Bow of a container ship
Stewart Sutton/Getty
Bow of a container ship
Bow of a container ship (Photo: Stewart Sutton/Getty)
Donovan Hohn


Every hour of every day, behemoth container ships cruise the highways of ocean commerce, loaded with stereos and lobster and plastic air fresheners. And during the winter storm season, massive waves from out of nowhere can wreck these arks of global trade.

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

All across North America in November 1998, people were waiting for their ship to come in, and all across North America people began to wonder if it would. At the headquarters of Eddie Bauer, they were wondering what had happened to the 1,583 boxes of cotton dresses they’d ordered from Sri Lanka. At Azuma Foods, they wondered what fate had befallen 940 cartons of seafood packed inside refrigerated containers known as “reefers.” And at Collezione Europa, a furniture importer in Englewood, New Jersey, people were wondering about a 40-foot container carrying 237 tables from the Philippines. Most worried of all, perhaps, were executives at Toshiba, who were waiting for nine containers of  cordless phones, $4.2 million worth. The ship all these people were awaiting was the APL China, at the time one of the largest container ships plying the seas and, so far as marine engineers were concerned, one of the safest.

What made the people at Collezione Europa worry was a fax they’d received on November 2 from the headquarters of APL (formerly American President Lines), which was owned by a company in Singapore.

“Please be advised that the APL China v. 030 has been delayed due to severe weather encountered enroute to Seattle,” the fax read.

As the days unfolded, even more worrisome messages went out, like the one that reached a California freight forwarder regarding two containers of clothing that the company was having shipped from Palau. “Both containers have gone overboard,” it reported.

The China had staggered into port in Seattle on November 1. It was a bluebird day, the sun bright and sparkly on the water of Puget Sound. A container ship crossing a harbor on such a day, passing among fishing boats and yachts with the imperturbable majesty of a zeppelin among gulls, is a beautiful sight beautiful and cheerful, like an illustration in a picture book: the blue water, the black hull, the red and blue stripes painted around the base of the smokestack, the white outspread wings of the bridge rising over containers arranged like giant Legos into harlequin stacks as if by some infantile god. The sight of such a ship on such a day suggests that human ingenuity has succeeded in taming the sea, turning Melville’s “watery wilderness” into so many watery highways, along which freighters travel as routinely as 18-wheelers travel the roads.

Seattle longshoreman Rich Austin was dispatched to the China salvage operation that day. As he drove into port, the sight wasn’t picturesque at all; it was, he remembers, “ominous.” If the China’s containers were the play­things of an infantile god, then somewhere on the Pacific that god had thrown one hell of a tantrum. From bow to stern, stacks of containers had toppled like dominoes, some to starboard, some to port. Some containers were crumpled up like wads of aluminum foil, others were pancaked flat. One of the China’s 62 cargo bays gaped like a missing tooth; an entire row of containers, stacked six high and 16 across, had been swept away.

The China was a C-11-class post-Panamax ship, meaning that at 906 feet long and 131 feet wide it was too big for the locks of the Panama Canal. Standing on a dock beside it, you would have felt as though you were standing at the foot of an unnaturally smooth cliff, a palisade of steel. The carrying capacity of a container ship is measured in TEU, or “twenty-foot-equivalent units,” because a standard shipping container is 20 feet long. One 20-footer equals one TEU. The China had a carrying capacity of 4,832 TEU.

The APL China on the day it arrived in Seattle
The APL China on the day it arrived in Seattle (Photo: Curt Cunningham)

Imagine a train pulling 4,832 boxcars: It would stretch for 19 miles, from the southern tip of Manhattan up into Westchester. If Noah had gone to sea in the APL China instead of his ark, each of his 4,832 containers could have accommodated hundreds of thousands of insects, tens of thousands of frogs plague in a box. A 20-footer could comfortably house six horses or two elephants. If he had wanted to, Noah could have squeezed a pair of gray whales into two 40-footers like the one Colle­zi­one Europa was waiting for. He might not have been able to fit every species on earth on the China, but he could have come close. And if his luck had been as bad as that of Parvez Guard, captain of the China, many of those animals would have been lost at sea. (The whales, at least, might have survived.)

Later that afternoon, hoisted up in a man basket by a crane, Rich Austin got a better view of the devastation. “It looked almost like a landfill in some areas,” he remembers. Containers had split like dropped melons, spewing cargo: remote-control boats, golf clubs, frozen lobster tails, bicycles, thousands of plastic air fresheners. A few days into the salvage operation, the stink of rotting seafood got so foul that Austin swiped an air freshener, cracked it open, and rubbed the fragrance cartridge on his mustache.

