Tow-surfing: why are the tides turning on us?

Hawaii, December 2007. Brett Lickle and Laird Hamilton were surfing some of the biggest waves ever ridden — 80ft-high and rising — working in pairs, driving a Jet Ski to take each other at 40mph onto waves one could never catch by paddling alone.

After a successful morning on the outer reef at Spreckelsville, off the north coast of Maui, they went out for the second session of the day. Something was wrong with Lickle’s board, so he borrowed his larger friend’s board. And somehow, he managed to ride the wave of his life.

“I can’t tell you how scared I was,” Lickle said later. “It was like the Twilight Zone. When I kicked out of it, I said to myself, ‘You’re out of your mind, buddy.’ I barely made it. It was by the hair of my ass.” Lickle decided not to surf any more, but to stay out with his friend. “I was ready to watch Laird ride some of those bombs.”

So he towed Hamilton onto a wave, the second of a mountainous five-wave set. The drop was so immense, Hamilton had no time to race horizontally through the barrel and outrun the falling lip. He dived into the face of the wave to avoid being crushed — but this meant he would surface in front of the next, similarly huge wave. Lickle raced in on the Jet Ski to remove his friend, but he wasn’t fast enough. When the next wave hit them, Lickle was blown into the sky above the white water. As he landed, he felt an impact on his leg like a sledgehammer. Then everything went dark, as wave after wave rolled over the two men, nearly drowning them. “It was pitch black down there,” Hamilton remembers vividly.

When they finally surfaced, a quarter of a mile from the impact, Lickle knew something was seriously wrong with his leg. The calf muscle had been ripped in half by the sharp fins of a surfboard and now hung like a pair of curtains. The white water around him was red with blood. Hamilton swam to his friend — whose leg, he remembers thinking, looked like a smashed orange. “I told him, ‘You have to hang in there.’” They were out of the worst danger from the waves but still a mile from the shore, and in shark-infested waters. Hamilton took off his wet suit to make a tourniquet and put Lickle into his flotation jacket. Then he glimpsed the Jet Ski, 800 yards away, and swam for it. It would take about 15 minutes to reach the machine, during which time Hamilton could only pray: “God, please don’t let him bleed out.”

When Hamilton finally got to the Jet Ski, there was no key for the ignition. It was probably on a lanyard around Lickle’s neck. But, with stunning ingenuity, Hamilton found iPod headphones in the glove compartment and used those to hotwire it. He returned to Lickle, who was losing consciousness, and dragged him onto the rescue sled. Having given up his wet suit, Hamilton was stark naked when he reached land and handed Lickle over to paramedics. Somebody gave him a T-shirt, someone else supplied shorts. His modesty restored, Hamilton watched Lickle into the ambulance — then went straight back out to catch some more waves.

Laird Hamilton, Brett Lickle and a small group of their friends were among the first people ever to ride waves higher than 40ft. Known as the Strapped Crew, they created the sport of tow surfing — dragging people onto big waves with Jet Skis or even helicopters — in the early 1990s. “No one had ridden waves this size,” Hamilton says. “It was the unknown, like outer space. We didn’t know if we were going to come back.”

Of the two men, the better known is Hamilton, 46, who has worked as a model, actor, stunt double (for Pierce Brosnan in Die Another Day, and Kevin Costner in Waterworld) and television presenter. His all-round prowess in the water is legendary: he once windsurfed 50 miles between the Hawaiian islands of Oahu and Kauai in six hours, then back again; he was a pioneer kitesurfer and has recently been the most prominent proponent of stand-up paddle-surfing, a traditional Hawaiian technique using an enormous longboard, as practised more than 200 years ago by King Kamehameha, the great ruler who united Hawaii’s islands.

Today, Hamilton and his friends remain among the foremost exponents of tow surfing, and they have inspired many others — enthusiasts who tune into weather reports for news of big swells, and catch the first plane to wherever the big waves are expected to hit land. Breaks such as Jaws off Maui; Cortes Bank in the Pacific, 100 miles due west of San Diego; Teahupoo off Tahiti; Dungeons at Cape Town; Todos Santos in Mexico, or Bundoran off the Northern Irish coast.

