Tall sea tales sometimes turn out to be anything but fiction

Jun 1, 2011 12:00 AM

At a time when many people still thought the earth was flat, sailors were setting off for distant and exotic lands far beyond the horizon. Mariners are the true explorers of the world's oceans, whose exploits have been passed on for millennia through stories of the sea.

Some of these sea stories, such as Homer's Odyssey or the tale of the Lost Dutchman, have become the stuff of myth and legend. Although many firsthand accounts of phenomena at sea seem fantastic to people ashore, they shouldn't just be dismissed as nothing more than tall tales.

To this day there are scientists who deny that ball lightning exists — but no one has to convince my old shipmate, Ali. He told me of a hot muggy day during thunderstorms in the Gulf of Mexico, when he was standing watch with a third mate. Because of the heat, they had just opened the wheelhouse doors for ventilation. All of a sudden, a ball of lightning about the size of a basketball came in through the port side door and exited out the starboard door with a loud "boom," leaving a strong smell of sulfur smoke. He and the mate looked at each other in silence. Ali was wondering if what he thought he saw really happened. The answer to that question was a burn mark the ball lightning made in the linoleum, a charred/melted straight line from one wheelhouse door to the other.

In the north Pacific one winter morning, my friend Ted was the able seaman on watch, standing lookout when a containership appeared in the mist dead ahead — looking as though it was on a collision course. He notified the mate on watch, who freaked out as the ship in the mist came ever closer but didn't come up on radar.

The mate then called the captain, who came up to the wheelhouse just in time to see the containership disappear. For a moment they all stood there looking out at an empty ocean. The skipper then turned and told Ted and the mate that he thought he'd just seen the second superior mirage image of his career at sea. Sure enough, minutes later the real containership appeared on the horizon.

A sighting I'll never forget happened when I was the chief mate on an oceanographic ship in the Adriatic Sea. We were towing a scientific array astern of us with no vessel traffic nearby, save for a lone Italian fishing boat about a half-mile off our port quarter. As the silver rays of sunrise began to fill the sky, an especially threatening cloud hovering a few hundred feet above the fishing boat caught my attention. Although the Adriatic Sea was calm that morning, near the fishing vessel the water grew ominously dark, with whitecaps and swirling turbulence.

All of a sudden, three waterspouts about the size of the boat formed on the water. They shot up 300 feet, forming funnels up to the cloud, and towered over the small fishing boat. At any moment, one of those water tornadoes could destroy the boat and kill every member of the crew. Fearing that, I called the captain, who along with the AB and I, watched as the twisters miraculously avoided the fishing boat. As we continued to watch, the waterspouts lost energy, disconnected from the cloud, and in an instant dropped back into the sea. All was again calm.

Stories of sailors sighting huge "rogue" waves on the ocean were long discounted as nothing more than fanciful yarns. In fact, the first captain I sailed with on a commercial vessel told me how, for years, no one ashore believed his rogue wave story — even though he had the scars to prove it. As a young ordinary seaman, at the wheel of a northbound 250-foot steam lumber schooner off the coast of Coos Bay, Ore., in the 1940s, the ship was bucking 15- to 20-foot seas. All of sudden, a 50-foot rogue wave rose up and slammed into the ship — smashing the wheelhouse windows with a wall of green water and embedding his head with shards of glass.

It wasn't until Jan. 1, 1995, when a sensor on an oilrig in the North Sea recorded an 84-foot freak wave, that mariners' tales of rogue waves entered the realm of scientific fact. Since then, oceanographers have confirmed that not only do rogue waves exist, but are far more prevalent than previously thought.

I was once lucky enough to sail with the world-renowned oceanographer Dr. John Delaney. He told me that in a world where 70 percent of the surface is covered with water, we know less about our oceans than we do of some planets in space. When I heard that, I thought how for thousands of years sightings and observations by mariners at sea have often been discounted or ignored — simply because it was so difficult to prove that the event had occurred. Cell phones, video recorders, digital cameras, and satellite internet access have ushered in a new era, one where the technology exists to allow us to not only verify our sightings at sea, but to share them quickly and easily with people around the globe.

Every mariner I've ever met has a story of an unusual sighting at sea. Do you have one? If so, I'd love to hear it — and I think other mariners would too. If you send your story or picture of an unusual sighting at sea to John Gormley, editor of Professional Mariner, he’ll consider it for inclusion in the Mariners Speak section of the website for all to share.

Till next time I wish you all smooth sailin'.

Kelly Sweeney holds the licenses of master (oceans, any gross tons) and master of towing vessels (oceans), and regularly sails on a wide variety of commercial vessels. He lives on an island near Seattle. You can contact him at captsweeney@professionalmariner.com.

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