Many photographs of the ravaged China were taken that week. Photos of Bay 1 show boxes stuffed with clothing labels yet to be stitched on. In Bay 36, you can see packages of thawing shrimp; in Bay 58, Kenwood bookshelf stereo systems. Most impressive are the photos of Bay 59, which show a smorgasbord of consumer goods metal pots, bouquets of plastic flowers, white sneakers, gray trousers from the Gap, all intermingled.

“Whatever Americans were consuming at that time, there it was,” longshoreman Dan McKis­son told me. “There was Christmas laying on the deck.”

Of the 1,300 containers the China had been carrying above deck when it departed Kaoh­siung, Taiwan, bound for Seattle, 407 had been lost at sea. Austin and McKisson had seen cargo losses before, but never anything like this. What the longshoremen bore witness to that November morning was, in monetary terms, the worst shipping disaster in maritime history.

“I’ve been out at sea on tugboats and fishing boats. When it’s snotty out, it’s no fun,” Austin told me. “But I can’t imagine what it would be like to be in something that would do that much damage to a ship like that.”

Aboard the Hanjin Ottawa

January 18, 2008, Night, 35°04’N, 129°06’E T

The sun has sunk behind the Taebaek Mountains, and on the blackening foothills the million lit windows look like stars. Three days late, delayed by dirty weather in Shanghai, the 5,618-TEU box boat Hanjin Ottawa arrived this morning at Pusan, South Korea, where I’ve spent the past four days waiting for it.

Ever since I was a kid growing up in San Francisco, I’ve wondered what it would be like to ship out on one of these behemoths, which I could see out on the Bay from my bedroom, going to and from the docks in Alameda, transacting their mysterious business with the faraway. I hoped that shipping out might prove my theory that the high seas are the wildest wilderness after all.

Although security restrictions put in place after 9/11 have made most shipping lines avoid taking on “supernumerary” passengers like me, I found one company, Reederei NSB, that still does a side business in tourism. The NSB Web site promised that a voyage aboard one of the 109 freighters the company operates which includes the Ottawa would teach me “firsthand what it means to sail the seven seas’ aboard an ocean-going giant.”

We’re scheduled to leave for Seattle at 2 A.M., but tonight at dinner the captain informed us that the gantry cranes probably won’t finish in time. Three of them have been at work all day and will continue late into the night. I spent much of the afternoon watching them. A gantry crane unloading and stowing containers is a surprisingly dexterous thing, like a giant repacking his suitcase with tweezers. One crane operator zips out inside his little trolley along the crane’s cantilevered boom as another zips back toward shore; one container drops on steel cables like a spider on its thread as another comes rising up out of the hold’s shadowy depths. Once the crane operators finish their work, the lashing crew will have to finish theirs. It could be dawn before we get under way, the captain said. He had come to dinner late and eaten his pork stew in preoccupied silence, until Claire decided to bother him.

It turns out I’m not the Ottawa’s only supernumerary. A retired couple named Bob and Claire are taking the round-trip from Seattle to East Asia and back. Minutes after I got to my cabin where I saw that I had my own desk, television, DVD player, bath, two portholes looking out at the uppermost containers, and enough glassware to host a cocktail party Bob and Claire stopped by to welcome me aboard. They seem perfectly nice, but there’s nothing to dispel one’s fantasies of adventure like a retired couple on holiday. The eastbound trip had been lovely, just lovely, Claire said. The view from their cabin, one deck above mine, was breathtaking, and the Filipino cook, who was getting off here in Pusan, was absolutely wonderful it was like eating in a fancy restaurant three meals a day. It’s as though, having attained Base Camp on Everest, one were to find a pair of senior citizens lounging in lawn chairs beneath the awning of a Winnebago.

This afternoon, up on the bridge, I checked the latest forecast, a litany of warnings. There are storms and gales expected in the western Aleutians, the waters east of Hokkaido, and the Sea of Okhotsk. Although it forebodes sleepless nights for the captain, this is good news for me. So long as I survive to tell the tale, I want to see just what the North Pacific can dish out. Odds are I will survive it, all too easily, but the odds are also good that we’ll see a little action, a little sturm and possibly some drang, before we make Seattle.

“For what is the array of the strongest ropes, the tallest spars, and the stoutest canvas against the mighty breath of the infinite,” Joseph Conrad asks in The Mirror of the Sea, “but thistle stalks, cobwebs, and gossamer?”

A Deadly Occupation

Of course, a modern freighter like the China resembles a sailboat about as much as a 747 does a hang glider. Spars and canvas have given way to 70,000-horsepower engines that burn 200 metric tons of fuel per day. Wooden hulls have given way to steel, the astrolabe and sextant to gyrocompasses and satellites. And yet, today’s cargo vessels also take riskier routes.

