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Pacific Ocean | Health | Parents

Oregon Coast Sneaker Waves Can Take Deadly Toll

OPB | Oct. 17, 2013 noon | Updated: Oct. 18, 2013 10:24 a.m.

Producer - Vince Patton
Videographers - Todd Sonflieth, Nicholas Fisher
Editor - Todd Sonflieth
Video Courtesy: Jyn Meyer, Sue Currie, Alan Yelvington, Tyler Terrio, Karen Moon, Tony Thomas, Ariel Bravy, Wade Kolar
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Sarah Harnsongkram sits on a log on the rocks at Smelt Sand State Park near Yachats watching power waves slam ashore.

“I like to be here,” she says. “I feel comforted here.”  

A  wave much larger than all that preceded it crashes ashore at Yachats, Oregon.

A  wave much larger than all that preceded it crashes ashore at Yachats, Oregon.

Vince Patton / OPB

She knows that sounds odd. This is the spot where her son and a friend died two years earlier.

“I feel like that’s kind of strange. How could I feel comforted here? I feel his energy. I feel his love. And I’m grateful for that.”

On Feb. 5, 2011, Jack Harsongkram and Connor Ausland stood on a stone bridge over a chasm of ocean water. Their friends from South Eugene High School were nearby when a sudden sneaker wave washed in over the top of the bridge and knocked the teens into the churning tidal surge.
Jack Harnsongkram and Connor Ausland attended South Eugene High School.

Jack Harnsongkram and Connor Ausland attended South Eugene High School.

Harnsongkram & Ausland Families



Fellow student Raleigh Taylor says they took off some of their clothes to tie them together into a rope of sorts. “It was trying to do something when really there was nothing we could do,” Taylor concedes.

Both boys drowned within three minutes before any rescuers could arrive.

Connor’s father, Greg Ausland, says he had heard of sneaker waves before but had never really thought through how random they can be. “It is just not in your consciousness. You just don’t think it will happen,” he says.

Home videos frequently show up on YouTube showing surprise moments with sneaker waves surprising people. In most, the beach goer merely runs back to safety amid the surprise. In one, a wave twice as tall as a woman knocks her flat on the rocks at Yachats not far from where the teens drowned. She manages to stand up and avoids being sucked into the surf.

 Oregon State University oceanographer Tuba Ozkan-Haller says, “The ocean is never a low risk environment. That’s just a fact.”

Even on a perfectly calm day at the beach the wave researcher says the ocean’s movements change during a time frame that is hard for people to notice.

She says there has been surprisingly little research done on sneaker waves, though she’d like to start some. Generally, scientists don’t know enough to predict when a wave will suddenly come in larger than the ones that precede it.

“Even though we don’t exactly know why,” says Ozkan-Haller, “the National Weather Service collected data that shows most of the sneaker wave accidents happen during rising tides.”

Ozkan-Haller says most sneaker waves may not be dangerous but they should never be taken for granted.

A photographer shooting sunset pictures gets taken by surprise by a sudden wave.

A photographer shooting sunset pictures gets taken by surprise by a sudden wave.

Photo by Vince Patton

The same message is etched in a new coastal safety marker that now stands at the site of the accident in Yachats. Harnsongkram led the drive for the marker. “I just wanted to do something to make a difference,” says Jack’s mother. “My friend said there should be warning, something obvious that really warns people.”

Six basalt columns, topped cresting waves fashioned out of stainless steel hold a plaque which tells the story of the two boys who drowned and offers a beach safety warning. The etching reads, “Enjoy the beauty of the coast safely, speak up to others who may be in danger. And to those taking risks along the shore, listen.”

Harsongkram adds, “The sea is so hypnotizing. To hear the sound, the rhythm. You think it’s predictable but it’s not.”


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