The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks, and Giants of the Ocean

The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks, and Giants of the Ocean

3.8 152
by Susan Casey

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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.

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

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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.

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 100­foot 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.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Casey, O magazine editor-in-chief, travels across the world and into the past to confront the largest waves the oceans have to offer. This dangerous water includes rogue waves south of Africa, storm-born giants near Hawaii, and the biggest wave ever recorded, a 1,740 foot-high wall of wave (taller than one and a third Empire State Buildings) that blasted the Alaska coastline in 1958. Casey follows big-wave surfers in their often suicidal attempts to tackle monsters made of H2O, and also interviews scientists exploring the danger that global warning will bring us more and larger waves. Casey writes compellingly of the threat and beauty of the ocean at its most dangerous. We get vivid historical reconstructions and her firsthand account of being on a jet-ski watching surfers risk their lives. Casey also smoothly translates the science of her subject into engaging prose. This book will fascinate anyone who has even the slightest interest in the oceans that surround us. (Sept.)
John Lanchester
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…But somehow it all hangs together. This is due in part to its scary environmental theme…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…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.
—The Washington Post
Holly Morris
Casey makes a convincing, entertaining case (nifty cliffhangers and all) that there is a heretofore little-known monster in our midst…Casey is fluent in "gnarly" and proficient in "wonk," and she writes lucidly so the rest of us can come along for the ride…[a] wonderfully vivid, kinetic narrative…
—The New York Times

Ever since ancient times, mariners have lived in fearful awe of rogue waves; those mammoth, towering tempests that swallow ships whole and inspire sea tales. Only in recent years have scientists verified claims that such waves sometimes reach heights of 100 feet. That news gratified researchers and terrified coast-dwellers, but it also excited the imaginations of another interested group: extreme surfers. In The Wave, Susan Casey (The Devil's Teeth) follows this breathtaking bunch as they travel the world hoping to ride the ultimate super-wave. Now in a paperback and NOOKbook. (Hand-selling tip: All too timely in the wake of tsunamis; an apt choice for readers of books like The Perfect Storm, Into Thin Air, and Shadow Divers.)

From the Publisher
“Examines big waves from every angle, and goes in deep with . . . mariners, wave scientists and extreme surfers. . . . [A] wonderfully vivid, kinetic narrative.” —The New York Times Book Review

“Immensely powerful, beautiful, addictive and, yes, incredibly thrilling. . . . Like a surfer who is happily hooked, the reader simply won’t be able to get enough of it.” —San Francisco Chronicle

“[An] adrenaline rush of a book. . . . As terrifying as it is awe inspiring.”
“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.” —The Washington Post Book World
“Susan Casey's white-knuckle chronicle . . . delivers a thrill so intense you may never get in a boat again.” —Entertainment Weekly

“Reading 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.” —The Plain Dealer

“Casey does an exceptional job of explaining the natural forces (winds, currents, ocean-bottom shape) that create these daunting, at times fatal, surfing spots. . . . Terrific.” —Wall Street Journal

“Extraordinary. . . . I’m only allowed 800 words for this review. Here are a few: fascinating, heroic, dazzling, terrifying, amazing, unbelievable, mesmerizing, instructive, enlightening, superb. This is a . . . powerful, articulate ride into a world you never knew existed but that you will never, never forget.” —Richard Ellis, The Globe and Mail (Toronto)
“Utterly engrossing.” —Salon

“Something is stewing in our seas, and Susan Casey—traveling, and in some cases swimming, all around the world—is eager to find out what it is. Both a rollicking look at the ocean’s growing freakishness and a troubling examination of our ailing planet, The Wave gives new meaning to the term ‘immersion reporting.’” —Hampton Sides, author of Hellhound on His Trail

“[Casey] is a powerful voice in adventure writing. . . . Masterful.” —Outside

“Like the surfers and scientists she profiles, Casey lived and breathed giant waves for years. Casey combines an insane passion for craft with an uncanny ability to describe the indescribable. In The Wave she whisks the reader off to unimaginably surreal settings and puts them in the middle of mind-blowing scenarios. This book sucked me in like the undertow at Pipeline.”  —Mary Roach, author of Stiff and Packing for Mars

“[A] breath-snatching thrill ride.” —Elle

“Compelling and wonderfully detailed. . . . An engrossing set of stories about the quest for bigger, stronger, more dangerous.” —Los Angeles Times

“A fabulous page-turner.” —NPR

“This book is adrenalin. You don’t want to surf the waves described herein. Read the book. It’s safer that way.” —Eddie Vedder

“Reading The Wave is the closest most of us will ever come to the sensation of riding, or even seeing, one of these towering monsters of the sea. It’s exhilarating, astonishing, and, not infrequently, terrifying. Brace yourself.” —Candice Millard, author of The River of Doubt

“A probing look at both the passionate and the pragmatic sides of these oceanic wonders. . . . Casey’s curiosity in learning about every conceivable aspect of waves makes for compelling reading, regardless of whether you look at waves as a great ride or with great concern.” —BookPage

“At once scary and fun, The Wave surprises at every turn.” —Elizabeth Kolbert, author of Field Notes from a Catastrophe

 “[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.” —Men’s Journal

The Wave is an amazing look at humble yet larger-than-life people who live by daring feats, honorable acts, and selfless denial. . . . Terrifying, beautiful, her prose is shot through with the haunting half-light of a storm.” —Doug Stanton, author of Horse Soldiers

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Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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Read an Excerpt

