The Giant 200-Foot Wave at Trinidad, California

One hundred years ago, on Dec. 31, 1914, the lighthouse at Trinidad Head was assaulted by a wave of monstrous proportions. Although the details are unclear, we know that the storm that produced the waves was unusual and that the wave was greater than 100 feet and perhaps much more. The only eyewitness was the keeper of the lighthouse at Trinidad Head at that time, Captain Fred Harrington, and here is his account of the notorious wave:

“The storm commenced on December 28, 1914, blowing a gale that night. The gale continued for a whole week and was accompanied by a very heavy sea from the southwest.  On the 30th and 31st, the sea increased and at 3 p.m. on the 31st seemed to have reached its height, when it washed a number of times over (93-foot-high) Pilot Rock, a half mile south of the head. At 4:40 p.m., I was in the tower and had just set the lens in operation and turned to wipe the lantern room windows when I observed a sea of unusual height, then about 200 yards distant, approaching. I watched it as it came in.  When it struck the bluff, the jar was very heavy, and the sea shot up to the face of the bluff and over it, until the solid sea seemed to me to be on a level with where I stood in the lantern. Then it commenced to recede and the spray went 25 feet or more higher. The sea itself fell over onto the top of the bluff and struck the tower on about a level with the balcony, making a terrible jar. The whole point between the tower and the bluff was buried in water.  The lens immediately stopped revolving and the tower was shivering from the impact for several seconds.

Whether the lens was thrown off level by the jar on the bluff, or the sea striking the tower, I could not say. Either one would have been enough. However, I had it leveled and running in half an hour. About an hour later another sea threw spray up on the level of the bluff, and the constant jars of the heavy sea was much over normal during the night and the whole of the next day. On the 3rd, the sea moderated to some extent, but a strong southeast wind and high sea continued until the 5th. During the 26 years that I have been stationed here, there has at no time been a sea of any such size as that of the 31st experienced here: but once during that time have I know the spray to come onto the bluff in front of the tower, and but twice have I seen sea or spray go over Pilot Rock.”

Captain Fred Harrington on lighthouse platform early 1900s. Below are his grandchildren, Ralph and Milton Hunter, Mrs. Harrington, and Maud Hunter. A.W. Ericson photograph copied by Katie Boyle 1966.

Captain Fred Harrington on lighthouse platform early 1900s. Below are his grandchildren, Ralph and Milton Hunter, Mrs. Harrington, and Maud Hunter. A.W. Ericson photograph copied by Katie Boyle 1966.

The lighthouse stands on a steep cliff 175 feet above the sea so as the water fell over the top of the bluff and struck the tower on level with the balcony the wave may have been 200 feet high. Clearly, it was higher than the 93 foot Pilot Rock offshore which it washed completely over several times.

Trinidad-Lighthouse

Position of lighthouse 175 feet above the ocean (left). Photo: Humboldt State University Library. Lighthouse on Trinidad Head with the city in the background (right). Photo: California Coastal Collection: http://www.californiacoastline.org/cgi-bin/image.cgi?image=200501873&mode=big&lastmode=sequential&flags=1&year=2005

 

According to the Guinness World Book of Records the largest recorded rogue wave was 84 feet high and struck the Draupner oil platform in the North Sea in 1995. The largest wave ever ridden by a surfer belongs to Garrett McNamara who surfed a 100 ft wave in Jan. 2013 off Nazaré, Portugal.

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McNamara’s 100 foot wave off Nazaré, Portugal. A world record for surfing.

 

Although the 1914 Trinidad wave may have been bigger than either of these events all we have is Captain Harrington’s report. The city of Trinidad and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) will be meeting at Trinidad Head Saturday, Jan. 10, 2015 from 2:00-5:00 pm to commemorate the 100-year anniversary of the 200 foot wave that shook the Trinidad Head Lighthouse. For more information, please contact BLM’s Arcata Field Office at (707) 825-2313. (Event will be cancelled if hazardous weather conditions are predicted.)

  1 comment for “The Giant 200-Foot Wave at Trinidad, California

  1. david
    January 4, 2015 at 11:09 pm

    Great story! i live in Arcata for years right off the beach, and man . . . when the north coast surf if big its big!
    not a surprise at all as i personally witnessed some 50+ footers come into Patrick’s point and hit wedding rock.

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