The Soul of Waves

Dec 01, 2022 by John Lockton


Ocean waves capture men with their beauty and power, entrancing in the regular rhythm of their ocean music, creating terror and joy in their beholding, carrying on their backs fishermen and sailors to food and livelihood. Surfers ride them. They can lull you to sleep and wake you up, and most recently have learned to provide electricity.

Waves are the stuff of poets and artists. Longfellow wrote:

“Far away in the briny ocean,

There rolled a turbulent wave

Now singing along the sea-beach

Now howling along the cave.”

Not the poet’s best work, but the mystery and magic of waves have captured poets and artists since time immemorial.

To me, the energy of waves reflects a spirit within, much as the Japanese Shinto devotee finds spirits in inanimate things, but with the movement of waves the spirit is much stronger, talking to one in the language of the sea as though a living soul. Who has not looked out to sea and felt they were seeing something living? Tumultuous waves crashing on a shore in anger. Soft waves caressing a beach, gently stroking each grain of sand as a lover. Waves bear moonlight to the romantic and gladness to the heart. Alive!

Life comes into waves in a much more magical way than most imagine. All know that waves are creatures of wind and water. But it’s not a matter of wind pushing against water to make it hump up as many imagine; one inanimate object pushing against another. Rather air imparts its living spirit to water in the form of energy. Think of the Sistine Chapel and God’s extended finger bringing the spark of life to Adam.

The transfer of energy comes from the rubbing of air molecules in motion (wind) against surface water molecules. It’s all friction. Same friction you get when you rub a stick against a piece of wood and the energy you exert in rubbing the stick is transferred to the wood in the form of fire. In the case of wind and water molecules, the rubbing does not push water molecules along the surface as one would expect. Instead, it rolls the water molecules in a circular motion. 

Make a pistol with the forefinger of your left hand, thumb up, pointing your “gun” away from you. “Hands up.” Then rub the flattened fingers of your right hand across the top of your “gun barrel” forefinger. It will roll the forefinger. The right hand is the wind-propelled air, and the left forefinger is the water. The water molecule at the surface rubbed by the wind is first moved upward to the highest point (the crest) where it slows down and gravity takes it back to its starting point, or very close to it. 

You feel the circular motion of waves when you stand in a wave near the shore. First, the wave pushes you up and then drops you down, initially taking you toward the shore and then carrying you back. If you were small enough to drift in the water, you would find yourself having completed a circle.

How much of the water is energized? The water molecules build up on top of each other to create waves, which depend upon three things–the strength of the wind, its duration, and its fetch (fetch is the distance the wind blows over water in a single direction. Wind blowing at 35 miles an hour over a distance of 600 miles would create 2-foot-high waves in one hour. In 48 hours it would create waves of monster size, 34 feet high. The energy captured in the 34-high wave is an unbelievable 200 or more times the energy in the two-foot wave. If you want to be accurate, the next time you get knocked down by a beach wave and come up sputtering blame the air, not the damn wave. And that 200 times the number for wind-loaded energy is demonstrated every time storm waves take out piers and destroy improperly secured boats.

I’ve studied with an imperfect understanding the formulas that explain what makes large waves once formed oscillate as swells across an ocean. A characteristic of a wave, whether a sound wave, a radio wave, a light wave, or a sea wave is that it travels. In the case of a sea wave, it bears the kinetic energy of its interaction with the wind and carries this energy without appreciable diminution until impeded by land, sometimes thousands of miles. And the further a wave travels uninterrupted the larger, faster, and more powerful the wave becomes. Another thing waves do when they travel is to group themselves by period, period being time between crests. Waves with longer period, usually larger, group together, and also waves of a smaller period group together. This is what causes the “set” of three or more large waves together that bring joy to surfers.

Probably it is obvious from what I said about waves being composed of circling water but the water in waves does not move. The water of a wave humps up and down in a single place. Think of holding one end of a bed sheet your mother has taken down from the line, something that doesn’t happen much anymore in the US. The sheet humps up and down in the wind but hasn’t moved. Jack London gives perhaps a better example. Throw a rock in a pond. Wavelets disperse in a widening circle. If water moved a hole would appear where the rock was thrown. No hole. No movement of water.

When a swell reaches a beach or other shore it’s a little like a car suddenly stopping. As the car is braked its tires grab the road and everything in the car flies forward. For a wave, the breaking occurs when it reaches a shallow place half as deep as the wave is tall. The bottom of the wave encounters friction from the ocean floor and slows down, causing the back of the wave to stand up, and when the crest of the wave becomes unsupportable it comes crashing down, dumping its energy on the beach or shore as though in anger.

What we have been talking about is ocean waves that outlast the wind that created them and propagate across the ocean using their kinetic energy. These we refer to as swells. There are also smaller waves created by local winds. These waves are eventually erased by a new wind from a different direction or subsume themselves in the swells. Smaller waves have their own magic, breaking the sun track into glistening shards, lapping quietly against the pier or beach in a way that brings peace and calm as still water doesn’t.

Then there are the rogue waves. The highest ever recorded was 95 feet, a wave encountered in 2000 by a British oceanographic ship off Scotland. Caused by two or more waves traveling at different speeds and piling up on each other, they were once thought to be very rare. Recent research has shown them to be fairly common, and in fact the joining of waves to produce super waves is a natural occurrence in nature and appears in other kinds of substances that are subject to wave action. The one piece of good news is that rogue waves last for a very limited time and travel a very limited distance once formed.

Waves bring memories. Walking a special beach, stars so close you can touch them, your love at your side, feeling more together than you’ve ever been before, waves coming out of the night to run sea foam to your feet. Magic. Or for a surfer the perfect wave, better than any before, better than any since, remembered the rest of one’s life. Or for some, the white horses of the sea on a deserted spectacular beach. Great swells rolling in to break in tumult with a strong offshore wind blowing their crests back to sea, away from the beach, long strands of spume blowing seaward from the top of each breaking wave. You don’t have to squint your eyes much to see the spume is the streaming manes of white horses. Great herds of white horses are galloping toward the beach with their manes flying behind. 

In my new book, Odyssey’s Child, published by Waterside Productions and available on Amazon, I salute the waves of the Caribbean, waves of every size, shallowing, deepening, lapping, crashing, collecting, overbalancing, falling, collecting, overbalancing, falling, an endless procession, sometimes raucous, sometimes benign, and sometimes almost as high as the mast of the boat, the bringers of terror in a violent sea. And with the waves in my book are the beautiful Caribbean beaches and the remarkable Caribbean people telling their amazing stories, a novel of suspense and self-discovery that makes you glad to be alive, and always the waves. Waves lift my spirits and maybe, maybe, there is a little soul.