The Wave

I read a book a few years ago called The Devil’s Teeth by Susan Casey and I liked it a lot. Actually, I may have listened to it. I don’t do audiobooks that often any more – not sure why. I think it’s because I’ve become addicted (dork alert) to a few tech podcasts which occupy about all of my time on the treadmill, so I don’t have time for audiobooks.

Casey is a former competitive swimmer and writes a lot about the ocean. This book is specifically about big ocean waves. I’ve been to the North Shore of Oahu during January and it’s mesmerizing to sit on the beach and watch a pack of surfers trying to catch some of the best waves on the face of the earth. That day inspired me to buy a few surf movies, like Step into Liquid and Riding Giants. Great stuff. And yes, secretly I harbor dreams of taking surfing lessons some day. We’ll see about that. I wouldn’t say I’m consumed by big waves or anything, although I’m highly interested, so I bought The Wave.

Casey takes you through ocean waves from the perspective of three groups; boat people, scientists, and big wave surfers. Most of the book, I’d say two thirds, focuses on the surfer people. A big wave surfer is usually defined as someone who seeks out waves that cannot be ridden by just paddling into them because they’re moving too fast. To catch the waves, they have to be towed in on something like a jet ski, thus the often used name tow surfers.

The grandaddy of all tow surfers, and a main character in this book, is Laird Hamilton. Casey moved to Hawaii for at least a few years and spent a lot of time with Hamilton and his crew of surf buddies on Maui, which boasts one of the grandest big waves of all – Pe’ahi, or Jaws (just off the north central coast). Here is how Casey described her first encounter with Jaws:

The result is sixty-, seventy-, and eighty-foot waves, so beautifully shaped and symmetrical that they might have come from Poseidon’s modeling agency. The white feathering as the wave begins to crest, the spectrum of blues from rich lapis to pale turquoise, the roundness of its barrel, the billowing fields of whitewater when it comes crashing down—when you envision the cartoon-perfect giant wave, the gorgeous snarling beast of Japanese landscape paintings, what you are seeing is Jaws.

That’s Casey. It’s reminiscent of her descriptions of the sharks in The Devils Teeth. Her book puts you there for all of the big waves on the earth. I knew most of their names already because I’ve paid occasional attention since my trip to Hawaii in the early 2000s. There are only a handful or so of these big waves. Casey’s descriptions are well done, here is how she describes the others in the world:

Teahupoo (Tahiti):

I heard it before I saw it, the exploding curtain of glass that hammered onto the reef, the lip of a thirty-foot barrel hitting the earth like a liquid apocalypse. From a visual standpoint, Teahupoo was a looker. Rich lapis, deep emerald, pale aquamarine—its waters were the color of jewels, and its heavy white crest glittered in the sun. But even though the wave was gorgeous, it had the personality of a buzz saw. 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. This happened in seconds, in an area maybe three hundred feet long. I stared. I had never seen a wave behave like this one. “Yeah, it’s different,” Miller said, seeing my stunned expression. “Kind of like a shotgun unloading.”

Mavericks (Half Moon Bay, CA):

If, as the surfers claimed, every big wave has a distinct personality, Mavericks was an assassin. While other waves glimmer in the tropical sun, Mavericks seethes above a black chasm. Perched just north of Monterey Bay’s abyssal canyons, it’s surface is as impenetrable as one-way glass. The Aleutian swells thunder three thousand miles across the North Pacific, barging past the continental shelf until their progress is rudely halted by a thick rock ledge that juts offshore about a mile from Pillar Point, near Half Moon Bay’s harbor. When it hits this shallower depth, the wave energy rears up, shrieking and screaming, forming the clawed hand that is Mavericks.

Todos Santos (Mexico):

By this point I had seen plenty of waves in the fifty foot range, and though they were truly impressive, until now I hadn’t felt the kind of awe that this wave inspired. Because, I now knew, when a wave grows beyond sixty feet tall, it does something different. As the wave stood up to its full towering height it hung there, poised on the brink, and instead of immediately beginning to break, the lip plunging over the face and expelling the energy, it advanced as a vertical wall. It was the ocean’s ultimate threat, and so the ocean let it hang out and show off and strut for an extra few beats, its crest feathered with white spray and its face booby-trapped with boils, bumps, and turbulent eddies. And as the wave hung in the sky, suspended between beauty and fury, those seconds stretched like elastic, like a terrible void into which all things could be swallowed up forever.

You can see how these adrenaline junkies get off on this stuff. Casey is an adrenaline junky herself and gets dragged along by Hamilton on a few big wave endeavors. She spends a lot of time just relating conversations told amongst the group of guys who hang with Hamilton in Maui. You’re there. It’s cool.

These big wave people have a lot of stuff in common with mountain climbers. Both endeavors are dangerous outdoor pursuits where the participants are at the mercy of nature. But at least with mountains you know they aren’t going anywhere. There is consistency as to time and place. Heck, if you’re climbing Everest, your only option is to head up there every year around May and June. But with big waves, you just don’t know when they’re going to happen. You have to monitor the global weather or stand on the shore at Pe’ahi and wait…and wait. Then when something big appears to be coming, you scramble to catch it. It’s a strange dynamic that makes for a lot of drama.

But the whole book is not about bronzed surfer dudes, there is a more scientific chunk. Casey’s intellectual conversations about freak waves of the earth with scientists and boaters comprises about another third of the book (time measurement is purely gut instinct). Recently, there seems to be a higher rate of these freakishly large waves and Casey is looking for some sort of explanation. She doesn’t come right out say that scientists blame it all on climate change, but I do sense that she feels the bulk of the scientific community attribute much of it to climate change. That’s not really the point though.

The point is that we are powerless when the oceans rear their ugly head in the form of a giant wave and not many other natural disasters can be as destructive. Casey captures this well.