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What Are Sneaker Waves & How Can You Protect Yourself?

Sneaker waves are a common phenomenon in the United States. They tend to arrive when you least expect them, and they can be deadly.


Waves can be so dramatic. At first, the ocean seems sweet and calm and totally predictable, and then — boom! — out of nowhere, it sneaks up on you and turns your whole world upside down.

When you hear people talk about wind energy and the power of the ocean, you might think they’re talking about an alternative to fossil fuels. But if you’ve ever been knocked over by a wave at the beach, that’s wind energy that’s been transferred to the water.

That energy is what makes those beautiful waves we love to Instagram, surf and splash. But that energy can also kill you.

In April of this year, a couple visiting the Queen’s Baths in Kauai, Hawaii, were swept off the rocks, along with their 11-month-old son — captured in a video you can watch here.

And that's only the latest accident in a long line of wave-inflicted injury at Queen's Bath. Seven people have died since 1970, although a sign at the baths warns of much larger numbers in an attempt to instill enough fear to keep visitors safe — because people aren’t listening.

Getting splashed by the waves is a favorite tourist activity.

Photo Credit: Sayzie Koldys

 

But the water around the Queen’s Baths is like a washing machine, even when the weather is gorgeous.

Photo Credit: Sayzie Koldys

When a wave hits a wall of rock, all that energy is reflected back into the immediate area, creating even stronger waves that can pack literally tons of brute force. Even on a sandy beach, the waves can bring the drama.

Sneaker waves are a common phenomenon on the West Coast of the United States, and visitors and locals alike are caught off guard.

In March, a 9-year-old boy in Carmel, California, died when a wave snatched him from a game he was playing with his father on the beach. And Oregon loses, on average, more than one person a year to these sneak attacks.

In January, a 3-year-old boy and his father were the victims. Both were washed out to sea right in front of the boy’s helpless mother. And she’s no dummy. In fact, she’s an astrophysicist at the University of Oregon.

But sneaker waves tend to arrive when you least expect them. The ocean may even seem remarkably calm. But that’s just the calm before the storm. See, scientists think that sneaker waves get all that energy from a faraway storm.

Usually, waves of differing periods (how long two wave peaks will take to pass one point) will cancel out some of each other’s energy, and we see smaller waves.

Occasionally, a wave phase changes, two peaks meet to create a higher peak and sneaker waves are born.

Scientists like Tuba Ozkan-Haller from Oregon State University are trying to design sneaker-wave early-warning systems that will be based on predictions of calm near-shore conditions and faraway storms. And many West Coast and Hawaii beaches are posted with warning signs.

But it’s easy to get lulled into a false sense of safety by the sound of the gentle surf.

So what can you do to protect yourself and still enjoy our beautiful beaches and body surfing?

  1. Read the warning signs. Yeah, it’s a drag to be told what to do, but they have some good points.
  2. Don’t turn your back on the ocean. Like most of us, she hates to be ignored. If you don’t check her out every once in a while, she might sneak up on you.
  3. Plan your escape. Many sandy beaches are narrow strips that back into rocks or hillsides. If the ocean does sneak up on you, where will you run?

  1. Don’t climb the rocks. Just don’t.
  2. If you do get snatched by a wave, stay calm. Really. If you’re wearing a heavy coat and shoes, try to remove them so you won’t get waterlogged, and swim perpendicular to the current that’s trying to drag you out.

 

And remember, sometimes it’s better to enjoy waves from a distance.

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