Synopsis (Goodreads): 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 100-foot wave.
When a friend enthusiastically recommended I read this, I agreed with a certain degree of skepticism. Book recommendations for me have always hit-and-miss – there have been books recommended by beloved friends that I just could not get through (which leads to the minefield of issues when it comes to feedback or the “did you enjoy it?” question) so suffice to say there are less than a handful of people whose recommendations I will actually follow through on.
This book, however…to paraphrase the author (and the cover of Surfer magazine) – oh my God. But first, two little titbits of information that I feel are relevant:
- I am hypersensitive to sea-sickness
- I recently came back from Antarctica – a trip that entails a ship-crossing of the infamous Drake Passage (2 days either way)
Ok…now that the confessions are out of the way, why are they relevant you ask? The answer is in the title – let’s just say that if I had read this book before my trip to the 7th continent, it may have never happened. In pursuit of the rogues, freaks and giants of the ocean indeed!
Don’t get me wrong. I love being by the sea – oceans are wondrous places containing a wealth of beauty…they are also full of terrors, some of which we don’t fully understand, and which this book so aptly demonstrates. They have the ability to swallow you up like you never existed, and all it takes is an instant…underestimate the ocean and it will kill you. I learnt to dive because life under water has always fascinated me, and I wanted to try and overcome this whole seasickness thing I have going on. But diving itself taught me how fragile we humans are when placed in an underwater environment – nature has a way of stripping away layers of your ego one at a time and making you feel very humble. Antarctica demonstrated that very clearly…and this book drove the point home.
Susan Casey opens with a scene from the North Sea where research vessel RSS Discovery is caught in a terrifying storm that for 5 days hits the ship with waves of up to 60 feet, with only luck and the skill of the captain saving it from a watery grave. From there she weaves a fascinating narrative that oscillates between outlining what scientists and other people who work with the sea know about how the ocean works (scarily little) and telling the story of a group of big-wave surfers who actively seek out these giant waves.
Surfing is a sport I knew very little about but after reading this book I have come away with a whole new understanding and appreciation for this community of people – just the list of injuries that they sustain had me constantly wincing at the dangers they expose themselves to just for those rare moments of zen when they catch the perfect wave.
In contrast, the destructive power of waves is also given ample coverage through stories set in Lituya Bay, Alaska where a 1,760 foot tsunami was recorded, through the stories of salvage experts in South Africa, and also from interviews with some of the scientists who routinely spend weeks at a time seaborne to test, measure and investigate how our oceans are changing.
Overall a thrilling read on a subject I’d never have thought to read about (thanks Mario!). WAVES. Who knew…