When trucking magnate Malcolm McLean perfected the humble intermodal shipping container in the early fifties, he revolutionized the stolid shipping industry. Containerization introduced efficiencies and economies of scale that made shipping fees plummet. The only way to make more money was to increase volume by making bigger vessels deliver more cargo faster. Hulls had to be enlarged by 2006 they would exceed 1,300 feet in length, 340 feet longer than the QE2. Port times and transit times had to be shortened. Now, instead of keeping well away from winter storms, freighters travel between them, like cyclists riding the drafts of semis. And storms, like sleepy truckers, can sometimes take sudden, unforeseen turns.

A giant from the deep
A giant from the deep (Photo: Jonathan Chritchley)

This is one reason merchant seafaring is still, by some accounts, the world’s second-most-dangerous occupation, after commercial fishing. According to Imperial College London, 200 supertankers and container ships have sunk in the past two decades due to weather. Wolfgang Rosenthal, a scientist at the European Space Agency, which studies sea conditions via satellite, estimates that two “large ships” sink every week on average. Most of these, he says, “simply get put down to bad weather.’ ”

“The shipping industry is decades behind the airline industry” in its management of risk, says Geoffrey Gill, a maritime attorney. Why? “Because there are no passengers, and because most merchant mariners these days are Filipino. A lot of people don’t seem to care if 25 Filipino sailors drown.”

And drown they do. How many, exactly? Nobody knows for sure, but the number of seafaring fatalities appears to exceed 1,000 lives per year, and the number-one cause of accidental death is believed to be drowning. Maritime losses of cargo, vessels, digits, limbs, life are enough to fill a few pages of the Lloyd’s List weekly Casualty Report. There are accounts of collisions, of fires, of piracy. Most of the casualties can be attributed to mechanical failures, human nefariousness, or human error, but around 10 percent of shipping casualties are indeed ascribed to bad weather and left otherwise unexplained. And dozens of the most catastrophic weather-related mishaps to have befallen container ships such as the 2003 Maersk Carolina disaster, the 2006 P&O Ned­lloyd Genoa disaster, and the 2006 CMA CGM Otello disaster bear a mysterious resemblance to the China disaster.

Did a Super Typhoon Hit the APL China?

There’s no doubt that the China had encountered severe weather, as APL claimed, but severe weather at sea is routine during winter, when winds between Taiwan and Seattle often attain hurricane force, and waves routinely exceed 30 feet or, less routinely, 40 to 50 feet. Sometimes, under the worst conditions, waves as high as 70, 80, 90, even 100 feet can loom up out of nowhere, spelling catastrophe.

These great and sudden waves have seized the popular imagination, sinking a cruiser called the Poseidon in not one but two cheesy films. Their names make them sound as fabulous as the kraken freak waves, rogue waves, extreme waves. My personal favorite is the German, monsterwellen.

Was it a monsterwelle that had ravaged the China? It sure looked that way to people like longshoreman Rich Austin. Still, even when a captain, with help from weather-routing services that recommend course changes via fax, can’t avoid severe weather, the ship is supposed to survive it. If the cargo has been properly lashed and the hatch covers tightly battened, if the engines have not failed and the helmsman has time to take evasive action, not even 80-foot waves are supposed to send stacks of containers tumbling over the rails certainly not 407 of them in a single night.

Even before the China entered Puget Sound, the speculating and finger pointing had begun. Except under extraordinary circumstances if a law has been broken in American waters, for instance, or a hazardous substance has spilled the U.S. Coast Guard does not investigate shipping accidents. An officer will inspect the damage and make sure it’s repaired, but it’s left to lawyers and insurance adjusters to assign blame, which doesn’t always solve the mystery.

If small sums of money are involved, the ship’s owners and underwriters will often accept liability and settle out of court. But in the case of the China, the damages claimed were too costly; 361 claimants represented by 25 lawyers would eventually file for damages of more than $100 million. APL had to find a way to limit liability by attributing the accident to a so-called act of God.

They appeared to have a strong case. Weather reports pointed to a prime superhuman suspect: Super Typhoon Babs. In late October 1998, when the China was at port in Taiwan, Babs was laying waste to villages in the Philippines. Early news reports assumed that Babs had laid waste to the China too. That’s what longshoreman Dan McKisson heard; it was the obvious explanation. But as weather records reveal, the China and Babs had not crossed paths. Any reports to the contrary were wrong. The ship had departed Taiwan on October 21, six days before the remnants of Babs hit.

