Over the last two decades more than 200 large carriers, cargo ships over 200m long, have been lost at sea. Eyewitness reports suggest many were sunk by high and violent walls of water that rose up out of calm seas. But for years these tales of towering beasts were written off as fantasy; and many marine scientists clung to statistical models stating monstrous deviations from the normal sea state occur once every 1,000 years. As part of a project called MaxWave, the European Space Agency (ESA) arranged for two of its Earth-scanning satellites to monitor the oceans with their radars. The shady phenomenon of freak waves as tall as 10 storey buildings had finally been proven, according to ESA. During a three week period they detected 10 giant waves, all of which were over 25m (81ft) high.
To prove the phenomenon or lay the rumours to rest, a consortium of 11 organisations from six EU countries founded MaxWave in December 2000. As part of the project, two Earth-scanning satellites, ERS-1 and ERS-2, monitored the oceans with their radars. The radars sent back pictures of the sea surface in a rectangle measuring 10 by 5km (6 by 2.5 miles), which were taken every 200km (120 miles). Around 30,000 separate pictures were produced by the two satellites during a three-week period in 2001 - and the data was mathematically analysed. According to ESA the survey revealed 10 massive waves - some nearly 30m (100 ft) high. Ironically, while the MaxWave research was going on, two passenger liners endured terrifying ordeals. The Breman and the Caledonian Star cruise vessels had their bridge windows smashed by 30m waves in the South Atlantic. The Bremen was left drifting for two hours after the encounter, with no navigation or propulsion.
In the next phase of the research, a project called WaveAtlas will use pictures taken during two years to create a worldwide atlas of freak wave events. The goal is to find out how these strange cataclysmic phenomena may be generated, and which regions of the seas are most at risk.