Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Waratah - oceanic whirlpool.

While ocean phenomena are fresh in our minds, let us explore another theory attempting to explain the sudden loss of the Waratah.  Some say that  a large (would have to be) whirlpool in the ocean off the Wild Coast swallowed the 500ft liner. We all know the principal of a whirlpool when the water in a bath swirls down the drain. However, this is very simplistic in the context of the ocean, where the swirling is created by two opposing currents, or tides. If it were indeed large enough to interfere with shipping we should rather use the term maelstrom.

There are a few recognised whirlpools in the world including the Saltstraumen in Norway (37 km/hr); the Moskstraumen, also Norway (27.8 km/hr); the Old Sow (not a happy day for whirlpool naming) in the US, with speeds up to 27.6 km/hr; Naruto in Japan (20 km/hr) and the Corryvreckan in Scotland (18 km/hr).

The most powerful whirlpools are created in narrow, shallow straits with fast flowing water.
Please note in all of the above, none feature off the South African coast, and there are no known records of ships being dragged into the murky depths by a whirlpool. But, without throwing in the towel and giving up too easily on this theory, let me quote Paul the Deacon, 8th century:

"Not very far from this shore... toward the western side, on which the ocean main lies open without end, is that very deep whirlpool of waters which we call by its familiar name "the navel of the sea." This is said to suck in the waves and spew them forth again twice every day... They say there is another whirlpool of this kind between the island of Britain and the province of Galicia, and with this fact the coasts of the Seine region and of Aquitaine agree, for they are filled twice a day with such sudden inundations that any one who may by chance be found only a little inward from the shore can hardly get away. I have heard a certain high nobleman of the Gauls relating that a number of ships, shattered at first by a tempest, were afterwards devoured by this same Charybdis. And when one only out of all the men who had been in these ships, still breathing, swam over the waves, while the rest were dying, he came, swept by the force of the receding waters, up to the edge of that most frightful abyss. And when now he beheld yawning before him the deep chaos whose end he could not see, and half dead from very fear, expected to be hurled into it, suddenly in a way that he could not have hoped he was cast upon a certain rock and sat him down." (Paul the Deacon, History of the Lombards, i.6)

In "Vingt mille lieues sous les mers" (Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea), first published in 1869–1870, Jules Verne (1828–1905) wrote :

"'Maelstrom! Maelstrom!' s'écriait-il! Le Maelstrom! Un nom plus effrayant dans une situation plus effrayante pouvait-il retentir à notre oreille?"

"'Maelstrom! Maelstrom!' he exclaimed! The Maelstrom! Could a more horrifying name in a more frightening situation blare in our ear?"[3]

Clearly the classical writers of the past were terrified of the perils of sea travel and all that awaited their vulnerable vessels beyond the horizon.

Tsunamis and Sinkholes (seabed giving way for whatever obscure reason) have the potential to cause maelstroms.  But there are no known cases of maelstroms due to these phenomena dragging ships down.

There is however a scientific angle to all of this beyond the rantings of writers. Satellite images have revealed two powerful vortices in the South Atlantic Ocean. These swirling forces are believed to suck water and debris into the depths.  Estimates have them moving at 1.3 million cubic meters of water per second. These could potentially suck large vessels down. There is a whirly funnelly thing in the ocean off Brazil, but there again if the Waratah was there, I can assure you that whirlpools would have been the least of their troubles.

Seriously, whirlpools and maelstroms are not new to science in the world's oceans. There is a theory of vertical currents accounting for the phenomenon. The mechanics revolve around cold and warm masses of water generating vortex-type movement.

Having said all of this, consider for a moment that any vessel that has sailed into a maelstrom and disappeared removes from the scientific world that most vital of evidence - a witness account.

frankly this one looks like it can take the Empire State Building down


Anne Leah said...

Oh.. How wonderful. It would be nice to spend holidays there. I have heard a lot on corryvreckan whirlpool. Many are going there for a fun adventure.


just be sure to avoid a ship as part of your adventure

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