This picture is the one commonly used to illustrate Force 11 winds as described by the Beaufort Scale.
No matter how big the ship is, getting caught in seas of Force 10 or greater (the scale goes up to Force 12) sucks. Nobody in their right mind wants to be in seas like this.
But it happens.
In fact, for commercial operators, and even many recreational boaters, the likelihood is quite high that one day wind, weather and circumstance will conspire to bring risk and misfortune into the picture.
On October 10th of this year, a Long Island, New York man found himself in a near death situation when the motor on his 8' skiff flunked out. The guy, who figured on doing a little striper fishing before dinner, left Southold in a small inflatable. The motor died, his paddle broke, and the wind carried him out to sea. Fortunately, when he failed to return home at the appointed hour, his wife called the Coast Guard. They found him six miles from shore, heading fast into the big bad ocean on the cusp of a major storm.
He was lucky. His little boat would have never survived.
I've been caught on numerous occasions. Once in a 30' boat in Long Island Sound in thunderstorms and 70 knot winds. I was by myself. Water at the helm came up to my ankles. The two radio antennae blew off. Anchor in the foredeck bucked out of its chocks and flew over the wheelhouse roof. Lucky for me it landed in the stern deck. Otherwise it might have fouled the propeller. I would have been in a hell of a mess then.
This is what happened to the Tug Harkness many years ago. It was middle of winter, around midnight, and they were transiting the Gulf of Maine. They got hit with an intense northwest storm with better than seventy knot winds. Tug was having problems but then the hawser washed overboard from the fantail and fouled the propeller. Tug broached. Frigid seawater crashed through the wheelhouse windows. I remember listening to the mayday and subsequent transmissions over the radio at my house in Port Clyde. 10 degrees Fahrenheit. Wind chills well below zero. Maybe 30 or 40 below. I can remember the captain of the tug just as calm as can be telling the Coast Guard it was time to leave the wheelhouse because a sea had just crashed through the windows.
The story of the Harkness is an amazing story of cool coolheaded perseverance, bravery and heroism on the part of the tug's crew, the Matinicus Island fishermen who rescued them, and the crew of the Coast Guard lifeboat that also braved the night to take part in the harrowing adventure.
I remember getting hit another time on the way back from a 45 mile dive trip. Fifty knot winds from the southwest. You know it's rough when every other wave flings seaweed into the windshield and a Gannett crash lands on the bow. Also, when you turn around to check your passengers, they're climbing into their dry suits.
Last example: 60 to 70 knots northwest. On the way back from an eco-tour. I knew it was coming, thought I'd be back in time, but an encounter with a baby humpback in 30' of water delayed my return just long enough.
For the record, you might want to note that every boat handles every sea a little differently, and every sea has its own personality. I've talked to friends who've fished for years in Alaska. They'll tell you they'd rather ride out hurricane force winds in the Bering Sea than punch through a winter northwest gale off the Maine Coast.
It's all about the sea, and the boat.
I should add that getting caught is not necessarily the mark of a bad mariner. Getting caught unprepared is. My anchor and line that day in Long Island Sound, and the tug's hawser that night in the Gulf of Maine, should have been properly secured.
Also, in case you hadn't noticed, I'm not just talking about boats and weather.