Freak Waves


From the log of the S.S. Esso Lancashire, sailing off Durban in the Indian Ocean, Aug. 5, 1968:

At 0845 GMT the vessel entered a wave at an altitude of approx. 20 ft and emerged seconds later very much the worse for wear. If Cdre. W.S. Byles, R.D. has any idea where ‘The One from Nowhere’ went, we found the wave that should be with his trough! The wave passed unbroken over the monkey island (a height of about 60 ft) and we struck it well above the trough. It was preceded by a wave slightly larger than usual and we rode that one fairly comfortably but the wavelengths to the big one appeared much less and we just did not make it.

The log for 0745 had noted swell reaching heights of 20 feet. If the monkey island was 60 feet tall then this wave towered 80 feet above the trough, four times the average wave height.

The “one from nowhere” was a deep trough encountered by RMS Edinburgh Castle in 1964: Commodore W.S. Byles reported that the cruiser had “charged, as it were, into a hole in the ocean at an angle of 30° or more, shoveling the next wave on board at a height of 15 to 20ft before she could recover.”

The photo above was taken in the Bay of Biscay around 1940 — a merchant ship was laboring in heavy seas off the coast of France when a crew member photographed a huge wave behind them.

On May 5, 1916, Ernest Shackleton and three exhausted companions were sailing in a small boat across the South Atlantic, trying to reach a settlement and get help for their shipmates, who were stranded on Elephant Island. At midnight Shackleton, alone at the tiller, looked behind them and noticed a horizontal line in the sky. At first he thought this was a rift in the clouds, but gradually he realized it was the white crest of an enormous wave:

I shouted ‘For God’s sake, hold on! it’s got us.’ Then came a moment of suspense that seemed drawn out into hours. White surged the foam of the breaking sea around us. We felt our boat lifted and flung forward like a cork in breaking surf. We were in a seething chaos of tortured water; but somehow the boat lived through it, half full of water, sagging to the dead weight and shuddering under the blow. We bailed with the energy of men fighting for life, flinging the water over the sides with every receptacle that came to our hands, and after ten minutes of uncertainty we felt the boat renew her life beneath us.

“During twenty-six years’ experience of the ocean in all its moods I had not encountered a wave so gigantic,” Shackleton wrote later. “It was a mighty upheaval of the ocean, a thing quite apart from the big white-capped seas that had been our tireless enemies for many days.” But they survived the disaster and reached their goal.



South Africa’s Table Mountain is sometimes overspread with a tablecloth of cloud.

William Webster, surgeon of the British sloop Chanticleer, described the phenomenon in 1834:

When a south-east wind, passing over the southern shores of the Cape, prevails sufficiently to surmount the Table Mountain, the first notice of the fact is a little mist floating as a cloud on a part of it about ten or eleven o’clock in the forenoon. By noon the mountain becomes fringed with dew; and half an hour after, a general obscuration takes place by the mist. In another half hour the little cleft between the Devil’s Berg and the Table Mountain pours over the cloudy vapour; and at two the Devil’s Berg is capped by the cloud. The table-cloth is now completely spread. … While the Table Mountain remains covered with the dense cloud, fragments of the vapour are torn from it by the force of the wind, and are hurried about the sides of the mountain, assuming a variety of fantastic shapes, and playing about the precipice according to the direction of the different currents of wind. This phenomenon lasts till about five in the afternoon, when a little clearing, which takes place on the western edge of the mountain, announces that the table-cloth is about to be folded up. By six or seven the clearance has considerably advanced; and by eight or nine every vestige of it is gone, and nothing is seen about the mountain but an ethereal sky and the twinkling stars.

Us and Them


Red deer still honor the Iron Curtain. During the Cold War, barbed wire and an electric fence divided Eastern Europe from the West, separating the deer population into two groups. Deer follow traditional trails, which are taught to each generation by its forebears. Now that the fence is gone, red deer range on both sides of the border but refuse to cross it.

“In the past, the deer didn’t go to the Czech side because of the fence,” German biologist Marco Heurich told the Wall Street Journal in 2009. “Now the fence is gone but they still stop at the border.” Film producer Tom Synnatzschke added, “The wall in the head is still there.”

As with humans, it’s the young deer who are testing the old ways. “Our data showed that the animals behaved very traditionally,” said zoologist Pavel Sustr. “The former border was in the minds of the animals. But some of the young animals are searching for new territory. They are more and more deleting the border behavior that was there before.”

Post Chase

concrete arrow

In 1924, air mail pilots were having trouble finding their way across the featureless American southwest, so the Post Office adopted a brutally low-tech solution: Every 10 miles they built a large concrete arrow illuminated by a beacon. Each arrow pointed the way to the next, so that a pilot could stay on course simply by connecting the dots.

The system was finished by 1929, permitting mail planes to find their way all the way to San Francisco. It was quickly superseded by more sophisticated navigation methods, but today the arrows still dot the American desert, ready to confuse hikers and, probably, future archaeologists.

(Thanks, Ron.)

A Helping Hand

In 1978 a bottlenose dolphin at California’s Marine World swallowed a 3-inch bolt. When the frustrated veterinarian complained that his arms were too short to reach it, the park’s president, Mike Demetrios, had a brainstorm. He called 6’9″ Golden State Warriors center Clifford Ray, whose arms are 45 inches long.

Ray reached into the dolphin’s second stomach and retrieved the bolt while a Los Angeles vet instructed him via intercom (photos here).

“They are a very smart animal and I think he realized he was in trouble,” Ray told the Chicago Tribune. “He was pretty much cooperative through the whole thing.”

