I spent two years as a cadet at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. My time there was ultimately a personal failure but it left me with the indelible experience of sailing on the USCGC Barque Eagle for six weeks one summer.
Two nights of that voyage stay with me.
The first was one I spent as a lookout clipped to equipment near the bow as we rode out a nasty storm. The water was coming up over the bow, soaking me every few seconds. If not for being clipped in, I would likely have been washed overboard. Despite the danger, I’m not sure I would trade that experience for anything. There’s something about a storm in the dark that isolates you from the rest of the world until all you’re aware of is the vast power of the sea.
The second was a night so beautiful that half the cadets on the cruise spent it up on deck looking at the stars. The sky was clear in a way that just doesn’t happen on land. It was striking, as if I was looking at the world in its purest form. The only sounds were the movement of the ship, the people on board and the sea.
So although I’ve never surfed, I’m inclined to empathize with surfers when they talk about how addictive surfing is and how it gets in their blood. I read an excerpt of Susan Casey’s book, The Wave, last year in Sports Illustrated, became intrigued, and took the book out from my local library.
This is an amazing book. It’s not just the subject matter, which alternates between surfers trying to ride the Earth’s biggest waves and the scientists studying why those waves exist. It’s that Casey makes the scientific search for knowledge as compelling and interesting as the surfing segments.
Wave science can be confusing. I knew that from watching several television documentaries. That’s because, Casey explains, it is a non-linear science and therefore involves higher math and physics that would confuse most of us, as it does Casey. Still, she explains it as part of her attempt to understand it, and it finally makes sense, at least in layman’s terms.
Her quick portraits of each of the various scientists and their specialties are a delight. It’s clear that Casey was as fascinated by the scientists themselves as by the knowledge they possessed. In these sections, she talks about the history of rogue waves, how they happen and if they’re happening more often. She researched and interviewed those who make their living from the sea and how they’ve been affected by the waves, long thought to be simply sailors’ tall tales.
As good as these sections are, the book comes to vivid life with its portrayal of the surfers, why they do what they do and how they do what they do.
Reading about tow-surfing, in which surfers and riders on Jet skis go out into the ocean in search of these monster waves, is harrowing enough. Casey allows the reader to imagine exactly what it’s like. It’s as close to being there as the vast majority of us will ever manage. Even Casey doesn’t quite understand what drives the surfers until Laird Hamilton, whose life is surfing these incredible waves, gives her a glimpse into his world by taking her on a ride on such a wave.
This is probably one of the best non-fiction books I’ve read, and certainly the best I’ve read about the sea.