Surviving a Rogue Wave

As the survivors of last month’s Japanese tsunami struggle to rebuild their lives, Joan Larsen remembers her own near death experience in the face of a towering wave

The tsunami that struck Sendai, Japan in last month – that wave coming out of nowhere, heading ashore with such incredible speed, eating up the landscape and its people – has left an indelible mark on the world. Videos have shown many people mesmerized by the height and speed of the water, standing on bridges, not running, obviously believing that they would be safe. They weren’t.

What goes through people’s minds when it looks as if they may have only minutes to live? We all know that life is fragile. And yet most of us feel that these natural disasters will pass us by. This wasn’t the case with me.

Later, I was told that no one saw the giant wave heading toward our ship, gaining height and speed as it traveled. That day in the late eighties, steaming through the Barents Sea high above Arctic Norway, the waters may have been icy cold, but they were calm. The sunshine and the blue sky above our large ship would make anyone feel that all was well in the world. The passengers, who hailed from an assortment of countries, had embarked in Bergen, Norway five days before. You could find them clustered in the large social area of the lounge, with its glass-enclosed windows, or lying on deck chairs on the open top deck, enjoying the sparkling weather. We were living “the good life” on one of the most beautiful journeys of our lives. Or so we thought.

But the rogue wave was on its way, rising up out of the ocean for no reason, picking up speed rapidly, and growing many meters before slamming into our ship. It hit with great force. There was no time to react. All we could remember was chairs and people thrown at high speed toward the windows.

And then the ship was on its side. We were now on the windows, looking at an underwater world as if we had been pressed into an aquarium wall. A jumble of chairs, tables, and people. No one screamed. No one cried. In our lounge there was only dead silence.

The ship rolled back, righted itself. But there was no attempt to untangle ourselves. No one moved. We were waiting for the next wave to hit and all to be over. The only sound that broke the silence was the continual sound of glasses and china breaking, smashing on the floor of another deck. The ethereal tinkling seemed to go on and on.

We had no idea of time passing. But slowly, people began separating themselves from each other. Still no talking. Around us, there were people unconscious, struck by the furniture. Normally, one might try to help, but help was slow in coming. If not hurt, we were stunned. I knew that my husband was on the outside open deck at the top of the ship – well, if he was still there. But like many others, I could not seem to move from the floor.

Members of the crew came. The bloody and unconscious were carried away. Most of us still had no reaction. When I finally climbed up to the open deck, I saw my husband safe. As far as he knew, he said, everyone clung to the upper railing and survived. The deck chairs went overboard. Even at this later time, we said little, engrossed in our own private experiences and feelings.

A crew member talked about the huge “rogue wave” hitting the ship, but we heard no details — and probably were too stunned to care. Hours later, I saw crew members throwing all the broken china, glassware, and ruined objects into the deep ocean below. Not a word was said about the injured passengers. They had plainly “disappeared”. . . forever.

I often think of the passengers’ behavior – as well as mine – after the disaster. We thought we were going to die. We had been crushed by a sea of other people lying on top of us, and struck by furniture thrown like missiles across the lounge. And yet no one had screamed, no one had spoken.

In Japan, after the worst was over, the photos showed survivors silently wandering around, even a week later. Is this what it is like to be in shock? And why have I been always so reluctant to share this story? I feel like I have been carrying a secret that could only be understood by others who have also survived a near death experience.

I wonder if others who have survived natural tragedies against all odds also feel they somehow now belong to a private fraternity. The silence alone seems to tell its own tale.

Writer Joan Larsen has traveled the world for a lifetime in a search of its most remote places. But she is drawn to the polar regions, which have become her field of expertise, again and again.

13 Responses so far.

  1. avatar Baby Snooks says:

    There is no fury in Nature like the fury of the sea.  Nature gives little warning.  Suddenly we are totally helpless as it strikes. And silent in its aftermath. The slience may be shock. Or awe at the fury that has struck.

    Some in Sendai did run for “safe ground” only to find it wasn’t safe. The wave much higher than had ever been recorded before.  I believe their records go back 1,000 years.

    We like to believe we are in control of our lives. Nature reminds us that we are not.

