Rob Hardy on books


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Surf's Up, Worldwide and Year-Round



Rob Hardy


Here is something else I don't know a thing about: surfing. I have never tried it, even body surfing, and at this point I guess I am unlikely to. That doesn't keep me from enjoying waves; I don't get to the beach often, but I don't know anyone who is indifferent to the fascinating movement and sounds of swells of water approaching shore. The experts on surfing will admire at a higher level than I did Swell: A Year of Waves (Chronicle Books), but this is a picture book that anyone ought to admire. It has a short text by Evan Slater, who is a big wave surfer and the former editor of Surfing magazine. He starts his introduction, "For a long time, I considered myself an expert on waves," but then he describes going out deliberately to meet a wave breaking on an underwater shoal in the open ocean, and finding that whatever his expertise, it avails him nothing. He met a 45-foot avalanche of water that "was a force beyond my comprehension." So there is a lot he doesn't know about waves, and a lot scientists do not know. But we know something: "It's been only twenty-five years since predicting wave events became an inexact but semireliable science." Surfers, and others who are interested in waves, can get forecasts of what to expect and where, up to two weeks in advance. I suppose that such predictions are fraught with the same degree of error as any weather forecast, but there are general characteristics of waves at particular times in particular places. Four of those wave sites form the four sections of photographs here. 




The photographs are the show. They are edited for the book by Peter Taras, who is the photo editor for Surfing magazine. The photographers have been to all the four regions, and from the credits, it would seem that there is little overlap; perhaps each photographer is an expert from a particular region. There are 155 photos here, most in color, and every one is gorgeous. They display, of course, the power and the combination of order and chaos that one can see at any beach, but many of the waves here are giants. Some of the photos are abstracts of color and form that give little indication of even which way is up. Many are just of the blues, greens, whites, and golds of the piled masses of water without human or coastal context. Many display what looks like a symmetric, unremarkable wave but that's before you get a sense of the scale; keep looking and you will see the tiny figure of a surfer on a board dwarfed by the moving water.  




It is surprising to read about the differences in character of the waves described here. The book's subtitle, "A Year of Waves," is due to the annual weather changes which affect the four different regions as the year cycles by; it is easy to imagine that a surfer with unlimited resources would book flights to each area in turn. Slater says that the waves coming in the Pacific Northern Hemisphere, December to February, are aggressors, showing the ocean's dark side. They originate in storms off Japan and head eastward, hitting Hawaii, Tahiti, and the west coast of the Americas. The waves are volatile and unpredictable, and are responsible for most of the deaths of surfers. The waves show that there is a lot more going on than just oceans and storms; when the Santa Anas winds come from offshore, they help form the waves into what surfers would find to be flawless peaks. The Southern Indian Ocean is most active from March to May, fueled by storms that round the Cape of Good Hope from the Atlantic. They hit Australia, where there are irregular rocks and reefs "that are generally best appreciated from a safe distance." Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of islands in Indonesia, however, have perfect surf because, among other reasons, they are just the right distance from the storms' origin. Earthquakes change things; the monstrous temblor in 2005 "destroyed some breaks and improved others." The Pacific Southern Hemisphere waves, from June to August, come up from Antarctica and have a long, clear shot unimpeded by land masses before they hit the coasts of South, Central, and Northern America, including Alaska. Since they hit in the summer months, they have perfect timing for west coasters. Whirlpools around the jetty at Newport Beach force lifeguards to rescue thousands of people every year; Slater says it is the world's most dangerous amusement park. Finally, the Atlantic Hurricane waves, September to November, affecting the East Coast, are something completely different, unpredictable and disorganized compared to their cousins around the Pacific. Hurricane swells are whipped up in the neighborhood of the beaches they break on, making for continuous trains of waves, and pointed to an area only a few miles wide.  




This book would be a superb gift for the surfer in your life, who will long to get to every locale described here. For the rest of us, it is a collection of handsome and often dramatic photographs of one of the most complex and yet commonplace manifestations of movement in the natural world. 




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