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Old 20-08-2015, 12:38   #1
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Why are our words for waves so inadequate?

They say Eskimos have 50 words for snow. Why do sailors have such limited language for waves, which have so many different characteristics that affect our boats in large ways?

We have swell, wind waves, cross waves, rollers, breakers, white horses, square waves, etc. And can measure the wave height and interval (period). But these don't seem to do an adequate job of describing waves - many people have different definitions of the words or different perceptions (waves that look like steep 6' cross waves to one person might be described as 3' rollers by another person).
And unfortunately photos and video usually do a terrible job of depicting what the waves were really like.

Do you have a better language for describing waves? Were there any resources you used to learn about waves other than having to literally experience them all yourself?

Has anyone ever written a sort of dictionary of wave words? (Ex, fetch = ..., breakers = ...)
I'm not talking "4 feet at 8 seconds". That's a measurement, not a description.
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Old 20-08-2015, 12:47   #2
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Re: Why are our words for waves so inadequate?

Most sailing books cover waves quite well and there are, literally, thousands of those books.

Dashew's books and Cole's Heavy Weather Sailing come to mind right away. There are many more.

4 feet at 8 seconds is an extremely important measurement, as is 7 feet at 7 seconds, which ain't fun, believe me.

And those measurements, based on experience, will tell you pretty much all you need to know about the resulting waves.

I don't care what they may be called, when the period = height, not any fun.
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Old 20-08-2015, 12:48   #3
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Re: Why are our words for waves so inadequate?

The polynesian navigators do have many words for waves, just like the eskimos with their snow. Unfortunately it's a bit of a dying art these days :-(
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Old 20-08-2015, 12:50   #4
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Re: Why are our words for waves so inadequate?

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Why do sailors have such limited language for waves, which have so many different characteristics that affect our boats in large ways?
They've got enough jargon already? And, as you state, "you had to be there".

http://www.reddit.com/r/gifs/comment.../mexican_wave/
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Old 20-08-2015, 13:11   #5
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Re: Why are our words for waves so inadequate?

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Most sailing books cover waves quite well and there are, literally, thousands of those books.

Dashew's books and Cole's Heavy Weather Sailing come to mind right away. There are many more.
Most sailing books cover waves quite well? I feel like I've read a decent number of the most well known sailing books - about a dozen, including The Handbook of Cruising, Capn Fatty Goodlander's books, a couple Pardey books ("Storm Tactics"), and most of the ASA and US Sailing 101 thru 104 books - and I didn't find that they covered waves much. I just started Cole's Heavy Weather Sailing however.

They may have described some difficult experiences they had, or stated that you'll need to learn how to deal with challenging waves, but I don't recall any book getting into detail about the dozens of types of wave patterns you can encounter (and how to deal with them).


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4 feet at 8 seconds is an extremely important measurement, as is 7 feet at 7 seconds, which ain't fun, believe me.

And those measurements, based on experience, will tell you pretty much all you need to know about the resulting waves.

I don't care what they may be called, when the period = height, not any fun.
Indeed those are important measurements, but they're very difficult to measure accurately while on a boat. And you can't always get NOAA readings for the location you're in. And they only describe a subset of the important characteristics of waves - for example they don't communicate the characteristics of wind driven waves opposing current, or current driven waves stacking up in shallows approaching a major point of land.
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Old 20-08-2015, 13:15   #6
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Re: Why are our words for waves so inadequate?

Maybe this book will bring some answers:
"Wind waves at sea, breakers and surf", by Henry B. Bigelow & W. T. Edmondson
https://archive.org/details/windwavesatseabr00bige

There are many other textbooks on the subject.

Alain
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Old 20-08-2015, 15:14   #7
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Re: Why are our words for waves so inadequate?

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Maybe this book will bring some answers:
"Wind waves at sea, breakers and surf", by Henry B. Bigelow & W. T. Edmondson
https://archive.org/details/windwavesatseabr00bige

There are many other textbooks on the subject.

Alain
Wow, that's an old book (1947), but quite detailed. A bit more scientific than I was looking for, and oriented towards navy and merchant ships rather than sailboats, but still worth reading.

