The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks, and Giants of the Ocean (Anglais) Broché – 31 mai 2011
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175 MILES OFF THE COAST OF SCOTLAND
FEBRUARY 8, 2000
The clock read midnight when the hundred-foot wave hit the ship, rising from the North Atlantic out of the darkness. Among the ocean’s terrors a wave this size was the most feared and the least understood, more myth than reality—or so people had thought. This giant was certainly real. As the RRS Discovery plunged down into the wave ’s deep trough, it heeled twenty-eight degrees to port, rolled thirty degrees back to starboard, then recovered to face the incom- ing seas. What chance did they have, the forty-seven scientists and crew aboard this research cruise gone horribly wrong? A series of storms had trapped them in the black void east of Rockall, a volcanic island nick- named Waveland for the nastiness of its surrounding waters. More than a thousand wrecked ships lay on the seafloor below.
Captain Keith Avery steered his vessel directly into the onslaught, just as he ’d been doing for the past five days. While weather like this was common in the cranky North Atlantic, these giant waves were unlike anything he ’d encountered in his thirty years of experience. And worse, they kept rearing up from different directions. Flanking all sides of the
295-foot ship, the crew kept a constant watch to make sure they weren’t about to be sucker punched by a wave that was sneaking up from behind, or from the sides. No one wanted to be out here right now, but Avery
knew their only hope was to remain where they were, with their bow pointed into the waves. Turning around was too risky; if one of these waves caught Discovery broadside, there would be long odds on survival. It takes thirty tons per square meter of force to dent a ship. A breaking hundred-foot wave packs one hundred tons of force per square meter and can tear a ship in half. Above all, Avery had to position Discovery so that it rode over these crests and wasn’t crushed beneath them.
He stood barefoot at the helm, the only way he could maintain trac- tion after a refrigerator toppled over, splashing out a slick of milk, juice, and broken glass (no time to clean it up—the waves just kept coming). Up on the bridge everything was amplified, all the night noises and motions, the slamming and the crashing, the elevator-shaft plunges into the troughs, the frantic wind, the swaying and groaning of the ship; and now, as the waves suddenly grew even bigger and meaner and steeper, Avery heard a loud bang coming from Discovery’s foredeck. He squinted in the dark to see that the fifty-man lifeboat had partially ripped from its two-inch-thick steel cleats and was pounding against the hull.
Below deck, computers and furniture had been smashed into pieces. The scientists huddled in their cabins nursing bruises, black eyes, and broken ribs. Attempts at rest were pointless. They heard the noises too; they rode the free falls and the sickening barrel rolls; and they worried about the fact that a six-foot-long window next to their lab had already shattered from the twisting. Discovery was almost forty years old, and recently she ’d undergone major surgery. The ship had been cut in half, lengthened by thirty-three feet, and then welded back together. Would the joints hold? No one really knew. No one had ever been in conditions like these.
One of the two chief scientists, Penny Holliday, watched as a chair skidded out from under her desk, swung into the air, and crashed onto her bunk. Holliday, fine boned, porcelain-doll pretty, and as tough as any man on board the ship, had sent an e-mail to her boyfriend, Craig Harris, earlier in the day. “This isn’t funny anymore,” she wrote. “The ocean just looks completely out of control.” So much white spray was whipping off the waves that she had the strange impression of being in a blizzard. This was Waveland all right, an otherworldly place of constant motion that took you nowhere but up and down; where there was no sleep, no comfort, no connection to land, and where human eyes and stomachs struggled to adapt, and failed.
Ten days ago Discovery had left port in Southampton, England, on what Holliday had hoped would be a typical three-week trip to Iceland and back (punctuated by a little seasickness perhaps, but nothing major). Along the way they’d stop and sample the water for salinity, temperature, oxygen, and other nutrients. From these tests the scientists would draw a picture of what was happening out there, how the ocean’s basic character- istics were shifting, and why.
These are not small questions on a planet that is 71 percent covered in salt water. As the Earth’s climate changes—as the inner atmosphere becomes warmer, as the winds increase, as the oceans heat up—what does all this mean for us? Trouble, most likely, and Holliday and her colleagues were in the business of finding out how much and what kind. It was deeply frustrating for them to be lashed to their bunks rather than out on the deck lowering their instruments. No one was thinking about Iceland anymore.
The trip was far from a loss, however. During the endless trains of massive waves, Discovery itself was collecting data that would lead to a chilling revelation. The ship was ringed with instruments; everything that happened out there was being precisely measured, the sea’s fury captured in tight graphs and unassailable numbers. Months later, long after Avery had returned everyone safely to the Southampton docks, when Holliday began to analyze these figures, she would discover that the waves they had experienced were the largest ever scientifically recorded in the open ocean. The significant wave height, an average of the largest 33 percent of the waves, was sixty-one feet, with frequent spikes far beyond that. At the same time, none of the state-of-the-art weather forecasts and wave models—the information upon which all ships, oil rigs, fisheries, and passenger boats rely—had predicted these behemoths. In other words, under this particular set of weather conditions, waves this size should not have existed. And yet they did.
History is full of eyewitness accounts of giant waves, monsters in the hundred-foot range and beyond, but until very recently scientists dis- missed them. The problem was this: according to the basic physics of ocean waves, the conditions that would produce a hundred-footer were so far beyond rare as to virtually never happen. Anyone who claimed to have seen one, therefore, was engaging in nautical tall tales or outright lies.
Still, it was hard to discount a report from the polar hero Ernest Shackleton, hardly the type for hysterical exaggeration. On his crossing from Antarctica to South Georgia Island in April 1916, Shackleton noticed odd movements in the night sky. “A moment later, I realized that what I had seen was not a rift in the clouds, but the white crest of an enor- mous wave,” he wrote. “During 26 years experience of the ocean in all its moods I had not encountered a wave so gigantic. It was a mighty upheaval of the ocean, a thing quite apart from the big white-capped seas that had been our tireless enemies for many days.” When the wave hit his ship, Shackleton and his crew were “flung forward like a cork,” and the boat flooded. Fast bailing and major luck were all that saved them from capsizing. “Earnestly we hoped that never again would we encounter such a wave.”
