Doubleday, 312pp, $27.95
Subtitled, In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks and Giants of the Ocean, this book sounded super surfer-esque and I wasn't sure I was ready for that much testosterone--although I admire the sport (from a distance). The photo insert, mid-book, does indeed feature incredibly in-shape males surfing down and through gigantic waves, but it also includes photos of enormous cargo ships and oil rigs floundering in gigantic seas as well as devastated coastal towns and cities, worldwide. (The surfer photos are spectacular professional color shots; most of the land and sea wreckage photos are black and white, the product of survivors, not celebrity camera crews, though perhaps even more impressive.)
In fact, Casey made a very clever decision when she designed her book to include both the sport of surfing and the science of waves. The surfers' point of view is primarily that of awe and the need to challenge the limits of both mind and body. "If I scare myself once every day, I'm a better person," surfing champion, Laird Hamilton has said. "It helps to have that little jolt of perspective that life's fragile." The scientists may be equally aware of life's fragility, but they express their opinions in the languages of math and molecules. The tension between thought and action and the relevance of each to the other make this book a real page turner.
Casey travels the Globe in her research effort. Of course, the major surfing sites, Hawaii, in particular, are visited again and again as she covers events. However, she also attends the Tenth International Workshop on Wave Hindcasting and Forecasting and Coastal Hazard Symposium, where she lightly engages several of the 120 attending scientists. The research is beyond her, "...blowups of scientific papers lined the ballroom" (with titles like) 'Spectral Wave Modeling of Swell Transformations...' and 'Prototyping Fine Resolution Operational Wave Forecast for the Northwest Atlantic.' Intriguing snippets of conversation are also reported...at the reader's peril..."Oh we're gonna get smacked. No doubt." That opinion belonged to Dave Levinson, a climatologist from NOAA. "A wave might seem to be a simple thing but in fact it's the most complicated form in nature." She concludes, "The bottom line, I was beginning to understand, is that wave science is mind-meltingly complex because waves themselves are that way." Humility is comforting in both surfers and writers, (the word is still out on scientists).
Making an adroit leap, Casey pursues a third source of information and opinion on gigantic waves, the insurer, Lloyds of London. The firm began in 1688 in a London coffeehouse where "sailors and shipowners gathered to make impromptu insurance deals." In many ways this is the most fascinating part of the book. Simply calculating the risk factors of various disasters is both a mentally athletic and a semi-scientific process. The Economist had reported in 2007 that "the number of climate-related catastrophes tripled between the 1970s and the 1990s and has continued to climb in the current decade." Casey's question to Lloyds is "how worried are they?"
The firm's records go back more than three centuries. (Today, "Lloyd's uses a supercomputer 'the size of four tennis courts, three stories high and housed in an earthquake-proof bunker.' ") Currently, the ships that meet disaster most regularly are the bulk carriers--developed in the 1950s to carry commodities like cement, grain, iron ore and timber. They were the "Clydesdales of the sea...three or four football fields in length." Their size makes them unable to use the Suez Canal and therefore determines their routes around the horn through the roughest water on earth. Members of this aging fleet regularly meet with disaster ("snap like a pencil" was one of the phrases the Lloyd's exec used). Lost cargo is not just a problem for Lloyds or the ship owner. The cargos, often toxic, spill into the seas and travel around the globe. (Even worse, cargos are misrepresented, a carrier carrying cyanide declared the cargo "flour.")
And then there are the Tsunamis caused by shifts of tectonic plates under the sea. "The Pacific Ocean alone produced nearly a thousand in the past century...which is not surprising when you consider that the Pacific basin, a patchwork quilt of tectonic plates grinding away against one another is an earthquake factory."
No wonder Casey included the surfer stories to lighten up all this heavy information. In spite of their indulgence in defying death, the surfers provide bright and colorful relief, the illusion of human control, to this increasingly violent habitat we call Mother Earth.