The Queen Mary Rogue Wave – When The Famous Ocean Liner Almost Capsized

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In this article we’ll explore the curious case of the Queen Mary Rogue Wave. Back in 1942, the fastest transatlantic ship almost capsized because of a wave. But how could a ship as big as the RMS Queen Mary almost sink because of a rogue wave?

In this article, we are going to explain how gigantic rogue waves can capsize the sturdiest of ships and how the jewel of the British crown passenger fleet was almost destroyed by one of those waves.

queen mary rogue wave

What are rogue waves?

Before we can understand what exactly happened to the Queen Mary, it is important to know what exactly constitutes a rogue wave.

Rogue waves are basically gigantic waves that suddenly appear in the ocean. These waves are scientifically defined as being twice as large as the average wave in a given area, which means that they might not even be the biggest waves you could find in the ocean. However, their unpredictability makes them very dangerous.

These enormous walls of water have been the source of many myths throughout history, and until relatively recently, scientists weren’t even sure they actually existed.

Rogue waves are not tsunamis

It is important to establish the difference between a rogue wave and a tsunami. Even though both events involve massive amounts of water, rogue waves happen at the surface while tsunamis happen closer to the sea floor.

Tsunamis happen when something (like an earthquake) displaces a large amount of water, and the water is forced to move across the ocean. The reason we see tsunamis as big waves is because, as the tsunami approaches the coast, the shallow waters force the wave to the surface.

Rogue waves, on the other hand, happen exclusively in the open ocean. If such a wave reached the shore, it would be no different than a regular wave hitting the sand.

What exactly causes a rogue wave?

Rogue waves are not completely understood. Even though there had been hundreds of reports throughout history, scientists were not entirely sure that these sudden, gigantic waves were actually real.

While the mechanics might not be perfectly clear, it is believed that rogue waves are caused by waves that somehow stack on top of each other, probably due to high winds and strong currents.

A brief history of the RMS Queen Mary

Before we get to the actual incident, we need to understand why a rogue wave hitting the Queen Mary was actually a big deal. Basically, it was because the Queen Mary was more than just a mere ship. But let’s look at its history a little more in detail:

Built in Scotland in 1936 and named after the Queen Consort of King George V, the RMS Queen Mary was once considered the fastest ocean liner to travel across the North Atlantic Ocean.

Even though its service only lasted a total of 31 years (the ship was retired in 1967), the Queen Mary’s history was packed with exciting adventures and other noticeable events that extended beyond the rogue wave impact.

A transatlantic shipbuilding race

In the late 1920s, Britain felt it was being left behind in the undeclared transatlantic shipbuilding race. The German, Italian, and French were coming up with top-of-the-line ocean liners while the British were still relying on their old fleet.

Two different British companies, White Star Line and Oceanic, started construction of their own superliners, but economic difficulties forced them to halt production and then to merge. The merger was a success, and both ships were finished: the Queen Mary and her sister, the Queen Elizabeth.

From ocean liner to troopship… to ocean liner again

Besides being one of the fastest transatlantic ships, the Queen Mary was also one of the largest and most luxurious ocean liners at the time, and it became known for its journeys between Southampton and New York City. However, during WWII, it was necessary to have all hands on deck—almost literally.

Because of the war, the British government decided to turn the Queen Mary into a troopship and use it to transport thousands of allied troops across the Atlantic. The ship even transported Winston Churchill for meetings with allied officials. In 1942, during one of the soldier-transporting trips, the rogue wave incident happened.

After the war, the ship returned to its passenger transportation duties, but the advent of commercial transatlantic flights made a dent in the demand for sea crossings. At times, the Queen Mary had more crew onboard than passengers, which meant the ship was operating at a loss.

From ship to hotel and museum

Because the luxury ocean liner business was now unprofitable, Cunard-White Star decided to retire and auction both the Queen Mary and the Queen Elizabeth off.

The ship was retired in 1967 after 1001 Atlantic crossings during which it carried more than 2.1 million passengers. The ship was then harbored in Long Beach, where it was turned into a tourist attraction and both a hotel and a museum.

Today, tourists can visit the ship on limited tours, where they can learn more about the Queen Mary and its historical events, like the time it almost capsized due to a rogue wave…

The Queen Mary rogue wave – what happened?

In December 1942, while transporting 16 000 American troops to the United Kingdom, the Queen Mary encountered a severe storm on the fourth day of the voyage. Because it was carrying far more than it had been designed to because of the war, the Queen Mary was top-heavy and very unstable.

During that day, most passengers became seasick—the imbalance of the ship made it roll around with the waves and catch off-guard even the most experienced sailors. But on the fifth day, things became much worse.

The storm grew angrier, and the winds were blowing hard. Darkness surrounded the Queen Mary, which withstood barrages of wave after wave, falling forwards into the pit of one wave, only to be met by the crashing of another time and time again. And then it happened.

The rogue wave crashes against the Queen Mary

During the storm, the Queen Mary was hit by a 92 foot (or 28 meter)-tall rogue wave. The wave struck the portside of the ship, shattering the windows on the bridge and tearing away all the lifeboats. Water broke through the portholes and rushed into the corridors and cabins of the ship, causing it to tilt to the opposite side of where it had been hit.

The entire ship was almost sideways. The soldiers could look directly through the windows and see the angry ocean, parallel to them. Some fell from their bunks and broke their limbs, while others thought they had been hit by a torpedo.

According to the engineers who examined the damage afterwards, the ship was tilted by 52 degrees. If it had reached a 55-degree tilt, the Queen Mary would have capsized and killed everyone on board, becoming the largest maritime disaster ever recorded.

Other famous rogue waves

There are plenty of recorded rogue waves throughout history. In 1498, for example, Columbus mentioned how a gigantic wave lifted their fleet during the night near Trinidad.

In 1978, MS München, a German merchant navy ship, disappeared during a storm, killing all 28 sailors on board. Analysis concluded it was probably hit by a rogue wave.

More recently, in 2001, two cruise ships were hit by 30-meter-tall rogue waves, that smashed their bridge windows while they were crossing the South Atlantic.

So that was our article about the Queen Mary Rogue Wave that almost changed the course of history. Check out our other historic article about microscopes.

Image Source: History Today