The men on the 850-foot cargo ship München would have seconded that, if any of them had survived their rendezvous with a similar wave on December 12, 1978. Considered unsinkable, the München was a cutting- edge craft, the flagship of the German Merchant Navy. At 3:25 a.m. frag- ments of a Morse code Mayday, emanating from 450 miles north of the Azores, signaled that the vessel had suffered grave damage from a wave. But even after 110 ships and 13 aircraft were deployed—the most com- prehensive search in the history of shipping—the ship and its twenty- seven crew were never seen again. A haunting clue was left behind: searchers found one of the München’s lifeboats, usually stowed sixty-five feet above the water, floating empty. Its twisted metal fittings indicated that it had been torn away. “Something extraordinary” had destroyed the ship, concluded the official report.
The München’s disappearance points to the main problem with proving the existence of a giant wave: if you run into that kind of night- mare, it ’s likely to be the last one you’ll have. The force of waves is hard to overstate. An eighteen-inch wave can topple a wall built to withstand 125-mile-per-hour winds, for instance, and coastal advisories are issued for even five-foot-tall surf, which regularly kills people caught in the wrong places. The number of people who have witnessed a hundred-foot wave at close range and made it back home to describe the experience is a very small one.
Even if a ship does manage to survive a hundred-foot wall of water, there are no underwhelmed survivors. Big fish tales are human nature. Add to that a dose of mortal terror, honest confusion, a fear of being blamed for damage to the ship—if, say, the wave didn’t quite measure up to the “something extraordinary” test but managed to poleax the vessel anyway because the captain was below deck playing darts and drinking vodka at the time—and what you’ve got is less than the scientifically immaculate truth.
But there was a rare occasion in 1933, when a sharp-eyed naval offi- cer aboard the 478-foot oil carrier USS Ramapo happened to be up on the bridge as an astonishing wave lurched out of the Pacific and his response, rather than screaming and covering his eyes, was to make a trigonometric calculation using the ship’s dimensions relative to the wave ’s crest and trough. The result was a height estimate that, if not on par with the exac- titude of the Discovery’s sensors, was at least defensible. And the officer’s measurement? The wave was 112 feet high.
If a 112-foot wave isn’t freakish enough, consider that this one had leaped out of 45-foot seas. Thus it was more than twice the average size of anything else in the Ramapo’s path, which matches the scientific defi- nition for a freak (or rogue) wave. For centuries mariners had spoken of the “hole in the ocean,” a cavernous trough at the base of an abnormally large wave, and the “three sisters,” a series of freaks in rapid succession. To scientists this kind of folklore was a hard sell. The numbers didn’t add up. Maybe, just maybe, a once-in-an-aeon wave triple the size of its sur- rounding seas might exist—but there was no way traditional oceanogra- phy could accept this as a typical occurrence. As for the notion of mutant walls of water showing up in sets, that was not even worth discussing. Then something happened that no one could ignore.
On January 1, 1995, the North Sea was feisty due to a pair of storms, a brutish one crawling northward and a smaller one moving southward to meet it. Statoil’s Draupner oil-drilling platform sat somewhere between them, about one hundred miles off the tip of Norway. For the crew who lived on the rig it was a New Year’s Day of thirty-eight-foot seas rolling by, as measured by the laser wave recorder on the platform’s underside. Unpleasant, perhaps, but not especially dramatic—until three o’clock in the afternoon, when an eighty-five-foot wave came careening over the horizon and walloped the rig at forty-five miles per hour. While the Draupner sustained only moderate damage, the proof was there. This wasn’t a case of laser malfunction or too many aquavit toasts the night before. It was the first confirmed measurement of a freak wave, more than twice as tall and steep as its neighbors, a teetering maniac ripping across the North Sea.
They were out there all right. You could call them whatever you wanted—rogues, freaks, giants—but the bottom line was that no one had accounted for them. The engineers who’d built the Draupner rig had cal- culated that once every ten thousand years the North Sea might throw them a sixty-four-foot curveball in thirty-eight-foot seas. That would be the maximum. Eighty-five-foot waves were not part of the equation, not in this universe anyway. But the rules had changed. Now scientists had a set of numbers that pointed to an unsettling truth: some of these waves make their own rules. Suddenly the emphasis shifted from explaining why giant waves couldn’t simply leap out of the ocean to figuring out how it was that they did.
This was a matter of much brow sweat for the oil industry, which would prefer that its multimillion-dollar rigs not be swept away. It had happened before. In 1982 the Ocean Ranger, a 400-foot-long, 337-foot- high oil platform located 170 miles off the coast of Newfoundland, was struck by an outsize wave in heavy weather. We ’ll never know how big the wave was exactly, for there were no survivors. Approved for “unre- stricted ocean operations,” built to withstand 110-foot seas and 115-mile- per-hour winds, considered “indestructible” by its engineers, the Ocean Ranger had capsized and sank close to instantly, killing all eighty-four people on board.
In the nautical world things were even more troubling. Across the global seas ships were meeting these waves, from megaton vessels like the München—oceangoing freighters and tankers and bulk carriers—down to recreational sailboats. At best, the encounters resulted in damage; at worst, the boat vanished, taking all hands with it. “Two large ships sink every week on average [worldwide], but the cause is never studied to the same detail as an air crash. It simply gets put down to ‘bad weather,’ ” said Dr. Wolfgang Rosenthal, senior scientist for the MaxWave Project, a con- sortium of European scientists that convened in 2000 to investigate the disappearing ships.
While Rosenthal’s numbers may be high, his point is well taken. Given the lack of survivors or evidence, exact statistics of ships scuttled by giant waves are impossible to come by; but it is clear that every year, on average, more than two dozen large ships sink or otherwise go miss- ing, taking their crews along with them. (If you also consider smaller ves- sels, the numbers are vastly higher.) In particular, a type of ship known as a bulk carrier is vulnerable: on one infamous occasion in March 1973, two
bulk carriers were lost within an hour of each other in the same area of the North Atlantic.
