I read Susan Casey’s first book, The Devil’s Teeth, and quite liked it but intensely disliked her (read my review to see why). In The Wave she takes a similar approach to the one used in The Devil’s Teeth: inserting herself wholesale into the lives of her subjects (big wave surfers, wave scientists, researchers and the like). Fortunately the results this time around are not as personally and professionally devastating to her victims as her efforts in the Farallon Islands were.
Sailors have for generations spoken in hushed tones of freak waves – monstrous creations of the sea, sometimes over 30 metres high, that defy almost all human efforts to construct craft that will weather them. Every year several ships disappear without a trace, and the suspected culprit is giant rogue waves. It’s only fairly recently that technology and chance have collaborated to allow us to measure these waves, confirming the oral histories and suspicions of those who have spent most of their lives on the sea.
On 1 January 1995 the Draupner oil drilling platform in the North Sea off Norway’s coast was hit by a wave over 25 metres high. This was the first time that a wave of this size was measured by scientific instruments. Since then, wave science has burgeoned as a discipline, but the mechanics of what causes these waves is still poorly understood.
Casey attends a wave science conference in Hawaii, and speaks to oceangoers who have seen or experienced these enormous waves. She visits Lloyds of London, insurance brokers who have records of lost ships going back hundreds of years. It emerges from her enquiries that scientists believe that instances of really large waves are increasing; the amount of energy in the earth’s system is increasing (possibly – or probably – due to global warming) and storms are getting stronger, with commensurately larger waves.
Most of the book’s focus, however, is on big wave surfers: the individuals who actually seek out and ride these massive forces of nature. Laird Hamilton, considered the best big wave surfer in the world, actually takes the author down the face of a giant wave on a jetski. Hamilton lives in Hawaii, and travels to Tahiti to surf Teahupo’o fairly regularly. He and his fellow surfers and friends provide much insight about how it feels – physically and emotionally – to ride a wave that is so much taller, heavier, and more powerful than you are.
Dungeons in Cape Town (off Hout Bay) gets a brief passing mention as one of the locations these surfers visit on their annual pilgrimage around the globe. I have made a note to get myself on a viewing boat next time the wave makes its appearance! Big wave surfing typically takes place where a submerged reef is positioned in such a place as to cause swells of a particular height and direction to break. Often the locations look quite innocuous when conditions are normal, but they are characterised by ferocious walls of water when the surf is up.
There’s a BBC feature with Casey discussing the book here. There’s an interview with Casey and Hamilton located here. Hamilton strikes me as a singularly special individual, and I breathed a sigh of relief when he escaped the writing of this book with his livelihood intact.