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Sneaker-wave deaths at highest level since 2000

They come without warning, sneaking up on their victims during some of the happiest moments of their lives, and they are killing Oregonians at the highest rate since 2000.

"Sneaker" waves rising unpredictably from the surf have claimed five lives on the Oregon Coast in the past two months.

"We call them sneaker waves for a reason — they're unpredictable and they sneak up on people," says Robert Smith, outdoor recreation safety coordinator for the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department, which tracks beach-related deaths.

"Generally, it's people being in the wrong place at the wrong time," Smith says. "There are several dangers existing on the Oregon Coast that people need to be aware of."

Sneaker waves are sometimes called little tsunamis and they rise from the surf with zero predictability.

They generally occur when two or more smaller waves fall into sync, piling atop each other to form one large wave often twice the size of others within the series of waves — called "sets."

They are a universal coastal phenomenon, occurring even during periods of little surf.

But the Pacific beaches from Northern California to the Canadian border tend to generate some of the most notable of clashes with people, according to the Oregon Coast Aquarium.

Since Oct. 5, five people have been caught and swept to their deaths by sneaker waves on Oregon beaches, Smith says.

The most recent came Nov. 29 when 22-year-old Leafil Alforque was swept away while her fiance proposed to her at Proposal Rock in Neskowin. The couple had been standing in ankle-deep water, and a 3-foot sneaker wave knocked the diminutive Alforque down before dragging her away.

It's the most sneaker-wave fatalities since 2000, when five people also were swept to their deaths. Three of this year's deaths occurred in two separate instances at the relatively calm-looking Sunset Bay near Coos Bay.

Most years, just one or two deaths are attributed to sneaker waves, Smith says.

"It's a little bit higher this year," he says. "Some years, we have a lot of people falling victim to rip currents. Some years, it's sneaker waves. There just really isn't a pattern to it."

All of these are preventable, primarily if people keep their distance from the surf and never turn their backs to the ocean, Smith says.

Saltwater is far more potent than it appears.

Denser than fresh water, a cubic yard weighs close to a ton even without sand in it. Just a four-inch surge is enough to lift a five-ton log.

Sometimes, the force of an incoming sneaker wave can knock a person down, and the returning surge can suck them out to sea.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 776-4470, or e-mail mfreeman@mailtribune.com.