When lawyers questioned the officers in Seattle, what they heard strained credulity. The scuttlebutt at the longshoremen’s union hall had been that the ship had lost power and gotten caught in the trough between waves. But the officers claimed that the engines had failed after they watched the container stacks fall. Before it ever lost power, the ship had rolled wildly, inexplicably, they said, despite attempts to take evasive action, and at the worst of it, they’d seen “green water” at bridge level. “Green water” is nauticalspeak for a wave tall enough to wash over the main deck. In calm seas, the main deck would be about four stories above waterline, and the bridge eight stories above that. Most of the lawyers listening to this tale took it to be a tall one, literally. After all, sailors always exaggerate, especially when trying to exonerate themselves, and such giant waves have long been the stuff of sailors’ lore.

Back Aboard the Hanjin Ottawa

January 19, Late, 38°14’N, 134°41’E

Streaming east through the snowy Sea of Japan, birthplace of storms. When I woke up this morning, I sensed from the motion of the ship and the tremorous throb of the engine that we had departed. I rushed outside and up three flights of stairs to the bridge deck, where I was hit by a cold blast of headwind. It wasn’t all that windy; mostly it was the ship’s speed 24 knots that knocked me back. On the bridge, sleep-deprived but nattily attired in a navy sweater with black-and-gold epaulets, the captain was doing his paperwork. His name is Uwe Jakubowski. A West German of Russian descent, he’s a big-shouldered, soft-voiced, white-haired man with a gap between his front teeth and a beaky wedge of a nose.

Jakubowski has been a merchant mariner for 44 years, since the age of 18, when, against his parents’ wishes, he shipped out on a Baltic Sea breakbulk freighter. I asked whether he’d ever lost containers overboard. “Never,” he said, but he’d come close. Once, near the Azores, the ship he was commanding was struck by a wave 66 feet tall; and on this very trip, westbound from Seattle, the Ottawa had rolled 20 degrees to starboard, 26 to port. “Here, you can still see.” He pointed above the helm, to the clinometer, which had yet to be reset. We were under way in calm seas, rolling just a few degrees, so little you’d hardly notice it.

Like Europe-bound flights that arc north over Greenland, a container ship from Asia usually describes an arc the Great Circle route toward the Aleutians, passing through waters known as the Graveyard of the Pacific. Because of the stormy forecast, the weather-routing service has recommended we take a northerly detour, straying from the Great Circle route and into the Bering Sea, seeking shelter in the lee of the Aleutians. “Will we see any ice?” I asked, hopefully.

“We want to get close to it,” the captain said, “but not that close.”

Tonight when I entered the bridge, Chief Officer Hermann Josef Bollig was standing watch, as he always does between 8 P.M. and midnight. A bearded German giant, Bollig scares me a little. He seemed to scowl when he saw who it was.

Like all six officers and most of the 16-member crew, Bollig speaks English. He has to: A modern container ship is a polyglot place. With the exception of the ship’s German mechanic, Klaus, the Ottawa has an entirely Filipino crew. With the exception of the Filipino third mate, Ricardo Salva, one Finn, and one Pole, the officers are German. You’ll hear Filipino deckhands speaking Tagalog or officers speaking German, but the lingua franca is English.

At night, to maximize visibility, the bridge is kept dark. As the ship goes autopiloting along, Bollig sits there, his face lit by the lunar glow of computer screens, surveying the seas for fishing boats. If a small one should stray into our path, the Ottawa would plow right over it, leaving behind little but a trail of flotsam and sticks. Fully loaded, the Ottawa weighs more than 140 million pounds. At 24 knots, the forward momentum of that much weight through water is almost planetary, and difficult to stop, even with the engine in reverse.

If I’ve read the charts right, in three days, right near the international date line, we’ll come within a few hundred miles of the site of the China disaster.

What is a Monsterwelle?

Six years after the China dropped her cargo into the sea, the European Space Agency spent three weeks studying winter waves via satellite. The research confirmed that waves of more than 100 feet are altogether real. There’s evidence, in fact, that as the planet warms their numbers may be rising, and ESA scientists believe that their data may help solve many maritime mysteries.

One of the most famous such mysteries is the sinking of the MS München, in 1978. The München, at the time a year-old state-of-the-art barge carrier, vanished while crossing the North Atlantic. Its disappearance has never been explained, but many nautical detectives suspect that it and its crew of 27 fell victim to a monsterwelle.

A true monsterwelle is defined not by size but by its mathematical improbability, an example of chaos theory in action. The seafarer’s handbook Heavy Weather Sailing notes that “whilst one wave in twenty-three is over twice the height of the average wave, and one in 1,175 is over three times the average height, only one in over 300,000 exceeds four times the average height.” If the average waves in a particular sea are only three feet tall, and a 12-foot breaker were to suddenly rear up in their midst, it would be a little monster. What really makes the fearsome monsterwellen fearsome isn’t size; it’s the element of surprise.

They can come out of nowhere, even in calm seas, overwhelming a ship before the helmsman has time to escape it.

