A few weeks ago I was sent a copy of Susan Casey’s The Wave, a new book that you may have already seen in advertisements and displayed prominently in your local Borders or Barnes and Nobles. The publishing company did a very big promotional campaign – even my mother at home in New York knew of the book.
At first I was a bit skeptical. Personally I’ve been so oversaturated with pictures of surfers riding big waves that I’ve become immune to the spectacle. Another picture of a huge wave at Teaupoo? Yawn. Having never witnessed giant waves in person it’s hard for me to appreciate what’s really going on out there. It’s difficult to feel the power of the ocean through a picture or even a video. One of these days I’ll make it to see giant Sunsest, or even watch the Eddie. This year I’m hoping to travel to watch the Mavericks contest. However my first thought was more along the lines of, “Ok, here’s another book about surfers riding big waves. Big deal.” Well I couldn’t have been more wrong.
The Wave kept me engrossed all the way through. I can’t remember the last time I finished a 300 page book so quickly. I think the secret lies in Susan Casey’s storytelling. Casey went firsthand to Maui to hang out with Laird Hamilton and his crew, and traveled around the world on redeye flights to chase swells from Tahiti to Baja with the likes of Garrett McNamara, Peter Davi, Raimana Van Bastolaer, and others. She spent enough time with the small community of rabid big wave hunters to get in their heads and learn about their lifestyle. It’s a more personal and detailed look into the mind of a big wave rider than I’ve read in most other surfing literature.
The way Casey describes the power of the big waves gives you an idea of what it’s really like out there in the water. The chapter about Hamilton and Brett Lickle’s “day of days” at Egypt on Maui had me more on the edge of my seat than any other surf tale I’ve read. Yes, this is the story where Lickle’s leg is sliced open like a gutted fish by a surfboard, Laird strips off his wetsuit to make a tourniquet, and then swims 500 yards to his jetski naked in 100 foot surf so they could return to shore. If people weren’t around to confirm this tale, based on those facts alone I’d say it wasn’t true. But it is, and these guys are for real. Many tout Kelly Slater as the best surfer in the world, and I will not argue with that. However, Hamilton’s feats put him right up there with Kelly, but as a master of a different animal.
I have to admit, as much as I love surfing, I often get bored actually reading about surfing. It tends to be on the bland side. Something has to really grab my attention, and The Wave did just that. It not only gives you an insight into the life of a big wave rider and paints vivid pictures of their most trying days, but it also delves into the science behind waves themselves. Scientists are baffled at the appearance of so-called “rogue” or freak waves that seem to appear out of nowhere at almost twice the size of the rest of the waves around them. These types of waves have been the cause of thousands of ships that have been lost at sea and never heard from again. Casey speaks with people who have been on boats in hundred foot seas, and even interviews Captain Nicholas Sloane, a ship salvage expert from South Africa. I had no idea such a profession even existed. Sloane specializes in saving ships that have become stranded or disabled trying to sail around the tip of South Africa, where some of the most treacherous seas on the planet make their home. When a ship gets disabled or runs aground, Sloane swoops in with his crew of helicopters and tugboats and attempts to contain the disaster. Sometimes these cargo ships are full of highly toxic chemicals, and Sloane’s job is to ensure that the damage is minimal and that as little cargo is spilled as possible.
Some of the most shocking facts from the book were in regards to how many ships are actually lost at sea, even today. You’d think that with all the advanced weather technology and GPS tracking systems available today that shipping would be a relatively safe venture. But that’s not the case at all. From 1990 to mid-1997, 99 bulk carriers were lost. In the winter of 1997-98, 27 vessels were lost during four months along with 654 people. These are astronomical figures to me, and the fact that it’s never really reported on is tragic – especially when you consider the media frenzy that often accompanies a downed plane. Sometimes it is impossible to locate the ships that are lost, and sometimes only mangled bits of debris remain. Imagine if a plane was to disappear from the sky and never seen again. It would be the top story in the news for days. The amazing thing is that survivors of ships struck by huge waves often report that the biggest ones seem to come out of nowhere, even when seas appeared to have calmed.
Casey interviews top scientists who study ocean mechanics and wave science, giving a layman’s overview of the current trends in marine forecasting. Without getting too technical, Casey makes a point to show that linear mechanics are not adequate to predict these freak waves. The ocean is full of too many factors, and it’s becoming clear that it may be necessary to use quantum mechanics and the uncertainty principle to figure out what’s really going on. Don’t worry – it never gets boring, and Casey manages to weave interesting facts with technical info into something that reads like an adventure story.
Overall I highly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in surfing as well as the science behind freak waves and other interesting ocean phenomenon. The chapter about Lituya Bay in Alaska was especially interesting, where scientists determined a wave with upper reaches of 1,740 feet (no, not a typo) had stripped trees with more force than a pulp mill and wiped the land clean. You’ll have to read the book to get the full story, but there were survivors who actually rode out the spectacle in their boats.
You can buy The Wave at your local bookstore or you can buy it from Amazon.com