In the middle of a stormy sea, with waves crashing all around and the wind whipping itself into a frenzy, one wave looms larger than the rest. It is taller, sleeker and more frightening. It seems to arise from nowhere and moves differently from all the waves around it. And when it moves and then crumbles back into the ocean, its damage is greater than other waves as well. It is a rogue wave, and it has long been a thing of myth and legend. But as author Susan Casey learned, there are those who have long attested to its power and those who are keen on understanding it. THE WAVE follows Casey as she travels around the world over a five-year period in order to learn about, describe and perhaps even witness a giant wave.
Most of us cannot imagine truly big waves, at least not from a close-up perspective. Big waves, say 40 feet or more, are dangerous, rumbling, powerful beasts that can damage watercrafts and shoreline. They are also the waves pursued by the world's top surfers who have honed their skills in order to be able to ride the biggest and best waves. But the waves that Casey was in search of dwarf those of the average oceanic storm or rough break. These waves tower over the others at 100 feet tall and even much taller. Recently, because of better technologies that are able to record them, giant waves are finally being studied, and scientists are learning some surprising things. These rogue waves are unpredictable (something sailors and surfers have known for a very long time), and they move in a non-linear fashion that is different from regular waves. Giant waves can destroy the biggest of ships and may be responsible for many shipwrecks and deaths every year.
In order to understand waves of all kinds, Casey hung out with the scientists studying them, the sailors who work in them and the surfers who obsess about them. All these groups shared with her knowledge and wisdom about the oceans and their waves, but all admit there is mystery as well: there is a lot we don't know about how the ocean works, and rogue waves are still not really understood.
Casey does a good job of translating the scientific lingo of the scientists for the non-scientific reader, and her retellings of tales of giant waves are dynamic and compelling. But she really shines when she describes the ocean itself: its power and hypnotic qualities, its beauty and danger. Of a wave in Mexico, she writes, “...the ocean let it hang out and show off and strut for an extra few beats, its crest feathered with white spray and its face booby-trapped with boils, bumps and turbulent eddies. And as the wave hung in the sky, suspended between beauty and fury, those seconds stretched like elastic, like a terrible void into which all things could be swallowed up forever.”
While the waves are the star of the book, those in pursuit of them are equally fascinating. Most interesting (to readers and obviously to Casey as well) are the big-wave surfers who risk life and limb to make contact with the pure wave energy of the earth's oceans. Their stories are fun to read and often jaw-dropping. THE WAVE begins to slow down and even lull a bit in the last third, but by the end, Casey brings back the excitement. Overall, this is a fine adventure about a sensational and unique subject.
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on May 31, 2011