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Batten down the hatches against ‘freak’ waves

Ben Yale Published on 20 July 2011


The Cunard Line’s Queen Elizabeth II, like all cruise ships, is an entertainment venue on the high seas. Center stage for the QE II is the Grand Lounge, a two-story room with a stage at one end. Passengers enjoy the evening entertainment or nightly dance 65 feet above the waterline.



On September 11, 1995, a different show occurred in the room. As the ship crossed rough Atlantic seas, a wave hit the windows of the Grand Lounge, crushing them. Less than a quarter of an hour later, Captain R.W. Warwick saw what he later described as the “white cliffs of Dover” straight ahead of the ship.

In reality it was a great wave, so high it reached the bridge of the ship, over 90 feet above the waterline. A nearby Canadian weather buoy measured the height of the wave at 98 feet.

Sailors’ tales of waves of mythic proportions appear throughout history. But few like Warwick and the passengers and crew of the QE II live to tell about it. This lack of survivor collaboration led to the conclusion that waves of the QE II type were extremely rare, even nonexistent. So rare that they earned the name “freak waves.”

Mathematical models estimated that ocean waves could not exceed 30 to 50 feet in height. But the 1995 experience of Warwick on the QE II proved that wrong.

The infrequency of such reports is more a function of the lack of encounter rather than the frequency of their appearance. A relatively small number of boats on the vast expanse of the oceans and giant seas can only see so much surface.


With the exception of tsunamis, which can last for hours, these monster, “freak” waves exist briefly, normally collapsing and never rebuilding to the previous height. With the aid of more ocean buoys and satellite surveillance, experts now estimate that such monster waves are not so rare after all, and not always so small.

Three months later, a wave detector on the Draupner oil platform was hit by a 120-foot wave. The QE II, Draupner and similar encounters forced those who study the sea and those who design, build and man ships and platforms in those seas to reconsider their assumptions of the forces the sea would bring to bear.

It’s not just the height of these waves, but the sheer force that comes with them. The pressure from the falling water is almost 100 tons per square yard. The waves contain millions of gallons of heavy sea water which will quickly fill a ship if a hatch is open, if not crush it.

It is estimated that a ship is lost every week. The reasons can be many, but in some cases perhap rogue “freak” waves hit the helpless ship and cause it to sink almost immediately.

Don’t forget older vessels that should have been scrapped continue to ply the seas. Years of bending and twisting in heavy seas weakens them. In really rough water, they perish. In many cases these “freak” waves are part of a larger storm, but not always.

Causes of giant waves are not fully understood. Waves driven by high winds that run up against strong and opposing currents can create skyscraper walls of water. Giant tsunamis created by underwater earthquakes require no storm.


The plot line of the 1972 movie, The Poseidon Adventure , was based upon such a wave capsizing the giant ocean cruiser. That movie was a remake of the 1911 version reportedly being screened on the Titanic when it hit the iceberg in the North Atlantic.

Ships aware of stormy seas and treacherous currents can avoid those areas. But there are those waves which come from relatively calm seas, even without an earthquake. Waves can pile up on each other. A 10-foot wave overcoming a five-foot wave becomes a 15-footer.

Higher waves build speed. A series of 10 five-foot waves combined can yield the freakish 50-foot wave on calm seas reported from time to time.

Wave theory has been applied to understanding dairy economics. Dairymen are familiar with the graphic depiction of prices that shows a wave pattern. Dairy economists have identified a number of different waves that interact to provide repeating cycles with various heights and troughs.

The seasonality in milk production or counter-cyclic milk consumption are common examples. There are other waves that have been isolated. Coupled with waves induced by the stormy world economy, these combined waves can be enormous and almost tsunami-like in their impact on dairymen, such as 2009.

For all involved, 2009 represented the worst year in dairying ever experienced. Extraordinary events came together to create such a crash. The crash of the domestic and world economies, the bursting of the housing bubble, the melamine scandal in China and a host of other events outside of the dairy industry contributed.

