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review: non-fiction

Laird Hamilton enters the barrel as he surfs large waves at Teahupoo, Tahiti.Bo Bridges

Years ago, when I was surfing at a place called Haleiwa (pronounced "Ha-lay-eeva"), on the North Shore of Oahu, I had caught a decent-sized wave, but a minor miscalculation resulted in a wobbly loss of balance and a headlong tumble into the water. I had been riding in the "curl," the open face of a breaking wave, and as the wave broke, what had been a slick, moving wall of green water turned into a foaming, churning, white maelstrom. This was before the invention of the leash that connects a surfer's ankle to his board, so as my board took off on its own, I found myself flailing in the turbulence of a giant washing machine. I had been driven downward by the crashing wave, and my first thought was to swim up to get a breath. As I pulled toward the surface, I could see nothing but white bubbles and foam. As the white water churned around me, I was running out of air. I remember it being a lot darker down there than I had expected. Blinded and disoriented, I pulled toward the surface. Then I hit my head on the bottom.

I was in the U.S. Army, stationed at Schofield Barracks. Because it was a time when nobody was shooting real bullets at American soldiers, we had a certain amount of free time. The easiest place to get to from Schofield was Waikiki (two-foot surf on a good day), but we tried many other beaches as well. One of the places we visited (but never tried) was Waimea Bay, where the biggest waves in the Hawaiian Islands appeared in the winter, and were surfed by people a whole lot braver and more competent than I. And that is the segue into Susan Casey's extraordinary The Wave.

When I was asked to review this book, I read the subtitle ( In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks, and Giants of the Ocean), and assumed it was going to be about giant (or rogue, or freak) waves that appeared mysteriously and sunk tankers, smothered lighthouses or roared ashore to drown cities and villages. It is, but it is about a whole lot more. It is about meteorologists, oceanographers and physicists who study the mechanics of giant ocean waves, and the small band of surfers who have never met - or heard of - a wave too big to ride.

Meet Laird Hamilton, the world's premier big-wave surfer, and one of the developers of a method of surfing that I couldn't have imagined in those halcyon Haleiwa days. It's called "tow-surfing," or "tow-in surfing," and it consists of a driver on a Jet-Ski towing the surfer (the "rider") out to giant breaks that could not possibly be reached by paddling, and as a 50- or 60-foot wave begins to peak, "the rider would drop the tow rope and rocket onto the face. The driver, meanwhile, would exit off the back. Using this method, with its increased horsepower and redesigned gear, a surfer could theoretically catch the biggest waves out there. Riding them - and surviving if you fell - was another story."

Off the island of Maui there is a break officially known as Pe'ahi, but its nickname is "Jaws" because, as Susan Casey writes, "like all sets of jaws, this one has a tendency to snap shut, swallowing anything unfortunate enough to be inside it." Casey went to Maui to see Jaws and to see super-surfer Laird Hamilton in action. (She also went to Tahiti, South Africa, Alta and Baja California, and almost everywhere else where giant waves are known to appear.)

Everybody agrees that Hamilton is the best, but the book is not only about him. It is about all those men (and one woman) whose lives have come to be defined by conquering giant waves - or more to the point, conquering their fear of riding massively destructive monster walls of moving water, as tall as a six-storey building, and as dangerous as that building falling on you. And then going out and looking for even bigger waves: Hundred-foot storm surf, anyone?

The book contains a dazzling collection of photos of surfers, surf, rogue-wave-threatened ships, and even a picture of Susan Casey riding a jet-ski behind Laird Hamilton at Jaws. But if you look for videos of "Laird Hamilton," "Mike Parsons" or "Jaws," you can see the surfers and the surf in action. (Be sure you type in "Jaws Maui," or you'll get something about a big shark.) You won't believe your eyes. Even if you have never given a thought to surfing, this book will blow you away.

Instinct tells us that mere words (and a few pictures) should not be able to portray the world of the big-wave surfer, let alone the fearsome power of the waves they ride, but Casey's thrilling, stylish prose does that and more. I'm only allowed 800 words for this review. Here are a few: fascinating, heroic, dazzling, terrifying, amazing, unbelievable, mesmerizing, instructive, enlightening, superb. This is the Dragon Tattoo, Moby Dick, Into Thin Air for our time; a powerful, articulate ride into a world you never knew existed but that you will never, never forget. I am honoured to write this review. Bravo, Susan Casey.

Richard Ellis is an American marine biologist, author and illustrator. His most recent book, On Thin Ice, examines the threats to polar bears from a warming climate.