The ancient Polynesians felt profound respect for the power of the sea. Their custom was to carry ti leafs with them when they went on risky journeys. As Susan Casey reports in her masterful book, The Wave, California-born but Hawaii-bred surfing legend Laird Hamilton, perhaps superstitiously, always carries a ti leaf along with him as he hunts down the world’s monster waves. “You take the leaf out,” Hamilton told her, “and the leaf brings you home.” So far it’s worked for him.
The Wave is one of the most suspenseful and fascinating works of narrative nonfiction that I’ve read in a long time. Casey, whose first bestseller was about Great White Sharks, weaves together three different story lines to explore what she calls “the freaks, rogues, and giants of the oceans.” She visits the scientists who are tracking and trying to predict and understand these giants. She spends time with world-class surfers and windsurfers like Laird Hamilton, Darrick Doerner, Brett Lickle, and Dave Kalama – penetrating an extreme subculture to the point of being invited by Hamilton to surf the giant wave off of Haiku on Maui’s north shore, known as Pe’ahi or “Jaws” with him on a Jet Ski. And she also seeks out the mariners – the ship captains and crewmen aboard ships – that have come face-to-face with these terrifying, killer waves.
Part of the pleasure for me in reading “The Wave” was that Casey spent much of her time reporting on the north shore of Maui, a place I’ve visited several times over the past year. Here’s her marvelous description of the former sugar plantation town of Paia, where
“…someone had affixed another sign: “Please Don’t Feed the Hippies.” The edict was delightfully impossible to obey, as everyone in Paia had a touch of hippie soul; it was only a matter of degree. No one cared about your resume in Paia, or that you hadn’t brushed your hair all the way through, or that your truck had seen better days. In the town’s hub, a ramshackle grocery store called Mana Foods, yoga instructors shopped alongside heavily pierced drifters, and pot farmers mingled with supermodels, and Brazilian kitesurfers lined up at the deli counter behind Buddhist priests, and three-hundred-pound Samoan construction workers jostled in the aisles with movie stars…”
There are many such nuggets in “The Wave” and she’s equally gifted at describing places and people. But the emotional heart of her book for me, was her nuanced profile of Laird Hamilton, and his tight team of surfers from Maui’s North Shore who have each other’s backs. Here’s her description of Hamilton’s genius as a surfer:
“Not only did he ride waves that others considered unrideable, at Jaws and elsewhere, but he did it with a trademark intensity, positioning himself deeper in the pit, carving bottom turns that would cause a lesser set of legs to crumple, rocketing up and down the face, and playing chicken with the lip as it hovered overhead, poised to release a hundred thousand tons of angry water. He seemed to know exactly what the ocean was going to do, and to stay a split second ahead of it.”
Casey propelled me through her narrative, including the sections on wave science and the math and physics behind it. But the risks that Casey’s characters were taking was the book’s jet fuel. Would Laird (called Larry by his friends) find a bigger wave? Who would die? Who would get crushed by the insane power and unpredictability of these waves? As someone who studies narrative nonfiction, I was struck by Casey’s skill at making me care about the stakes involved – not just human lives, but the far larger picture of a period of rising seas and steadily bigger waves as a result of climate change.
There are other reasons why I this book captured my imagination. There’s a power in Hawaii that I’ve come to sense – and fear –more and more each time I’ve visited. On my recent stay in Hana on Maui’s windward side, I came away with renewed respect and terror for the ocean. We’d brushed against it ever so slightly, after paddling sea kayaks from Hana Bay to Red Sand Beach in heavy surf. It’s not often that I truly get scared, but that’s what I felt when faced with swells approaching perhaps ten or twelve feet
Consider, then, the rush of adrenalin and fear that accompanies fifty-foot waves – or a hundred foot monsters – or even a hundred and twenty foot behemoths. Then, take one imaginative step further and join writer Susan Casey in not only tracking down the big-wave surfers who hunt down these terrifying beasts on Jet-Skis in California, Mexico, South Africa, and Hawaii – but even has the courage to join them out on those seas (most terrifyingly, on the back of Laird Hamilton’s Jet Ski as he confronts Jaws.)
Did I love this book so much because I’m afraid of the ocean and, thus, found it fascinating to read about people who overcome their fear? That could help partly explain it. In terms of Casey’s ability to talk to such a wide range of people and truly be invited into their worlds, as a reporter, I admire what she did. I’d love to meet her myself some day and ask her more about how she reported this book. But the very best part of The Wave for me was at the very end, as a typhoon approached Maui’s north shore in late 2009 and Hamilton flies from his home on Kaui to ride his board, the Green Meanie, on Jaws. I won’t spoil the suspense by telling you what happens, but it’s beautiful.
A footnote: Casey’s book has inspired me to take a tiny first step of my own towards not fearing the ocean so much. Our local community college has a course called “Surfing 101,” which takes place out at Stinson Beach, just north of San Francisco. I’m signing up for it today but am wondering – can I find a ti leaf to carry with me?
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