Monday, November 1, 2010

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

Big waves.  Really, really big waves.  Surfers yearn for them.  Ships run from them.  Scientists study them.  Not that long ago such big waves were thought to be exaggerations or hallucinations, the 'big fish' stories of deluded mariners.  Of course, most of the sailors who saw such waves didn't live to tell the story.  Even Shackleton, who encountered such a wave when exploring the Northwest Passage, was not believed when he described the size of wave which hit his boat - a wave whose foam he originally thought was a cloud because it was so high in the sky. 

But today we know such waves exist.  Science has recorded many such rogues waves - waves that are two to four times higher than the surrounding swell - but the physics still can't completely explain them.  The largest wave ever recorded was in Lituya Bay in Alaska, a stupendous 1,079 feet.  The current theory is that waves behave, in part, like light waves, part energy part wave.  And somehow energy concentrates into certain waves which then end up much higher than the waves around them. 

The Wave takes us to visit the scientists who study these waves, and the sailors and captains who sail through them, and to Lloyd's of London who insure these ships.  Almost two ships a week are lost at sea.  Some disappear without a trace, without even time to send an SOS.  The book posits that the most likely cause of such mysterious losses is a huge unexpected rogue wave.  Picture yourself as a captain of a ship valiantly struggling against 50-foot seas.  All of a sudden, out of the blue, comes a huge 150-foot wave.  It hardly seems fair!  Understanding of these waves gets even more important as we build more offshore oil platforms and wind farms.

Although there's lots in this book about shipping, and the science of big waves, the heart revolves around surfers.  This is a breed of person I had not been familiar with, and they're drawn in fascinating detail by Susan Casey, particularly Laird Hamilton, the greatest surfer of them all.  These men aspire to surf a 100-foot wave.  Think of it - that's ten stories high!

They've invented a new method of surfing to challenge these big waves.  It's called tow-surfing, where a jet ski tows the surfer into position for a big wave, because you can't possibly paddle fast enough for these big waves.  It's also handy to have the jet ski there to rescue you if you fall in such a monstrous wave.

There are companies which develop sophisticated algorithms to predict where the biggest waves are coming.  When they broadcast news of super waves, the surfers jump onto planes to head off to Jaws or Hookipa or Egypt in Maui, or Ghost Tree or Mavericks in California, or even to be dropped by helicopter at Cortes Bank, a spot in the ocean far off California.  You see, these waves have names, a sort of 'family name' for all the waves that roll in at that particular place.  These surfers know the individual characteristics of these waves, and they're all different.  They want to catch them at their biggest.

And there are photographers who specialize in photographing these magnificent and beautiful feats and rush to those same airports.  When the forecast predicts especially big waves, these surfers all hop on a plane, in a frenzy to be there when the big waves break.  They often head out to the waves after exhausting travel, little sleep - but lots of adrenalin.  The area is crowded with would-be heroes, many of whom are ill-equipped to be out there.  And none of whom can resist the allure.  A picture develops of men who only feel truly alive when they're on that wave.  And they're not young men - they're in their 40s and have wives and families.  With battered bodies.  Very battered bodies.

Susan Casey, the author of The Wave, is a Canadian who's pursued a publishing career,and  is currently the editor of O, The Oprah Magazine.  But she's worked in the past on the publishing side on the book Into Thin Air.  This doesn't surprise me because that book had some of the same riveting elements as the wave.

Casey herself is a surfer.  Her travels for this book involved some pretty hair-raising encounters with dangerous situations, just watching these surfers.  I saw her speak at a Literary Breakfast in Toronto and she was a captivating speaker.  I had dreams of enticing her to speak at TEDxIBYork, but alas she felt she was too busy to make the trip.

The Wave is definitely a book worth reading.

No comments: