Niche genres have always attracted my reading attention. Recently, I’ve been drawn to books that cross investigative journalism with a healthy dose of personal memoir. The result, like Susan Orlean’s The Library Book or Susan Casey’s The Wave, is a satisfying blend of research, interviews, anecdotes, recollections, and first-hand experiences. The reader of such books actually participates alongside the writer, tracking the various explorations, digressions, findings, and interpretations. Not long ago I reviewed The Library Book for “Bookin’ with Sunny,” wondering to myself how an author could make a book about libraries so utterly fascinating. Now I’ve just finished reading The Wave and am wondering anew. How did Susan Casey write such a readable, impossible-to-put-down book about such a mundane subject as ocean waves?
As she explains in her “Introduction,” mariners have always speculated about the existence of giant waves. For centuries, ships have mysteriously disappeared. Since no survivors live to describe what happened, mythology is left to attest to their fates. Only in the past few decades have satellite observations, advanced instrumentation, and sophisticated computer modeling shown that rogue waves can and do appear without warning. They stem from a sort of ocean chaos theory phenomena that can upend even the most stable ship and tilt it into a watery grave in a matter of seconds.
Casey begins onboard the RRS Discovery, which was headed toward Iceland on a scientific mission when rogue waves over a hundred feet high plunged out of nowhere. Because the Discovery in the year 2000 was outfitted with scientific calibrators and sensors, its scientists were able to prove what seafarers had long speculated. Ocean monsters—giant waves—actually do exist. Casey devotes the remainder of The Wave to exploring the realities of this heretofore-unexplained natural wonder.
Part of her book puts the science into layman’s terms. She attends oceanic conferences and talks with the men and women who are investigating waves. They explain how tectonics, earthquakes, ocean floor terrain, wind, and various inexplicable factors contribute to the sudden appearance of walls of water. Other chapters investigate how and where so many ships have vanished. Today, the most frequent victims are huge tankers and cargo ships supposedly built to endure adverse weather conditions but are too bulky to maneuver in wild seas successfully. Casey even goes to Lloyds of London in her quest to understand the thousands of claims they have insured and the uncertainty of ocean shipping, even now.
The heart of The Wave, however, centers on the men who roam the world in search of the ultimate wave, the extreme surfers who thrive on the testosterone high a man can get from riding giant cascades. A surfer herself, although not an extreme connoisseur (a woman’s physique makes extreme surfing almost impossible), Casey knows most of the cadre of rogue wave riders personally. She talks with them, gets to know their families, follows them from Hawaii to Tahiti to California to Baja. She shares their successes and their failures, their kaleidoscopic miracle rides, and their dangerous wipe-outs. Every extreme chapter crackles with tension and energy. This reader at least found herself cheering every participant (while pondering what drives these surfers to pursue such life-threatening escapades). Casey understands the life-style in ways totally foreign to me, and she communicates the very real sense of community that permeates the hearts and minds of the extreme devotees.
Yes, a book about ocean waves can be as gripping as any thriller. I recommend Susan Casey’s The Wave to anyone who wants new information, new experiences, and new insights, accompanied by heart-pounding flashes of human morality in the face of natural forces. – Ann Ronald
Also available by Susan Casey: Dolphins: Voices in the Ocean; Voices in the Ocean; The Devil’s Teeth