When I first read about the missing ships, I was astonished. In the high-tech marine world of radar, EPIRB, GPS, and satellite surveillance, how could hundreds of enormous vessels just get swallowed up by the sea? And furthermore, how could this be happening without much media notice? Imagine the headlines if even a single 747 slipped off the map with all its passengers and was never heard from again.
Clearly, there was something extraordinary going on out there. After the Draupner incident, it became undeniable: no one really had a clue as to how waves behaved in their most extreme forms. Yet lives depended on this information. As the scientists scrambled and the oil companies mobilized and the naval architects double-checked their calcu- lations and ship captains worried the horizon, I imagine they thought to themselves: So the old stories were true after all.
The first time I saw a truly big wave was in December 1989. I hap- pened to be in Hawaii and my trip coincided with the Triple Crown of Surfing, a series of three competitions held on Oahu’s north shore. In order to have the events, though, first you must have the waves. Some- times the surfers had to wait weeks or even months for the right condi- tions to materialize, and so it was lucky and unusual that a good-size swell arrived during my visit. On the day the big-wave contest was called at Sunset Beach, I drove my rental car across the island and landed on that stretch of sand, along with about a thousand other people.
The spectator scene was a riot of color, of neon pink bikinis and canary yellow surfboards and lime green banners and all the glimmering blues of the Pacific Ocean. It was a convention of gear-laden trucks, a bazaar of beach hair, from sun-bleached white to drip-dry dreadlocks. The nearest closed-toe shoe was at least twenty miles away. The sky was cloudless but a veil of mist hung in the air from the force of the waves slamming down. At first I found that startling because the Sunset wave itself—the face the surfers would be riding—broke more than a half mile offshore. But then a set rolled in, a pulse of energy that caused several waves to jump up in size. I watched through binoculars as the waves began to build, ominous lumps in the ocean. The water rose and rose until a tiny rider appeared at the top and dropped onto the face as it exploded into a thirty-foot moving cliff. Whenever a wave broke, the beach shook with a little hum of violence.
Standing on shore, I was scared. I’d witnessed avalanches, explo- sions, tornadoes, wildfires, and monsoons, and I’d never seen anything as intimidating as those waves. For all the gentle images evoked by the name Sunset Beach, in reality this was a different beast. One surf expert described this break as “the entire Pacific Ocean rearing up to unload on your head.” On big days at Sunset, people were often swept away by fero- cious currents and surges. Watching, I could easily imagine this. What I couldn’t imagine was why anyone would willingly insert himself into these elements.
It felt strange to be terrified of the water. After decades of competi- tive swimming I’m usually more at home in aquatic environments than I am on land. Over the years I’d done assorted damage to myself on solid ground—bruises, bumps, tears, a knee pieced together by titanium screws—but nothing bad had ever happened to me in the water. Then again, I’d never experienced the water in this particular mood. As I watched the surfers launch themselves into the churning ocean and pad- dle toward the break, I worried for each of them. Their sport seemed more gladiatorial than athletic, like showing up for work each day to grapple with bull elephants.
Which is why, a few years later, I was stunned to see a photograph of a man riding a wave more than twice the size of Sunset, somewhere in the sixty-foot range. The surfer was Laird Hamilton, a six-foot-three,
215-pound twenty-eight-year-old from Hawaii who looked completely at ease inside a barrel as tall as an office building. His blond hair whipped
back in the spray; his muscular arms were spread wide for balance as he plummeted down the wave on a tiny board. He had classically handsome features, chiseled and intense, but no fear showed on his face, only rapt focus. Looking at the picture, I didn’t understand how any of this was possible.
Since surfing became popular in the mid-twentieth century, faces in the forty-foot range have represented the outer limits of human paddling abilities. Anything bigger is simply moving too fast; trying to catch a sixty-foot wave by windmilling away on your stomach is like trying to catch the subway by crawling. Never mind, though, because even if you could catch it, there would be no way to ride it. Too much water rushes back up the face of a giant wave as it crests, sucking you, the hapless human (not enough momentum), and your board (too much friction) over the falls. So while the most popular surf spots quickly became so overrun that fistfights erupted in the water, all over the world the most impressive waves were going to waste. To Hamilton and his friends, this was unacceptable. The rules had to change, and a new system invented. So they came up with a technique called tow surfing.
Borrowing ideas from windsurfing and snowboarding, they created shorter, heavier surfboards with foot straps, and thinner, stronger fins that sliced through the water like knives. Then they added Jet Skis and water-ski ropes to the mix, using them to tow one another into perfect position at thirty miles per hour. In the optimal spot, just as the wave began to peak, the rider would drop the tow rope and rocket onto the face. The driver, meanwhile, would exit off the back. Using this method, with its increased horsepower and redesigned gear, a surfer could theoretically catch the biggest waves out there. Riding them—and surviving if you fell—was another story.
Hamilton was the test pilot, followed immediately by other surfers and windsurfers in his circle: Darrick Doerner, Brett Lickle, Dave Kalama, Buzzy Kerbox, Rush Randle, Mark Angulo, and Mike Waltze. Nicknamed the Strapped Crew, they experimented on the outer reefs of Oahu and Maui, far beyond the crowds. “No one was there,” Hamilton said. “No one had ridden waves this size. It was the unknown. It was like outer space or the deep sea. We didn’t know if we were going to come back.”
Anything involving giant waves qualifies as a risky pursuit, but tow surfing seemed to invite disaster. The sport ’s learning curve was a series of hard lessons, and the price of falling was high. It included dislocated shoulders, shattered elbows, and burst eardrums; broken femurs, snapped ankles, and cracked necks; lacerated scalps, punctured lungs, and frac- tured arches; hold-downs that Brett Lickle described as “sprinting four hundred yards holding your breath while being beaten on by five Mike Tysons.” As for stitches, Hamilton “stopped counting at 1,000.”
