The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks and Giants of the Ocean

Published by: Doubleday Canada, 352 pages

The very first time I caught a wave — or, more accurately, wiped out and tumbled helplessly in a wave’s churning whitewash — I immediately understood the allure of surfing. The ocean, utterly indifferent to the presence of wetsuit-encased people bobbing about on fiberglass boards, presents only three options: sink, swim, or surf. To ride a wave is not to tame it or dominate it, but to participate in one of nature’s most powerful and unpredictable forces.

Therein lies the primal joy of surfing, whether it’s on measly four-footers or the watery megaliths Susan Casey explores in her enthralling book The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks and Giants of the Ocean. Casey’s modus operandi was simple: go to the places where the ocean rears up like an enormous bucking stallion, and talk to the people who then study and/or ride it. What she finds is a tribe of people who flock to the ocean as the Coast Guard shoos people from it.

In a globetrotting, effortlessly readable narrative, Casey introduces us to the scientists seeking to understand why the world’s oceans are getting progressively angrier, and the surfers who regularly cheat death by riding waves taller than most apartment buildings. Casey introduces us to Laird Hamilton, the surfing world’s Evel Knievel, widely regarded as the best big-wave surfer on the planet. Hamilton, and the would-be heirs to his throne, travel the world in search of elusive 100-foot waves — the “rogues” and “freaks” that seem to heave up with little warning but unimaginable power. Interspersed between the action-packed surfing chapters are calmer, but no less interesting, sections about the history, the dangers, and the quantum physics behind massive oceanic upheavals.

Casey is no stranger to the sea, having lived among marine biologists in the inhospitable Farallon Islands, off the coast of San Francisco, to research her fascinating book about great white sharks, The Devil’s Teeth. Occasionally in The Wave, as in The Devil’s Teeth, Casey seems rather smitten with her male interviewees, as the prose veers into Harlequin-like descriptions of sun-drenched hair, chiseled features and rippling abs. For the most part, however, her writing is crisp and expertly paced, frequently transporting the reader into the terrifying maw of a 75-foot wall of water. Part action-adventure story, part scientific treatise, The Wave is a gnarly ride into the ocean’s most colossal creations. Gravol not included.

Colin Hunter is a freelance journalist, and recipient of Canada’s National Newspaper Award for Sports Reporting. A recreational surfer who has conquered some of the world’s tiniest waves, he currently works in communications at a quantum mechanics think-tank.

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