Rogue waves have been the stuff of seamen’s lore for centuries. The mere phrase conjures up visions of a mountain of seawater rising out of the mist without warning and swallowing the mightiest of ships. But by one definition a “rogue” is simply any wave that’s double the size of a sea’s “significant wave height” (which itself is defined as the mean of the third highest waves in the water). Rogue waves can theoretically be as high as 198 feet or as tiny as a few feet. Up until the mid-1990s such statistically anomalous waves were disputed by mainstream science. Then on New Year’s Day 1995, the Draupner oil platform off the coast of Norway measured the first irrefutable rogue on record, an 84-footer that nipped the underside of the rig in 39-foot seas. Ever since, scientists have struggled to explain what causes the waves, focusing their research on several areas with consistently strong currents, including the Agulhas off South Africa and the Gulf Stream astride the southeastern U.S. One theory holds that rogues appear in choppy, windblown seas when the interval between waves shortens enough for several small waves to merge into a freakishly large one. Waves such as this are inherently unstable and short-lived, featuring a sheer vertical face and a very deep trough. It was just this kind of wave that broke over the Super Suds II not 15 minutes after it capsized.
“That wave comes and it ain’t no three or four foot,” said Mike Robinson, who was standing alongside Captain Clarke at the stern. “I’m six feet tall. I’m standing up on that boat and that boat is sticking out the water a few feet, and that wave was way over my head. That wave caught me and the captain and took us what looked like five miles from the boat.”
Yoakum, Spradlin, first mate Smith, and Biggin Wills managed to climb out of the water minutes after the rogue hit, each exhausted. Yoakum and Spradlin then jury-rigged a lifeline from three belts and a Harley-Davidson windbreaker to haul in a struggling White Owl. Only after the five men were safely aboard did they see Robinson and Clarke bobbing more than 50 yards away, a look of panic on Robinson’s face. “I got excited out there,” Robinson said. “I was yelling, ‘Come out here and get me! Come get me!’ And that captain, he swam over to me and said, ‘You calm down. You have to get your head on straight if we’re gonna make it through this.’”
Back on the overturned boat, Smith, a husky, tattooed, two-tour Marine combat veteran of the Vietnam War, took off his shoes and prepared for a rescue. Smith regarded Bob Clarke as not just a boss but something of a father figure, the man who had taught the once aimless Smith all he knew about the sea and fishing for 14 years. “The water was whitecapping. The seas were building,” Smith said. “I was just so tired from being in the water, and I just couldn’t make it to them—and Bobby knew it too. He hollered for me to take care of the guys I had and he’d take care of Mike.”