  2. avatar Baby Snooks says:

    My experience with Nature was on a flight from Cincinnatti to Los Angeles. One of those “perfect days” to fly. Except for a “perfect storm” developing over the Rockies. Suddenly the cabin turned dark and the lights came on. And then the crosswinds hit. With such force that people were thrown out of their seats before the pilot could even turn on the “fasten seat belts” sign.  You could feel the plane moving sideways from the force of the winds. I cannot describe the sound that accompanied each blast of the winds except to say that we all expected the plane to simply come apart – we all looked at each other in total terror. In total silence. Like you, I remember the silence. 

  3. avatar Bonnie O says:

    Joan –  I think I might have screamed ….. if only by opening my mouth in an attempt to force sound through frozen vocal cords but actually emitting no sound aloud except for a faint terrified mew.   It seems miraculous that everyone survived.

    My watery experiences are nothing as compared to your experience  but at the time and for a few moments I thought I would meet a watery end.  Once I was swept over a waterfall …. only about 8 feet high but in the pool of deep water at the base of the waterfall I was churned around and around as if I were in a washing machine.  How long did it last …. probably only about 30 seconds but long enough for me to think at age 14 I was doomed;  it was only when I remembered my mother’s teachings about water safety that I quit fighting the turbulance and relaxed that I popped up to the surface.

    My other experience occurred in Hawaii at a bay where there are signs posted about rogue waves … warning folks who walk along the rock shelf towards the ocean.    One large wave came in while my fianancee and I were climbing along.  If not for his quick thinking I would have been swept off the shelf and into the ocean.  The wave crashed before it completely engulfed us ….. thank goodness.  I was 20 years old then.

    It is truly amazing that children and young adults escape so many near-escapes …all caused as a result of their own foolishness.

    Thanks for your story, Joan. 

    • avatar Joan Larsen says:

      Bonnie — you too had some very close calls. Perhaps, when we are that young, we say “we were lucky”.  But over time – when other “incidents” just as close or even closer come and – what should I say? “we survive”, it gives us a little more food for thought as to the WHYS of it.  I still cannot come up with an answer.  In our quiet moments – even long after the event – we find ourselves thinking about it. 

      At the southern tip of Chile on a hiking trip, we had arranged to take “a ferry” across the Straits of Magellan to the island part of the tip of South America called Tierra Del Fuego.
      The winds are always high there, but only after a wait of 4 days were we told that though the winds were still over 60mph, the ferry was going “make a try for it”.  The boat was very very old – like a WWII landing craft almost.   But, braving the wind, we boarded.  High in the stern of the boat was a larger than life-size lighted-from-within model of the Virgin Mary, high on the back deck.  Too late to turn back, we were handed basins.  Why?  We knew when we got out onto the Strait.  Picture rows on people inside in rows, each throwing up in those basins.  No photos captured it.  No one had a hand free.  We saw people crossing themselves — which told alot to those who were too dumb to get what we were in for.

      A group of “almost goners” went down that gangway.  We could not go back that way — we had used up our “go past home FREE” cards.  We hired a plane at the minescule “airport” – a plane for 4 or 6.  The winds were higher than we had even been in.  Six men with huge ropes held over the plane held it down while we crawled in.  The ropes released, the plane rose in the air by itself.  I will not mention the “landing”.

      Close calls — much too close calls — Bonnie, do you ever think you might be here for a purpose you have not yet fulfilled?  I wonder what others think.  . as I don’t have the answer.

      • avatar Bonnie O says:

        Joan –  When I first read Richard Dana’s Two Years Before The Mast I was captivated by his account of the journey from the Atlantic to the Pacific via the Strait of Magellan … I think your account fits right in with his.   A journey or place to be … not for the faint hearted.

        As to your question, I am attracted to the philosophy that there may be a special purpose for our earthly presence.  What that purpose is …. I doubt if each of us will ever know.  I am sure that some do not fulfill that purpose and others probably fulfill more than one.  We often hear of a successful person talking about a teacher, parent or grandparent who made a difference in their life.  I am sure that is true.  It is possible that simply a conversation or a book may do the same.  Who knows what our descendants will accomplish?   As to wheather we are spared from danger or a life-threatening situation in order to fulfill our purpose, I, too, do not have an answer.  Maybe yes, maybe not.

      • avatar Baby Snooks says:

        I have never liked boats.  Became philosophical about planes. Even after the “rocking and rolling” flight over the Rockies.  Now, well, if I can’t get there by train, I don’t go.  Of course with the condition of our infrastructure, I will probably end up on the Cassandra Crossing.