57.5° N, 12.7° W
FEBRUARY 8, 2000

The  clock read midnight when the hundred-foot wave hit the ship, rising from the North Atlantic out of the darkness. Among the ocean’s terrors a wave this size was the most feared and the least understood, more myth than reality—or so people had thought. This giant was certainly real. As the RRS Discovery plunged down into the wave ’s deep trough, it heeled twenty-eight degrees to port, rolled thirty degrees back to starboard, then recovered to face the incom- ing seas. What chance did they have, the forty-seven scientists and crew aboard this research cruise gone horribly wrong? A series of storms had trapped them in the black void east of Rockall, a volcanic island nick- named Waveland for the nastiness of its surrounding waters. More than a thousand wrecked ships lay on the seafloor below.
Captain Keith Avery steered his vessel directly into the onslaught, just as he ’d been doing for the past five days. While weather like this was common in the cranky North Atlantic, these giant waves were unlike anything he ’d encountered in his thirty years of experience. And worse, they kept rearing up from different directions. Flanking all sides of the
295-foot ship, the crew kept a constant watch to make sure they weren’t about to be sucker punched by a wave that was sneaking up from behind, or from the sides. No one wanted to be out here right now, but Avery

knew their only hope was to remain where they were, with their bow pointed into the waves. Turning around was too risky; if one of these waves caught Discovery broadside,  there would be long odds on survival. It takes thirty tons per square meter of force to dent a ship. A breaking hundred-foot wave packs one hundred tons of force per square meter and can tear a ship in half. Above all, Avery had to position Discovery so that it rode over these crests and wasn’t crushed beneath them.
He stood barefoot at the helm, the only way he could maintain trac- tion after a refrigerator toppled over, splashing out a slick of milk, juice, and broken glass (no time to clean it up—the waves just kept coming). Up on the bridge everything was amplified, all the night noises and motions, the slamming and the crashing, the elevator-shaft plunges into the troughs, the frantic wind, the swaying and groaning of the ship; and now, as the waves suddenly grew even bigger and meaner and steeper, Avery heard a loud bang coming  from Discovery’s foredeck.  He squinted in the dark to see that the fifty-man lifeboat had partially ripped from its two-inch-thick steel cleats and was pounding against the hull.
Below deck, computers and furniture had been smashed into pieces. The scientists huddled in their cabins nursing bruises, black eyes, and broken ribs. Attempts at rest were pointless. They heard the noises too; they rode the free falls and the sickening barrel rolls; and they worried about the fact that a six-foot-long window next to their lab had already shattered from the twisting.  Discovery was almost forty years old, and recently she ’d undergone major surgery. The ship had been cut in half, lengthened by thirty-three feet, and then welded back together. Would the joints hold? No one really knew. No one had ever been in conditions like these.
One of the two chief scientists, Penny Holliday, watched as a chair skidded out from under her desk, swung into the air, and crashed onto her bunk. Holliday, fine boned, porcelain-doll pretty, and as tough as any man on board the ship, had sent an e-mail to her boyfriend, Craig Harris, earlier in the day. “This isn’t funny anymore,” she wrote.  “The ocean just looks completely out of control.” So much white spray was whipping off the waves that she had the strange impression of being in a blizzard. This was Waveland all right, an otherworldly place of constant motion that took you nowhere but up and down; where there was no sleep, no comfort, no connection to land, and where human eyes and stomachs struggled to adapt, and failed.
Ten days ago Discovery had left port in Southampton, England, on what Holliday had hoped would be a typical three-week trip to Iceland and back (punctuated by a little seasickness perhaps, but nothing major). Along the way they’d stop and sample the water for salinity, temperature, oxygen, and other nutrients. From these tests the scientists would draw a picture of what was happening out there, how the ocean’s basic character- istics were shifting, and why.
These are not small questions on a planet that is 71 percent covered in salt water. As the Earth’s climate changes—as the inner atmosphere becomes warmer, as the winds increase, as the oceans heat up—what does all this mean for us? Trouble, most likely, and Holliday and her colleagues were in the business of finding out how much and what kind. It was deeply frustrating for them to be lashed to their bunks rather than out on the deck lowering their instruments. No one was thinking about Iceland anymore.
The trip was far from a loss, however. During the endless trains of massive waves, Discovery itself was collecting data that would lead to a chilling revelation. The ship was ringed with instruments; everything that happened out there was being precisely measured, the sea’s fury captured in tight graphs and unassailable numbers. Months later, long after Avery had returned everyone safely to the Southampton docks, when Holliday began to analyze these figures, she would discover that the waves they had experienced were the largest ever scientifically recorded in the open ocean. The significant wave height, an average of the largest 33 percent of the waves, was sixty-one feet, with frequent spikes far beyond that. At the same time, none of the state-of-the-art weather forecasts and wave models—the information upon which all ships, oil rigs, fisheries, and passenger boats rely—had predicted these behemoths. In other words, under this particular set of weather conditions, waves this size should not have existed. And yet they did.
History is full of eyewitness accounts of giant waves, monsters in the hundred-foot range and beyond, but until very recently scientists dis- missed them. The problem was this: according to the basic physics of ocean waves, the conditions that would produce a hundred-footer were so far beyond rare as to virtually never happen. Anyone who claimed to have seen one, therefore, was engaging in nautical tall tales or outright lies.
Still, it was hard to discount a report from the polar hero Ernest Shackleton, hardly the type for hysterical exaggeration. On his crossing from Antarctica to South Georgia Island in April 1916, Shackleton noticed odd movements in the night sky. “A moment later, I realized that what I had seen was not a rift in the clouds, but the white crest of an enor- mous wave,” he wrote. “During 26 years experience of the ocean in all its moods I had not encountered a wave so gigantic. It was a mighty upheaval of the ocean, a thing quite apart from the big white-capped seas that had been our tireless enemies for many days.” When the wave hit his ship, Shackleton and his crew were “flung forward like a cork,” and the boat flooded. Fast bailing and major luck were all that saved them from capsizing. “Earnestly  we hoped that never again would we encounter such a wave.”
