10 Things Every Boater Should Know About Waves

Ever wondered how a wave works? We put together a list of ten things every boater, surfer, or ocean enthusiast should know about waves.



  1. Most ocean waves are actually wind waves. These wind waves are created by wind pushing the surface of the water in one direction. This creates momentum (kinetic energy) in the water that keeps moving even after the wind stops blowing. Waves that are not generated by wind and mechanically propagate are known as swell.

  2. Waves come in all sizes. Waves can be small ripples, or over 100ft (30m) tall. Wave size is dictated by wind speed, the distance he winds travelled (fetch), and how long a wind’s been blowing for (duration). The largest wave recorded was off of Taiwan in 2007 measuring in at 106ft.

  3. Period is the amount of time between waves. The longer the period, the more concentrated and powerful the wave is. Wind waves can have a period as short as a few seconds whereas ocean swell traveling long distances can be over 20 seconds long.

  4. Tsunamis and tides are just ocean waves with really long periods. Tides are waves caused by gravitational pull. Tsunamis are waves generated by large shifts in the ocean floor; earthquakes and meteorites can cause this.

  5. A wave train occurs when multiple waves are lined up one after another. Wave trains happen when a wave gets enough energy to organize itself into smaller sets. The accumulated energy can move these waves at speeds of 30-60 knots.

  6. Rogue waves aren’t just folklore. They happen more frequently in areas with high winds, current, and waves, like at the Horn of Africa, but can occur in any large body of water. A rogue wave on Lake Superior might have sunk the Edmond Fitzgerald in 1975, the boat made famous by Gordon Lightfoot’s song “The Wreck of the Edmond Fitzgerald”.

  7. Being around breaking waves makes you happier. Coastal environments are rich in oxygen molecules that have an extra electron (negative ions). Being in an environment high in negative ions such as the coast, waterfalls and on mountains can help with seasonal affective disorder and other forms of depression.

  8. Early explorers used waves as navigation tools. Prolific ancient navigators, such as the Polynesian, could use the direction, size, and strength of waves to help them find their way across long distances and get to small islands.

  9. Surfing is the “Sport of Kings”. In ancient Polynesian cultures, like Hawaiian, social standing and surfing skill level dictated the quality of surfing equipment one would use.

  10. Could you use a swell advantage? When a swimmer or boater uses the forward motion of a wave to propel themselves forward and get a head of their competition in a race, this is known as a swell advantage.

Andrew Trudel