Thus an actual current of water is produced in straits and narrow channels; and it is always important to distinguish between the tide wave, as bringing high water, and the tidal stream - between the rise and fall of the tide and the flow and ebb.

In the open ocean, and at a distance from the land, the tide wave is imperceptible, and the rise and fall of the water is small. Among the islands of the Pacific four to six feet is the usual spring rise. But the range is considerably affected by local causes, as by the shoaling of the water and the narrowing of the channel, or by the channel opening to the free entrance of the tide wave. In such cases the range of tide is 40 to 50 feet or more, and the tidal stream is one of great velocity. It may under such circumstances even present the peculiar phenomenon called the bore - a wave that comes rolling in with the first of flood, and, with a foaming crest, rushes onward, threatening destruction to shipping, and sweeping away all impediments lying in its course.

It is certain that in the open ocean the great tide wave could not be recognized as a wave, since it is merely a temporary alteration of the sea level.

Waves which have their origin in the action of the wind striking the surface of the water commence as a series of small and slow undulations or wavelets - a mere ripple. As the strength, and consequently the pressure, of the wind increases, waves are formed; and a numerical relation exists between the length of a wave, its velocity of progress, and the depth of the water in which it travels.

The height of a wave is measured from trough to crest; and though waves as seen from the deck of a small vessel appear to be "enormous" and "overwhelming," their height, in an ordinary gale, in deep water, does not exceed 15 to 20 feet. In a very heavy gale of some days' continuance they will, of course, be much higher.

Scoresby has observed them 30 ft. high in the North Atlantic; and Ross measured waves of 22 ft. in the South Atlantic. Wilkes records 32 ft. in the Pacific. But the highest waves have been reported off the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Horn, where they have been observed, on rare occasions, from 30 to 40 ft high; and 36 ft. has been given as the admeasurement in the Bay of Biscay, under very exceptional circumstances. In the voyage round the world the Venus and Bonite record a maximum of 27 ft., while the Novara found the maximum to be 35 ft. But waves of 12 to 14 ft. in shallow seas are often more trying than those of larger dimensions in deeper water. It is generally assumed that a distance from crest to crest of 150 to 350 ft. in the storm wave gives a velocity (in the change of form) of from 17 to 28 miles per hour. But what is required in the computation of the velocity is the period of passage between two crests. Thus a distance of 500 to 600 ft. between two crests, and a period of 10 to 11 seconds, indicates a velocity of 34 miles per hour.

The following table, by Sir G.B. Airy (late Astronomer Royal), shows the velocities with which waves of given lengths travel in water of certain depth:

Length of the Wave in Feet.1
Depth of the
Water in Feet.
Corresponding Velocity of Wave per Hour in Nautical Miles.

From these numbers it appears that -

1. When the length of the wave is not greater than the depth of the water, the velocity of the wave depends (sensibly) only on its length, and is proportional to the square root of its length.

2. When the length of the wave is not less than a thousand times the depth of the water, the velocity of the wave depends (sensibly) only on the depth, and is proportional to the square root of the depth.

It is, in fact, the same as the velocity which a free body would acquire by falling from rest under the action of gravity through a height equal to half the depth of the water.

Rollers are of the nature of a violent ground swell, and possibly the worst of them may be due to the propagation of an earthquake wave. They come with little notice, and rarely last long. All the small islands in the Mid-Atlantic experience them, and they are frequent on the African coast in the calm season. They are also not unknown in the other oceans. In discussing the meteorology of the equatorial district of the Atlantic, extending from lat. 20° to 10° S, Captain Toynbee observes that "swells of the sea are not always caused by the prevailing wind of the neighborhood. For instance, during the northern winter and spring months, northwesterly swells abound. They are sometimes long and heavy, and extend to the most southern limit of the district. Again, during the southern winter and spring months, southerly and southwesterly swells abound, extending at times to the most northern limit of the district. They are frequently very heavy and long."

The great forced sea waves, due to earthquakes, and generally to subterranean and volcanic action, have been known to attain the enormous height of 60 feet or more, and sweep to destruction whole towns situated on the shores where they have broken - as for example Lisbon and places on the west coast of America and in the island of Java. Though so destructive when they come in toward the land, and begin to feel the shelving sea bottom, it is not probable that, in the open ocean, this wave would do more than appear as a long rolling swell. It has, however, been observed that "a wave with a gentle front has probably been produced by gentle rise or fall of a part of the sea bottom, while a wave with a steep front has probably been due to a somewhat sudden elevation or depression. Waves of complicated surface form again would indicate violent oscillations of the bottom."

The altitude and volume of the great sea wave resulting from an earthquake depend upon the suddenness and extent of the originating disturbance and upon the depth of water at its origin. Its velocity of translation at the surface of the sea varies with the depth of the sea at any given point, and its form and dimensions depend upon this also, as well as upon the sort of sea room it has to move in. In deep ocean water, one of these waves may be so long and low as to pass under a ship without being observed, but, as it approaches a sloping shore, its advancing slope becomes steeper, and when the depth of water becomes less than the altitude of the wave, it topples over, and comes ashore as an enormous and overwhelming breaker.

Lastly, there is the storm wave - the result of the cyclone or hurricane - and, perhaps, the greatest terror to seamen, for it almost always appears in the character of a heavy cross sea, the period of which is irregular and uncertain. The disturbance within the area of the cyclone is not confined to the air, but extends also to the ocean, producing first a rolling swell, which eventually culminates in a tremendous pyramidal sea and a series of storm waves, the undulations of which are propagated to an extraordinary distance, behind, before, and on each side of the storm field.

Enough has now been said to show that whatever the character of the waves encountered by the Umbria and Martello in July last, they were in no sense "tidal," but, if approximating to the dimensions stated, they were either due to storm or earthquake, or, possibly, to a combination of both the last agents.

For those of our readers who may be interested in wave observations, we conclude by introducing Prof. Stokes' summary of the method of observing the phenomenon:

"For a Ship at Sea.

"(1.) The apparent periodic time,2 observed as if the ship were at rest.

"(2.) The true direction from which the waves come, also the ship's true course and speed per hour.

"(3.) A measure or estimate of the height of the waves.

"(4.) The depth of the sea if it is known, but, at any rate, the position of the ship as near as possible, either by cross bearings of land or any other method, so that the depth may be got from charts or other sources.

"For a Ship at Anchor.

"(1.) The periodic time.

"(2.) The true direction from which the waves come.

"(3.) A measure or estimate of the height of the waves.

"(4.) The depth of water where she is anchored."

It is the opinion of scientists that when the period of oscillation of the ship and the period of the wave are nearly the same, the turning over of the ship is an approximate consequence, and thus the wave to such a ship would appear more formidable than to another ship with a different period of oscillation. - Nautical Magazine.


As an example, this table shows that waves 1,000 feet in length travel 43 nautical miles per hour in water 1,000 feet deep. The length is measured from crest to crest.


The period of a wave is the interval of time which elapses between the transits of two successive wave crests past a stationary floating body, the wave crest being the highest line along the ridge.