Studying And Surfing The Ocean's Monster Waves
One-hundred-foot-tall waves can be nightmarish ship-swallowing monsters — or seductive sirens that tempt the adventurous. But it wasn't until 15 years ago that scientists were even able to prove that such giant rogue waves actually existed.
Susan Casey, whose book The Wave tells the story of great waves and those who seek to solve and ride them, says people were skeptical of 100-foot waves because weather patterns don't seem to predict them.
Casey says she first became interested in learning about monster waves after hearing a story about the British research vessel Discovery, a 230-meter-long ship that became trapped in a vortex of giant waves for several days. The waves, Casey says, ranged from 60 to 100 feet tall and were not predicted by weather models.
By Susan Casey
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"I just wanted to find out more about that, and yet there had been nothing written," she tells NPR's Scott Simon. "So I began to investigate."
'Avalanches Of Water'
Casey says that physics principles don't seem to allow for huge waves to exist in certain sea conditions. Yet, "for decades and even centuries, boats had been disappearing, and mariners had said, 'You know, there were these incredibly big waves, and we just escaped,' and nobody believed them."
"It was only in 1980 that we got satellites, and it was 15 years after that that it was proved that there are these 100-foot waves that can actually appear in, say, a 38-foot sea," Casey says. "But that made no sense at all."
The number of super-large waves is likely on the rise, Casey says, as a result of more climatic extremes, which in turn lead to feistier seas, tougher ocean conditions and bigger storms. The waves form as a result of these large storms, and the inherent instability of the waves — the steepness of the face — lead them to "sort of freaking out and becoming these rogue waves that are very unstable," she says.
"They're almost like avalanches of water, where one wave will all of a sudden grab the energy from, say, three or four waves around it and become this teetering monster that doesn't act like a normal wave."
Waves 'Going To Waste'
While some people fear these waves, others want to get as close to them as possible.
"I was very interested in anybody who had been in a position to tell me more about waves this size," Casey says. She found such people in "a very rarefied group of extreme surfers who seek them out."
Chief among them is Laird Hamilton, who invented a special kind of surfing just to tackle these mega waves. At some point, Casey says, the waves move too fast for anyone to be able to paddle into them. "The best waves in the world were going to waste," she said Hamilton once told her.
So Hamilton and some surfing friends began tinkering and came up with a technique involving jet skis and water ski ropes that enabled surfers to ride large waves.
Hamilton insists he's not nuts: "I would think [I'm] more on the sane side than most of the people that live in cities. And really, I'm doing it — not only because we're able to — but because for us, it's like an exploration. What can we do? How far can we go?"
Hamilton says his pursuit of giant waves really has to do with developing a "more intimate" relationship with the ocean. Being in the presence of a giant wave, he says, is to "experience something that is unexperienced by normal man or by any man."
Trying to describe the experience of surfing a huge wave is as difficult as trying to describe a color, Hamilton says. "It's something all-consuming. It's an experience that changes who you are. I just feel so alive from doing it. I feel like I get such great power."
And to wipe out?
"It's the moment where you totally relinquish any true control over what you're doing," he says. "There's no place really in life that does it quite like that — when you do fall and you do get hit by [the water], you're just at the mercy of the wave and it dictates. And sometimes those are the most thrilling rides of all. Unfortunately."
About 70 percent of the Earth's surface is covered by water, but so little is known about the oceans, Casey says. "This is, to me, the amazing thing: This spectacular force of nature, these rogue waves that can take out an 850-foot ship were, up to 15 years ago, considered not to exist. The most important thing about the ocean is that we explore it. It's our own planet — it's spectacularly beautiful, and it's really, really powerful."
SCOTT SIMON, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.
One-hundred-foot-tall waves can be monsters that prowl the sea, nightmares to haunt our dreams, and seductive temptresses with a siren call to adventurers. Susan Casey has written a book about great waves and those who seek to solve or ride them. It's called "The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks and Giants of the Ocean." Miss Casey is also editor-in-chief of O, the Oprah magazine, and joins us from New York.
Thanks so much for being with us.
Ms. SUSAN CASEY (Author, "The Wave"): My pleasure.
SIMON: And you open your book with kind of a startling story. I guess about 10 years ago, the story of the ship Discovery.
Ms. CASEY: Yes. This 230-meter-long research ship was trapped in basically a vortex of giant waves for several days. And they were waves that ranged from 60 on average to more than a hundred feet tall. So I began to investigate that.
SIMON: This was a British research vessel, right?
Ms. CASEY: Yes.
SIMON: And when they first said there are hundred-foot waves, people are very skeptical about that, right? Because, as you say, the weather patterns wouldn't seem to dictate that.
Ms. CASEY: In physics, linear physics wouldn't allow for waves that big to be in certain sea states. And for decades and even centuries, mariners had said, you know, there were these incredibly big waves, and we just escaped, and nobody believed them.
And it was only in 1980 that we got satellites, and it was more than it was 15 years after that it was actually proved that there are these hundred-foot waves that can actually appear in, say, a 38-foot sea. But that made no sense at all.
SIMON: Let me ask you about something called tow surfing, because as we noted in the introduction, there are people who obviously fear these waves and then there are other people that want to get as close to them as possible.
