This paper analyses secular changes and interannual variability in the wind wave, swell, and significant wave height (SWH) characteristics over the North Atlantic and North Pacific on the basis of wind wave climatology derived from the visual wave observations of voluntary observing ship (VOS) officers. These data are available from the International Comprehensive Ocean–Atmosphere Data Set (ICOADS) collection of surface meteorological observations for 1958–2002, but require much more complicated preprocessing than standard meteorological variables such as sea level pressure, temperature, and wind. Visual VOS data allow for separate analysis of changes in wind sea and swell, as well as in significant wave height, which has been derived from wind sea and swell estimates. In both North Atlantic and North Pacific midlatitudes winter significant wave height shows a secular increase from 10 to 40 cm decade−1 during the last 45 yr. However, in the North Atlantic the patterns of trend changes for wind sea and swell are quite different from each other, showing opposite signs of changes in the northeast Atlantic. Trend patterns of wind sea, swell, and SWH in the North Pacific are more consistent with each other. Qualitatively the same conclusions hold for the analysis of interannual variability whose leading modes demonstrate noticeable differences for wind sea and swell. Statistical analysis shows that variability in wind sea is closely associated with the local wind speed, while swell changes can be driven by the variations in the cyclone counts, implying the importance of forcing frequency for the resulting changes in significant wave height. This mechanism of differences in variability patterns of wind sea and swell is likely more realistic than the northeastward propagation of swells from the regions from which the wind sea signal originates.