Scientists are still trying to explain monster waves. One leading theory is that they arise when a strong current like the Gulf Stream collides with a countervailing storm swell, or when a deep-ocean swell collides with a shallow shelf. Another theory, called “constructive interference” or “random superposition,” holds that in chaotic seas two wave trains with identical wave periods and crest heights can ever so rarely combine into a kind of super train, producing monsters. Which might explain why such waves often seem to come in sets of three, a phenomenon known to sailors as “the three sisters.” Three sisters 40 or 50 feet tall can be more dangerous than a single 100-foot giant. The first monstrous sister rocks the boat mightily plunging it into a trough so deep one eyewitness account compares it to a “hole in the ocean.” Then the second or third wave sinks it.

Nonetheless, sailors are often mistaken when they identify monstrously large waves as freaks or rogues. The tsunamis that struck land all around the Indian Ocean in 2004 were well over 100 feet, but they were the result of an enormous undersea earthquake, not chaotic hydrodynamics. Typhoons and hurricanes regularly whip up waves over 70 feet high, but evidence suggests that you’re more likely to encounter a monsterwelle in lower sea states than in tall ones.

Synchronous Rolling: How It Can Toss a Ship

The peril of the sea that modern merchant mariners are most likely to face, navigational wisdom holds, isn’t a monsterwelle but something known as “synchronous rolling,” so called because the natural roll period of the ship falls in sync with that of the waves. On a 2007 scientific research trip in the Labrador Sea, I met a California oiler named Beau Gouig, who explained it to me this way: “Basically what happens is when the wave crests get far enough apart, the ship starts rolling, and with each roll it takes longer to recover, so you’re going farther to starboard, and then farther to port.”

A few years ago, Gouig had been on a container ship caught in a typhoon. “We were sailing from Japan to L.A.,” he said. “I was up on the bridge. We were in autopilot, and we were getting hammered. We did three or four 50-degree rolls, buried the bow three times. Waves swept all the lifeboat ladders off deck. I said to the captain, These wave crests are getting far apart.’ That’s basically why you’re up there, to watch for synchronous rolling. Suddenly everything on the bridge just goes voom.”

The propeller and rudder of a container ship in dry dock in Ulsan, South Korea
The propeller and rudder of a container ship in dry dock in Ulsan, South Korea (Photo: TWPhoto/Corbis)

The ship’s captain did exactly what all captains are trained to do: He hove to, immediately turning into the oncoming waves and slowing down, letting the ship ride up and over. “All the books say that you’ve got only two minutes to break that cycle. You’ve got to make a hard turn and get the bow up on a wave or down into a trough. Another 30 seconds and I think we would have rolled right over.”

The crew were all amazed, Gouig said, that no containers had been lost. “Spills happen all the time,” he said. Then he told me the story of what he believed to be the most famous case of synchronous rolling: the case of the APL China.

Hanjin Ottawa in the Graveyard of the Pacific

January 22, 11:50 P.M. West of the International Date Line

Tonight, feeling cabin-feverish, I decided to see what it felt like to walk among the containers in a snowstorm. Gave myself something of a scare. A couple of days ago, the weather service recommended the Great Circle route after all. We’re now way out in the Graveyard of the Pacific, and you can tell, you can feel the big swell moving under the hull. Back inside the Ottawa’s eight-story house, the habitable part of the ship, I learned from an oiler named Joel Nipales that solitary, nocturnal circumambulations of the main deck are strictly forbidden. If an officer or deckhand has to go out at night, he alerts the bridge, puts on foul-weather gear, and brings a walkie-talkie. It wouldn’t have taken much to knock me overboard: a stumble, a snowy gust. No one would have discovered my absence until morning.

Cast away in dark, frigid water four miles deep, I would have watched the Ottawa’s running lights appear and disappear beyond the crests, as if blinking on and off, diminishing into the swirling snow.

The weather report on the morning of the China‘s departure from Taiwan wasn’t auspicious, but it wasn’t ominous either, calling for winds registering 6 or 7 on the Beaufort scale, which ranges from 0 (calm) to 12 (hurricane force). Developed in 1805 by Sir Francis Beaufort, an Irish admiral, the Beaufort scale includes descriptions of sea conditions that read like found poetry. This is how Sir Beaufort describes seas in light air, level 1: “scaly ripples, no foam crests.” This is seas in a strong breeze, level 6: “Larger waves 8-13 ft, whitecaps common, more spray.” In near gale, level 7, the “sea heaps up, waves 13-20 ft, white foam streaks off breakers.”

Disaster Strikes the APL China

Four days out, 600 miles east of Tokyo, the China‘s weather-routing service recommended an easterly change of course. Two low-pressure systems following in the ship’s wake had unexpectedly merged, developing into what climatologists used to call a “meteorological bomb” but now call a “rapidly intensifying low.” Also unexpectedly, this weather bomb had moved in an easterly, rather than northeasterly, direction, toward the China instead of away from it.