Regardless of its dangers (or maybe because of them), tow surfing’s popularity and visibility grew throughout the 1990s, the surfers venturing onto more treacherous waves every year. They tinkered with equipment. They refined their techniques. Working in teams of two—a driver and a rider—they figured out how to rescue each other in behemoth surf. As the stakes got higher and the margin for error got slimmer, a kind of nat- ural selection occurred. Riders who’d glimpsed their own mortality a lit- tle too closely drifted to the sidelines. At the other end of that spectrum was Hamilton. Watching him, you got the feeling that no wave was out of reach. The more intimidating the conditions, the more he seemed to thrive in them.
Then in July 2001 a surf impresario named Bill Sharp issued a chal- lenge. “For 2700 years,” his press release read, “the Homerian [sic] epic known as the Odyssey has been associated with beautiful-but-deadly temptresses, forgetful lotus-eaters, and scary, one-eyed monsters. But now thanks to surf wear giant Billabong, it ’s associated with an even scarier monster: the elusive 100-foot wave.” The company, the press release continued, would offer a prize of $500,000 to any man who rode one. This payday was exponentially larger than anything surfing had
seen; millions more would come from sponsors in the wake of the tri- umph. A select group of tow teams would be invited to participate, a crew Sharp referred to as “the Delta Force of surfing.”
It was a sexy frontier, defined by a nice round number. Marketing that number was Sharp’s intention; he noted that he ’d sold the hundred- foot-wave Odyssey contest, originally named Project Sea Monster, to Billabong in less than fifteen minutes. Prone to flourishes of hype, Sharp delivered vivid sound bites: “The Odyssey is Jacques Cousteau meets Evel Knievel meets Crocodile Hunter meets Jackass,” he said. And almost overnight the idea of the hundred-foot wave became the media grail, tow surfing’s equivalent of a moon landing.
There were a couple of snags. First, was it physically possible? No one knew how riding a hundred-foot wave might differ from, say, riding a seventy-five-foot wave. As they grow in size, waves increase dramati- cally in speed and energy. At what point would the forces overwhelm the equipment, or the surfers? “The 100-foot wave would probably kill any- one who fell off it,” Time magazine wrote. Honolulu’s then–ocean safety chief, Captain Edmund Pestana, agreed: “It ’s a deadly scenario for every- one involved.” The trade journal TransWorld SURF Business was blunt: “You’re asking these surfers to take huge risks for our titillation.”
Next, even if a surfer wanted to take his chances, finding the wave was a problem. Although they were no longer considered imaginary, hundred-foot waves were not exactly kicking around within Jet Ski range. Further complicating things, for tow surfing’s purposes not just any hundred-foot wave would do. The enormous seas the Discovery encoun- tered; the huge freaks that pop up to batter oil rigs—these are unsuitable, despite their great height. Waves that exist in the center of a storm are avalanches of water, waves mashed on top of other waves, all of them rushing forward in a chaotic jumble.
Surfers need giant waves with a more exclusive pedigree. In their ideal scenario, a hundred-foot wave would be born in a blast of storm energy, travel across the ocean for a long distance while being strengthened by winds, then peel off from the storm and settle into a swell, a steamrolling lump of power. That swell would eventually collide with a reef, a shoaling bottom, or some other underwater obstacle, forcing its energy upward and sideways until it exploded into breaking waves. And that ’s where the ride would begin—far enough from the storm’s center to be less roiled and choppy, but not so far that its power was too diminished. This was a pretty tall order. If the ocean was a slot machine, rideable sixty- or seventy-foot waves came along about as often as a solid row of cherries. And the perfect hundred-foot wave? Hit that one and the sirens would go off as everyone in the casino stopped what they were doing to gawk, and the staff rolled in palettes to help you haul away your money.
A surfer who intended to participate in the Odyssey, therefore, would be signing up for a global scavenger hunt. Not only would he have to ride the wave, he ’d have to scour the oceans to find it, monitoring the weather’s every nuance like a meteorologist, and then show up at pre- cisely the right moment toting Jet Skis, safety equipment, surf gear, and photographers along with him—not to mention a highly skilled partner who didn’t mind risking his life when called upon to do so. This was a surfing competition the way the Space Shuttle was a plane. “The Odyssey makes climbing Everest look easy,” one British journalist wrote. Regard- less, Sharp was undeterred. “I think everybody’s ready,” he said. “Now, on the giant days, there ’s no wave that anyone ’s backing down from.”
Millions of years before there was water on the earth, before steam turned into rain turned into oceans, there were giant waves. There were electromagnetic waves and plasma waves and sound waves. There were shock waves from the many explosions and collisions that made our planet ’s earliest days so lively. Asteroids smacked into it and sent up waves of molten rock, thousands of feet tall. At one time scientists even believed that an enormous wave of this magma, created by intense solar tides, had swung off into space and become the moon.
Although that particular theory is no longer considered true, it points to something that is: waves are the original primordial force. Any- where there ’s energy in motion there are waves, from the farthest corners of the universe down to the cells in your eyeball. I wondered if this was why, after eighteen years, I couldn’t stop thinking about that day at Sun- set Beach. Far from being an abstraction in the ether—like electrical waves, X-ray waves, or radio waves—those thirty-foot ocean waves were a majestic demonstration of the unseen force that powers every- thing. Catching a glimpse of something that elemental, that beautiful, and that powerful created one inevitable result: the desire to see it again.
The more I read about the mysteries of freak waves, the more jaw- dropping tow-surfing images I saw (and the more inevitable it became that someone would ride a hundred-foot wave), the more fascinated I became. New technologies began to reveal startling information. “Ship- Devouring Waves, Once Legendary, Common Sight on Satellite,” read the USA Today headline on July 23, 2004, describing how radar was now able to measure waves from space: “ ...a new study based on satellite data reveals the rogues are fairly common.” “Rogue Giants at Sea: Huge, Freakish, but Real, Waves Draw New Study,” the New York Times reported in July 2006. “Scientists are now finding that these giants of the sea are far more common and destructive than once imagined, prompting a rush of new studies and research projects.”
