Sunday, September 26, 2010
The Wave by Susan Casey
The Wave is an outrageously good read, alternately thrilling and terrifying us in turns. How many ways can a wave be described? As many ways as there are waves, though one suspects the Hawaiians had more words for the qualities of water than we do. While surfing plays the loudest chords in this book, one of the most resonant notes played was a description of Lituya Bay in Alaska, where epic waves scour the coastline. I went back and forth with the narrative to examine the included photographs again and again. Pictures help, but Casey’s descriptions are harrowing.
Reading (or writing!) about surfing could be a difficult endeavor. After all, unless one is on the wave, it is difficult to get a feel for its power. Even watching from shore doesn’t give one any real feel for what is going on in the water. Casey brings us up close and personal, partly through her access to the men who ride in wild conditions, and partly through her use of language and imagery to describe different conditions: “Among big-wave connoisseurs, Ghost Tree wasn’t especially beloved. It didn’t break that often, and when it did it lunged open in a maniac sneer, spitting foam and tangled rafts of kelp.” For me, I have an indelible picture of this vicious water, as in this different, but equally effective description of Mavericks: “The Aleutian swells thunder three thousand miles across the North Pacific, barging past the continental shelf until their progress is rudely halted by a thick rock ledge that juts offshore about a mile from Pillar Point, near Half Moon Bay’s harbor. When it hits this shallower depth, the wave energy rears up, shrieking and screaming, forming the clawed hand that is Mavericks.”
As I read, I was reminded of Yvon Chouinard's autobiography Let My People Go Surfing because while the visionary businessman and adventurer lamented climate change and the disappearance of glaciers, he prepared for it by developing a bigger line of surfing products. If there is going to be more water everywhere, Chouinard suggests, that's where the business opportunities are for the outdoorsman. But even now we see that the biggest waves are becoming too much for the surfboards now made. Laird Hamilton, surfer extraordinaire, is trying new hydrofoil boards to take on the larger, more destructive waves being generated in oceans whose currents and temperatures are changing.
This book is the equal of Born To Run, the word-of-mouth bestseller among athletes and couch potatoes alike. One doesn’t have to do more than act like a sponge to enjoy this extraordinary book.