        Intersting question about “cheating death” which I suppose is really your question. In any case at times we do have the “close calls” where we realize we may die. It changes us. I suspect for the better. Although some of us don’t become more courageous.

        • avatar Joan Larsen says:

          To Snooks and Bonnie — Like Snooks, I think close calls with death do change us for the better.  For most of it I would expect, it gives us pause.  . and it also tells us loud and clear that our life could be up any time.  I have found that I tend to make the most of every day – hopefully not in selfish ways but in ways that I grow, learn, and hopefully make a small difference in someone’s life.  Does it work – as Bonnie asks — well, we do not know, but I notice if I try to be there for others, there is usually an elevation of mood.  . and sometimes more.  Would I be doing that if I didn’t have more than one near death experience?  Somehow I was taught early on in life that we are here to do for others.  I can say no more than I do my best — and the nice thing is that it gives little time for the “poor me” syndrome and complaining and it increases the “upbeat” component. As for the “daring” component, I continue to take life one step (more) beyond — but that is just me.

          • avatar Baby Snooks says:

            I really don’t think about that flight anymore and only thought about it when I read about your experience and realized after I posted something that I had a  “close call” once as well.  I can write about it but I have never talked about it, strangely, because I can’t get beyond the slience that is forever embedded in my memory.  No one screamed.  I don’t think anyone even gasped. There was just this eery silence. Total terror.  I went to dinner with friends who asked if something was wrong. I said nothing was wrong. I was just tired from the flight. But I hadn’t eaten. Instead just picked at everything with my fork.  I went back to the hotel and went out to the pool and just sat there for hours by myself. That was when my life passed before myh eyes. Not on the plane.  And the next day I went on. We do go on.

            I remember smiling at a woman across the aisle from me after we finally landed.  She smiled back. That perhaps was the day I learned the magic of smiling at a stranger. We are all in this together.

          • avatar Joan Larsen says:

            We talked at home after I wrote this story . . . the first time since this happened some years ago.  Tiny revealing things were said on our separate experiences on two different decks – something we did not say at the time.  Interestingly enough, we took it no further.  We have gone “to the ends of the earth” and things have happened that have gone either way.  We and all who were a part of those times never spoke of it minutes later, days later.  Never.  We acted like it didn’t happen.  Only because I saw those people in Japan walking the devastation also alone and silent did that element click into my mind.  I think life changed in those moments and it lies in a very deep place.  To know others have felt as I have – well, it is just not written about, is it?  Private fraternity?  Maybe.

  4. avatar Chris Glass` says:

    People are stunned when a freak of nature beyond human control happens. The majority of us haven’t been taught or programmed to deal with such things. Some people freeze out of disbelief others find that their survival instincts kick in. It varies by how aware the individuals are that are caught up in the current event. People don’t waste energy screaming during such an event they are silenced into submission.

  5. avatar D C says:

    No screaming… this reminds me of a car wreck I was in at the age of 5.  No seat belts back then.  I was in the back seat, and had my head down, reaching to tie my shoelace — a task that took a good deal of focus at the age of 5.  There was a loud sound and I found myself plopped into the floorboard.  My first thought was that my mother had hit a large pot hole in the road.  When I raised up, I saw that we were in a ditch.  Someone had run the stop sign at that intersection, and my mother swerved to avoid the other car and we ended up in the deep, dry ditch on the corner.  My mother was tending to my baby brother who had been thrown into the front floorboard, having been sitting on my oldest brother’s lap.  Back then, “car seats” for babies were little more than missile projection seats.  My baby brother had been fussy, so mom had told oldest to put the baby on his lap.  I think if the baby had been in the car seat, just a platform with a strap between the legs hanging over the front seat-back, he probably would have been launched through the windshield.  SO… I sat up, and looked around and wasn’t really hurt or anything, but I wondered what to do.  So I started screaming, because that’s what people did in movies when something scary happened.  I wasn’t really afraid and I wasn’t hurt.  I was just doing what I thought I was supposed to do. 

  6. avatar Jeannot Kensinger says:

    Joan, your story brings chills . Your memories make for a great adventure book,
    Thanks for sharing.

  7. avatar crystalclear says:

    Joan, I just read your article and my heart went flip flop!   What an experience for you and your husband!  

    So glad everything turned out well so that you can be here sharing your beautiful writing skills.