From a science and technology standpoint, we humans like to think we ’re quite smart. Over in Switzerland, for instance, physicists are chas- ing the Higgs boson, a subatomic speck so esoteric that it ’s referred to as the “God particle.” If we ’re closing in on this, how is it possible that only fifteen years ago a force that regularly demolishes 850-foot-long ships was deemed not to exist?
Quite simply: the ocean doesn’t subscribe to the orderly explana- tions that we would like it to. It ’s a mosh pit of variables, some of which science has considered and others of which it hasn’t—because we don’t even know what they are. Though we ’re more informed about the sea now than we were several hundred years ago when mermaids were listed along with sea turtles in Pliny’s Historia Naturalis, the depths still hold more secrets than anyone can count. And this lack of knowledge affects far more than ships at sea.
Anyone who lives on this planet is utterly dependent on its oceans. Their temperatures and movements control the weather; their destruc- tive—and life-giving—ability dwarfs anything on land. Now that cli- mate change is an accepted fact with unknown consequences, our vulnerability is sinking in. The earth’s mean surface temperature (land and oceans combined) is warmer now than at any other time during the past four hundred years, and it continues to rise. In its 2007 report the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded that “the ocean has been absorbing more than 80 percent of the heat added to the climate system.” As the waters heat up, wind velocity increases; storm tracks become more volatile; polar ice and glaciers melt, causing sea lev- els to rise. How far will they rise? All we have is a best guess, continually adjusted upward as new (and discouraging) data arrives. In 2007 the sea levels were predicted to rise about 23.5 inches by 2100. In 2009 that num- ber was raised to 39 inches, a level that would displace some 600 million people in coastal areas. (Other scenarios, like the collapse of the Green- land ice sheet, should they occur, would raise the sea level as much as twenty-three feet. For perspective, that would drown most of Florida.) As a result of all of the above and, likely, other factors no one ’s aware of yet, average wave heights have also been rising steadily, by more than 25 percent between the 1960s and the 1990s. Planetary waves, massive sub- surface ocean waves that play a key role in creating the climate, are speed- ing up as well. The details about what a warmer planet will look like are still coming into focus, but there is one thing our environmental future will clearly hold: a lot of restless water.
If anyone needed a stark preview of the kinds of situations that a stormier, more liquid world might bring, it came on August 29, 2005, when a twenty-eight-foot storm surge from Hurricane Katrina overwhelmed the levees surrounding New Orleans, submerging 80 percent of the city and killing almost two thousand people. (A record-breaking twenty-seven tropical storms formed in the Caribbean that year.) Intense storms are destructive enough on their own, but when the waves hit land the potential for damage goes off the charts: more than 60 percent of the global population lives within thirty miles of a coastline. Then, of course, there are tsunamis, extraordinarily powerful waves caused by underwater earthquakes and landslides. Six years ago the world watched in horror as an estimated hundred-foot tsunami wave erased the Indonesian city of Banda Aceh, home to 250,000 people, in a matter of minutes. Japan, per- haps the most vulnerable nation, has lost entire coastal populations to the waves. In the geological time frame these sudden inundations are hardly isolated events. Over the course of history volatile seas have wiped cities, islands, and even civilizations from the map.
In Waveland, it was as though the scientists aboard the RSS Discov- ery had dropped through a secret trapdoor in a surly but typical North Atlantic storm and into the darkest heart of the ocean: a place where giant waves not only exist but flourish, a place so obscure to us that we ’re more familiar with the workings of subatomic particles. What is out there? What happens in that place? That ’s what Dr. Penny Holliday and her team wanted to learn. And so did I.
Five years ago I set out to understand giant waves through the eyes of the people who knew them most intimately: the mariners, for whom Shackleton’s “massive upheaval of the ocean” is a present and serious threat; the scientists, who are in a race against time to understand the intricate complexities of the sea in a rapidly changing world; and of course, the tow surfers. The members of this rarefied tribe—maybe fifty highly skilled riders across the globe—don’t just stumble across giant waves or steer their ships clear of them or consider them as equations on a computer screen, they seek them out. While everyone else goes to great lengths to avoid encountering a hundred-foot wave, these men want nothing more than to find one.
What kind of person drops in on Mother Nature ’s biggest tantrums for fun? What drives him? And since he has gone into that dark heart of the ocean and felt its beat in a way that sets him apart, what does he know about this place that the rest of us don’t? My questions went on, but I knew one thing for sure: if you followed the wave experts into the waves, you would have an interesting—and turbulent—time.
From the Hardcover edition.
Revue de presse
“Examines big waves from every angle, and goes in deep with . . . mariners, wave scientists and extreme surfers. . . . [A] wonderfully vivid, kinetic narrative.” —The New York Times Book Review
“Immensely powerful, beautiful, addictive and, yes, incredibly thrilling. . . . Like a surfer who is happily hooked, the reader simply won’t be able to get enough of it.” —San Francisco Chronicle
“[An] adrenaline rush of a book. . . . As terrifying as it is awe inspiring.”