Some of the younger surfers know what they’re doing; others — perhaps tempted by a $500,000 prize for anybody who rides a 100ft wave — are not ready. To the likes of Hamilton and Lickle, these newcomers are known as crash-test dummies. To old hands and newbies alike, the fact that ocean waves are getting bigger must be exhilarating. For the rest of us, however, it’s very bad news indeed.

The biggest wave ever recorded hit Alaska in 1958, after a huge landslide created a tsunami that peaked at 500 metres above sea level. That’s not a misprint: it was more than twice as high as the tallest building in Britain today — Canary Wharf Tower. Scientists know how high it was because the towering wave scraped trees and soil off nearby mountains up to that height. To get some idea of the energy contained in a wave that size consider that, because water is 800 times as dense as air, a wave just 18in high could topple a wall built to withstand 125mph winds.

It is believed to have been a tsunami, caused by a landslide, that drowned the land connecting Britain to mainland Europe 8,000 years ago. As many as 67 tsunamis have hit Italy in the past 2,000 years, though none with the devastating force of that which killed 230,000 people around the Indian Ocean on Boxing Day 2004.

It’s useful to distinguish between tsunamis, which are caused by geological events (such as landslides or earthquakes), and giant waves generated by weather, such as those Hamilton and Lickle ride, or the water deposited on New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina. But it is anticipated that both types will become a lot more common as a result of worldwide global warming.

Everything in the oceans seems to be rising: wave heights, sea levels, surface temperatures, wind speeds, storm intensities, coastal surges, tsunami risks. “Now is the time to prepare for great floods,” a July 2009 editorial in New Scientist advised. “The future of the UK’s coastal cities is in jeopardy due to rising sea levels,” reported Lloyd’s. Similarly, nine out of the world’s 10 largest cities are located on low-lying coastal land.

And it’s not only on land that higher seas and bigger waves pose a threat. Merchant shipping carries around 90% of international trade, on approximately 50,000 boats worldwide, with crew numbers of around a million. Over the past decade, around 100 ships with a cargo capacity of 500 gross tons have been lost each year, or damaged beyond repair — the equivalent of two large ships every week.

The ships that meet disaster most often are bulk carriers, cargo ships developed in the 1950s to haul commodities such as coal, metal ores, cement and timber. In 1980, a 160,000-ton bulk carrier, the Derbyshire, became the largest British ship lost at sea. Four years old and well maintained, it had a crew of 42, plus two officers’ wives, and it went down in the Pacific without putting out a radio call or a distress signal of any sort.

For centuries, sailors told of the existence of monstrous waves up to 100ft high that could appear without warning in mid-ocean, against the prevailing current and wave direction, and often in perfectly clear and calm weather.

Such waves were said to consist of an almost vertical wall of water preceded by a trough so deep that it was referred to as a “hole in the sea”. Scientists were sceptical, until the existence of freak waves was confirmed — as recently as 1995. At the Draupner oil platform in the North Sea, 100 miles off the coast of Norway, an 84ft wave occurred amid seas where the significant wave height (the average of the tallest 33% of waves) was 39ft. The rig sustained moderate damage, but the wave changed everything: the emphasis shifted from explaining why freak waves were impossible, to figuring out why they occurred in the first place.

When the wreckage of the Derbyshire was eventually located, 2½ miles down, it appeared to have been hit on top by breaking waves — waves taller than 80ft. Some investigators believed that only a freak wave could have done this.

Cruise ships, too, are threatened by large waves. The Queen Elizabeth 2 was hit by 95ft waves in 1995; a cruise ship called Endeavour was hit by 100ft waves near Antarctica in 2001, smashing navigation and communications equipment; while Norwegian Dawn, en route from the Bahamas to New York in 2005, was hit by a 70ft wave that flooded cabins and hurled passengers from their beds.

The oceanographer Penny Holliday knows what this feels like. In February 2000, she was aboard the ship Discovery, on a voyage to Iceland to monitor ocean temperature and salinity, when it was hit by ferocious weather and huge seas. The scientists were confined to their cabins. “Chairs would fling themselves at you from unexpected places,” Holliday remembers. “People were breaking ribs and getting covered in bruises. We were battered by waves that made the ship jump and shudder. The scariest bit is when you are looking into this enormous hole in the sea below. You imagine the ship might just continue down and not come up again.”

