This is a fascinating account of all we know of waves, how ships have been swallowed by them, how scientists map them and seek to discover the origins of rogue waves, how waves can potentially sweep away whole coastlines, how tsunamis travel huge distances to wreak havoc without warning, and finally, how surfers embrace them, seeking out mammoth waves all over the world just for the experience.
Although author Susan Casey covers scientific aspects of waves, it is the surfer's tale that predominates. A surfer herself, she traveled extensively with some of the world's best-known extreme surfers such as the legendary Laird Hamilton of Hawaii. Be warned that the surfer's lingua franca is pretty salty and is not toned down one bit for the reader. Yet, when you look at the book's photos of surfers hurtling down the crashing, curling, roaring waves, you can almost understand the inability of ordinary language to express those breathtaking moments. Casey comes to understand that what drives them to risk their lives for thrills is just that: nothing can make one feel more alive than to experience that exhilaration.
Surfers like Laird Hamilton live and breathe waves, and understand them in a way a scientist never can, feeling and studying them as the Polynesians did in order to navigate long ocean journeys. "They looked at a wave and saw a complete story "Hamilton says, "They could see the organization even within the chaos."
There are many remarkable moments in this story, such as how Hamilton related the story of his encounter with his biggest wave: "It was like you stopped knowing how to measure." His estimate, rather scientifically based, knowing how many feet per second it takes a wave to drop-(he was counting)-was a wave in excess of 120 feet high. The author expressed regret that no one got a photo of it, and how Hamilton responded was a true testament to the power of experience and living in the present: "The great thing, the whole irony of that day was that there are no pictures, which is perfect. That one was for us. We have it. No one can take that away from us...We have it, right here," he said, touching his chest.
In every age, man seems to think he is invincibly clever in overcoming nature's vagaries. Yet time and time again, nature proves him wrong, and this is what you come away with at this book's end-there is no end, only our own emotions ebbing and flowing like the tides. Roll with it, and maybe, you won't try to "win" at life, you will just live it, as a surfer does.
Recommended by Betsy Schroeder