“Casey’s descriptions of these monsters are as gripping in their own way as any mountaineering saga from the frozen peaks of Everest or K2.” —The Washington Post Book World
“Susan Casey's white-knuckle chronicle . . . delivers a thrill so intense you may never get in a boat again.” —Entertainment Weekly
“Reading The Wave is almost like riding one, paddling in the expositional surf of vivid imagery and colorful description thrown at you in ever-escalating surges.” —The Plain Dealer
“Casey does an exceptional job of explaining the natural forces (winds, currents, ocean-bottom shape) that create these daunting, at times fatal, surfing spots. . . . Terrific.” —Wall Street Journal
“Extraordinary. . . . I’m only allowed 800 words for this review. Here are a few: fascinating, heroic, dazzling, terrifying, amazing, unbelievable, mesmerizing, instructive, enlightening, superb. This is a . . . powerful, articulate ride into a world you never knew existed but that you will never, never forget.” —Richard Ellis, The Globe and Mail (Toronto)
“Utterly engrossing.” —Salon
“Something is stewing in our seas, and Susan Casey—traveling, and in some cases swimming, all around the world—is eager to find out what it is. Both a rollicking look at the ocean’s growing freakishness and a troubling examination of our ailing planet, The Wave gives new meaning to the term ‘immersion reporting.’” —Hampton Sides, author of Hellhound on His Trail
“[Casey] is a powerful voice in adventure writing. . . . Masterful.” —Outside
“Like the surfers and scientists she profiles, Casey lived and breathed giant waves for years. Casey combines an insane passion for craft with an uncanny ability to describe the indescribable. In The Wave she whisks the reader off to unimaginably surreal settings and puts them in the middle of mind-blowing scenarios. This book sucked me in like the undertow at Pipeline.” —Mary Roach, author of Stiff and Packing for Mars
“[A] breath-snatching thrill ride.” —Elle
“Compelling and wonderfully detailed. . . . An engrossing set of stories about the quest for bigger, stronger, more dangerous.” —Los Angeles Times
“A fabulous page-turner.” —NPR
“This book is adrenalin. You don’t want to surf the waves described herein. Read the book. It’s safer that way.” —Eddie Vedder
“Reading The Wave is the closest most of us will ever come to the sensation of riding, or even seeing, one of these towering monsters of the sea. It’s exhilarating, astonishing, and, not infrequently, terrifying. Brace yourself.” —Candice Millard, author of The River of Doubt
“A probing look at both the passionate and the pragmatic sides of these oceanic wonders. . . . Casey’s curiosity in learning about every conceivable aspect of waves makes for compelling reading, regardless of whether you look at waves as a great ride or with great concern.” —BookPage
“At once scary and fun, The Wave surprises at every turn.” —Elizabeth Kolbert, author of Field Notes from a Catastrophe
“[A] captivating hybrid—an intro to the mind-melting physics of waves and a ride-along with the scientists and surfers who chase after them.” —Men’s Journal
“The Wave is an amazing look at humble yet larger-than-life people who live by daring feats, honorable acts, and selfless denial. . . . Terrifying, beautiful, her prose is shot through with the haunting half-light of a storm.” —Doug Stanton, author of Horse Soldiers
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Recits de Vagues venant de nulle part et ne laissant rien derriere leur passage ne font pas la une des journaux et pourtant ces vagues existent.
Recits d'exploits de champions de Surf pret a tout pour surfer LA vague de leur vie.
Recits tracants toutes les mers du globe, a lire absolument en bor de mer.
Commentaires client les plus utiles sur Amazon.com (beta)
Have you ever been on an ocean liner where half the passengers were turning green with nausea as the ship pitched and rolled in 25-foot swells? That's nothing. Dead calm by comparison.
Monster waves, the height of a ten-story office building (and taller) have taken ships --big, huge ships-- and pounded, pummeled, and overturned them, split them in half and buried them forever along with everyone aboard under thousands of tons of water, and it happens with a frequency that you can't begin to imagine.
I read those first pages, and by the time I got to Chapter one, I was electrified. This was going to be a page-turner of the first order.
Only it wasn't. As it turns out, Casey's THE WAVE is about 1/3 "The Discovery Channel" and 2/3rds "ESPN's Gnarliest, Awesomest, Surfin' of the Century."
Don't get me wrong. It's not that I have anything against people who surf. In fact, there was a fair amount of the surfing story that I found simply fascinating (and until reading this book, I knew NOTHING about.)
Case in point: Cortes Bank. This is an area in the Pacific Ocean about 115 miles off the coast of San Diego. As it happens, there is a submerged, underwater chain of islands there, and when the large Pacific swells --beefed up by storm fronts-- hit the shallow water... well, surf's up, dude, in a majorly-tasty way.
Casey's description of her six-hour trip out to this isolated area in a rather small boat with a band of some of the best surfers on the planet looking to ride 100-foot waves was astounding. I had no clue that surfing was anything but a near-the-shore sport.
But my issue with the book --and the reason I've given it just three stars-- is the amount of ink she devotes to the surfers, their injuries, their families, their gear, their homes, the award ceremonies... well, you get the picture.
The sections of the book that I was expecting --where she writes about the science of the waves, both what we understand, and that which remains (at this point) well beyond our ability to figure out, are very well written. I really like her writing style, and enjoyed her 2006 book about the Farallon Islands, "The Devil's Teeth" a little bit more than THE WAVE, if only because the subject was a touch more 'focused'.
- Jonathan Sabin
I haven't read Casey's other book, about sharks, nor have I read her as editor of Oprah's O Magazine (I have trouble picking up a publication that has its owner on the cover every issue, who also named it after herself). After reading The Wave, I might just check out Casey's other writing, as she understands what good scribbling is all about. She always keeps things moving, rarely bogging down in arcane detail even when discussing the science of climatology, waves, etc, and has a fine eye for the telling fact. Perhaps too fine, but we'll get to that in a minute. What's best about The Wave is the overall scope; Casey links how the earth's weather is changing to how waves are growing, and there's no denying the stats: there is a clear correlation. She visits various scientists and marine salvage folks and shares their stories; they all agree that we're seeing the oceans get nuttier, and it's only just beginning.
Enter our hero! Laird "Larry" Hamilton, big wave rider extraordinaire. In this book he comes off as very humble, very brave, and very wise. You root for him at every turn on every wave and it's clear that Casey has quite a rapport with the guy. She always seems to be at his house, near the infamous Jaws/Pe'ahi, a Maui big wave break, chatting with Larry and Curly and Moe. Just kidding. These guys are no stooges; they've almost perfected the art of tow-in surfing, which is the only way to catch a 50 footer or above---paddling in is too slow. But towing is still very controversial to many, and Casey pretty much skips that argument altogether, a telling omission.
