Dockwalk - The Motion of the Ocean Untitled Page

The Motion of the Ocean

Apr 3rd 09
By Chris Tibbs

As captains and crew prepare to deliver their yachts on their own bottom to the Med and other summer cruising grounds, it can be just as important to get a handle on the pattern of waves and swell mid-ocean as it is to gather the latest weather forecasts.

Out at sea, we find a mixture of waves and swell, often coming from very different directions. This can make for a rough passage, ranging from merely uncomfortable to quite dangerous. It also can cause discomfort to guests with delicate stomachs. It is usually the sea state that causes a captain to reduce speed, rather than the windspeed.

Whilst waves and swell are both generated by the wind, "waves” can be defined as “the waves generated by the wind blowing at the time, or recent past, in the area of observation”, while “swell” is defined as, “waves that have moved into the area that are generated by previous winds in other areas.” Swell may have travelled hundreds, or possibly even thousands of miles, and thus will have a long wave length in relationship to its height.

Watching North Atlantic storms and cold fronts is one way to predict a swell, but a quicker and easier solution is to look at wave models online.

One of the easiest databases to access is on the website. Once there, chose your area from the WW3 menu. You will find a series of choices with “significant wave height” at the top of the list. Significant wave height is the average height of the largest one-third of waves. This will give you an overview. I also like to look at swell heights and direction.

This website will not give you all the answers, as the scale is too small to go into a great deal of detail, but it does provide a good snapshot. Alternatively, The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s site, which also is recommended for weather forecasts, provides charts of wave heights. Check for the Caribbean and for the Atlantic. Do check out the units as some are posted in meters and some in feet.

Swell can be a problem mid-Atlantic, but once you’ve reached your destination, it can still haunt you. Lying in a beautiful anchorage that is suddenly spoilt by swell arriving unannounced is a common problem in many areas. As waves enter shallow water, they start to build in height. We consider water to be shallow when it is about half the wave length of the wave. As wave length in the ocean can be hundreds of meters in length, a wave will start feeling the bottom when it comes over the continental shelf. This slowing and steepening goes some way to explaining why even with a relatively calm sea offshore, once at anchor, the yacht will start to roll.

Waves also will bend around headlands and islands and come at you from different directions than the wind, so the lee of an island is not always as protected as you might hope it to be. In the Caribbean, you sometimes get a swell that propagates from a North Atlantic storm a thousand miles away.

Using wave models provided on the sites listed above can help you in planning itineraries. It is also possible to get wave heights in GRIB file format. Many local forecasts also include wave height and direction.


Chris Tibbs is a meteorologist who previously worked as a skipper in the yachting industry. He is the author of the Onboard Weather Handbook (McGraw-Hill).



Rating  Average 0 out of 5

  • No Doubt Chris, those waves are a lot of fun to surf. Makes your heart beat.
    Also, Might want to remind the chefs that life in motion makes it hard for crew to feed.
    Easier for BN's to eat their grub when its served in a deep dish, wide base ,dog bowls like these,

    pick up a dozen before putting to sea. I prefer the ceramic Dog bowls so the chef can pre heat the bowls before serving. Feed BN's cold grub and the chef might not make it across..
    Crew burn alot of calories working 24..7 and prefer full bowls of grub, nobody wants precious grub to be sloshing over the side of their bowls. Looses flavor and get too salty when you have to eat it off the cockpit sole.
    Best before you cast off to stop by a canvas maker or sail maker and rummage thru their scrap cutoffs of high density ensolite type foam . Pick up some 6 inch thick stock about the size of a normal place mat. Take a hot wire and slice it at an angle to form a full sized wedge shaped place mat.. This wedge mat will keep your grub filled dog bowl near level when power reaching. Easy to lock your place mat against a genoa track if your feeding on the rail.
    Good idea to bore a hole in the foam wedge to nest a can of coke or beer in. Remember to take a knife and cut a few slices in the top corner of the foam wedge so you can press your knife, fork or spoon into the slice and keep the stuff from coming adrift.

    Posted by junior_1 04/04/2009 19:53:41

  • For oceanic work Steve Hayles and Marcel van Triest, Grand Prix navigators, weather routers run a web site called GRIB.US

    Download the free software and you can access and animate grib weather files. Well worth spending a bit of time with this asset.

    Basic Bill at
    Posted by junior_1 04/04/2009 09:32:25

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