! Abruptly I realized that my safety line was still attached to the sail which must be beneath us and would be pulling us down with it! Just as I was frantically trying to reach for the hook at the end of my safety line to unhitch myself incredibly the sail began slowly coming up out of the water as the sub righted itself. I yelled to the lookout to swim to the sail and climb back into the bridge. If we didn’t get back inside we’d both soon be hanging on the outside of the sail by our safety lines. In a few seconds everything was back to normal as we found ourselves standing as before in the cramped bridge space. The stars were again brilliant overhead, the ocean relatively calm, but strangely there was no wind. I reached over to the MC system switch and attempted to call below, “Conn, Control… anyone there?” The captain responded with:” Bridge, Control… thank goodness you’re there. Are you both okay? What ever happened? I’m coming up."
Quickly the Captain and X.O. were on the bridge, and another officer took the OOD watch from me as I was sent below decks. Soon I was out of the rubber suit, dried off, and sitting in the wardroom sipping a hot cup of coffee. Later the captain asked me to describe what had occurred (I drew a picture from my vivid recollections). He then told of the chaos, equipment damage, and terrible injuries to many crew members during this violent near-capsizing incident. Hot scalding water from the galley sink had been thrown over the crew members in the mess hall watching the after dinner movie. Battery acid had been spilled from the cells causing numerous fires and acrid clouds of smoke. Objects of all kinds were thrown from shelves. Personnel were injured as they were tossed violently from their bunks or thrown against steel valves, equipment, and machinery. Every compartment below decks had suffered damage to some degree during the violent motion and near-capsize of the submarine caused by the encounter with the rogue wave.
NOTE: I have included the aerial photo of a wave which best represents the Rogue Wave observed that memorable night. Superimposed on the photo is an image of our submarine scaled and positioned to also best represent what I experienced as the monstrous wave engulfed us causing the near capsize.
Photo 1 - USS Bang (SS-385) with the new fiberglass sail modification in 1961
Photo 2 - USS Bang’s depicted encounter with Rogue Wave in 1961 Rogue Wave like the one Dan saw on the horizon rapidly closing in.