By John Lancaster
Sunday, October 10, 2010; B06
In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks,
and Giants of the Ocean
By Susan Casey
Doubleday. 326 pp. $27.95
Susan Casey has a thing about the ocean. Her first book, "The Devil's Teeth," chronicled her sojourn among great white sharks and the scientists who study them off the Farallon Islands near San Francisco. Now she has immersed herself in another chronicle of men (well, mostly men) and the sea, this one focused on a force of nature even bigger and more powerful than the implacable beasts of her previous work. "The Wave" is exactly what its cover advertises: a book about huge waves and the equally outsize personalities who spend and occasionally risk their lives trying to measure, understand, predict and sometimes even ride them on surfboards.
This might seem a bit of a gimmick, blending as it does the worlds of meteorologists and physicists, among others, with portraits of gnarly surfer dudes such as Laird Hamilton, whose obsessive -- some would say suicidal -- quest to hurl himself off the lips of waves the size of seven-story buildings provides the book with its main narrative thread (to say nothing of some very impressive wipeouts). But somehow it all hangs together. This is due in part to its scary environmental theme -- about which more in a moment -- and especially to Casey's singular fascination with waves, the bigger the better, which emerge not just as hydrological phenomena but as distinctive, often malevolent personalities that in some ways are the most interesting characters in her book.
They are certainly the most deadly. Readers may want to pop a Dramamine before reading Casey's account of the RSS Discovery, a British research vessel that was nearly pounded to smithereens by a massive storm in the North Atlantic in 2000. Instruments on board measured the "significant wave height" -- an average of the largest 33 percent of the waves -- at 61 feet, "the largest ever scientifically recorded in the open ocean" (some spiked as high as 100 feet). The episode added to growing evidence about the prevalence of so-called rogue waves, which can rise up unexpectedly from much smaller seas. The question Casey poses at the outset of her book -- and that animates much of what follows -- is whether climate change is likely to generate even bigger waves.
If so, a handful of elite athletes will be waiting eagerly on the beach. These would be "tow surfers," who instead of catching waves the old-fashioned way -- by paddling -- are catapulted onto them by partners riding personal watercraft. The technique allows surfers to catch waves that were previously considered too big to ride. The sport was pioneered by Hamilton, who introduces Casey to the testosterone-fueled subculture of which he is the undisputed king. Possibly because he shared a portion of her advance, Casey's portrait of Hamilton -- depicted as a brooding hero with rippling deltoids and a penchant for Delphic utterances such as "Fearlessness is ignorance" -- is not especially revelatory. On the other hand, he is what he is, and there is no disputing his mastery of gargantuan waves such as Jaws, an aptly named offshore break near his home in Maui, and Teahupoo (pronounced tay-ah-HOO-poo), a freakish Tahitian killer "with the personality of a buzz saw."
Casey's descriptions of these monsters are as gripping in their own way as any mountaineering saga from the frozen peaks of Everest or K2. "As Teahupoo reared up it drained the water from the reef, turning the impact zone -- a lagoon that was mercilessly shallow to begin with -- into a barely covered expanse of sharp coral, spiky sea urchins and volcanic rock," she writes. "This happened in seconds, in an area maybe three hundred feet long. I stared. I had never seen a wave behave like this one."
Casey interrupts her surfing narrative with frequent digressions on the science of big waves and especially their relationship to climate change. At a climatologists' conference on Oahu, she is baffled by the talk of chaos theory and quantum mechanics, but not by the underlying message: A warming atmosphere means warmer seas, which mean larger and more violent storms, which means bigger and more destructive waves -- with potentially dire consequences for shipping and coastal erosion. As one climate scientist cheerfully tells her: "We're gonna get smacked. No doubt." Lest anyone doubt the potentially devastating effects of really big waves, Casey devotes another section of the book to tsunamis, such as the one that sloshed around a remote fjord in Alaska following an earthquake in 1958. The high-water mark on the mountains flanking Lituya Bay was measured at 1,740 feet.
All this talk of destruction lends a creepy sci-fi element to her narrative and makes the exploits of Hamilton and his buddies seem all the more harrowing. In the end, though, we are thankful she included us on the ride.
John Lancaster is a former Washington Post reporter and a surfer.