The men on the 850-foot cargo ship München would have seconded that, if any of them had survived their rendezvous with a similar wave on December 12, 1978. Considered unsinkable, the München was a cutting- edge craft, the flagship of the German  Merchant Navy. At 3:25 a.m. frag- ments of a Morse code Mayday, emanating from 450 miles north of the Azores, signaled that the vessel had suffered grave damage from a wave. But even after 110 ships and 13 aircraft were deployed—the  most com- prehensive search in the history of shipping—the ship and its twenty- seven crew were never seen again. A haunting clue was left behind: searchers found one of the München’s lifeboats, usually stowed sixty-five feet above the water, floating empty. Its twisted metal fittings indicated that it had been torn away. “Something extraordinary” had destroyed the ship, concluded the official report.
The München’s disappearance   points to the main problem with proving the existence of a giant wave: if you run into that kind of night- mare, it ’s likely to be the last one you’ll have. The force of waves is hard to overstate. An eighteen-inch wave can topple a wall built to withstand 125-mile-per-hour winds, for instance, and coastal advisories are issued for even five-foot-tall surf, which regularly kills people caught in the wrong places. The number of people who have witnessed a hundred-foot wave at close range and made it back home to describe the experience is a very small one.
Even if a ship does manage to survive a hundred-foot wall of water, there are no underwhelmed survivors. Big fish tales are human nature. Add to that a dose of mortal terror, honest confusion, a fear of being blamed for damage to the ship—if, say, the wave didn’t quite measure up to the “something extraordinary” test but managed to poleax the vessel anyway because the captain was below deck playing darts and drinking vodka at the time—and what you’ve got is less than the scientifically immaculate truth.
But there was a rare occasion in 1933, when a sharp-eyed naval offi- cer aboard the 478-foot oil carrier USS Ramapo happened to be up on the bridge as an astonishing wave lurched out of the Pacific and his response, rather than screaming and covering his eyes, was to make a trigonometric calculation using the ship’s dimensions relative to the wave ’s crest and trough. The result was a height estimate that, if not on par with the exac- titude of the Discovery’s sensors, was at least defensible. And the officer’s measurement? The wave was 112 feet high.
If a 112-foot wave isn’t freakish enough, consider that this one had leaped out of 45-foot seas. Thus it was more than twice the average size of anything else in the Ramapo’s path, which matches the scientific defi- nition for a freak (or rogue) wave. For centuries mariners had spoken of the “hole in the ocean,” a cavernous trough at the base of an abnormally large wave, and the “three sisters,” a series of freaks in rapid succession. To scientists this kind of folklore was a hard sell. The numbers didn’t add up. Maybe, just maybe, a once-in-an-aeon wave triple the size of its sur- rounding seas might exist—but there was no way traditional oceanogra- phy could accept this as a typical occurrence. As for the notion of mutant walls of water showing up in sets, that was not even worth discussing. Then something happened that no one could ignore.
On January  1, 1995, the North  Sea was feisty due to a pair of storms, a brutish one crawling northward and a smaller one moving southward to meet it. Statoil’s Draupner oil-drilling platform sat somewhere between them, about one hundred miles off the tip of Norway. For the crew who lived on the rig it was a New Year’s Day of thirty-eight-foot seas rolling by, as measured by the laser wave recorder on the platform’s underside. Unpleasant, perhaps, but not especially dramatic—until three o’clock in the afternoon, when an eighty-five-foot wave came careening over the horizon and walloped the rig at forty-five miles per hour. While the Draupner sustained only moderate damage, the proof was there. This wasn’t a case of laser malfunction or too many aquavit toasts the night before. It was the first confirmed measurement of a freak wave, more than twice as tall and steep as its neighbors, a teetering maniac ripping across the North Sea.
They were out there all right. You could call them whatever you wanted—rogues, freaks, giants—but the bottom line was that no one had accounted for them. The engineers who’d built the Draupner rig had cal- culated that once every ten thousand years the North Sea might throw them a sixty-four-foot curveball in thirty-eight-foot  seas. That would be the maximum. Eighty-five-foot waves were not part of the equation, not in this universe anyway. But the rules had changed. Now scientists had a set of numbers that pointed to an unsettling truth: some of these waves make their own rules. Suddenly the emphasis shifted from explaining why giant waves couldn’t simply leap out of the ocean to figuring out how it was that they did.
This was a matter of much brow sweat for the oil industry, which would prefer that its multimillion-dollar rigs not be swept away. It had happened before. In 1982 the Ocean Ranger, a 400-foot-long, 337-foot- high oil platform located 170 miles off the coast of Newfoundland, was struck by an outsize wave in heavy weather. We ’ll never know how big the wave was exactly, for there were no survivors. Approved for “unre- stricted ocean operations,” built to withstand 110-foot seas and 115-mile- per-hour winds, considered “indestructible” by its engineers, the Ocean Ranger had capsized and sank close to instantly, killing all eighty-four people on board.
In the nautical world things were even more troubling. Across the global seas ships were meeting these waves, from megaton vessels like the München—oceangoing freighters and tankers and bulk carriers—down to recreational sailboats. At best, the encounters resulted in damage; at worst, the boat vanished, taking all hands with it. “Two large ships sink every week on average [worldwide], but the cause is never studied to the same detail as an air crash. It simply gets put down to ‘bad weather,’ ” said Dr. Wolfgang Rosenthal, senior scientist for the MaxWave Project, a con- sortium of European scientists that convened in 2000 to investigate the disappearing ships.
While Rosenthal’s numbers may be high, his point is well taken. Given the lack of survivors or evidence, exact statistics of ships scuttled by giant waves are impossible to come by; but it is clear that every year, on average, more than two dozen large ships sink or otherwise go miss- ing, taking their crews along with them. (If you also consider smaller ves- sels, the numbers are vastly higher.) In particular, a type of ship known as a bulk carrier is vulnerable:  on one infamous occasion in March 1973, two bulk carriers were lost within an hour of each other in the same area of the North Atlantic.
When I first read about the missing ships, I was astonished. In the high-tech marine world of radar, EPIRB, GPS, and satellite surveillance, how could hundreds of enormous vessels just get swallowed up by the sea? And furthermore, how could this be happening without much media notice? Imagine the headlines if even a single 747 slipped off the map with all its passengers and was never heard from again.
Clearly, there was something extraordinary  going on out there. After the Draupner incident, it became undeniable: no one really had a clue as to how waves behaved in their most extreme forms. Yet lives depended on this information. As the scientists scrambled and the oil companies mobilized and the naval architects double-checked their calcu- lations and ship captains worried the horizon, I imagine they thought to themselves: So the old stories were true after all.
