It has long been asserted that we know more about the surface of the moon than we do the vast seascapes that cover some 70 percent of our planet. Susan Casey's seductive book, The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks, and Giants of the Ocean, goes a long way to support this claim. As Casey, award-winning journalist and editor-in-chief of O magazine, traverses the globe in search of the world's mightiest waves, we are introduced to a fascinating cast of characters, including some of the most renowned big-wave surfers, as well as scientists on the forefront of these little-understood phenomena.
Although sailors and seafarers have for centuries claimed encounters with giant hundred-foot waves, they have often been rejected as tall tales and exaggerations. It turns out, however, that not only are such waves more common than anyone could have ever imagined, they are also occurring with increasing frequency.
Much of The Wave centers upon the famed exploits of big-wave surfer Laird Hamilton, with Casey following him around the world in his pursuit of ever more legendary waves (his home turf is the exalted jaws break, Pe'ahi, off the coast of Maui). Throughout the book Casey strives to portray Hamilton and his colleagues as more than mere thrill-seekers, and succeeds in depicting them as humble, graceful individuals who happen to be (after decades of conquest) the best at what they do. Most of the big-wave surfers Casey encounters throughout her travels (especially Hamilton, Dave Kalama, and crew) espouse the glory of surfing for personal (and often spiritual) reward, and roundly reject the commercialization of sponsored surf tournaments and the like. While they may be rightly called legends and pioneers in their respective sport, at no point does this fact seem to inflate their egos.
Other portions of The Wave delve into the historical record, with a particularly unbelievable chapter on the July 1958 megatsunami that struck Lituya Bay, Alaska. Following a 7.9-magnitude earthquake and the ensuing avalanche of ice and rock, a mindboggling 1,720-foot wave devastated the bay and killed two (though it spared a survivor whose first-hand account of the incident is utterly chilling).
The most unsettling parts of the book (if, indeed, anything is scarier than a 170-story wave) deal with climate change and the ever-evolving models of climate science. As the planet warms, ice caps melt, and sea levels rise, most scientists anticipate an increase in oceanic volatility. Earthquakes and tsunamis are expected to become more common, and, thus, also their calamitous effects. While some big-wave surfers may be looking forward to larger waves and gnarlier breaks, the predicted effects on low-lying, densely inhabited coastal areas seem rather foreboding.
The Wave is far from a comprehensive work on the subject, yet it is an eminently readable and fascinating look into a compelling and perplexing realm. Susan Casey's book will arouse even the most stifled and landlocked of imaginations. As they have for millennia past, the sea's mysteries shall continue to inspire, tempt, beckon, and enthrall us forevermore. Recommended By Jeremy G., Powells.com
Synopses & Reviews
For centuries, mariners have spun tales of gargantuan waves, 100-feet high or taller. Until recently scientists dismissed these stories—waves that high would seem to violate the laws of physics. But in the past few decades, as a startling number of ships vanished and new evidence has emerged, oceanographers realized something scary was brewing in the planet’s waters. They found their proof in February 2000, when a British research vessel was trapped in a vortex of impossibly mammoth waves in the North Sea—including several that approached 100 feet.
As scientists scramble to understand this phenomenon, others view the giant waves as the ultimate challenge. These are extreme surfers who fly around the world trying to ride the ocean’s most destructive monsters. The pioneer of extreme surfing is the legendary Laird Hamilton, who, with a group of friends in Hawaii, figured out how to board suicidally large waves of 70 and 80 feet. Casey follows this unique tribe of people as they seek to conquer the holy grail of their sport, a 100-foot wave.
In this mesmerizing account, the exploits of Hamilton and his fellow surfers are juxtaposed against scientists’ urgent efforts to understand the destructive powers of waves—from the tsunami that wiped out 250,000 people in the Pacific in 2004 to the 1,740-foot-wave that recently leveled part of the Alaskan coast.
Like Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, The Wave brilliantly portrays human beings confronting nature at its most ferocious.
