Believe it or not, for many years oceanographers considered these freak destructive waves to be the stuff of sea lore. But rogue waves are very real -- anyone who was sailing onboard NCL's Norwegian Dawn in 2005 when a 70-ft. wave bashed the ship can tell you that -- and scientists are now discovering that these titans of the ocean not only exist but are also unexpectedly common.
According to a recent article in the New York Times, a six-year study led by German scientist Wolfgang Rosenthal estimates that at any given time, "10 of the giants are churning across the world's surface." Scientists have also calculated their "theoretical maximum" at 198 ft. (taller than the Statue of Liberty), though nothing that big has been documented; large rogue waves average about 100 ft.
Although Norwegian Dawn was the only one cited in the article, cruise ships are by no means strangers to rogue waves. The random breakers sidelined at least two other ships that year; MV Explorer, chartered for the University of Pittsburgh's Semester at Sea, was battered in the Pacific, and Iberojet's Voyager was slammed in the Mediterranean. A rogue wave even starred in the recent "Poseidon" remake (though the waves' ability to capsize a cruise ship as large as Poseidon is typically dismissed by cruise ship officers).
Could a rogue wave hit your ship? For now, there is still too little known about rogue waves to predict when and where they'll form; however, Rosenthal told the New York Times that an early warning system is possible in the future, "maybe in about 10 years." There are some regions, the New York Times reports, swept by more powerful currents and therefore more susceptible to rogue waves: the Agulhas, off South Africa; the Kuroshio, off Japan; and the Gulf Stream, off the eastern United States, where Norwegian Dawn ran into trouble.
In the meantime, officers and crew are trained to respond to such a crisis -- about a decade ago, a 95-ft. wave smashed into Cunard's Queen Elizabeth 2 while crossing the Atlantic, but officers reacted so quickly to the sight of the wave that they were able to steer the ship into it. Also, cruise ships are built to withstand high winds and rough seas, to standards set by the International Maritime Organization.