Two weeks before Christmas in 1978, the cargo ship MS München encountered a fierce storm in the North Atlantic. Although the captain couldn’t evade it, the forecasted waves and winds should have posed no threat to the 261-meter-long ship. At midnight, just three hours earlier, an operator had radioed out to a cruise ship, “Have a good trip and see you soon.” Now came a distress call from the München — then silence. The West German vessel and its 28-person crew vanished, leaving behind just four lifeboats, three shipping containers, and a handful of flotation devices.
One clue in particular stumped investigators. A recovered lifeboat — originally bolted to the München about 20 meters above the water — appeared to have been ripped from its perch by a tremendous force hurtling toward the ship’s stern. Rumors circulated that a monstrous wave had crashed onto the deck from above, but such a swell was, at the time, unthinkable. West Germany’s Maritime Board of Inquiry eventually declared it “impossible to explain the cause of the sinking.”
Mariners have known for centuries what researchers have documented only in recent decades: The ocean is a far more dangerous place than common sense would suggest. Data-driven researchers long struggled to square sailors’ tales of monstrous “rogue” waves with the expectation that wave heights vary like human heights — clustering around an average with a few outliers dotting the thin tails of a bell curve. Sure, you might get a wave twice as tall as its neighbors in theory, but you’d have to watch the seas for a long time.