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Some mornings I wake up with a good idea about what I’m going to post on our blog, while other days I sit for some time, trying to decide what to write about. Then there are the days when a good subject is handed to me. So it was this morning when, after checking in on my Facebook page, I saw that our friend Douglas had shared with us this cool video.

Crazy Lake Experiment

1 tablespoon of olive oil destroys half an acre of waves on this lake. What The Physics?!

Funding provided by FQXi
From the producers of PBS NOVA
© WGBH Educational Foundation

Posted by NOVA on Thursday, January 21, 2016

From reading various books, I have been aware of the old sailors’ trick of dripping oil into the ocean to calm the waves. I never had any idea how it worked though. This video explains it well, and it’s quite interesting. Check it out!


  1. Very interesting. Had no idea how it spreads so evenly. maybe the next time I hove-to I’ll think of this and try some vegetable oil.

  2. a. How do you get the oil to windward and keep it near the boat? You have to be drifting “just faster than the slick.” Tricky. Not smooth sailing, but smooth heaving to perhaps.

    b. Won’t the deck get slick?

    c. That is a LOT of olive oil for a storm. big wooden ships, maybe, us, not so much perhaps.

    • An article for Practical Sailor, perhaps?

      • I don’t think this works so well when you’re sailing, per se, but it does work when you’re either lying to a sea anchor (parachute anchor off the bow) or dragging a droque (fixed to the stern). In both cases, you don’t just “dump” oil into the water, but you impregnate the sea anchor or droque with oil and over time, it weeps out and around your boat. It shouldn’t get the decks all oily because the waves won’t be breaking. I’ve never tried it, but I have read about it.

        • That sounds logical but I’m sure I’ve read of sailors setting up barrels to drip into the water. I believe it was when they were hove-to though, not sailing. Still, as Drew asked, I’m not so sure how that would affect the waves upwind. More research is obviously required.

  3. Chapman’s has some descriptions of where this knowledge can help a sailor (but you probably already knew that 😉

  4. Interesting. I remembered reading about this somewhere so I dug into a few books.

    It was Hal Roth that talks about this in his book How to Sail Around the World, pg 296-297. Same basic premise as the FBook piece but adds that the same dampening can occur with other items on the water like debris, seaweed, etc. He says that he thinks he does not carry enough (with 10-12 litres of engine oil) to make a difference, but it may. He says he was told cod liver oil is best, but he doesn’t want to deal with “the ghastly, smelly substance of [his] childhood.”

    Likely only useful when hove-to or lying ahull. He heard that N. Atlantic fishing boat do this by pumping a little oil through the aft head and it eases the overtaking waves.

    His end notes reference Coles, Heavy Weather Sailing pg 218-219, Bascom, Waves and Beaches pg 60-61, Van Dorn, Oceanography pg. 393-96 and Robinson, The Great Southern Sea pg. 68-84.

    Thanks for prompting me to do some reading again!

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