A Wave I’d like to Catch


I'm reading about waves.

Really.

I brought along on my sabbatical Susan Casey's book The Wave, her sweeping and riveting account of mammoth waves from Tahiti to northern Scotland, from Hawaii to Alaska, From Cape Town to Lisbon, and her collage of portraits of the scientists who study them, the underwriters who insure against them, and above all the half-mad adventurers called big-wave surfers who chase them around the globe to fling themselves headlong into their wild unforgiving hearts. I had, last year, read Casey's The Devil's Teeth, her equally riveting account of the great white sharks off California's Farallon Islands, and found it wondrous and terrifying enough to pick up her most recent volume. I'm not disappointed.

I never knew there was so much to know about bumps in the water – or how big those bumps can get (in 1958, in Lituya Bay, Alaska, a wave roused up by a massive earthquake which set off a massive landslide rose to an astonishing 1,740 feet; as astonishing, four of the people on two of the three small fishing vessels harbored in the bay lived to tell the tale).

All of it makes for a compelling read – a kind of whodunit joined to an espionage thriller joined to a life-at-the-edge dispatch. What I find most gripping – it's the story Casey keeps circling back to – are the portraits of the big-wave surfers. These are not the stereotypical air-head party-boys often associated with the ilk. Off the water, they are philosopher-poets of the mysteries of storm and ocean. But on the water, they are aquatic daredevils. Tsunami warriors. They are men (and a few women) who run for the sea when all others are running from it. They are those for whom the pulsing magenta blob in the centre of a storm reading is good news of great joy: it means somewhere, soon, monster waves 60, 70, 80 feet at their crest will crash on some breakwater, and if they fly through the night and care nothing about sleep, they might just be there to meet it and ride it.

This is the story, really, of a small band of death-defiers who play at the edge of destruction. They spare no expense. They fly in the face of terror. They risk life and limb. It would be easy to dismiss it all as juvenile testosterone-fueled frivolity, except it is so downright awe-inspiring.

Frankly, it's convicting. I would love to think I have given myself this unreservedly to the cause of the gospel, but really? I can get put off by the smallest obstacle, intimidated by the least resistance. My heart can quaver at the first sign of disturbance. But to actually see the worst the devil or the earth can throw at you, to actually go looking for it, and then to aim straight for it?

It's a wave I'd love to catch.

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