Saturday, February 19, 2011

Book Review: The Wave by Susan Casey

The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks and Giants of the Ocean by Susan Casey (2010)
Casey, who wrote a great book on white sharks, hee tells two stories. One is of the sailors and scientists probing the mysteries of giant waves. The second is of surfers, mainly the legendary Laird Hamilton and his rivals, as they try to ride larger and larger giants.
The two stories are only fitfully tied together as Casey switches back and forth between them. It would have been very interesting if she could have gotten some of the scientists and the surfers to chat directly, or at least comment on the other group's thoughts more than they do here.
In pursuit of rouge waves, she gathers evidence that the legendary 100-footers do happen, and they happen more often than sailors like to think about. Wave science turns out to be extremely complex and still developing, and Casey presents it well. Some of the instances were new to me, and some were scary just to read about while sitting on dry land. (Digression: Swordboat captain Linda Greenlaw has been asked what's the biggest wave she ever saw, and she writes that sailors don't have time or inclination to measure: they just divide bad weather into "this sucks" and "this REALLY sucks.")
As to the surfers, there are a handful capable of riding 60-foot-plus giants (I usually write in international units, but the 100-foot figure is iconic, so I will stick with English units here.) There is a quest among surfers to ride a hundred-footer, but these usually appear in such severe conditions, or with so little warning, that even surfers who carefully follow weather reports and wave forecasts have only a tiny chance of catching one. However, she believes Hamilton did in fact once ride a wave in excess of a hundred feet. Alas, he did it at a remote Pacific spot where no photos were recorded, and that's what you need to claim a record.
The Wave is an engrossing book whether you like sea stories, surfers, or science: it's a read that will sweep you away.

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