Two days later, on October 26, by noon local time, the storm had drawn to within 120 nautical miles. The China once again changed course, veering farther south. Nine hours later it veered south yet again, onto an almost due-easterly bearing. Weirdly, instead of continuing on its track, the storm veered too, as if in pursuit, and the China suddenly found itself in what climatologists call “the most dangerous quarter” of the storm. If the master had ignored the weather service and stayed on his original course, he might have escaped. Instead, in perfect darkness, at 3 A.M. on October 27, disaster struck.

The winds were now Beaufort Force 11: “exceptionally high (30-45 ft) waves, foam patches cover sea, visibility more reduced.” Analysis of the historical weather data would eventually reveal that the conditions were even worse than Beaufort had described. The tallest of the normal, unfreakish waves likely attained heights of 70 or 80 feet. Rogue waves are by definition unlikely, but if one had arisen under these conditions, it would have been, wave-height-distribution statistics suggest, 105.5 feet tall. It was an hour and a half before the fury of the storm began to subside. The sun rose on a ruin.

The Key to the Mystery of the APL China

One of the lawyers deposing the mariners in Seattle ten years ago was Bill France, of Healy & Baillee, a once venerable, now defunct New York firm hired to represent APL and its underwriters. France, who grew up miles from the sea, on a mink farm in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, is not your typical maritime lawyer. When I called him to ask about the APL China, the deep-voiced person who answered agreed to meet with me but, before hanging up, said there were two things I should know: First, in honor of attorney-client confidentiality, we could discuss only what was already in the public record; second, the 58-year-old person I’d be meeting was no longer a man named Bill but a tall, transgendered, “somewhat mannish woman” called Willa.

Not only is Willa France transgendered; she is a poet, a student of Jewish theology, and a certified naval architect. She knows about the mysticism of Buber and the prosody of Frost. She knows about the physics of waves and the applied science of engineering. I asked whether she wanted me to identify her as Willa, and she said yes and, in a characteristically eloquent e-mail, compared her transgendering to the mysterious change the China had undergone on its fateful ocean crossing. Not that it had been for her a personal disaster; quite the opposite. But it had been overwhelming, “not unlike the consequence of an elemental and unpredictable force.” Although no actual detectives were assigned to the case of the APL China, of all the lawyers involved, France, with her expertise in naval architecture, came closest to playing the part. She is this mystery’s Sherlock.

Monster waves as high as 72 feet rocked the tanker Stolt Surf in 1977.
Monster waves as high as 72 feet rocked the tanker Stolt Surf in 1977. (Photo: Karsten Petersen)

Like the lawyers representing the cargo owners and their underwriters, France was at first skeptical about the story recounted by the China‘s crew. The details didn’t make scientific sense. The ship’s anemometer, which measures wind speed, had been on the fritz, so the sea conditions recorded in the logbook were estimates made in darkness, in wildly “confused seas,” by sleep-deprived, tempest-tossed mortals, and the ship had been yawing hard, off her intended course. (Naval architects call the six different motions ships make “the six degrees of freedom”: rolling, pitching, yawing, heaving, swaying, and surging.) In confused seas, the waves move every which way, and the prevailing direction is difficult to determine. It would be understandable if the officers had been wildly confused, too.

Their stories all matched, and France discovered forensic evidence confirming some of the details green water inside a running light up on the bridge, wave damage to the outermost containers in stacks still standing, a dent on the bow’s protective steel bulwark. But what finally made France a believer was the testimony of the China’s master, Parvez Guard.

“It was only after listening to four or five guys that I began to take them seriously,” France told me.

A seasoned mariner from India who’d been captaining container ships for 15 years, Guard was an exceptionally expert witness, France said. In a deposition lasting three of the six days that the China spent in Seattle, Guard reconstructed the voyage day by day, then, as the time of the disaster neared, hour by hour, then minute by minute, corroborating his testimony with entries in the logbook. While that testimony isn’t in the public record, one very telling quote from it is.

Just before the containers began to fall, the ship had suddenly become “uncontrollable,” Guard testified, “as if there were a devil in it.”

Working Aboard Cargo Ships

January 22, All Over Again, Late Afternoon East of the International Date Line

The house of the Ottawa is as comfortable as a hotel, albeit a floating hotel with big red axes bracketed to the beige Formica walls. But when you can’t get off, any ship can feel like a prison ship. Back when he was still a seasick deckhand, Captain Jaku­bowski thought that someday he’d like to be the master of his own freighter, but the container put an end to that dream. “And so,” he told me this morning during coffee break, “I have always been an employee.”