The first time I saw a truly big wave was in December 1989. I hap- pened to be in Hawaii and my trip coincided with the Triple Crown of Surfing, a series of three competitions held on Oahu’s north shore. In order to have the events, though, first you must have the waves. Some- times the surfers had to wait weeks or even months for the right condi- tions to materialize, and so it was lucky and unusual that a good-size swell arrived during my visit. On the day the big-wave contest was called at Sunset Beach, I drove my rental car across the island and landed on that stretch of sand, along with about a thousand other people.
The spectator scene was a riot of color, of neon pink bikinis and canary yellow surfboards and lime green banners and all the glimmering blues of the Pacific Ocean. It was a convention of gear-laden trucks, a bazaar of beach hair, from sun-bleached white to drip-dry dreadlocks. The nearest closed-toe shoe was at least twenty miles away. The sky was cloudless but a veil of mist hung in the air from the force of the waves slamming down. At first I found that startling because the Sunset wave itself—the face the surfers would be riding—broke  more than a half mile offshore. But then a set rolled in, a pulse of energy that caused several waves to jump up in size. I watched through binoculars as the waves began to build, ominous lumps in the ocean. The water rose and rose until a tiny rider appeared at the top and dropped onto the face as it exploded into a thirty-foot moving cliff. Whenever a wave broke, the beach shook with a little hum of violence.
Standing on shore, I was scared. I’d witnessed avalanches, explo- sions, tornadoes, wildfires, and monsoons, and I’d never seen anything as intimidating as those waves. For all the gentle images evoked by the name Sunset Beach, in reality this was a different beast. One surf expert described this break as “the entire Pacific Ocean rearing up to unload on your head.” On big days at Sunset, people were often swept away by fero- cious currents and surges. Watching, I could easily imagine this. What I couldn’t imagine was why anyone would willingly insert himself into these elements.
It felt strange to be terrified of the water. After decades of competi- tive swimming I’m usually more at home in aquatic environments than I am on land. Over the years I’d done assorted damage to myself on solid ground—bruises, bumps, tears, a knee pieced together by titanium screws—but nothing bad had ever happened to me in the water. Then again, I’d never experienced the water in this particular mood. As I watched the surfers launch themselves into the churning ocean and pad- dle toward the break, I worried for each of them. Their sport seemed more gladiatorial than athletic, like showing up for work each day to grapple with bull elephants.
Which is why, a few years later, I was stunned to see a photograph of a man riding a wave more than twice the size of Sunset, somewhere in the sixty-foot range. The surfer was Laird Hamilton, a six-foot-three,
215-pound twenty-eight-year-old from Hawaii who looked completely at ease inside a barrel as tall as an office building. His blond hair whipped back in the spray; his muscular arms were spread wide for balance as he plummeted down the wave on a tiny board. He had classically handsome features, chiseled and intense, but no fear showed on his face, only rapt focus. Looking at the picture, I didn’t understand how any of this was possible.
Since surfing became popular in the mid-twentieth century, faces in the forty-foot range have represented the outer limits of human paddling abilities. Anything bigger is simply moving too fast; trying to catch a sixty-foot wave by windmilling away on your stomach is like trying to catch the subway by crawling. Never mind, though, because even if you could catch it, there would be no way to ride it. Too much water rushes back up the face of a giant wave as it crests, sucking you, the hapless human (not enough momentum), and your board (too much friction) over the falls. So while the most popular surf spots quickly became so overrun that fistfights erupted in the water, all over the world the most impressive waves were going to waste. To Hamilton and his friends, this was unacceptable. The rules had to change, and a new system invented. So they came up with a technique called tow surfing.
Borrowing ideas from windsurfing and snowboarding, they created shorter, heavier surfboards with foot straps, and thinner, stronger fins that sliced through the water like knives. Then they added Jet Skis and water-ski ropes to the mix, using them to tow one another into perfect position at thirty miles per hour. In the optimal spot, just as the wave began to peak, the rider would drop the tow rope and rocket onto the face. The driver, meanwhile, would exit off the back. Using this method, with its increased horsepower and redesigned gear, a surfer could theoretically catch the biggest waves out there. Riding them—and surviving if you fell—was another story.
Hamilton was the test pilot, followed immediately by other surfers and windsurfers in his circle: Darrick Doerner, Brett Lickle, Dave Kalama, Buzzy Kerbox, Rush Randle, Mark Angulo, and Mike Waltze. Nicknamed the Strapped Crew, they experimented on the outer reefs of Oahu and Maui, far beyond the crowds. “No one was there,” Hamilton said. “No one had ridden waves this size. It was the unknown. It was like outer space or the deep sea. We didn’t know if we were going to come back.”
Anything involving giant waves qualifies as a risky pursuit, but tow surfing seemed to invite disaster. The sport ’s learning  curve was a series of hard lessons, and the price of falling was high. It included dislocated shoulders, shattered elbows, and burst eardrums; broken femurs, snapped ankles, and cracked necks; lacerated scalps, punctured lungs, and frac- tured arches; hold-downs that Brett Lickle described as “sprinting four hundred yards holding your breath while being beaten on by five Mike Tysons.” As for stitches, Hamilton “stopped counting at 1,000.”
Regardless of its dangers (or maybe because of them), tow surfing’s popularity and visibility grew throughout the 1990s, the surfers venturing onto more treacherous waves every year. They tinkered with equipment. They refined their techniques. Working in teams of two—a driver and a rider—they figured out how to rescue each other in behemoth surf. As the stakes got higher and the margin for error got slimmer, a kind of nat- ural selection occurred. Riders who’d glimpsed their own mortality a lit- tle too closely drifted to the sidelines. At the other end of that spectrum was Hamilton. Watching him, you got the feeling that no wave was out of reach. The more intimidating the conditions, the more he seemed to thrive in them.
Then in July 2001 a surf impresario named Bill Sharp issued a chal- lenge. “For 2700 years,” his press release read, “the Homerian  [sic] epic known as the Odyssey  has been associated with beautiful-but-deadly temptresses, forgetful lotus-eaters, and scary, one-eyed monsters. But now thanks to surf wear giant Billabong, it ’s associated  with an even scarier monster: the elusive 100-foot wave.” The company, the press release continued, would offer a prize of $500,000 to any man who rode one. This payday was exponentially larger than anything surfing had