We're taken to some of the world's best big breaks, like Todos and Cortes and even Jaws' big sister Egypt, which never breaks unless it's almost 100 feet high and provides the highlight of the book, a wild day where Laird and his tow partner almost get killed, and when they realize maybe it's not worth dying to catch the biggest waves. (The fact that Laird went out again at 80-foot Egypt that same session certainly dispels any doubts; this guy definitely does live for the really hairy waves.) That chapter, and the scene where Laird takes Casey on a jet ski down the face of Jaws, offer some visceral thrills for the reader, and are part of why this book is fun. Even if its title should really be The Wave: Kingdom Of Laird.
Which brings me to some thoughts we're unlikely to hear much about when this book hits the stands. [If you're not a surfer or are just curious if The Wave is good, no need to go further. Enjoy the book, it's a fine read.]
As a surfer, though sadly landlocked, I've followed Hamilton's exploits on occasion since I first read about him in the '90s. When his infamous Teahupoo monster wave was on the cover of Surfer mag in 2000, I remember standing at my mailbox in true awe at the insanely malevolent lip above his head. That thing could easily vaporize anybody. From that point on Laird became the Ultimate Big Wave Surfer, TM, and suddenly he was everywhere. But here's what's most interesting about LH: he disdains surf contests, for many good reasons, and is seen as the Pure Surfer. Seeking the biggest, baddest, bestest waves on the planet, he has jettisoned the crass commercialism of the surf world to live on his own ethereal plane of Ultimate Waveness.
Except for those American Express commercials. And that Oxbow stuff. And his own brand of products. And...well, you know, a guy's got to make a living, right? Fair enough. But here's the problem: so do other guys. There's a scene in The Wave where Laird, with his faithful reporter tagging along, gives some grief to Sean Collins, who started the website Surfline, whereby anybody can see where the best waves will be on the planet. Laird feels that's cheating, and not everybody should get that knowledge. Just like many feel that tow-in surfing---which Laird, Buzzy Kerbox and Darrick Doerner pioneered in the '90s---is completely wrong, with its gas fumes and noise and pollution of Mother Ocean, and its disrespect towards paddle-in surfers.
But you see, when Laird does it, it's pure. Sorry, Pure TM. Just as Surfline isn't pure. And contests aren't. And maybe they're not, fair enough. But you know what? It's time Hamilton realized that while he may be a better surfer than the rest, and thus deserving of more respect out there, he's not the only surfer, and other riders want and maybe even deserve the big waves too. And the magazine covers. And the videos. And the movies. And the American Express commercials.
And the book written by Oprah's go-to writer gal, which when you really look at it is a long, very well-done puff piece on Laird Hamilton, posing as a scientific inquiry into the world of waves. Which it also is...but it always seems to come back to Laird. So why not call this book Laird: The Super Mega Master (And His Big Waves, Etc)? Well, that would be so crass. And maybe a little too transparent.
Hey, it fooled me. One of the reasons I picked this up was Laird, but I also wanted to hear what the real wave experts think. And they confirm what many of us were talking about 20 years ago: the waves are getting bigger due to climate change, and there'll be some awesome tubes the size of houses out there, ever bigger. So it's only logical that guys like Laird and Doerner should be stoked, and studied. Wait a minute...who?
Another weird thing about this book is Darrick Doerner's very peripheral status. He's barely mentioned, even though he was Laird's original long-time tow-in partner. Even though he was catching monsters when Larry was a kid (including a 1988 Waimea wave still considered one of the all-time great paddle-in (ie real surfing, non-TM) waves). Even though true waterman Doerner is seen by many in Hawaii as Laird's predecessor and teacher, in many ways. So why is Darrick barely mentioned? Good question. Just like Buzzy; he and Laird had a falling out and now it's all about Kalama and Lickle here. But if this book is really about big waves, Doerner merits far more time and respect.
And where is Eddie Aikau?! Come on. He deserves at least a paragraph, if not a chapter. Same with Jeff Clark, who surfed the insanely hairy Maverick's alone for 15 years, probably the greatest big wave feat that ever will be. You'd think that Casey, whose comfort in and respect for the water adds much credence to her writing here, would give those guys the space they very definitely earned.
Finishing The Wave, I decided to check out Laird's website, which I've never done. And guess what? It was only there and in linked articles that I found many fascinating facts skipped over in The Wave. Like, Casey lived with the Hamiltons on Maui for five years (never once mentioned in the book...why? Seems germane. Maybe too much so?). Like, Laird's site sells a bumpersticker, Blame Laird, a weirdly ironic theft of a sticker popular on many cars at many breaks now. He's being blamed for costing plenty of surfers endless waves by popularizing the stand-up paddleboard, wherein you stand on the board way outside the break and get ALL the best waves. It used to be the old longboarders way outside who peeved folks inside...now they too are mad at the stand-ups. So it goes.
So Blame Laird. But also make sure to check out Laird's new line of....you guessed it, stand up paddleboards! Yes, the ads are all over his website, but Casey never mentions in the book that LH has this product on sale, but she does talk about him stand-up surfing and plugs it as a genuine Hawaiian thang, and ain't it cool, etc. Hmmm. Perhaps Casey is head of O due to a very skillful way with product placement along with her literary skills?
And Laird's website's front page now has various articles about...this book! It wasn't until I read those articles that I saw very clearly that The Wave was practically commissioned by Laird, or perhaps his wife Gabby. Her own line of products is on his site as well, and she just wrote a gushing piece on she and Laird hobnobbing with the rich in the Hamptons while promoting...The Wave! Wait, are we still talking about Laird Hamilton, hater of surf contests and all that is phony in the surf world? Can't be.
But it gets better, or worse, or something. Laird is also now sponsored by, try not to laugh...Chanel! Yes, the perfume folks, now hawking watches. Clearly from Gabby's starstruck article ("Laird sat next to super famous artist/New York scenester Julian Schabel at dinner!"), she is all about leveraging the Hamilton brand, and Laird is being dragged along.