Demetrios rewarded Ray with the bolt mounted on a bronze plaque, plus lifetime passes to the park, and named a new tiger cub “Clifford Ray” in his honor. For his part, Ray was convinced the dolphin was grateful. “After that whole incident, whenever I would go to the park, he would always recognize me,” he told sportswriter Howard Beck in 2006. “He would come right up to me without being prompted.”

A Crowning Puzzle


There’s a hexagon of cloud at Saturn’s north pole. It surrounds the pole at 77 degrees north latitude, making it wider than two Earths. First discovered by Voyager in the early 1980s, it was still there in 2009, nearly 30 years later.

“The longevity of the hexagon makes this something special, given that weather on Earth lasts on the order of weeks,” said Caltech astronomer Kunio Sayanagi. “It’s a mystery on par with the strange weather conditions that give rise to the long-lived Great Red Spot of Jupiter.”

No one knows what causes the hexagon or how it has remained organized for so long. JPL atmospheric scientist Kevin Baines called it “one of the most bizarre things we’ve ever seen in the solar system.”

No Good Deed


In 1939, the U.S. Navy submarine Sculpin helped to rescue the crew of her sister ship Squalus, which had flooded and sunk off the coast of Maine.

After the rescue the Sculpin went on to serve in World War II, where she was sunk in 1943 by a Japanese destroyer. Twenty-one of her crew were captive aboard a Japanese aircraft carrier when the carrier itself was sunk by torpedoes from an American sub.

The attacking sub was the salvaged and repaired Squalus — the same ship that Sculpin had saved four years earlier.

Higher Learning

Unusual dissertation titles from the University Microforms International dissertation database:

  • “Electrical Measurements on Cuticles of the American Cockroach”
  • “Determinants of Flossing Behavior in the College Age Population”
  • “Classification of Drinking Styles Using the Topographical Components of Beer Drinking”
  • “”More Fun Than Anything” (about cyclopropenium salts)
  • “Creep of Portland Cement Paste”
  • “Garage Sales as Practice: Ideologies of Women, Work and Community in Daily Life (Volumes I and II)”
  • “Finger Painting and Personality Diagnosis”
  • “Communication Use in the Motorcycle Gang”
  • “‘Santa Claus’: A Mime-Opera Based on The Morality by e.e. cummings”
  • “Ritual Drama in American Popular Culture: The Case of Professional Wrestling”
  • “Things That Are Good and Things That Are Chocolate: A Cultural Model of Weight Control as Morality”
  • “Acute Indigestion of Solipeds”
  • “The Making of a Hippie Self”
  • “Jock and Jill: Aspects of Women’s Sports History in America, 1870-1940”
  • “An Adaptive Surfing Apparatus”
  • “The Function of the Couch in Stimulating Altered States of Consciousness in Hypnosis and in Psychoanalysis”
  • “I Am You, You Are Me: A Philosophical Explanation of the Possibility That We Are All the Same Person”
  • “You Can’t Just Plug It In: Integrating the Computer Into the Curriculum”

One dissertation’s acknowledgment page read: “Yes, Mother, I am finally done; and no, Mom, I don’t know what good a doctor’s degree is either if I can’t fix you when you’re ill.”

(From a UMI press release, quoted in The Whole Library Handbook 2, 1995.)

The Rich Are Different


Episodes from the friendship of the eccentric Sir George Sitwell and Henry Moat, the 16-stone Yorkshireman who served for 42 years as his butler-valet:

Sitwell: Henry, I’ve a new idea — knife-handles should be made of condensed milk!

Moat: Yes, Sir George, but what if the cat gets at them?

Sitwell: (when his dinner guests were 90 minutes late) Henry, it is now 8:30. If they don’t arrive in 10 minutes’ time, I intend to sit down to dinner — if necessary by myself.

Moat: Well, Sir George, you couldn’t ask for more cheerful company, could you?

At Sitwell’s 200-room Tuscan palace, the chauffer, the son of the bailiff, and the plasterer were all named Guido.

Moat: Any orders for the motor today, Sir George?

Sitwell: Yes, Henry. Tell Guido to drive into Florence to help Guido with the painting. Guido can wait while Guido has luncheon, and then Guido will go back to Florence and fetch Guido here.

Moat: Sir George, if you are going on like that, I had better give notice before my mind gives way.

Edith Sitwell described Moat as “an enormous purple man like a benevolent hippopotamus,” and Moat called Sir George “the strangest old bugger you ever met.” (Sitwell had once designed a tiny revolver for shooting wasps; his History of the Fork remained unpublished.) “He and my father [were] mutually critical and at the same time appreciative,” wrote Osbert Sitwell.

And Moat himself could be odd. When Sitwell’s 4-year-old grandson visited Italy, he was attended by a beloved Jamaican nanny whom the butler found inquisitive and bossy. When she asked what was for lunch, “Let me see,” he said, “slices of cold boiled missionary it is today.” At that, wrote Osbert, she became “notably more subdued in manner.”


On July 4, 1989, Soviet MiG-23 pilot Nikolai Skuridin was on a routine training flight near Kolobrzeg, Poland, when his afterburner failed. Skuridin ejected, thinking the engine was completely dead, but the plane recovered and proceeded on autopilot into the west.

It must have had a lot of fuel, because it crossed out of Poland into East Germany, then into West Germany, then into the Netherlands, where a startled American air base sent up two F-15s to keep it company. As the MiG passed into Belgium the F-15s were told to shoot it down when it reached the North Sea, but it finally ran out of fuel near the French border, crashing into a house and killing a teenager.

The whole trip had covered 560 miles. Belgian Foreign Minister Mark Eyskens complained that the Soviets had issued no warning and no indication as to whether the pilotless plane was carrying dangerous weapons; it turned out that it was unarmed but carrying ammunition for a 23mm machine gun.

See Never Mind.