seen; millions more would come from sponsors in the wake of the tri- umph. A select group of tow teams would be invited to participate, a crew Sharp referred to as “the Delta Force of surfing.”
It was a sexy frontier, defined by a nice round number. Marketing that number was Sharp’s intention; he noted that he ’d sold the hundred- foot-wave Odyssey contest, originally named Project Sea Monster, to Billabong in less than fifteen minutes. Prone to flourishes of hype, Sharp delivered vivid sound bites: “The Odyssey is Jacques Cousteau meets Evel Knievel  meets Crocodile Hunter meets Jackass,” he said. And almost overnight the idea of the hundred-foot wave became the media grail, tow surfing’s equivalent of a moon landing.
There were a couple of snags. First, was it physically possible? No one knew how riding a hundred-foot wave might differ from, say, riding a seventy-five-foot wave. As they grow in size, waves increase dramati- cally in speed and energy. At what point would the forces overwhelm the equipment, or the surfers? “The 100-foot wave would probably kill any- one who fell off it,” Time magazine wrote. Honolulu’s then–ocean safety chief, Captain Edmund Pestana, agreed: “It ’s a deadly scenario for every- one involved.” The trade journal TransWorld SURF Business was blunt: “You’re asking these surfers to take huge risks for our titillation.”
Next, even if a surfer wanted to take his chances, finding the wave was a problem. Although they were no longer considered imaginary, hundred-foot  waves were not exactly kicking around within Jet Ski range. Further complicating things, for tow surfing’s purposes not just any hundred-foot wave would do. The enormous seas the Discovery encoun- tered; the huge freaks that pop up to batter oil rigs—these are unsuitable, despite their great height. Waves that exist in the center of a storm are avalanches of water, waves mashed on top of other waves, all of them rushing forward in a chaotic jumble.
Surfers need giant waves with a more exclusive pedigree. In their ideal scenario, a hundred-foot wave would be born in a blast of storm energy, travel across the ocean for a long distance while being strengthened by winds, then peel off from the storm and settle into a swell, a steamrolling lump of power. That swell would eventually collide with a reef, a shoaling bottom, or some other underwater obstacle, forcing its energy upward and sideways until it exploded into breaking waves. And that ’s where the ride would begin—far enough from the storm’s center to be less roiled and choppy, but not so far that its power was too diminished. This was a pretty tall order. If the ocean was a slot machine, rideable sixty- or seventy-foot waves came along about as often as a solid row of cherries. And the perfect hundred-foot wave? Hit that one and the sirens would go off as everyone in the casino stopped what they were doing to gawk, and the staff rolled in palettes to help you haul away your money.
A surfer who intended to participate in the Odyssey, therefore, would be signing up for a global scavenger hunt. Not only would he have to ride the wave, he ’d have to scour the oceans to find it, monitoring the weather’s every nuance like a meteorologist, and then show up at pre- cisely the right moment toting Jet Skis, safety equipment, surf gear, and photographers along with him—not to mention a highly skilled partner who didn’t mind risking his life when called upon to do so. This was a surfing competition the way the Space Shuttle was a plane. “The Odyssey makes climbing Everest look easy,” one British journalist wrote. Regard- less, Sharp was undeterred. “I think everybody’s ready,” he said. “Now, on the giant days, there ’s no wave that anyone ’s backing down from.”
Millions of years before there was water on the earth, before steam turned into rain turned into oceans, there were giant waves. There were electromagnetic waves and plasma waves and sound waves. There were shock waves from the many explosions and collisions that made our planet ’s earliest  days so lively. Asteroids smacked into it and sent up waves of molten rock, thousands of feet tall. At one time scientists even believed that an enormous wave of this magma, created by intense solar tides, had swung off into space and become the moon.
Although that particular theory is no longer considered true, it points to something that is: waves are the original primordial force. Any- where there ’s energy  in motion  there are waves, from the farthest  corners of the universe down to the cells in your eyeball. I wondered if this was why, after eighteen years, I couldn’t stop thinking about that day at Sun- set Beach. Far from being an abstraction in the ether—like electrical waves, X-ray waves, or radio waves—those thirty-foot ocean waves were a majestic demonstration of the unseen force that powers every- thing. Catching a glimpse of something that elemental, that beautiful, and that powerful created one inevitable result: the desire to see it again.
The more I read about the mysteries of freak waves, the more jaw- dropping tow-surfing images I saw (and the more inevitable it became that someone  would ride a hundred-foot wave), the more fascinated I became. New technologies began to reveal startling information. “Ship- Devouring Waves, Once Legendary, Common Sight on Satellite,” read the USA Today headline on July 23, 2004, describing how radar was now able to measure waves from space: “ ...a new study based on satellite data reveals the rogues are fairly common.” “Rogue Giants at Sea: Huge, Freakish, but Real, Waves Draw New Study,” the New York  Times reported in July 2006. “Scientists are now finding that these giants of the sea are far more common and destructive than once imagined, prompting a rush of new studies and research projects.”
