Thursday, July 7, 2011

Review of Susan Casey's book, The Wave

I'm re-posting this review because the link I had used in December no longer works.

By Elliott Almond

One clear winter's day in 1983, I found myself on the wobbly deck of a sports-fishing vessel chugging through a vengeful sea beyond the safe harbor of Ensenada, Mexico.

I had embarked on a bleary-eyed journey to one of surfing's consecrated grounds: the islands of Todos Santos off Baja California. Back then, few surfers had sampled the rapturous waves on these low-slung isles, far from the maddening hordes. Just to reach the desolate place took an overnight drive from Southern California and a boat trip from hell.

The sleepless trek proved worth it. During our three-day visit, surfing conditions were perfect: windless, with lethal waves plummeting over the rocky reefs like dissolving skyscrapers. On such rare occasions curtains of diaphanous water blanket a surfer in a warm embrace, only to turn cold and calculating, happily slamming helpless souls on sharp-edged rock or coral. Such descents into the abyss can lead to bodily harm. Or death.

Even the most adroit surfer has difficulty describing what it is like to face a behemoth wave concocted by gale winds and fierce storms thousands of miles away.

Author Susan Casey spent five years following waves, surfers and ocean scientists. The result is her compelling nonfiction work "The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks and Giants of the Ocean," which conveys how it feels to be in the grasp of a sea monster.

It is a sequel to her best-selling "Devil's Teeth," about white sharks that terrorize the Northern California coastline. After taking readers into the cold, clear danger beneath the surface, Casey now chases another oceanic phenomenon in a riveting tale that packs the narrative power and dexterity of Richard Preston's "The Wild Trees." She picks up where Sebastian Unger's "The Perfect Storm" ends by blending scientific mysteries with extreme-sport "why-do-they-do-this?"

Casey gets closer than any spectator would dare, witnessing famous surfers in action from photographers' vantage points just yards away. Eventually, at a celebrated Maui break, she also shoots down the face of a colossal wave on the back of a Jet Ski.

"The Wave" begins with a daunting saga: In February 2000, gargantuan, 100-foot-high waves in the North Atlantic ensnared a sturdy British research vessel, as the scientists aboard witnessed them firsthand -- and realized how little they understood the ocean's idiosyncrasies.

While mariners and oceanographers worry about these "rogue" waves, which arise as if from a Jules Verne novel, a small band of big-wave surfers actually seeks them out, tackling the oceans' equivalent of the Himalayas. That latter search leads Casey to Maui, where she persuades famed extreme-sport surfer Laird Hamilton to let her in to a carefully guarded subculture. Hamilton, a pioneer of Jet Ski "tow-in" surfing, is "The Wave's" protagonist, a blond, muscular prodigy with a singular life pursuit.

The book alternates between the high-seas adventures of surfers gallivanting around the globe and the brainstorming sessions of scientists testing theories of what they thought possible. Casey skillfully unbundles the complex science into digestible language, always with an eye on the personal, rather than the abstract.

While the surfer tribe scurries about for the next adrenaline fix, the equally impassioned handful of scientists studies waves for clues about climate change. Casey reports some of the world's leading experts can't yet predict just what we should expect as the planet heats up.

Surfers would rather rejoice in the spectacle of bone-crushing waves the size of office buildings pounding the shoreline. It's those indescribable moments that underscore the heart of "The Wave," which has arrived just as Northern California's major breaks awaken from their summer slumber.

On a deadly December day in 2007, when I drove to Mavericks to track a massive swell that had slammed the Central Coast, Casey also was there. In "The Wave," she details the drama that unfolded at Half Moon Bay, where fog as thick as milk tea blanketed the coastline. Danger lurked behind the menacing mist as two fishermen were lost at sea just outside Pillar Point Harbor. Down the coast at Pebble Beach, local legend Peter Davi died surfing the infamous break known as Ghost Tree.

The drama builds as the author departs that same night to shadow the perilous swell as it swooped toward the waters off Todos Santos. Reading her account of the mind-numbing lack of sleep and ordeal of securing a vessel to reach the islands, I had to smile. I knew exactly what she had undertaken.

And now the rest of the world can appreciate the never-ending pursuit, as well.

Elliott Almond is author of "Surfing: Mastering Waves from Basic to Intermediate" (Mountaineer Books). He can be reached at 408-920-5865.

"The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks, and Giants of the Ocean"; By Susan Casey; Doubleday, 352 pp., $27.95

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Beach cleanup: Make it a family outing

This news release just came to my inbox and I wanted to pass it along because it's a great event to get kids involved in keeping our precious beaches pristine. I remember getting so frustrated with beach goers leaving trash on the sand because, I guess, they didn't live there so what the heck.

Here's an edited version of the release:

The 27th California Coastal Cleanup Day, the state’s largest volunteer event, is scheduled from 9 a.m. to noon, Sept. 17 at more than 800 locations, according to the California Coastal Commission.

For more information read here.

The campaign is the largest single effort to remove the debris that has accumulated on California’s beaches and inland shorelines over the past year, the commission says. It also has been shown to be an effective method for educating participants about the harmful environmental impacts of marine debris, according to a statewide survey of more than 1,000 participants in the 2010 cleanup.

“The results of the survey confirm what we’d always believed about Coastal Cleanup Day but until now, could not prove: that the cleanup is a powerful educational tool in addition to being one of the shining examples of coastal stewardship our state enjoys each year,” Christiane Parry, director of the California Coastal Commission’s Public Education Program, said in a prepared statement. “Even while cleaning up, our volunteers are able to make the connection between the trash they are removing from the shore and the trash that they create in their daily lives. It’s a powerful reminder that we can take simple steps to keep our coast clean every day of the year.”

For those who don’t want to wait until September to start cleaning California’s beaches, the Coastal Commission also runs a year-round beach cleanup program called Adopt-A-Beach. When a group adopts a beach they commit to cleaning it three times per year (school groups are required to clean up only once per year).