Review 130: The Wave

The Wave by Susan Casey

Okay, I want you to do something for me. Close your eyes.

Wait. No, that won’t work. Open your eyes again.

Eyes open? Good. Now imagine you’ve closed your eyes, but don’t actually close them because that will rather impair your ability to read this review.

So, you’re imagining that your eyes are closed. Now imagine you’re on a cruise ship. It’s a lovely place – blue water, blue skies, the faint scent of salt in the air, the waves lapping up against the hull of the boat in a soothing rhythm. It’s a perfect way to spend a vacation.

You get a daiquiri and lean on the railing, looking out towards the horizon. This is nice, you think. Just what I –

Wait. What is that?

You shield your eyes from the sun to get a better look and see what looks for all the world like a shadow on the horizon, stretching long and with flecks of light shimmering off its top. As it gets closer, it gets bigger, and you can feel the boat drop under your feet. The water gets higher and higher, and you know this can’t possibly be happening because for the wave to be that high, it would have to be at least sixty or seventy feet. In thirty-five foot waters.

Hokusai wasn't kidding around....

A shadow is cast over the boat as the wave crests above you, and the last thing you think before the top comes down, shattering the cruise ship like it was made of so much balsa wood, is, “I wonder what it would be like to surf that….”

It has often been said that we know more about the surface of the moon than we know about our own oceans. I have no idea who first said it, or in what form it was said, but reading this book drives home that it is absolutely correct. What’s more, that ignorance may well kill us. The oceans are full of relentless mysteries and hypnotic beauty, but also terrors and dangers the likes of which we shorebound humans have trouble understanding. The sea has always been a dangerous place, really. We know that. What we don’t know is what all of those dangers are.

Tales of giant waves have been around since antiquity, but until recently, people didn’t really believe them. It defied everything that was known about the ocean – to say nothing of common sense – to have waves appear out of nowhere, rise to heights of up to a hundred feet or more, wreak havoc on oceangoing vessels, and then vanish. These were the tales of sailors, whom everyone knew could not be trusted to tell the truth about their journeys.

"First Mate! Fetch me my brown pants!" (photo by MyFram Expedition blog)

Perhaps that is why Casey chooses to open with a scene from a research vessel in the North Atlantic. The RRS Discovery was on a routine mission to gather data about the sea between the British Isles and Iceland when it found itself under attack by the ocean itself. The ship was hit over and over again by waves reaching up to sixty feet, then dropped down into the void between waves and lifted up again, over and over for five days. Things that weren’t bolted down flew in mad directions all over the ship, and many things that were bolted down – like lifeboats – were ripped off their moorings. It was so terrifying that the scientists on board, after they had gotten home, wrote one of the very few research papers that included a note at the end thanking the captain for bringing them back alive. Only great skill and good luck saved that ship from oblivion in waters that seemed to have risen up for the sole purpose of destroying it.

No one – no weather forecaster or meteorologist, oceanographer or climatologist – no one thought that waves of that size could exist under those conditions. And yet there they were, and the Discovery’s instruments captured it all.

Scientists who study the oceans are just beginning to understand how waves work on the ocean, but the almost infinite number of variables that contribute to making waves is so overwhelming that it’s hard to conclusively predict where and when these rogue waves will appear. Other people who work with the sea – salvage operators, ship captains, insurers – know that this kind of thing is possible, and that the sea carries risks with it that no other form of transportation faces. Every year, dozens of ships are lost, and with them go many lives and countless dollars worth of merchandise. Some of these losses come from human error, but others come because the ocean is an inherently dangerous place for us to be. It is vital for our safety and our economy that we know how the ocean works, but we are nowhere near being able to do that.

What’s worse, the onset of climate change could make current models obsolete as the seas become higher, rougher, and more unpredictable. We are racing against the clock – and losing.

But for all the scientists who are trying to map the behavior of waves, there is a community of people who seek them out. People who know the waves intimately, even if they can’t write an equation to tell you what it is they know, exactly. These people are the surfers, and if there was ever a group of people more attached and attuned to the sea, they’d have to be mermen.

To find this picture, just Google "Laird Hamilton" and "Oh my god"

Casey spends a lot of time with surfer Laird Hamilton. I wanted to say “the famous Laird Hamilton,” but I didn’t know the man existed until I read this book, which makes him one of those people who is very famous, but only to the kind of people who would find him famous. Now that I know more about him and his community, though, I can certainly understand why he has the prestige that he does. Among big-wave surfers, he is a legend. And that takes some doing.

To ride a regular wave, you see, you get out there with your board, get behind the point where the waves start to break, and paddle to catch up. With the big waves, though, they’re moving much too fast for a paddler to get into position, so the big-wave riders have someone on a jet ski to pull them along. Once in position, the jet ski goes down the back of the wave while the surfer heads down the front where, hopefully, he won’t be killed. If he falls off, his partner has to come in, find him, and get them both out before the next giant wave – and where there’s one wave there are always more – comes in to crush them both. Regular surfing has its share of dangers, but the perils of big-wave surfing are orders of magnitude worse.

There is a whole community of surfers looking to ride these great waves. They travel across the world on the mere possibility of great surfing, heading to places with names like Jaws, Mavericks, or Egypt, all in the hope of catching the biggest waves. Injuries are common, and sometimes terrible. Death is always an option. But they come anyway, just for that moment of zenlike awareness of the Eternal Now that you can only truly achieve when you’re riding down the face of a wave and trying not to die.

Bronze surfers are surprisingly successful. Just not at surfing. (photo by atomicity on Flickr)

I don’t like the ocean, myself. I find it too big, too impersonal. It’s a place that could swallow you whole and leave no trace you were ever there. It’s a place that cares nothing for us puny humans and will, on a whim, try to destroy us. I certainly appreciate the ocean and what it does for us, and it’s nice to look at. But I certainly don’t trust it, and this book really didn’t help in that regard. From tales of ships crushed by rogue waves south of Africa to waves so large and so powerful they could strip the bark off the trees they uprooted, it was a testament to the fact that the moment we underestimate the ocean is the moment it kills us.

What’s more, with climate change being what it is, our problems with the ocean are going to turn into new and different ones. The models we have now – good though they are – are incomplete, and the changes that are coming in the future will keep scientists on their toes for years to come. As Casey notes, wave science is a very young discipline, but it is one that needs attention if we’re going to safeguard our coastal cities and global commerce.

This book is an exciting read about a topic you’ve probably never given much thought to. You fear for both the surfers and the scientists, and in the end realize just how much there is about the ocean that we still don’t know. I don’t know about you, but it kind of freaks me out….

————————————————————–
“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 and you should go sit under a tree for a very long time.”
– Laird Hamilton
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Susan Casey’s homepage
Laird Hamilton on Wikipedia
The Wave on Amazon.com

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Filed under climate change, disaster, environment, nonfiction, oceanography, oceans, surfing, survival, Susan Casey

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