Not on my bucket list

I’ve been trying to think of the best way to explain the effect this week’s book had on me, and I think it’s this: Over the weekend, I came very close to watching Blue Crush 2.

In the end I didn’t (True Blood prevailed) but the point is the thought was there. And ultimately, isn’t the biggest testament to a nonfiction book whether or not, in the end, it leaves you wanting to know more?

Actually, in the days after I finished Susan Casey’s The Wave, I found myself doing all sorts of additional research: looking up YouTube videos of surfer Laird Hamiltonβ€”who Casey interviews at length throughout the bookβ€”reading articles on wave research, and ironically, preparing my apartment for an imminent hurricane. It seems once I started learning about the world of extreme weather, the topic became all but unavoidable.

I guess I should give you a little context. The Wave is a nonfiction book, true, but it’s the kind of nonfiction book that immersed its author; for every interview with a world-renowned scientist, there’s a long afternoon spent a mile offshore, watching tow surfers take on 40-foot waves from the back of a lurching fishing boat. Susan Casey even moved to Hawaii for the duration of her research, and the book includes a photo of her gamely hanging on to a Jet Ski just a few minutes before Hamilton took her down the face of Jaws, one of the most impressive (and terrifying) waves in the world. It’s this immersion, in addition to Casey’s impressive research, that makes The Wave not only accessible, but riveting. In the vein of Mary Roach (my aforementioned favorite nonfiction author), Casey finds a way to bestow upon her readers the enthusiasm she seems to share with the subjects (scientists, surfers, etc.) of her story.

The Wave covers a broad spectrum (wave pun!) of oceanography, focusing primarily on the surfers who pursue the world’s most dangerous waves, and the scientists studying them (the waves, not the surfers). Threaded throughout the book are both camps’ understanding of rogue, or freak waves, the kind that level towns, destroy ocean liners and exist despite the fact that they’re mathematically inexplicable. Casey’s transitions from the adventures of the world’s greatest surfers to the findings of the world’s greatest oceanographers are never confusing; rather, it seems to take both perspectives to impart upon readers the enormity of the subject. A surfer who’s had a near-death experience with a fifty-footer and a scientist who’s seen the hull of a boat ripped clean off by one have different outlooks on the ocean, save one unifying reaction: deep  respect.

It didn’t hurt that I read The Wave in rather…appropriate conditions. I started the book on the beach a few weeks ago, where I’d take a break from reading only to look up at the very things (admittedly much smaller when they’re only fifty feet offshore) I was reading about. And I finished The Wave this weekend, huddled on my couch while tropical-storm-induced rain and wind pounded against my (now perpetually leaking) windows.

Indeed, although Casey spends plenty of her book on the people for whom big waves are considered fun, she also touches on the big picture, specifically the implications of rising water temperatures, changing currents, bigger waves, stronger winds and scarier storms. Her book couldn’t come at a better time: It went to press in between the tsunami in Indonesia and the more recent tragedy in Japan. All of these wave- and wind-induced natural disasters have more people paying attention to a traditionally underplayed field of research, and it’s hard to read The Wave without thinking I may one day see my life flash before my eyes as a tsunami slams into New York City.

But despite its scientific elements (i.e. physics, which I came very close to failing it high school) the book isn’t unapproachable. Two of The Wave’s most moving moments come not from objective relaying of the world’s biggest wave tragedies (at least one ship a week disappears in the open ocean) but from the personal experiences of those who experience big waves firsthand. One is from Laird Hamilton, whose memory of saving his friend’s life (and leg, which was sliced open by a surfboard) during a rough fall brought tears to his (and my) eyes. The other is from Casey herself, whose description of the first time she personally witnessed a 70-foot wave left me slightly breathless. I’m not much for religion, but after the encounter, Casey remembers something Laird Hamilton once said to her, which in turn resonated with me: “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.”


I’ve always been a bit agoraphobic, so the ocean and I have a limited relationship: I hang out with it once or twice a year, and stay as close to the shore as I can without getting hit in the shins by kids on boogie boards.

After reading The Wave, I can’t help but feel like I have the right idea. The thought that some beaches sports waves as tall as five-story buildings gives me goosebumps, and the knowledge that there are people in this world whose first reaction is “I want to get on that, preferably while strapped to a large piece of wood” makes me slightly nauseous.

It should come as no surprise that this book begs for visual supplements. There is a section of amazing photography in the middle, to which I kept referring (if I had to make any criticism of The Wave, it would be to include more photos), as if to remind myself of the magnitude of the topic at hand. But I also spent a few hours this weekend watching videos of waves, and of people riding them. I’m including two (below) that serve as a good overview: The first is of Laird Hamilton’s December 2000 ride at Teahupoo, and the second is a more general clip from Hawaii’s Jaws, shot from far enough away that you can see how big and (in my opinion) freaking terrifying these waves are. Having spent the better part of Sunday doing it, I can say that watching surfing videos is a lovely way to spend an afternoon. But reading The Wave is an even better way to spend a week.

TITLE: The Wave
AUTHOR: Susan Casey
PAGES: 396 (in paperback)
ALSO WROTE: The Devil’s Teeth
SORTA LIKE: Blue Crush meets Mary Roach
FIRST LINE: “The clock read midnight when the hundred-foot wave hit the ship, rising from the North Atlantic out of the darkness.”

Laird Hamilton at Teahupoo.

Several surfers at Jaws.

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