“Who aint a slave?” Ishmael famously asks in Moby-Dick. Every night the Filipino oilers and deckhands gather in the crew’s lounge to kick back on sofas and banish the tedium with boxed wine and Filipino television, many hours of which were downloaded onto a digital recorder while the ship was at port. The only decoration in the crew’s lounge is a poster-size pinup calendar on which a golden-haired bathing beauty can be seen lifting her halter top, offering a charitable peek at her shiny, suntanned, wondrously orbicular hooters. Unlike the officers’ lounge, the crew’s lounge is often full.

Last night, after taking my walk, I spent an hour there drinking cheap red with Joel Nipales and another oiler, Marco Aaron. On his last trip, Aaron’s ship, one even larger than the Ottawa, failed to escape a hurricane.

“You know the distance from one wave to another wave?” he said. “It’s 400 meters. Our ship’s 400 meters also. It was rolling, pitching, everything.”

Belowdecks in a storm like that, “every time you walk you have to carry your empty glass or empty bucket. So that you not throw up anywhere. As long as the engine’s running, nothing can happen to you. But once the engine stops, you have to pray. You have to call all the saints.”

Seasick as he was, the homesickness may be worse. Every day at sea, Aaron misses his wife and baby daughter. He’s not sure he’ll last as long as Nipales, who, at 42, is 11 years older. But at sea, an oiler can make a decent living. “For one month we get $1,300 U.S.,” Aaron said. “But in the Philippines, if you’re going to work there, the maximum for the beginners, you’ll only earn $200.” Unlike the officers, the oilers and deckhands are not employees of NSB but temp workers subcontracted by an agency in Cyprus. The officers do four months on, three months off, whereas the oilers and deckhands ship out for seven months at a time; at the end of those seven months many sign on for seven more, and in some ports of call there’s not even time for shore leave. “It’s very hard. Seven months is too much,” Aaron said. “Almost 70 percent of your life you spend on a ship.” Nipales once spent 26 consecutive months at sea. Even more than the China disaster, that’s something I have difficulty imagining.

No one will ever know exactly what Guard and his crew went through on that stormy October night in 1998, but demonic possession would never stand up in court. Given the stakes involved, APL subsidized an expensive forensic investigation led by Willa France.

APL China: The Aftermath

France hired three meteorological consultants to hindcast the sea conditions with computers. Next, she hired oceanographers to computer-animate what would happen to a C-11 container ship under the conditions the China encountered, and the Maritime Research Institute Netherlands to conduct model tests in a wave tank three times as long as an Olympic pool.

If Parvez Guard was to be believed, the China, already hove to, couldn’t have fallen prey to synchronous rolling. Furthermore, the waves were too close together to sync with the ship’s roll period. But in 1973, experiments conducted with a scale model revealed that the hull shape of container ships made them vulnerable to a kind of rolling rarer and quite possibly more dangerous than synchronous rolling: “parametric rolling,” so called because it occurs not when a ship’s roll period is in sync with the waves but when the waves come exactly twice as fast as the ship rolls. Those model tests proved that parametric rolling could be excited by stern-quartering seas that is, when the waves hit the ship askance on either corner of the stern. France set out to prove that it could also occur in bow-quartering seas.

Months after my trip aboard the Ottawa, she invited me to her apartment in an East Harlem brownstone, where she still lives with her wife of 35 years. While we ate sandwiches and pickles off silver plastic trays, France played me footage of the 1973 model tests. I watched as the toy boat first yawed a few degrees off its bearing, then suddenly began rolling hard so hard the damn thing keeled right over. Next came the computer animations of a C-11 container ship hove to in bow-quartering seas. Away the China‘s avatar went, pitching merrily along, up and down, over a red grid of giant waves until, suddenly, for no perceptible reason, something changed. The digital ship rolled. At first a little. Then more. Then more, until the bridge wings were tick-tocking like a metronome.

Then came the wave-tank experiment. Here again was a model boat, a replica of the China, which also went pitching merrily along in confused seas, actual ones this time, created by hydraulic paddles. For a minute it seemed as though the experiment would fail.

“Nothing is happening,” France said, narrating, remembering. “I’m beginning to bite my nails, because we’ve invested so much money in this and we’re not seeing what the computer program has predicted.”

She stood next to the screen now to deliver her closing argument, pointing out details like a weatherman delivering the forecast. “Now watch,” she said. As in the simulations, something subtly changed. The toy boat rolled a little to starboard as the bow pitched down, a little to port as the stern rocked back. Steadily the amplitudes steepened. Finally there it was: full-on demonic possession, green water over the rails, waves swiping at the stacks.

