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The Wave: In Pursuit of The Rogues, Freaks, and Giants of the Ocean

Tuesday, September 25th, 2012

I have no idea who took this photo or even if it’s real

How do you end a book about waves, taking into account the ending of The Great Gatsby or the repetition in a Van Morrison song? It’s not something to tackle lightly, or even something that the author of a non-fiction exploration of wave science and surfing (both) would be expected to do. But author Susan Casey does what she can now that the metaphors are all used up here in The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks, and Giants of the Ocean (Doubleday, 2010). Ending lyrically is maybe her hardest task – and the one that doesn’t even matter when your source material is this amazing.

The ostensible research interest in The Wave is large waves, known as freaks or rogues. These have been chronicled in various surf documentaries including Riding Giants. If you’ve seen Riding Giants, you’ve been amazed. The waves are so big as to be without scale – unimaginable and inconceivable in size and power. Like The Wave, Riding Giants captured the epic proportions, the emotional highs and the personalities of folks who chase these. The Wave follows, in depth, surfers and their important buddies – rescue teams, helicopter friends, photographers and endorsers. It also, horribly, records the inevitable and incredibly sad fatalities of folks who surf the sea.

What’s the biggest wave you’d ride? The book describes epic tales of masterful wave riding, putting the reader right there in the pipe with long-serving watermen. I felt salted, thirsty and exhausted at the end. Yes, the answer is always yes. Until it’s no. The Wave keeps the adrenaline pumping until the tale of Brett Lickle, best bud of Laird Hamilton. In a most masterful chapter (starting on page 217), Casey relays the tale of the buddies riding out in a storm near Egypt (read the book), and the near-death survival of Lickle, rescued by Hamilton who appeared on a lost jet ski in the middle of 120-foot waves. Laird Hamilton, did I mention him? He’s a star here, larger-than-life and moody like the sea. Hamilton hands out few kind words to hangers on and wannabees, but is the man’s man glue holding a rowdy group of thrill seekers together. He’s as methodical as the scientists studying wave theory, devising new boards and means of staying in the pipe.

Hamilton and his ilk aren’t scientists. But The Wave is both about sport and science.  For instance: in 1958, an 8.0 earthquake along the Fairweather Fault in Alaska generated  a 1,740 foot wave (you read that right) which traveled across the bay at 100 mph and denuded the land for 4 square miles. The science in The Wave examines a few places on Earth where the geography amplifies wave action. And the book explores reasons why wave action isn’t predictable, especially when unknown climatic conditions are fed into the poorly understood wave system. Take our current shifting weather patterns, our perpetually moving tectonic plates and you’ve got a case of heretofore undocumented wave breakouts across the globe, taking out tankers, sailors and researchers at the seeming drop of a hat. The research is a mix of personal anecdotes, trips with surf masters like Laird Hamilton, visits to wave science centers, and interviews with meteorologists, climatologists, physicists and barge rescuers.  The Wave reminds that water is our real master – harsh, energetic, deadly and without logic. It’s a terrifying read, but one which is thrillingly constructed of all these tales woven together. The editing is superb, the pacing well done, the visuals are graphic and cutting, the writing’s honest and sincere. No regrets here; grab hold.

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