Under "Methods of Measuring Waves" on pg 61 they say:
"It is not easy to make accurate measurements of the heights of waves at sea, and rough estimates are notoriously unreliable in this respect. In most cases, the only practical method is to find some place onboard from which the crest of the waves appear to be level with the horizon when the ship is in a trough and on an even keel, i.e., when she is neither pitching nor rolling at the moment. The heights of the waves are then equal to the height of the observer's eye above the water line. But the heights measured in this way are only approximate at best, because it is difficult to pick a moment when the ship is actually on an even keel, and neither rising nor falling fast, and also because successive waves vary so greatly in height..."
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Old 20-08-2015, 20:20   #8
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Re: Why are our words for waves so inadequate?

Lol.
I get by with hmmm, damn, and OH SH#%!.
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Old 20-08-2015, 20:55   #9
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Re: Why are our words for waves so inadequate?

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Originally Posted by Tessellate View Post
They say Eskimos have 50 words for snow. Why do sailors have such limited language for waves, which have so many different characteristics that affect our boats in large ways?

We have swell, wind waves, cross waves, rollers, breakers, white horses, square waves, etc. And can measure the wave height and interval (period). But these don't seem to do an adequate job of describing waves - many people have different definitions of the words or different perceptions (waves that look like steep 6' cross waves to one person might be described as 3' rollers by another person).
And unfortunately photos and video usually do a terrible job of depicting what the waves were really like.

Do you have a better language for describing waves? Were there any resources you used to learn about waves other than having to literally experience them all yourself?

Has anyone ever written a sort of dictionary of wave words? (Ex, fetch = ..., breakers = ...)
I'm not talking "4 feet at 8 seconds". That's a measurement, not a description.
What an extremely interesting and thoughtful post! You are quite right. It is a peculiarity, given the extent of infiltration of nautical terms into everyday speech, that there should be such a paucity of such words for waves. Drawing on expertise from a former life, I would say that it is possible that this is down to a fundamental metaphysical commitment in the Western mindset: the devotion to the idea of Substance (that reality is made up of discrete "things" and processes are largely irrelevant or simply "things" interacting) versus Process (the idea that reality contains no substances whatever, and that "things" are merely processes viewed from a perspective too brief to reveal their process nature). A culture and language so steeped in Substance metaphysics and so removed from Process metaphysics would struggle to notice, categorise, or adequately name a class of being so obviously processual and non substantial in nature.

Great post again, and thanks for the food for thought…
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Old 20-08-2015, 21:17   #10
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Re: Why are our words for waves so inadequate?

Everyone missed the scariest one of all ROGUE and yes it comes under you had to be there. Also known as a holy sh#$% wave mine was over 70 ft tall. and cost us a crewman.
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Old 20-08-2015, 21:18   #11
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Re: Why are our words for waves so inadequate?

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Everyone missed the scariest one of all ROGUE and yes it comes under you had to be there. Also known as a holy sh#$% wave mine was over 70 ft tall. and cost us a crewman.
Sorry to hear that. Whereabouts and what were the circumstances?
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Old 20-08-2015, 21:25   #12
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Re: Why are our words for waves so inadequate?

I think if you were to study Oceanography you would find a lot more than 50 wave related definitions.

The difference being that wave characteristics are dynamic and require more than just one word to describe its specific properties .

Example: "critical wave period"
And "critical wave length"

Describe the difference in one word..
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Old 20-08-2015, 21:36   #13
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Re: Why are our words for waves so inadequate?

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I think if you were to study Oceanography you would find a lot more than 50 wave related definitions.

The difference being that wave characteristics are dynamic and require more than just one word to describe its specific properties .

Example: "critical wave period"
And "critical wave length"

Describe the difference in one word..
I think the point being raised is just that. Of course there are more than 50 terms in oceanography or physics to describe differing wave forms, but the difficulty of describing in one word and the gap between our current nomenclature in ordinary English and the many many forms of wave we encounter is exactly the issue. It is the very paucity that is puzzling, given English speakers long history aboard of them.
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Old 20-08-2015, 21:52   #14
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Re: Why are our words for waves so inadequate?

You cannot compare the precise nature of Scientific English which comprises over a million words with the limited nature of the various Eskimo dialects which could be boiled down into only 2 to 9 description of snow

http://m.mentalfloss.com/article.php?id=33693


I think the proper objective is a precise understanding.... Not a word count
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Old 20-08-2015, 22:37   #15
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Re: Why are our words for waves so inadequate?

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Sorry to hear that. Whereabouts and what were the circumstances?
The year was 1989 in the south china sea between typhoon
Saling and super typhoon Tasing
We lost a friend and subordinate of mine dcfn Evans he was repairing damage caused by an earlier rogue on my orders.
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