Ms. CASEY: That's right. and I was very interested in anybody who had been in a position to tell me more about waves this size. And of course they're the scientists that investigate them. But there is also a group of people who literally know it in a visceral sense, because they're in these waves and on these waves. And that is a very rarified group of extreme surfers who seek them out.
And foremost among them is Laird Hamilton, who's the main character in the book. He invented tow surfing because at a certain point the waves are moving too fast at a certain size for human - any human to be able to paddle into them. So to quote him - the best waves in the world, you know, were going to waste.
And Laird has a very inventive nature and, you know, started tinkering around with a number of other people to try to figure out, well, how can we ride the biggest waves in the world. And they invented a technique, which is now, I guess probably about 15 years old, that involves jet skis and water ski ropes and special equipment, all of which was created largely, I think, in Laird's garage.
SIMON: Well, speaking of all that, he's not in his garage, but he is at the studios of NPR West. Laird Hamilton joins us. Thanks so much for being with us.
Mr. LAIRD HAMILTON (Surfer): Thank you for having me.
SIMON: Let me ask a question. Are you nuts?
Mr. HAMILTON: You know, am I? I would say definitely not. I would think probably more on the sane side than most of the people that live in cities. And really, I'm doing it not only because we're able to but because for us it's like an exploration. What can we do? How far can we go? And really, I do it to continue to develop my relationship with the ocean and have a more intimate and a deeper relationship.
And I say this all the time, that just to be in the presence of a giant wave is something of to experience dinosaurs or to experience something that is really unexperienced by normal man or by any man. And to have that kind of opportunity, these are once-in-a-lifetime moments that take your whole life to be able to experience.
SIMON: Are the number of hundred-foot rogue waves on the rise?
Ms. CASEY: What I really discovered from talking to numerous scientists is the answer is most likely yes. A very large rogue wave comes as a result of a very big storm and then the instability of the waves, the steepness. Steep waves lend themselves to sort of freaking out and becoming these rogue waves that are very unstable.
And they're almost like avalanches of water, where one wave will all of a sudden grab the energy from, say, three or four waves around it and become this teetering monster that just doesn't act like a normal wave.
And as the weather becomes more volatile and more shifting, which, you know, climate change is a very big topic and nobody completely understands it, but what's becoming clear is that we're getting more extremes, and that's going to lend itself to feistier seas, bigger storms, steeper ocean conditions, which in turn will create these waves.
SIMON: Laird Hamilton, I know you've been asked this before. What's it feel like to be on one of those waves?
Mr. HAMILTON: To describe it is - in words is to describe a color, you know? It's something all-consuming. It's an experience that I think it changes who you are. I just feel so alive from doing it. I feel like I get such great power.
SIMON: So what's it feel like to wipe out on a huge wave?
Mr. HAMILTON: It's the moment where you totally relinquish any true control over what you're doing. There's no place really in life that does it quite like that. When you do fall or you do get hit by one, you're just at the mercy of the wave and it dictates. And you know, sometimes those are the most thrilling rides of all, unfortunately.
SIMON: But have you ever thought...
Mr. HAMILTON: This is it?
Mr. HAMILTON: Yeah. Yes, I have. I have thought that this is this is it and -more than once.
SIMON: I remember a mountain climber telling me once - I forget how many mountains he climbed - but he said the problem with thinking that this is it is that you, you might cease to try. That if you accept, OK, this is the end of my life, this is fate, then you won't push yourself that extra scintilla that sometimes brings you out of it.
Mr. HAMILTON: I don't disagree with that, but I think my this is it means this is it, I better really try now.
(Soundbite of laughter)
SIMON: Susan, I was on a ship this summer for a couple of weeks with my family, and I don't think I would've taken that trip if I'd read this book beforehand.
Ms. CASEY: I do - I had a couple people say to me, I read this on a boat, and I don't know if a boat is the very place to read it. But the last thing in the world I would want anybody to do is fear the ocean after reading this book. I mean, one of the main points of the book is, this is our world. I mean, it covers 71 percent of the planet, it's something like 95 percent of the planet by volume.
And we know so incredibly little about it, and every scientist I talked to said that. And this is to me the amazing thing, is that this spectacular force of nature, these rogue waves, were up to 15 years ago considered not to exist. I mean, and how is this possible that we don't know about this force of nature?
So to me, the most important thing about the ocean - I know Larry agrees with me - like, is that we explore this. Our own planet, it's spectacularly beautiful, and it's really, really powerful. It could take us out. So let's learn about it, let's respect it and let's not consider land to be the sole province of our turf.
SIMON: Well, thanks both very much.
Ms. CASEY: You're welcome. Thank you.
SIMON: Susan Casey is in New York and the great Laird Hamilton is at NPR West. Susan Casey's new book, "The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks and Giants of the Ocean." Mr. Hamilton?
Mr. HAMILTON: Yes?
SIMON: Which one are you?
Mr. HAMILTON: Yes.
SIMON: Rogues, freaks...
(Soundbite of laughter)
SIMON: That was my thought.
Mr. HAMILTON: It would be yes. Yes and yes and yes. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.