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Book Review: The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks, and Giants of the Ocean by Susan Casey

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In The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks, and Giants of the Ocean, Susan Casey takes the reader on a journey of excitement and awe. She exposes them to monster waves 80 feet in height or larger. These behemoths wreak havoc on shipping, deep-sea oil rigs and coast lines. Yet, surfers gladly risk their bodies and lives trying to ride them.

The Wave looks at the increasing occurrence of giant waves, and their increasing size, their increase in economic damage, and more importantly, loss, of life. She explains the various kinds of waves including rogues, freaks and tsunamis through the eyes of people who live along the coastline. She spends a lot of time with surfers that ride them.

A 40-foot wave represents the maximum size a person can physically surf without mechanical help. Surfers can’t swim fast enough to catch and mount a bigger wave. In Casey’s words, “Anything bigger is simply moving too fast; trying to catch a sixty-foot wave by windmilling away on your stomach is like trying to catch the subway by crawling.”

She goes on to write, “… even if you could catch it, there would be no way to ride it. Too much water rushes back up the face of a giant wave as it crests, sucking you, the hapless human (not enough momentum), and your board (too much friction) over the falls.”

A 40-foot wave is equivalent in height to a three to four story building moving forward at warp speed, and collapsing when it hits shallower water. Surfers slide down the face of the wave, and hopefully get clear before the giant wave collapses on them. At the bottom of the wave lie rocks, coral reefs and crevices to trap, grind and smash unlucky surfers.

To catch the bigger wavers, a jet ski tows the surfer into the wave. It also provides a means of rescue after the surfer wipes out. This is known as tow-in surfing, and was made famous and founded by extreme surfer Laird Hamilton.

Surfing a 40-footer off the North Shore of Hawaii contains danger, but surfing 60, 80, or 100-foot waves screams danger. It also brings a major adrenaline rush. A 100-foot wave would be similar to surfing down the vertical side of an eight-story building that is about to collapse on top of you.

In The Wave Casey wants to understand why big waves are getting bigger and occur more often, and invites us to go along for the adventure. She provides the reader with some data, but not too much. It is not a dissertation or a travel log. Instead, she keeps the reader poised on the edge of his or her seat with tales of extreme surfing, shipwrecks and tsunamis around the world.

Casey follows Laird Hamilton and others as they surf around the Pacific Ocean catching monstrous waves. Hamilton founded tow-in surfing, and he knows waves. His stunning wave riding appears on YouTube, surfing magazines and surf movies.

Susan Casey, editor and chief of O, The Oprah Magazine, also served as creative director of Outdoor Magazine. She lives part-time in Oahu, just down the road from Laird Hamilton. She exhibits good physical conditioning, and she needed to be in order to collect research material for her book. She swam in the ocean with surfers and underwater photographers in turbulent seas, no place for a couch potato. Laird bought into the book giving her access to the surfer community. The Wave provides a view of the surfer life style, and the dangers associated with giant waves.

Her surfing escapades take us to Hawaii’s Spreckelsville and Jaws as well as Tahiti’s, Teahupoo. At Hookipa Beach Park, Hawaii,Casey describes the waves.

“An offshore wind lifted the waves as they charged toward the shore, holding them open, it seemed, just a little bit longer, letting them growl and spit and lunge for an extra second or two. They were double overheads, aligned in perfect formation. Instead of closing out suddenly in crashing clumps of whitewater, the peeled neatly from top to bottom. White feathers of spray streamed off their peaks.”

From Hawaii and Tahiti, she takes us to the west coast of North America, and down into Baja. Winter storms out of Alaska create huge waves on Hawaii’s, North Shore. However, under the right conditions, they also create big waves along the coast of Oregon and Northern California. Two prime locations for extreme waves are Ghost Tree and Mavericks. The dangerous conditions, cold water, rocky shorelines, and great white sharks at these locations often result in injury and sometimes death.

In addition to the surfing, Casey interviews ship captains, salvagers, scientists and insurers trying to understand rogue wave action. She takes us to Lloyd’s of London, where they have been insuring ships and ports from disasters since 1688. Readers get to view its headquarters on One Lime Street.

At Lloyd’s, she interviewed Neil Roberts, senior executive specializing in marine activity. He provided her with numerous tales of shipwrecks in recent history caused by rogue waves with sizes ranging from 50-feet to over a 100-feet. Between 1990 and 1997, ninety-nine bulk carriers were lost. In the winter of 1997-98, 27 additional ships sank. Big waves not only have affect shipping, they have also impact the cruise industry. Casey describes in detail the harrowing challenges of rogue waves for modern ships.

Ocean storms speeding across the ocean generally create giant waves suitable for surfing. Waves such as tsunamis occur as a result of geological activity from earthquakes and volcanoes. Tsunamis cause the greatest destruction and death among all the waves.

To help the reader understand tsunamis, earthquakes, floods and hurricanes, Casey visits the University College of London to interview Bill McGuire, an expert in geophysical hazards. He ties it all together for Casey over a pint of beer.

Most North Americans probably think of tsunamis as something that happens only to islands, but Casey shows us the West Coast gets hit on a regular basis. Lituya Bay, Alaska near Glacier Bay National Park suffers ravaging tsunamis. The Tlingit (KLIN-kit), Native Americans, tell many stories of unexplained disappearances and destroyed villages possibly caused by waves. In the 1700’s Russian and French explorers document killer waves sweeping down the narrow mouth of the Bay. In 1854, a 395-foot wave scoured the hillside of trees and vegetation. The most recent one occurred in 1958. It was 1,740 feet tall, and flew across the bay at 100 miles per hour.

Crescent City straddles the California and Oregon border. A tsunami pummeled it in 1964. Four waves hit the City. A 9.2 earthquake near Prince William Sound, Alaska triggered them. “But it was the fourth wave that delivered the knockout punch, winding up by draining the harbor, and then rushing back at the land, coming in as a malignant black wall studded with logs, metal, plastic, glass, cars, trucks, home appliances, junk, treasures, bodies.”

Shortly before Casey finished her book. Indonesia suffered a devastating tsunami in 2004 killing over 150,000 people. Since the book has been published, Japan, on March 11, 2011, suffered a knockout punch.



Earthquakes caused both these tsunamis resulting in massive deaths and destruction. The numbers are not in yet regarding Japan’s disaster. Crescent City harbor also received damage again from an eight-foot tsunami spawned by the same earth quake.

Casey wrote about an important topic. She keeps the reader’s interest, yet, she never strays far from the danger and power associated with big waves. She makes the reader want to get off the couch, and take part in the action. She starts out by jumping off a cliff in Hawaii to snorkel “Jaws” on a slow day. She’s in the surf with photographers on a sixty-foot wave at Teahupoo, and ends by riding a jet ski over an eighty-foot wave. Kudos to Casey for writing a good book on a topic many professors make boring.

Japan Tsunami 2011, AP Photo

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About Bruce G. Smith

I'm a part time writer with a few articles published here and there. In addition to writing, I'm into nature and architectural photography.
  • As of March 17th, the official death toll from the tsunami and earthquake in Japan stands at 6,548 with 10,354 missing. Although as one official stated, the true figure may never be known. In some cases entire villages and towns disappeared. “If no one knows they’re missing, no one can add them to the list of missing.”

    Sad very sad,

  • Sion Milosky died surfing the Mavericks in Northern California, March 16, 2011. The waves were 50 footers. It was late in the afternoon, and he surfed several good waves that day.