Published online by Cambridge University Press: 01 July 1971
Perhaps the most surprising thing about sea waves is that they come in a vast range of shapes and sizes. The casual observer on a ship in waters not exposed to an ocean, for example the southern North Sea, may rightly think that the waves he can see have all been generated by the same wind blowing over some particular stretch of water for a fixed length of time. It then seems almost logical to deduce that all the waves ought to be of the same height, length and shape. Unfortunately this is not the case, the energy of sea waves is locked in wave components spread over a wide range of wave periods, each of which travels at a speed dictated by its period. Considering the very simple case of a sea with only wave components, when a crest of one component overtakes the other, a higher wave will ensue. As a result of this process, high waves come in groups; during the time in which the components gradually get into phase the wave height builds up giving a train of waves of increasing, which then decreases as the faster component travels away, until when they are out of phase the sea is temporarily fairly calm. This is the reason why it is commonly said that every seventh wave is the highest, although whether it is every fourth or every fourteenth depends on the relative speeds of the components.