The Mast-Head: New Year’s Crossing

What makes waves, she asked

Empty but for the two of us on the top deck of the Cross Sound Ferry bound for New London on New Year’s Day, my middle child and I watched the waves. Evvy, named after my late father, takes after him in many ways, though they never met. It was her idea to explore the boat, and he, like us, would have been outside on the deck while the rest of the passengers sat quietly inside, away from the wind. Pointing out Gardiner’s Island and the Ruins, I thought about him, the many things he told me about the weather and the bay, but I kept it to myself.

A half-mile off the starboard side of the John H., whitewater was rushing up and down the cobble beach on Plum Island. Evvy asked why the waves were so high. I fumbled an answer, something about the wind reaching across the Sound all the way from New Haven. What makes waves, she asked. The wind, I said.

The truth is that although I believe the wind makes waves, I do not know how it works. The basic elements are obvious enough. A breeze able to be felt on the skin on an otherwise still day ruffles the surface of the water. As the wind rises, so, too, do the ripples become chop. Given enough fetch, the chop becomes waves, the waves become swell. What drives it all is unseen.

As I recall dimly from books, notably Willard Bascom’s seminal “Waves and Beaches,” wind agitates molecules of water. The rapid aggregation of swell, which made the ferry roll sidewise on the first day of the year, is harder to grasp. Remarkable, I think, too, is that swell can travel hundreds or thousands of miles, even passing under a calm surface, like the ripples of a bed sheet being shaken.

Near the Connecticut shore, the motion of the John H. gradually settled. Each wave lifted it slightly less than the one before. Passengers who had been bolt upright leaving Orient Point put down their heads and their phones and dozed. Closer in, getting back into cellular range, phones came out and people began to stir as we pulled into the shelter of the lower Thames. There were ripples on the water as we docked, but not enough to worry the shore on the other side of New London Harbor.