Weather Updates

‘Rogue wave’ warning a mystery to many beachgoers

Updated: August 25, 2013 6:42AM

The moment I heard that the National Weather Service was warning Tuesday about potential “rogue waves” endangering beachgoers, even bicyclists, along Chicago’s lakefront, my duty was clear.

At great personal risk to myself, I would spend the afternoon at area beaches in search of these rogue waves, so that I could report back to you, our faithful Sun-Times readers, on this relatively unknown menace to city life.

And that’s just what I did, for hour upon hour, as the waves pounded, and I mean pounded the shoreline, whipped along by northerly winds.

OK, so those same northerly winds cooled the temperature to 75 degrees, which combined with the bright July sun to make it a perfect beach day. But don’t forget that at any moment I could have been swept out into the lake — if I was stupid enough to get too close, which I only did once. More on that later.

I started my search at 64th Street beach, where my first surprise was to see that the beaches were open to swimmers with only a yellow caution flag alerting them to be careful.

I asked lifeguard Virgil Booker III if he’d seen any rogue waves yet. He said he hadn’t.

In fact, Booker, 21, a veteran of seven summers of lifeguarding, told me he’d never heard of such a thing as a rogue wave. That made me feel better, because neither had I.

Most people I encountered were not familiar with the concept. They’ve heard of tsunamis. Some had even heard of seiches, the rare tidal wave of sorts peculiar to our region.

But rogue waves? Nearly everyone was stumped.

From what I now understand, a rogue wave is just a large wave that is inconsistent with the rest. In this case, the weather service was predicting waves as high as 10 to 12 feet with “occasional rogue waves” that could reach 15 feet.

Without ever taking his eyes off the swimmers in the water, Booker explained to me that the extremely choppy surf that I was seeing at 64th Street was producing waves no bigger than three feet.

“This is nothing,” said Booker. “We’ve had rougher days than this one.”

A little farther north at Promontory Point, I ran into Karen Rechtschaffen, 72, of Hyde Park, and her grandson, Joe Culberg-McClung, just coming back from the water in their swimsuits.

Rechtschaffen, who said she has been swimming off the Point for 52 years, didn’t know anything about rogue waves either.

But she’d found Tuesday’s surf so “inconsistently rough” that she’d called off the day’s swim in the interest of returning her grandson safely to his home in California.

Joe said the waves were “kind of different” from where he normally swims in the Pacific Ocean, and that conditions “kind of got worse” after he first got in the water.

Out on the point, I found Ben Furman, 28, and Anna, sitting precariously on the rocks. Well, not that precariously, but the spray was hitting them.

“I think we’re waiting for the big one to run us out of here,” said Anna, who was visiting from Washington, D.C., and wouldn’t give me her last name.

I said something like: You’re not embarrassed to be out here with Ben, are you? And she said: “I’m very embarrassed to be out here with Ben.”

Robin Kaufman, also of Hyde Park, was lying on the upper level of the seawall when I found her, but earlier had been down closer to the water.

“We need to have a method of warning people,” Kaufman said when I told her about the rogue wave alert. “That could have gotten me. The Park District should have somebody on bike or foot to warn people.”

I told her I wasn’t trying to get that started. I mostly just wanted to see a rogue wave.

The closest I came was at 31st Street Beach, where Denise Huerta and her granddaughters, Liliana, 5, and Taylor, 7, were tempting the surf crashing over the breakers, oblivious to the rogue wave alert.

As I watched, a crashing wave drenched us, the episode captured on video.

“Was that a rogue wave?” I asked Huerta, pretty clear in my own mind that it wasn’t.

“That was an experience,” Huerta said.

Let me emphasize that if the National Weather Service says to be careful, then everyone should be careful, especially since they were also warning about riptides — a danger with which we are much more familiar.

The warning extends through Wednesday. If you also choose to go in search of an “experience,” make it a safe one.

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