I am by no one’s definition an adrenaline junkie, but the introduction of Susan Casey’s The Wave is enough to get any reader’s heart pounding and mind racing from secondhand adrenaline. Casey’s ability to so vividly drop the reader into those first few harrowing, white-knuckle scenes is astounding. Despite being born and raised in California, the farthest I’ve been from the shoreline was the hour spent snorkeling along the beach for a school trip, and yet with Casey’s story-telling, it felt like I was on that ship in the middle of a storm that produced wave sizes that no one had predicted. Her writing style and the narrative she carries through this book stuck with me so much that even though it’s been four years since I first found and read this book, it kept me riveted the entire time that I re-read it. And perhaps more importantly, four years later, this book is still one of the first books I recommend to people who are looking for something non-fiction to read.
The Wave could have been a book that was clinical and detached in its approach of describing and understanding what is currently going on with our planet. Susan Casey could have focused largely on the scientific details about the climate, the models created to understand the ebb and flow of the ocean, how pollution has affected both, the list goes on. However, what’s ingenious about this book is how she weaves in the main characters, the big wave or tow surfers, to personalize the subject matter. Mixed in with the colorful anecdotes of heart-pounding successes and gut-wrenching near-misses from these surfing legends riding 50 to 70-foot waves, are the scientific and practical details from wave and climate scientists, the group that insures most of the world’s shipping fleet, and marine salvage experts. Importantly, it never feels like Casey tries to elevate one expert’s insight or opinion over another’s. The surfers are held to just the same level of expertise as any other qualified individual in terms of their knowledge. One group may be able to model some aspects of waves, but the other can sense even the subtlest change in the ocean’s behavior while sitting on a surfboard. She presents as much of a complete picture as possible about the mysterious black-box that is the ocean by giving the reader all of these different sides to the common story: big waves that no one thought could exist.
For the average person, what happens in the ocean seems like a complete mystery. Who’s to say how big the waves could get in open water? But what’s being brought to light more and more often is that despite all best efforts to model the ocean and waves, no one has been able to accurately model and predict what the anecdotes prove the ocean is capable of. Oil rigs getting slammed by 80-foot waves out of nowhere, untold numbers of ships disappearing without warning, and the shore of a bay stripped of its forest for a half-mile above the waterline. The ocean is capable of immense power and destruction, and probably the group that can best speak on this is the book’s main characters. As Casey follows these big wave surfers around the world and watches them do battle with waves that range in size from that of a school bus (~40 feet) to that of The White House (70 feet), she gets them to describe what it’s like to be at the mercy of such a powerful force. It starts to put into perspective what might be happening even further from the shore, where waves can collide into each other, gain energy from each other and the wind, and build up to even greater heights. And even from the safety of your own home, you begin to feel a bit more respect for the ocean and the talent it must take to maintain control when up against something the size of a building, whether on a surfboard or on a ship.
While it may not be shouted from the pages, the effect of climate change on our planet is still very prominent throughout this book. There are times where we get to see Casey go to a scientific conference about waves and ask some of the researchers what they think the current status of things is: are the waves getting bigger, are the storms getting stronger, etc. Unfortunately, because we aren’t very good at modeling this system and data has only begun to be collected with satellites and other advanced/accurate methods for the past 50 or so years, we can’t rightly know what the impact is. Despite this, most of the individuals she spoke with believed, based on everything they knew, that things are going to be impacted, but we just don’t know how or to what extent yet. Personally, it’s hard to not agree with them when the past two years have been some of the most active when it comes to hurricanes. 2017 and 2018 marked two years of “extremely active” and “destructive” hurricane seasons according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. It’s not just the hurricanes that seem to be intensifying, the droughts on the west coast feel like they go on for years longer than most people anticipated, and were only “fixed” by unprecedented rainy seasons. There are countless other examples for how climate change is affecting our planet. And with what feels like so little time left to reverse the damage that has been done by global warming, I think reading The Wave gives an exciting and captivating voice/story to the part of the world that is so greatly impacted by us humans.