From a science and technology standpoint, we humans like to think we ’re quite smart. Over in Switzerland, for instance, physicists are chas- ing the Higgs boson, a subatomic speck so esoteric that it ’s referred  to as the “God particle.” If we ’re closing in on this, how is it possible that only fifteen years ago a force that regularly demolishes 850-foot-long ships was deemed not to exist?
Quite simply: the ocean doesn’t subscribe to the orderly explana- tions that we would like it to. It ’s a mosh pit of variables, some of which science has considered and others of which it hasn’t—because we don’t even know what they are. Though we ’re more informed about the sea now than we were several hundred years ago when mermaids were listed along with sea turtles in Pliny’s Historia Naturalis, the depths still hold more secrets than anyone can count. And this lack of knowledge affects far more than ships at sea.
Anyone who lives on this planet is utterly dependent on its oceans. Their temperatures and movements control the weather; their destruc- tive—and life-giving—ability dwarfs anything on land. Now that cli- mate change is an accepted fact with unknown consequences,  our vulnerability is sinking in. The earth’s mean surface temperature (land and oceans combined) is warmer now than at any other time during the past four hundred years, and it continues to rise. In its 2007 report the Intergovernmental  Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded that “the ocean has been absorbing more than 80 percent of the heat added to the climate system.” As the waters heat up, wind velocity increases; storm tracks become more volatile; polar ice and glaciers melt, causing sea lev- els to rise. How far will they rise? All we have is a best guess, continually adjusted upward as new (and discouraging) data arrives. In 2007 the sea levels were predicted to rise about 23.5 inches by 2100. In 2009 that num- ber was raised to 39 inches, a level that would displace some 600 million people in coastal areas. (Other scenarios, like the collapse of the Green- land ice sheet, should they occur, would raise the sea level as much as twenty-three feet. For perspective, that would drown most of Florida.) As a result of all of the above and, likely, other factors no one ’s aware of yet, average wave heights have also been rising steadily, by more than 25 percent between the 1960s and the 1990s. Planetary waves, massive sub- surface ocean waves that play a key role in creating the climate, are speed- ing up as well. The details about what a warmer planet will look like are still coming into focus, but there is one thing our environmental future will clearly hold: a lot of restless water.
If anyone needed a stark preview of the kinds of situations that a stormier, more liquid world might bring, it came on August 29, 2005, when a twenty-eight-foot storm surge from Hurricane Katrina overwhelmed the levees surrounding New Orleans, submerging 80 percent of the city and killing almost two thousand people. (A record-breaking twenty-seven tropical storms formed in the Caribbean that year.) Intense storms are destructive enough on their own, but when the waves hit land the potential for damage goes off the charts: more than 60 percent of the global population lives within thirty miles of a coastline. Then, of course, there are tsunamis, extraordinarily powerful waves caused by underwater earthquakes and landslides. Six years ago the world watched in horror as an estimated hundred-foot tsunami wave erased the Indonesian city of Banda Aceh, home to 250,000 people, in a matter of minutes. Japan, per- haps the most vulnerable nation, has lost entire coastal populations to the waves. In the geological time frame these sudden inundations are hardly isolated events. Over the course of history volatile seas have wiped cities, islands, and even civilizations from the map.
In Waveland, it was as though the scientists aboard the RSS Discov- ery had dropped through a secret trapdoor in a surly but typical North Atlantic storm and into the darkest heart of the ocean: a place where giant waves not only exist but flourish, a place so obscure to us that we ’re more familiar with the workings of subatomic particles. What is out there? What happens in that place? That ’s what Dr. Penny Holliday and her team wanted to learn. And so did I.
Five years ago I set out to understand giant waves through the eyes of the people who knew them most intimately: the mariners, for whom Shackleton’s “massive upheaval of the ocean” is a present and serious threat; the scientists, who are in a race against time to understand the intricate complexities of the sea in a rapidly changing world; and of course, the tow surfers. The members of this rarefied tribe—maybe fifty highly skilled riders across the globe—don’t just stumble across giant waves or steer their ships clear of them or consider them as equations on a computer screen, they seek them out. While everyone else goes to great lengths to avoid encountering a hundred-foot wave, these men want nothing more than to find one.
What kind of person drops in on Mother Nature ’s biggest  tantrums for fun? What drives him? And since he has gone into that dark heart of the ocean and felt its beat in a way that sets him apart, what does he know about this place that the rest of us don’t? My questions went on, but I knew one thing for sure: if you followed the wave experts into the waves, you would have an interesting—and turbulent—time.

