The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks, and Giants of the Ocean by Susan Casey (Doubleday, 2010)
Reviewed by Michelle Theall
I opened Susan Casey’s new book, The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks, and Giants of the Ocean, and read a few chapters before bed. I woke at 2am drenched in sweat, convinced that a four-story wall of water had swallowed me whole. The Wave is that good.
I do not surf or sea kayak or sail. I’m land-locked, and while I like to look at the ocean, watch dolphins, and run on sandy beaches, I am not a water girl. Which is not to say that I don’t envy them. I do. I envy Casey, who is driven to explore waves and sharks (her first book was The Devil’s Teeth: A True Story of Obsession and Survival Among America’s Great White Sharks), completely submerged in her work. Casey’s obvious curiosity, respect, and passion for her subjects, allow readers like me to explore worlds I avoid with the knowledge that a veteran journalist is steering the ship.
The Wave uses historic oceanic events, mariners, big wave surfers, photographers and videographers, and scientists to separate myth, legend, and hypothetic assertions from factual data regarding monster waves, the kind that Casey describes by saying, “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.”
Even with writing like that, The Wave could have become a dry examination of physics and weather phenomenon jargon and lost its mass appeal. But it doesn’t—mostly because Casey spends a good seventy percent of the book with iconic big-wave surfer, Laird Hamilton, and his posse as they Jet Ski “tow surf” into “Mother Nature’s biggest tantrums” for fun. Laird is as much a freak of nature as the rogue waves that Casey writes about—but in a good way. He’s a chiseled water god with unmatched athletic ability and a purist’s reverence for his sport.
A bit of subplot in the book comes thanks to the 2004 Billabong XXL and its offer of $100,000 to the first rider to surf a hundred-foot-wave. The prize money draws rabid amateurs, creating unsafe situations for everyone. As Dave Kalama, one of Hamilton’s surfing partners laments to Casey, “They’re going straight to the Indy 500 as soon as they’ve gotten their drivers’ licenses.” Of course, surfers will devour The Wave, but so will land lovers—in large part because Casey gives readers an inside look at the psychology and sub-culture of surfers and their obsession with a force they cannot control and that constantly evolves. As Hamilton explains, “Every wave’s different on the same day…it’s never the same mountain.”
If I rave about Casey, it’s because she has somehow been able to make something as simple and common as our oceans’ waves into a riveting 326-page book, without describing water in the same way twice. Take a deep breath, clear your schedule for the day, and dive in.