Dead Water

A sailboat in an Icelandic fjord.

In the days before motorized propulsion, sailors would sometimes find themselves slowed nearly to a stop by what they called ‘dead water‘. As discovered in laboratory experiments over a century ago by Vagn Walfrid Ekman, the dead water phenomenon occurs where a layer of fresh water exists over saltier water. The ship’s motion generates internal waves in the salty layer, which in turn causes substantial additional drag on the boat. In a related phenomenon, named for Ekman, the internal waves generated by a boat’s initial acceleration cause its speed to fluctuate.

While these phenomena have little effect on today’s shipping, they can be relevant for swimmers in areas like harbors and fjords where fresh water meets the sea. And their effects were undoubtedly substantial for much of history. There is even speculation that dead water might have caused the defeat of Mark Antony and Cleopatra’s superior navy at the hands of Octavian’s smaller ships in the Battle of Actium. (Image credit: M. Blum; research credit: J. Fourdrinoy et al.; via Hakai Magazine; submitted by Kam-Yung Soh)

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