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Wave 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 156 reviews.
hippypaul More than 1 year ago
National Geographic published a list in May of 2004 of the 100 Greatest Adventure Books of All time. It included such classics as The Worst Journey in the World, Into Thin Air, and Terra Incognita. I will take bets that The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks and Giants of the Ocean by Susan Casey ends up on their next list. This fine work is a skein of three interconnected stories, the dawning recognition in the scientific community that the "Giant Waves" long thought to be myth do indeed exist, a review of some of the most deadly effects of great waves, and the thrilling stories of the men and women who challenge the sea for sport. Strange and frightening events have happened at sea. In 1982 a 337-foot-high oil platform which was built to withstand 110-foot seas and 115-mile-per-hour winds capsized and sank close to instantly, killing all eight-four people on board. The author's investigations at Lloyd's of London reveaed an almost unnoticed list of maritime disasters. In the years from 1990 to mid-1997 a total of ninety-nine huge bulk carriers were lost. Then in a four-month period in the winter of 1997-98 twenty-seven vessels along with 645 people were lost in a single four month period. Weaving through this story is the growing belief by the scientific community that things are most likely to get worse before they get better. The effects of climatic change will be significant at sea. Effects that range from higher sea levels to more frequent tsunamis are likely as the increased weight of water makes the sea floor itself more prone to underwater landslides and collapses. In the mist of this change and concern came a startling announcement. In July 2001 a man named Bill Sharp speaking for a surf wear company issued a press release. It offered a prize of $500,000 to anyone who rode a 100 foot wave. This "Golden Carrot" created a huge surge in people attempting to ride big waves and brought many people into the extreme sport who had no business being there. Ms. Casey spends almost half of her book on the sport of surfing and its many manifestations and on the individual who choose the extreme end of the sport. She writes with power and with a deep understanding of the experience. She choose her narrators early and follows them through the period when the fall out from this challenge made a huge and often tragic impact on the sport of surfing. From start to finish this is a wild ride of a book that manages to be as educational as it is exciting. It is hard to review this book without falling into "my heart beat faster" or "I was on the edge of my chair" but it is in truth that good of a tale.
SusieReads More than 1 year ago
Don't take this book as your leisure reading on that next cruise or you will be constantly watching the horizon, wondering if that next freak wave is on its way. My reason for reading this book, subtitled In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks, and Giants of the Ocean, is that I wanted to learn more about huge waves, tsunamis, and ocean behavior. I was not so much interested in the surfers or their stories. However, not far into the book, that changed. The author talks with scientists studying the phenomenon and hangs out with the surfers who tackle these big waves. Despite the recent improvements in monitoring and measuring, the science still has a long way to go and the ocean is still wildly unpredictable. While the scientific information is interesting and enlightening, I really enjoyed getting a bit into the minds of the big-wave surfers who attempt challenges most of us would never even dream of trying. Some have paid with their lives. Many are part of a close knit pseudo-family, enduring the squabbles all families have but watching out for one another, often at the risk of their own lives. "If I scare myself once every day, I am a better person," he had said, "It helps to have that little jolt of perspective that life's fragile." (This quote is from an advance bound galley, so may have changed in the published edition.) The number of huge ships, especially the low-riding tankers, that just disappear without a trace and with little if any media coverage is amazing. Often these ships are registered to countries with loose maritime standards and crewed by under-trained third world natives. The book also contains information on maritime insurance, climate change, marine salvage companies, lots of people and organizations involved with the vagaries of oceanic behavior. I do wish the author had explained a few more of the surfing terms for the uninitiated, like I am. That is my only quibble with the book, and it is a minor one. All in all, the book is a fascinating read. I was given a copy of the bound galley by the publisher, for which I am very grateful.
Brad_the_nook_nerd More than 1 year ago
How many ways can you describe surfing and waves. Apparently not enough to keep my interest. The Wave is written with chapters alternating between the science behind giant waves and the pursuit of extreme surfing. I realize that Ms. Casey probably got interested through the surfing aspect as Laird Hamilton's neighbor in Hawaii, but I lost interest in the surfing aspects of the book after a few chapters. There are too many surfers too keep straight and the waves at some point all come down to the same characteristics--they are big and bad ass and you should be cautious even if you know what you are doing. However, I did find the science fascinating and scary at the same time. I would not recommend reading this during a cruise or a beach vacation as you may have bad dreams. I was traveling while reading this and decided I should not read it in coastal low lands as the images of what could happen are somewhat alarming. I would have enjoyed more science and less surfing with the surfing used to humanize the story. By the end, I found myself skimming to surfing sections.
HollowellTheForgottenRoom More than 1 year ago
The public has eagerly awaited another book by Susan Casey, acclaimed author of Devil's Teeth about great white sharks. Her newest book The Wave is equally astounding, and she earns her stripes as an adventure writer by swimming alongside and jetskiing behind big-wave surfer Laird Hamilton in his quest for monster waves. Casey examines giant waves through the eyes of elite surfers, scientists, and mariners. Through every lense, they are ominous. She describes her own emotional encounter with a huge wave in Mexico as a combination of "amazement and fear and humility," and she watches it progress in slow motion. Although she presses Laird Hamilton to describe his experience with monster waves, it is something beyond words. He just places his hand over his heart. Thank you, Susan Casey, for soundly dispelling the misconception that rouge waves are a rarity in the world's oceans. As the earth's climate heats up, they are becoming more common. Her prose is lyrical, peppered with colorful analogies and vivid contrasts, and it is laced with wry humor. The Wave is a ferocious nonstop ride of a book, and Casey has positioned herself as one of the world's best nature writers.
