Joan Larsen Encore: Living Through the Rogue Wave in the High Arctic

Posted on April 24, 2013

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By Joan Larsen

Even now, more than a year and a half later, the 2011 Japanese tsunami – that wave coming out of nowhere, heading ashore with such incredible speed, eating up the landscape and its people – will forever remain indelibly in our minds.  Videos that we still remember – film played over and over – showed us the many people seemingly mesmerized by the height and speed of the water, standing on bridges, not running, obviously believing that they would be safe.

They weren’t.

What does go through people’s minds when it looks as if they may have only minutes to live?

We know that life is fragile.  And yet, most of us feel that these natural disasters will pass us by.  They are things that happen to other people.

I was wrong.

I too was caught by a wave.  A killer wave, a wave that looked destined to turn our ship over.  That we survived in a place above the Arctic Circle – on the world map of icy waters and a sea empty of other ships that could have helped – continues to play in our minds.  Close calls in remote places are not completely alien to us.  But this time we were not alone in a terrifying situation.  All those on our small ship were in jeopardy.  We know that others in life-and-death situations will never be the same.  Our appreciation of life itself — of living for each day — somehow guides us.

Later I was told that no one saw the giant wave coming toward our ship, gaining height and speed as it travelled.  That day – in the waters of the Barents Sea high above Arctic Norway – the seas may have been icy cold but they were calm.  The sunshine and the blue sky above our ship would make anyone feel that all was well with the world.  The passengers, most of them from an assortment of countries, had embarked in Bergen, Norway, five days before.  You would have found them either clustered in the large social area of the lounge with its glass-enclosed windows… or sitting or lying on the deck chairs on the open top deck, enjoying the wonderful weather.

We were living “the good life” on one of the most beautiful journeys of our lives.  Or so we thought.

But the single rogue wave was on its way, rising up out of the ocean for no reason, picking up speed rapidly, and growing to a gigantic wave many meters high before slamming into our ship.  It hit with great force.  There was no time to react.  All we could remember was chairs and people thrown at very high speed toward the windows.

And then the ship was on its side.  We were thrown on to the windows, one person on top of another, looking at an underwater world as if we had been pressed into an aquarium wall.  A jumble of chairs, tables, and people.

No one screamed.  No one cried.  In our lounge there was only dead silence.

The ship rolled back, righted itself.  But there was no attempt to untangle ourselves.  No one moved.  We were waiting for the next wave to hit and all to be over.  The only sound that broke the silence was the continual sound of glasses and china breaking, smashing on the floor of another deck somewhere.  It was an ethereal tinkling sound that never seemed to end.

We had no idea of time passing…  but slowly, people began separating themselves from each other.  Still no talking.  Around us, there were people unconscious, obviously hit by the furniture.  Normally, people would move to help.  But that help was slow in coming.  If not hurt, we were stunned.  I knew my husband was on the outside open deck at the top of the ship – well, IF he was still there.  But like many others, I could not seem to move from the floor for what later seemed forever.

Members of the crew came.  The bloody and unconscious were carried away.  Most of us had no reaction and no one seemed to talk.  When I finally climbed up to the open deck, I saw my husband safe.  As far as he knew, he said, everyone clung to the upper railing and survived.  All the deck chairs went overboard.  Even after this later time, we said little as I remember, engrossed in our own private experiences and feelings.

A crew member talked about the huge “rogue wave” hitting the ship, though we heard no details… and probably were too stunned to care.  Hours later, I saw crew members throwing all the broken china, glassware, and everything ruined into the deep ocean below.  Not a single word was said about the injured passengers.  They had plainly “disappeared”… forever.

I often think of the passengers’ behavior – as well as mine – after the disaster.  We plainly thought we were going to die.  We had been crushed by a sea of other people lying on top of us… but also struck by furniture thrown like missiles across the lounge.  And yet – yet – no one had screamed, no one had spoken.  But I will forever remember the tinkling sound of the broken glass as the only thing that broke the silence.

If you remember, in Japan after the worst was over, the photos seemed to show the survivors silently wandering around, even a week later.  Is this what it is like to be in shock?  And why have I been always so reluctant to share this story?  I feel like I have been carrying a secret that could only be understood, only be shared with others who have also survived a life-and-death experience.

I wonder if others, against all odds, who have survived the natural tragedies – that that we hear and see but do not experience – also feel they somehow now belong to a private fraternity?  The silence alone seems to tell its own tale.

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Life can be seen with your eyes — but it is not fully appreciated until it is seen through the heart.

                                                        – Mary Xavier

JoanAvatarWriter Joan Larsen has spent a lifetime searching for the most remote places on Earth.  But it is the polar regions of our world that she has been drawn back to again and again.  She has done research in these lands of ice, and considers Antarctica to be her “other home.”

Cover image credit:  HighWater Designs, Limited.

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