"Casey does an exceptional job of explaining the natural forces (winds, currents, ocean-bottom shape) that create these daunting, at times fatal, surfing spots....Casey's account of the impromptu adventure is terrific." Wall Street Journal
"Gripping....we are thankful she included us on the ride." The Washington Post
"The book dives deeply into the world of top-level surfers....Casey does a commendable job of surveying the broader problems confronting wave studies....compelling and wonderfully detailed....engrossing....Casey adroitly moves beyond what we think we know about big-wave surf culture and churns out a series of action chapters that are not for the faint of heart." Los Angeles Times
"Reading the The Wave is almost like riding one, paddling in the expositional surf of vivid imagery and colorful description, thrown at you in ever-escalating surges." Cleveland Plain Dealer
"[A] captivating hybrid--an intro to the mind-melting physics of waves and a ride-along with the scientists and surfers who chase after them...Fascinating." Men's Journal
A New York Times Notable Book
A San Francisco Chronicle Best Book of the Year
In her astonishing new book Susan Casey captures colossal, ship-swallowing waves, and the surfers and scientists who seek them out.
For legendary surfer Laird Hamilton, hundred foot waves represent the ultimate challenge. As Susan Casey travels the globe, hunting these monsters of the ocean with Hamilton’s crew, she witnesses first-hand the life or death stakes, the glory, and the mystery of impossibly mammoth waves. Yet for the scientists who study them, these waves represent something truly scary brewing in the planet’s waters. With inexorable verve, The Wave brilliantly portrays human beings confronting nature at its most ferocious.
From Susan Casey, bestselling author of The Devil's Teeth, an astonishing book about colossal, ship-swallowing rogue waves and the surfers who seek them out.
About the Author
Susan Casey, author of New York Times bestseller The Devil’s Teeth: A True Story of Obsession and Survival Among America’s Great White Sharks, is editor in chief of O, The Oprah Magazine. She is a National Magazine Award-winning journalist whose work has been featured in the Best American Science and Nature Writing, Best American Sports Writing, and Best American Magazine Writing anthologies; and has appeared in Esquire, Sports Illustrated, Fortune, Outside, and National Geographic. Casey lives in New York City and Maui.
Reading Group Guide
From Susan Casey, the bestselling author of The Devil’s Teeth, an astonishing book about colossal, ship-swallowing waves, and the surfers and scientists who seek them out. The following questions are intended to enhance your reading experience and to generate lively discussion among the members of your book group.
1. Why do you think there isn’t more news coverage on sunken freighters, tankers, and bulk carriers? Do tragedies at sea strike a different chord in the popular imagination than say, a plane crash?
2. What’s the difference between surfing a wave and surviving it? What drives people to extreme situations and how does one draw the line between determination and courting disaster?
3. Many big wave surfers, like Laird Hamilton, are married with children. How do you think they rationalize putting their lives on the line for what many would consider sport?
4. Why do you think the psychological beating is often worse than the physical injury for surfers? Do you think Brett Lickle’s mishap towards the end of the book helped him see what was really important in life or psychologically cripple him?
5. Surfers and scientists have different methods of judging a wave’s intensity. Is one rubric more accurate than the other?
6. Susan Casey found a strong female presence in the scientific community that seems to be lacking in the surfing world. Why do you think surfing—and tow surfing in particular—seems to be so male-dominated? What drives more men than women to extreme sports?
7. Why is respect for the waves so important? What happens if you lose this respect?
8. Many surfers in the book refer to themselves as “watermen.” They’re not simply athletes or thrill seekers—they almost have a sixth sense when it comes to the water. What can we learn from these watermen in terms of how they regard and intuit the ocean? What responsibility, if any, do you think these adventurers have to the ocean and to one another?
9. Historically speaking, massive geological events occur frequently, but humans generally remember devastating natural disasters within their lifetimes. Do you think this ability to forget events such as the Lisbon tsunami of 1755 and move on is part of what makes our species so resilient? Or do these sorts of memory lapses leave us ill-prepared to deal with future disasters?
10. After Susan Casey witnesses a sixty-eight foot wave at Killers, she remembers Laird Hamilton’s assertion—“If you can look at one of these waves and you don’t believe that there’s something greater than we are, then you’ve got some serious analyzing to do.” How has your perception of the ocean—and those who study it and ride its waves—changed after reading The Wave?
(For a complete list of available reading group guides, and to sign up for the Reading Group Center enewsletter, visit: www.readinggroupcenter.com.)