Navy’s new wave maker creates stormy seas indoors so model ships can test their mettle

The music of Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” swelled in the dim light as the ocean began to rage.

Treacherous seas rose — large amplitude regular waves, long-crested irregular waves and short-crested waves with multiple headings.

Pity the ship on this tormented ocean.

But this sea was empty Thursday, and its anger only in miniature.

It was the Navy’s newly renovated Maneuvering and Seakeeping Basin, a five-acre, indoor ocean that is designed to test models of ships before real vessels face real storms at sea.

Navy and White House officials cut the ribbon on the $24.8 million facility in West Bethesda.

The basin, which resembles a huge swimming pool, is housed in a giant building that looks like an aircraft hangar.

The waves are generated by 216 individually controlled electric wave boards that line the sections of the pool and push the water outward when activated. Operated in unison they can create a wide array of wave patterns.

There are wave “geeks,” officials said, who analyze different types of waves.

It’s important for the Navy to know how a new type of ship will perform on stormy seas, and it has been testing models in pools for years.

Navy officials said the design for the USS Freedom, the first in a new class of fast, shallow-water combat ships, was tested in the old basin.

The basin is 360 feet long, 240 feet wide and 35 feet deep.The first test in the new basin should take place about March, officials said.

“For folks like me, it’s kind of exciting,” said Jon Etxegoien, head of the Naval Architecture and Engineering Department at the Naval Surface Warfare Center, Carderock Division.

The wave maker can simulate “Hurricane Camille-kind of waves,” he said, referring to the 1969 Category 5 storm.

“We can do multiple-frequency, multiple-period waves coming from different directions,” he said after the ceremony. “Our data about what kind of conditions (there) are all over the world is very, very good.”

If the Navy knows it must put a ship on waters in a particular part of the world, he said, “we can actually create those sea conditions very precisely.”

Dan Hayden, head of the center’s sea-keeping testing branch, said waves are categorized by, among other things, direction, frequency and height. And resulting sea conditions are numbered zero through nine.

Zero would be calm water, he said. Sea states three and four are common.

“Most ships of a big enough size are going to handle fours,” he said. “We don’t even typically do a seakeeping test in the sea state four range, unless it’s a smaller craft.”

A nor’easter would produce a more-worrisome sea state five.

The wave maker can simulate up to sea state eight — “extreme seas, what you would see in a hurricane,” Hayden said.

Waves in sea states eight and nine would easily be 30 or 40 feet, he said. “But you would actually have elements in there that might be a 90-foot wave,” he said.

Facing conditions like that, the wave experts said Thursday, the best choice is to stay out of the storm’s way.

Mike is a general assignment reporter who also covers Washington institutions and historical topics.

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