Or rather, towed, into the modern world's Greatest Wave of all: Selling Yourself.
The pictures of Laird at that party for this book show him almost cringing , and who can blame him? This whole PR exercise can't be his doing (one hopes, but one wonders...). One also hopes that he soon pulls out of this ever-bigger monster wave, with a thousand logos across its face and all sorts of bumpy shelves on the way down to the trough of Eternal Product Placement, where there is naught but a crashing, crushing lip; that's one wave you can't bail on once you're in its brutally gnarly closeout barrel, bruddah.
Sure, LH has to make cash for his family (always the ultimate excuse for selling anything), but he can't simultaneously hate on Sean Collins, other tow-in surfers, and the surf world in general for following his lead. Especially when he's making all this money selling himself as Mr. Ultimate Big Wave Surfer in TV commercials and books and movies. Pick one or the other, Laird. You're the purist, or you're the sell-out like everyone else. You can't be both...and you ain't. The Wave and its glitzy parties and no doubt upcoming Oprah tie-ins are no better than any surf contest or gaggle of tow-in noobs at Jaws on that rare huge day every three years...they're just somewhat more subtle. Judge not lest thee be judged. You may have started it, but you can't have it all to yourself while cashing in as well. (Just like you can't preach about the purity of Mother Ocean and then jet ski into waves while spewing gas all over your mother).
So now, along with his t-shirts, movies, bumperstickers, hats, paddleboards, vitamins, watches, credit cards, etc etc etc etc, Laird has a book, The Wave. It's a very well-disguised, well-written, intelligent product placement, and it tricked me up until I went to Laird's website. Kudos to all concerned for the subtlety. But in the end this book The Wave is yet another all too crisp meta-ironic piece of modern culture, a warning of the dangers that modern human life has unleashed on the planet, while also being the kind of well-crafted consumer-culture advertisement that has lead to the selfish earth-trashing behavior that may have caused all these freaks of nature in the first place.
Oh well. It fooled me and I had fun while it lasted. And that's what matters.
If you stick to the waves, mixing oceanographers and surfers makes sense. But the author goes much deeper and starts sounding like a romance novelist:
"Though he was almost always smiling, there was a dark intensity to McNamara's presense. His hair was close-cropped and jet-black, his eyes were deeper than brown."
"He was a tallish, jovial Virginian, with a silver brush cut with a neat goatee. When he smiled, which was often, he revealed a set of perfect white teeth."
"Even the greenish fluorescent lighting in his office couldn't dampen his exuberant aura. His brown hair grew lavishly onto his face, happy curlicues of sideburn and mustache and beard."
Women's appearance gets much less attention, the last quote is followed by:
"Across from him sat his colleague, Dr. Christine Gommenginger, in a smart navy blue dress."
Okay, so it's a book about sexy men and the ocean. But then the author gets to science. Unfortunately, she gets it all wrong. She tells us "hurricane strength rises exponentially with wind speed." While "strength" is not a well-defined term and hurricanes are complex, to a basic first approximation hurricane power dissipation rises with the cube of wind speed. With a cubic relation if wind speed doubles, hurricane strength goes up by a factor of 8. If wind speed doubles again, hurricane strength goes up by another factor of 8. If the relation were exponential, the first increase could still be a factor of 8, but the second doubling would increase strength by a factor of 64; another doubling means an increase by a factor of 4,096. The problem is the author likes to throw words around that sound scientific, without knowing their meanings.
The author uses "knots per hour" as if "knot" is a measure of distance, but "knot" means "nautical miles per hour." In another place she claims "resonance" is "an aspect of non-linearity that is endlessly complex." Not really. It doesn't have much to do with non-linearity and is well-understood by musicians or anyone who taps a crystal glass to get a note. If a wave is sloshing back and forth in a basin, and the wave length is an integer fraction of the basin length, waves in both directions will reinforce each other and get big. The author illustrates it by a child pumping a swing, but that is pumping, not resonance. She then uses it to explain why a wind blowing in the direction of a wave adds energy. Again that's not resonance, the wind is merely adding energy by pushing against the wave.
Or she tells us, "when wave energy moves through a medium--water for instance--the medium itself doesn't actually go anywhere." First of all, not all waves move through media (this has been known for a century). Second, of course the medium moves, who could possibly believe it doesn't? If you stand in ocean water you will see the water level go up and down as waves pass. If you make big enough waves in a bathtub, water will slosh out, how can it do that if it "doesn't actually go anywhere?" Try telling that to your downstairs neighbor.
In transverse waves, the medium moves in a direction perpendicular to wave motion. In a longitudinal wave, the medium moves in a direction parallel to the wave motion. Water waves have both transverse and longitudinal components. If a water wave is moving from west to east, a particle on the surface of the water gets sucked west and up the face of an oncoming wave. As it reaches the top of the wave, it falls down and west. Because the wave is moving as this happens, its eastward motion offsets the westward motion of the particle and it ends up near its starting point for the next wave to pick up and set down (this assumes a steady swell in deep water, a breaking wave is more complicated).
The author frequently trots out questions about climate change that seem to have no relevance to anything else in the book. The style suggests she is trying to make a political point, but what that point is is never clear. Her questions are also not clear, she fails to distinguish between anthropogenic climate change and the simple trend from the recent past, or to define a time scale or even to specify the type of change. "Climate change" just seems to be another phrase she likes to sprinkle in the text without worrying about its meaning. The answers she gets from scientists are useless because her questions are so unclear, and many have a defensive note of an expert tired of debating points with amateurs who have already made up their minds and don't want to understand (or can't understand) even the basics of the science involved.
So why three stars? If you ignore the faux-science and either ignore or enjoy the sensuous description of men, and don't look for any particular point, you will find some exceptional writing about people and places. The author has a lot of talent, and clearly loves male surfers, dramatic stories and roll-up-their-sleeves male scientists. If she would only stick to topics she understands, she could write five-star books.