Excerpt from Scripps Stories: Days to Remember

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Excerpt from Scripps Stories: Days to Remember


This excerpt comes from a collection of stories put together in 1993, as part of the Scripps Institute's 90th anniversary. Written Gordon Groves, it gives a brief, personal account of his experiences while stationed on Palmyra in 1963, during Gordon Munk's Waves Across the Pacific project.

It includes some interesting details, like the code phrase he should use if he ran into problems with the man he was stationed alongside, and mention of a corporation they received permission from to use Palmyra, who it turned out later never had a lease or ownership claim of the atoll in the first place.


Gordon Groves


Scripps Institute




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Waves Across the Pacific was an ambitious project of Professor Walter Munk’s to test theories of ocean-wave propagation and wave-wave interactions. The theoretical minds behind the project were Professor Munk and Klaus Hasselman. Frank Snodgrass was the engineer in charge of the electronic gear. It was 1963 and the digital equipment that Frank designed was truly amazing at the time.
The plan was to monitor ocean waves generated by Southern Hemisphere storms in the “roaring forties” and waters around Antarctica. These waves would travel across the Pacific, diminishing in amplitude as they went. We would measure these waves at six stations arranged along an approximately great-circle route, beginning with Cape Palliser in New Zealand, Tutuila in American Samoa, Palmyra Island in the Northern Line Islands, Oahu, the vertically floating vessel FLIP in the northern Pacific, and finally at Yakutat in Alaska. The observations would span a three-month period in the (Northern Hemisphere) summer of 1963. The stations would be manned by Frank Peterson (until his untimely death) at Cape Palliser, Walter Munkat Tutuila, myself at Palmyra, Klaus Hasselman on Oahu, Frank Snodgrass at the intermittent FLIP opportunities, and Gaylord Miller at Yakutat. Frank Snodgrass would also serve as roving trouble shooter while FLIP was not operating.
Palmyra was the most difficult station to plan, because it was uninhabited, had no communications facilities, was not visited by any commercial air or sea carriers, and was privately owned. It was considered essential because at the time there was a theory (disproved by this study) that waves traveling through the trade-wind belt would be dissipated by wave-wave interactions with the trade-wind sea. To get permission to land and operate on Palmyra, negotiations were carried out with a firm,Polynesian Paradise, which was planning to make money on a tourism venture on the island, and which claimed to have a lease from its owners, members of the Fullard-Leo family of Hawaii. (It turned out that Polynesian Paradise had no lease and no authority, but no problem arose because of this.) Executives of Polynesian Paradise gave permission and provided information on the island.
Permission to operate on Palmyra and ways to get people and materials there and back were two different things. Arrangements were made for the racing schooner,Malabar, to call at Palmyra during its planned cruise from Oahu to Tahiti to drop off two persons and to install the wave-recording apparatus during its brief stay at
Palmyra. Malabar was owned and captained by Dan Burhans, a neighbor and acquaintance of the Munks at the time. The two persons were myself and Jay Carr, a radio amateur of San Diego hired to provide communications with Palmyra. There were some fuzzy commitments from the Coast Guard or Navy to get us back by air(Palmyra has a large runway made during the war) and to provide emergency trips if necessary .
The evening before departure from the Alawai Boat Harbor in Honolulu was extremely hectic. Frank Snodgrass and I did not allow much time for considerable preparation needed in Honolulu, and it was already evening before I even started buying provisions. I went to the Safeway market on Beretania Street, took three baskets and just started throwing cans and packages of food into them. (Later on Palmyra, I was chagrined to see that all my jams were the same flavor.) Finally aboard Malabar at the dock, all participants in the cruise were assembled for a departure party. There were nine who would make the trip — Jay Carr and myself, Frank Snodgrass, Dan Burhans and his girlfriend Pat, a Japanese man whom Dan had hired as navigator, two girls who signed on as crew to get to Tahiti, and another crewman. Arriving also to the party were two newsmen from the Honolulu Star Bulletin and their cameras. Frank Snodgrass was afraid of unfavorable publicity because of the two girls, and treated the newsmen quite rudely and would not let them aboard nor give them any information on the trip. Since this was a government-sponsored operation he wanted no hint of scandal.
We were underway the next morning. Malabar was too small for nine persons on a six-day voyage, and all were uncomfortable with barely enough space for themselves and belongings. Jay Carr continually criticized the operation as “poorly planned,” and its organizers as “idiots.” Frank was concerned about leaving the two of us alone, and feared for my safety and sanity. He devised a way for me to secretly tell him via ham radio if the situation with Jay Carr was intolerable. I was to use the phrase
“the wave spectrum looks bad.” This would be transmitted by Jay unaware that the topic of conversation was himself. Another incident undercut our remaining confidence in Jay. He fell overboard while hanging clothing on the fantail, and could have been lost had it not been for Dan’s expert maneuvering and seamanship and the cooperation of all to keep Jay in view. The scream, “Man overboard!” had a chilling effect on all of us.
On Palmyra things generally went well, but if Jay disagreed with a message I was trying to communicate, he would just turn the set off in the middle of my sentence.Consequently, the quality of “wave spectrum” was discussed often by Frank inHonolulu and myself, and finally Frank sponged a flight to bring me a replacement radio operator. Jay had severe homesickness and was glad to be taken back.
All involved in the study had rewarding experiences. There was one particularly notable observation, that of ocean waves which had traveled 220° (more than halfway around the earth). These were recorded at the Yakutat station with wave height of only one cm. The day-to-day change in their period indicated the distance to, but not the direction of, their point of generation. If one stretches a string on a globe, there is a single narrow window through which waves could travel such a distance along a great-circle route ending at Yakutat. This is through the Tasman Sea (betweenAustralia and New Zealand). The other end of the string indicates a point in the IndianOcean near Madagascar. Weather maps did indeed indicate a strong storm at just the right place on the appropriate day.
After the field work the data were subjected to analysis, particularly by Munk and Hasselman. The results were well received by the scientific community and stand as one of many monuments to the genius of Professor Munk.

Original Format



Gordon Groves, “Excerpt from Scripps Stories: Days to Remember,” Palmyra Archive, accessed July 14, 2020, http://www.palmyraarchive.org/items/show/184.