An experimental investigation on the initial instability of nonlinear deep-water wave trains including wind effects is reported. The experiment was conducted at the Ocean Engineering Laboratory wind-wave facility (50 m long, 4.2 m wide, 2.1 m deep), with a fully computer-controlled mechanical wave generator to explore the parameter space: steepness; sideband frequency; wind speed. The estimated growth rates of the Benjamin–Feir instability from seeded wind-free experiments agreed well with the theoretical prediction derived from Krasitskii's four-wave reduced equation as computed here. Wind was added to the same wave system; the growth rates of the sidebands were reduced for weak, and enhanced for strong wind forcing. Experiments with naturally selected sidebands, i.e. unseeded, were conducted as well; measurements showed that wind did not inhibit the growth of sidebands in the case of either two-dimensional or three-dimensional instabilities. A comparison of the results with earlier work suggests that there are two independent effects of wind: first, the alteration of the inviscid growth for a given modulational frequency as shown by comparison with the seeded experiments without wind; second, a change in the natural modulational frequency appearing in the presence of wind which is a function of the wave age, as observed in unseeded experiments. Both effects combined will determine whether the modulational instability is enhanced or suppressed; comparison of experimental results with theoretical predictions suggests that the effect of wind on the natural selection of the modulational frequency is the dominant effect. It was shown that for moderate to old waves, the net effect of wind on the modulational instability is small. For all the experiments except a few unseeded cases with weak breakers, the modulation was small and no breaking was observed within the tank.
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