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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
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.”
“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.
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.
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.”