So extraordinary was the year that many say it was a “once in a lifetime” storm, or even more rare. While reassuring, such words have no basis in reality. When the next wave or waves will come, how high they will be and how long they will last are all questions for which no one has an answer.

A universal disaster such as that year may be rare, but for the family dairy farmer who is hit by a single rogue, “freak” wave, one sufficient to bring the farm under, of which others survive or are spared the ravage, there is no comfort.

Regardless of whether the dairyman will experience a “freak” wave individually or in a storm commonly shared with others, the reality is that such waves will happen. They cannot be stopped, only prepared for.

The sea upon which a dairy farm sails today is much different from the ones sailed upon even a few years ago. The dairy economy is no longer a small inland lake or domestic sea. It is an earth-sized ocean.

The global marketplace sets American dairy prices. That is a permanent reality. It is also, by and large, a good thing. By all domestic measures, milk prices should be flat and disappointing, with unemployment at near-record levels and little sign of an economic recovery. Thanks to a weak dollar and global demand, they are higher-than- normal prices.

The July advanced butterfat factor for the FMMO Class I will be $2.37 per pound, the fourth-highest ever. Strong global demand for whole milk powder, the powder that includes the butterfat and the skim, supports butter prices. Growing exports for skim milk and nonfat milk powders at higher than domestic prices push up the Class IV prices and, in turn, the Class I prices. July 2011’s mover at $21.03 per hundredweight (cwt) is the sixth all-time highest such price.

Exports of dry whey at a dime or more higher per pound add an additional 60 cents to the milk price. Every penny increase in dry whey (in FMMO prices but not California pricing) means almost a six-cent higher Class III price.

In this new dairy ocean experience, supply and demand issues triggered in faraway places, such as bad weather in New Zealand, potential of political unrest in China, export tariffs in Argentina, growing populations in Indonesia and government agricultural policy in the European Union, impact American dairy farmer prices as much, sometimes more, than drought in Texas, a sluggish economy or heavy rains in the Northern Plains.

The high waves of undulating prices for grain, also responding to world demand, in conjunction with the waves of milk prices, will generally provide producers memorable profit rides, such was the case in 2007. Sometimes they will be at the crest of huge profit waves. But these waves will crash, and the unprepared are at risk.

Government policies and programs cannot protect dairy producers in these global seas. Old policies, even new thoughts sharing the same domestic mindset, are based upon a $30 billion to $35 billion domestic market for producer milk with a single economy. Global markets are about $100 billion based upon dozens of economies.

In fact, applying domestic-only mindsets to global markets will harm, seriously harm, dairy producer economic interests. An anchor with 30 feet of cable may protect a boat in a harbor with 25 feet of water at high tide, but with 25-foot to 50-foot waves, it will hold it under water rather than allowing it to float on the surface.

Domestic-only policies in the form of the dairy price support program did just that in 2009 and spilled over into 2010. While it propped domestic prices at the support level, eventually the weight from excess powder inventory held the domestic milk price below world prices until those inventories cleared.

Similarly, proposed policies that call for shorting the milk supply to raise domestic prices will work the opposite in a global economy. Such a move will actually reduce producer prices, as such reduced production reduces the volume of exports at the higher prices.

So what is a dairy producer to do? Strengthen the ship itself by bolstering the farm balance sheet. Relook at the farming model and make changes in terms of feed supply (more self-produced feed) and where the farm is located (closer to markets to reduce transportation costs).

Make decisions at the top of the wave, knowing a trough is coming. Batten down the hatches for the waves that will come, maybe unexpectedly.

When Capt. Warwick encountered the great waves in the North Atlantic, he did so because he had changed course to avoid sailing through Hurricane Luis. The passengers and crew had been prepared for the bad seas.

When the worst hit, the ship lost the forward mast, but there were no injuries or fatalities. It was not the kind of ride they wanted to remember, but they did survive to retell it. PD

Illustration by Mercedes Opheim.

Ben Yale