Would any of these waves have qualified as genuine monsterwellen? Probably not. The wave the officers described was monstrously large (taller than France’s brownstone) but, computerized hindcasts showed, not statistically improbable. The ship was rolling so heavily, dipping its bridge wings so close to the water as it pitched into the troughs, that even a 50-foot wave could have splashed them. Officers reported rolls as steep as 40 degrees steeper and more violent than the steel lashings had been designed to endure. At 40 degrees, the stacks of containers would have been almost as horizontal as vertical, and a mariner standing on a bridge wing would have been staring into the abyss.

The experiment proved that if Parvez Guard had done everything he’d been trained to do, if he’d heaved to and decelerated and the engines had not yet failed, the accident still would have occurred. And ironically, if Guard had not done what he’d been trained to do if he’d maintained his speed, for instance disaster might never have struck.

Monster waves as high as 72 feet rocked the tanker Stolt Surf in 1977.
Stolt Surf cargo ship battling a monsterwellen on its voyage in 1977. (Photo: Karsten Petersen)

According to documents I examined at a Manhattan courthouse, lawyers for the cargo owners had presented evidence that cast doubt upon France’s explanation. There was, above all, the engine failure. Since some of the evidence was undisclosed, France was not permitted to discuss details, but she could speak hypothetically. If such a ship in such conditions had lost power, it would have drifted into beam seas and, because the waves were out of sync with it, rolled no more than 15 degrees not enough to snap the lashings.

No judge ever decided whether France’s explanation solved the mystery. APL settled out of court for an undisclosed amount. But France’s discoveries did help limit APL’s liability. “We got a very favorable settlement,” France told me.

Not all of France’s colleagues understood her fascination with the China disaster any better than they understood her poetry, or the mysticism of Buber, or, later, her metamorphosis, but in 2003, after the legal proceedings had all been settled, France published her findings in the journal of the Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers. A few months later, under the headline “Parametric Rolling Will Rock Insurers,” Lloyd’s List warned the marine-insurance industry of this “alarming new danger,” which appears to be an unintended consequence of the flared bow and U-shape of the oversize, post-Panamax hull. France’s findings not only helped explain the mystery of the China; they would later help explain what had happened to the Maersk Carolina, the P&O Ned­lloyd Genoa, the CMA CGM Otello, and an unknown number of other maritime mysteries. Last July, the American Bureau of Shipping and the Polish Registry of Shipping announced that they were embarking on a “multi-year, joint research and development program” to find technology that would help prevent parametric rolling in “extreme wave conditions,” hoping to exorcise once and for all the devil that possessed the China.

Surviving the Voyage

January 26, Sunset, 48°28’N, 124°60’W

Yesterday we saw the first blue, daytime sky in almost a week just a portal of it, like a window atop a dome. Now we’re close to the Strait of Juan de Fuca, so close that gulls have begun visiting us and cell phones have started to work. Late last night in the crew’s lounge, there was a party. Bob and Claire, who appear to be teetotalers, did not attend, but I did, as did Chief Officer Bollig, who’s turned out to be a friendly German giant. Ronaldo Cuevas, the bosun chief of the deckhands, Bacchus of the lounge, big, round-faced dude wearing a muscle tee and a Fu Manchu seemed intent on getting me drunk. He refilled my tumbler of wine even when I told him not to. At least I managed to get Joe the messman to play “The Boxer” on his guitar.

I don’t remember much of last night’s party, but there is one night from this long, uneventful voyage that I think I will never forget, the one when I took my forbidden nocturnal walk.

As I made my way along a catwalk glazed with sea spray and snow, I had to take cover behind a bulkhead every few yards to warm my ears and hands. Above me the containers creaked and moaned and clanged, straining at their lashings with every roll. I had intended to walk all the way to the stern, where water rains down from the containers overhead and the roar of the propeller makes the whole place thunder like a cavern under a cataract. But I thought better of it. The winds were at Beaufort Force 7, near gale, and just as Sir Beaufort promised, the sea had heaped up and foam was streaking off the crests of breakers 13 to 20 feet tall. You could see only the waves that came heaving and hissing along the hull, blue and foamy and luminous in the house light, but you could sense the rest of the Pacific, and if you looked hard, you could vaguely distinguish the greater darkness of the ocean from the lesser darkness of the starless sky. Standing at the starboard rail facing south toward the spot 500 miles away where, on a night far stormier than this one, containers full of clothes and toys and fish and tables had gone crashing overboard I gazed a long while into both varieties of darkness, the watery and the ethereal one, as if into the tenebrous seas and mists of time. Then, ears aching, hands numb, I turned around, leaned into the wind, and staggered to the crew’s lounge for a little human company, a little Filipino television, and a tumbler of cheap red.

Corrections: (05/11/2022) A line was changed at the author's request to employ gender-sensitive language. From Outside Magazine, Jan 2009 Lead Photo: Stewart Sutton/Getty