Book review: ‘The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks, and Giants of the Ocean’

Special to the Los Angeles Times

Susan Casey’s new book on waves and the people who love them begins in January 2000 with scientists aboard the 295-foot British research ship Discovery trying to collect data from the North Atlantic.

But the ocean threw a fit, heaving itself into massive waves far exceeding predictive models and threatening to destroy the Discovery. After a week of bouncing around like an egg poaching in boiling water, the ship’s captain finally was able to hide behind the Hebrides Islands from waves that topped 100 feet — one of the first scientific confirmations that monster waves do exist, even though computer modeling programs say they can’t.

The drama and implications of that trip propel Casey’s book, “The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks, and Giants of the Ocean,” which is much better than its redundant title suggests.

Framed in two tracks, the book dives deeply into the world of top-level surfers who chase massive breaks around the globe and less deeply into the realm of scientists seeking to understand one of the biggest mysteries of the natural world: How do waves work? And given their history of destruction, what the does the future hold for millions of people living dangerously close to sea level?

For years, Casey reports, wave scientists toiled in obscurity, the shirttail cousins of the sexier lines of scientific inquiry. But with global warming changing the nature of the oceans, and the devastating tsunami that raked south Asia in 2004, interest in giant waves has picked up. Funding has become available. And wave research is now (relatively) hip.

Yet it is still an infant science as researchers struggle to figure out how wind, currents, water density, gravity and other still-unrecognized influences come together to create one of the most powerful forces on earth. As Casey writes, previous mathematical formulas failed to account for the real-world existence of 100-foot rogue waves suddenly emerging from 60-foot seas.

“Both at the surface and below, it seems, everything is in constant flux,” writes Casey, editor of “O” magazine and author of the bestselling “The Devil’s Teeth: A True Story of Obsession and Survival Among America’s Great White Sharks.” “When it comes to making a wave, so many factors come into play that it is hard to know where any one thing ends and another begins.”

The consequences are dire. Scores of ships are lost at sea each year, some sinking so quickly their doomed crews are unable to send distress signals. More and more, experts are looking at freak waves as the culprits.

Casey does a commendable job of surveying the broader problems confronting wave studies. But she falls short on the science itself. It would have been a stronger book had she worked harder at translating what little is known about these waves rather than just saying it’s complicated and moving on.

Her heart clearly lies with the men (and it is nearly exclusively male territory) whose sole mission in life seems to be riding some of these monsters. Casey, herself a swimmer, focuses on Laird Hamilton, the lord of “tow-in surfing,” and his friends as they seek out and surf down the faces of moving mountains. The waves travel so quickly surfers can’t paddle fast enough to catch them, so they launch themselves down the face from tow ropes attached to quick-moving Jet Skis. It’s as dangerous as it sounds, with death just a misread-wave away.

The object question, of course, is why do people do this? Casey talks a bit about the potent mixes of body chemicals, such as neuropeptides that are produced “when faced with high-intensity situations such as falling in love or narrowly escaping disaster.” Then there are the endorphins that create the “runner’s high,” and oxytocin, which delivers a sense of bliss.

“That is to say, one can easily get hooked,” Casey writes. “And it’s not like the person who wants to ride a hundred-foot wave is looking for low-grade stimulation to begin with.”

Casey rides along on Jet Skis with Hamilton and his pals off Maui to experience the break at a site known as Jaws for the biting intensity of the waves that form during specific swells; Tahiti’s Teahupo’o; Mavericks off California’s Half Moon Bay, and the Cortes Bank some 100 miles off Ensenada, Mexico.

The surfer stories are compelling and wonderfully detailed, but the men she follows around appear to lack the vocabulary to describe their motivations and ambitions.

Still, it’s an engrossing set of stories about the quest for bigger, stronger, more dangerous. Casey adroitly moves beyond what we think we know about big-wave surf culture and churns out a series of action chapters that are not for the faint of heart.

In the end, you gain a healthy respect for the power of these waves and the people who surf them, and for the challenges facing those trying to understand them.

But you also come away sharing Casey’s nagging fear about how global warming will influence the size and frequency of these monster waves, and the tenuous nature of human existence within the permanence of the natural world.

Martelle, an Irvine writer and critic, is author of the forthcoming “The Fear Within: Spies, Commies and American Democracy on Trial.”