TheReadingWriter More than 1 year ago
The Wave is an outrageously good read, alternately thrilling and terrifying in turns. How many ways can a wave be described? As many ways as there are waves, though one suspects the Hawaiians had more words for the qualities of water than we do. While surfing plays the loudest chords in this book, one of the most resonant notes played was a description of Lituya Bay in Alaska, where epic waves scour the coastline. I went back and forth with the narrative to examine the included photographs again and again. Pictures help, but Casey's descriptions are harrowing. Reading (or writing!) about surfing could be a difficult endeavor. After all, unless one is on the wave, it is difficult to get a feel for its power. Even watching from shore doesn't give one any real feel for what is going on in the water. Casey brings us up close and personal, partly through her access to the men who ride in wild conditions, and partly through her use of language and imagery to describe different conditions: "Among big-wave connoisseurs, Ghost Tree wasn't especially beloved. It didn't break that often, and when it did it lunged open in a maniac sneer, spitting foam and tangled rafts of kelp." For me, I have an indelible picture of this vicious water, as in this different, but equally effective description of Mavericks: "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." As I read, I was reminded of Yvon Chouinard's autobiography Let My People Go Surfing because while the visionary businessman and adventurer lamented climate change and the disappearance of glaciers, he prepared for it by developing a bigger line of surfing products. If there is going to be more water everywhere, Chouinard suggests, that's where the business opportunities are for the outdoorsman. But even now we see that the biggest waves are becoming too much for the surfboards now made. Laird Hamilton, surfer extraordinaire, is trying new hydrofoil boards to take on the larger, more destructive waves being generated in oceans whose currents and temperatures are changing. This book is the equal of Born To Run, the word-of-mouth bestseller among athletes and couch potatoes alike. One doesn't have to do more than act like a sponge to enjoy this extraordinary book.
Mom_in_Tennis_Shoes More than 1 year ago
This was a great mix of wave science, climate change doomsday scenario, and extreme sports profile with big wave surfing pioneer Laird Hamilton as the main subject. Jon Krakauer is a much better author for this type of genre, but if you can slog your way through this rather dry tome, you will actually learn a lot about the sport and the growing interest in this division of oceanography called wave science, useful in that they are starting to use this science to predict cataclysmic tsunamis, e.g. the Indonesian tsunami of 2004 and the Japanese tsunami of 2011.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Thought I would learn something about rogue waves. And did learn a little more than what I have seen on the Nature Channel and the like. First chaper is the best of the book. Rest is mostly about how cool, buff, and brave surfers are and the stupid lenghts they will go to to ride a wave. Snore. Skimmed the last half of the book. I suggest skimming the entire thing. That way you won't feel like you wasted your time. Give it two stars because one of the surfers owns a couple of rat terriers. Now that takes guts.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Great Book - Normally only read great "who-dunnit" books, but this was recommended and I wasn't able to put it down. Filled with great stories, scary facts of what's to come and what is out there, and Ms. Casey weaves it together seamlessly.
Katyperk More than 1 year ago
Susan Casey's interest in all things science are evident in this book about waves and the book evolves into a fascinating story of water and physics and the daring required to challenge nature. I have great admiration for the "water man" as well as the ability to understand and know your own limitations. Life is Good and its not about what you have, its how you live and respect the world around you.
windsurfer113 More than 1 year ago
Susan blends the extreme surfing world with the scientific community, alternating between descriptions of dangerous rides on huge waves and scientific investigations of rogue waves. There is a wealth of information in her book, amid predictions of tsunamis and ship disappearances to come. The daredevil (almost suicidal) surfers are exciting (but crazy), and she develops their personalities to help the reader understand what makes them take such chances with their lives. The beautiful but lethal waves are something to imagine, and the surfer community and the photographers are depicted as a close knit community of survivors, always trying to outdo the other as daredevils. Climate change, it is believed, will bring more huge, dangerous waves that can swallow ships without warning. Scientists are trying to find how they develop and give warnings.
Atthebeach More than 1 year ago
I was blown away by the deep, thorough research Casey did on the oceans and those who study them, test them, challenge them, play in them. She made this scientific book read like a thriller. Hundred foot waves, freighters going down every week, surfers zooming all over to ride bigger and bigger waves, researchers risking their lives trying to learn what causes these phenomena, and the economics behind it all. She pulled together interested parties from many walks of life and various resources to explain what's happening out there. And did it in a way that held my attention constantly until the end. What a fascinating endeavor!
comfortably_numb More than 1 year ago
Best book on "rogue waves" I've found. Good story but not to technical...
Iora More than 1 year ago
A riveting read from page one. I'm left with enormous respect for the mysteries & mysticism of the ocean's energy. Important for the time we now live.
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some historical and recent startling facts about wave caused disasters at sea and shore then detailed explanation about giant wave formation, contributing bottom currents and contours, and wave heights attained by the near shore surfable waves and the personalities of those expert enough to ride them. A fun read for any ocean voyager and especially surfer.
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She spotted a strange red berry with white and black speckles. It smelled spicy. Seastorm what is this? Ive never ever Ever EVER seen it before!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Written clearly. Thought about this book for weeks after i finished it.
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