Obituary: Laurence Draper

Expert on waves at sea who settled in the Black Isle and wrote on Scottish mining

Born: 7 August, 1929, in Bugsworth, Derbyshire.

Died: 17 June, 2010 in Rosemarkie, Ross-shire, aged 80.

FOR A budding oceanographer it was a rather unfortunate affliction – Laurie Draper discovered on his first working cruise that he suffered from chronic seasickness. Fearing that it could spell the end of his career, he told his boss: "I expect I had better resign. I'm no good at sea."

But, reassured that it was not a sackable offence and that his talents were required on dry land, he went on to become one of the world's elite band of oceanographers, a renowned expert in wave analysis and prediction, particularly for the fledgling offshore oil industry, and the man credited with coining the term "freak wave".

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Born in Bugsworth, Derbyshire, Laurie was the son of railway signalman Albert Draper and his wife Minnie Brown. His mother's blood type was rhesus negative, which, before modern treatments, often led to fatal immune reactions in babies, and although she bore several children Draper was the only one to survive.

He was educated at Buxton College, from which he was desperate to get away, particularly as staying on in the sixth form entailed taking part in dreaded cross-country running. He left at 16 to become a laboratory assistant with ICI in Buxton.

But he had always wanted to read physics and put himself through night school to gain his A level, leaving work three times a week to make the hour-long train trip to Manchester, returning home at almost midnight.

Two years of National Service in the RAF followed and although he aspired to be an electrical engineer, he opted for clerical duties rather than face the possibility of having to become a cook.

In 1950 he finally went to read physics at Nottingham University where, having hardly seen the sea, his interest in waves was fuelled. When he should have been studying, he flicked through a magazine of the Scottish Mountaineering Club instead and came across the obituary of the club president, PJH Unna, who had written about the engineering aspects of waves and how they affected wartime operations.

Soon after that Draper read of a new institute – the National Institute of Oceanography in Wormley in Surrey. Thinking it might study waves, he wrote to the director asking if they took students in the holidays and was given six weeks' work, with the offer of a job when he gained his degree.

While at Nottingham he had become an active member of the university's Exploration Society and took part in an expedition to study the movement of glaciers in Iceland. Having the physics knowledge, he was assigned the role of quartermaster and meteorologist. But the tough, two-month trip in July 1953, which saw them wade across fast-flowing streams, ended in tragedy when two of the 14-strong party were lost.

One of the missing was Draper's best friend, who was just 21, and despite an extensive search neither he nor his colleague was ever found. The traumatic incident was etched forever in Draper's psyche and shaped the rest of his life.

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That October he began work at the institute, where he met the woman would become his second wife about 34 years later.

Draper, who helped to develop wave recorders, worked mainly on the measurement and analysis of waves. He became an expert adviser to engineers, particularly in the oil, harbour and shipping industries, predicting the likely wave conditions over the next 50 years. He was also responsible for seeing that wave recorders were put on light vessels around the UK.

Working with statisticians, he advised how the data could be extrapolated and wrote and contributed to more than 100 scientific papers on the measurement and analysis of wave conditions.

It was in 1964 that he started the use of the term "freak wave". Until then there had been no firmly established name for unusually large waves. He worked with the Canadian government during the advent of oil production there and, in 1973, when the UK oil industry came looking for information about the biggest waves likely to hit platforms in the North Sea, he already had some data to hand.

His knowledge of so-called "lumps" of water meant he was also in demand as an expert witness during inquiries into ships lost at sea.

After the break-up of his first marriage, he wed his colleague Pam, by then a widow, in 1988. They retired in 1989, Draper as a principal scientific officer, to Culbokie in the Black Isle, where they had spent many holidays. They enjoyed walking, archaeology, industrial archaeology and birdwatching and together wrote a book on the history of the Raasay iron mine, which was worked by German prisoners of war in the First World War.

Draper, known for his wonderful sense of humour and gentlemanly attitude, was also a founder member of the Strathspey Railway and a former president and council member of local Field Clubs.

He is survived by his wife, his son Ian and daughter Rosemarie from his first marriage, and five grandchildren.