Few scientific papers end with a footnote stating that its authors are happy to be alive, but that’s what Holliday put in the paper she wrote for the scientific journal Geophysical Research Letters after arriving home. It had a simple, but arresting title: “Were extreme waves in the Rockall Trough the largest ever recorded?” The Discovery was heavily laden with scientific instruments, and well able to assess the conditions. The answer appeared to be: yes (it was the largest wave ever recorded at sea).

When she’s not at sea, Holliday works at the National Oceanographic Centre, which is home to 520 scientists and staff, and 750 students at the University of Southampton. I visited the centre recently, in the heart of Southampton docks, to talk to wave experts, and noted that most prefer to study the oceans from a distance — by satellite readings.

Dr Peter Challenor showed me a presentation he occasionally gives to visitors from the Royal Navy and insurance companies. One of his slides showed a picture of a vast container ship that looked as if it had been picked up and given a jolly good shake — which, indeed, it had. The ship had lost 400 containers in a storm.

Challenor observes waves using data collected by satellites that pass over the Earth in a pattern that, superimposed over a map, resembles chicken wire. I’m impressed by the idea that waves are monitored from the skies: a bit like CCTV for oceanic criminals, I say. Challenor points out that the observation is only brief and intermittent, because the satellite travels constantly around the globe. “It’s more like a CCTV camera that only comes on at 11 in the morning, and films shoplifters for five minutes if they happen to be there,” he says. Plainly, a huge amount of wave activity passes unnoticed.

More frustrating is the fact that satellites frequently reject the data for freak waves as if they were corrupt. And buoys used to measure wave heights are tethered and therefore only able to reach a certain height — if waves exceed that height they will merely pull through underneath the water, yielding useless data.

Despite these frustrations, we do know that waves are getting bigger. Off northwestern Scotland, between the 1960s and the 1990s, the size of waves increased dramatically by an incredible 50%.

Why? It’s hard to say. The study of waves involves quantum mechanics, chaos theory, advanced calculus, vortex turbulence equations and atomic physics. But even that isn’t enough, because the ocean’s behaviour stubbornly refuses to fit even the most complicated models applied to it by scientists.

Challenor draws me graphs and charts to explain the process by which waves are first generated by wind, and then steal energy from each other, getting bigger as they move across the sea. When they are disconnected from the winds that created them, they become swell. The swell can travel a long way, hitting currents and new storm systems that create extraordinary and baffling turbulence. “There are fundamental things we just don’t understand,” he says, for instance, a certain kind of freak wave, three or four times taller than its surrounding seas, without any obvious cause. “We don’t even have the start of a theory.”

Dr Christine Gommenginger says much the same. A French physicist who fell in love with the deep sea as an adolescent, after watching Le Grand Bleu — a French film about free diving (without oxygen tanks) that enjoyed moderate international acclaim — she is responsible for the National Oceanographic Centre’s mathematical modelling for waves. “We now realise that the tools we have are not doing a good enough job,” she says. “We need a new way of thinking.” According to Gommenginger, we’re waiting for a breakthrough along the lines of Newton’s law of gravity. Where that may come from, nobody can begin to guess.

But even without accurate mathematical models, Gommenginger is able to make general observations.

“The most worrying thing for me is sea levels: the impact will be huge. It’s not just the magnitude but the speed of the change. We may not be able to adapt. A warming climate means the hydrological cycle will accelerate, which means more extreme events.”

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the oceans now absorb more than 80% of the heat added to the climate system. As the waters heat up, wind velocity increases, storm tracks become more volatile, polar ice and glaciers melt, and sea levels rise.

The volcanologist Bill McGuire, director of the Aon Benfield UCL Hazard Research Centre in London, and the author of a book entitled Apocalypse: A Natural History of Global Disasters, argues that rising seas will in turn create a geological catastrophe. “If you start to see metre-scale rises in sea level, then that load starts to bend the Earth’s crust,” he says, “and that would promote magma reaching the surface. If you warm up the Earth very rapidly, that will give you a massive increase in volcanic activity. It will activate faults to create earthquakes, submarine landslides, tsunamis, the whole lot.”

There’s good reason to believe this. When the last ice age ended, 11,000 years ago, it departed in a flurry of seismic fits. Volcanoes that had been sleeping for eons sparked suddenly to life.

McGuire believes that volcanic activity will cause the Canary Island of La Palma to shed its entire western flank into the sea, creating a tsunami that would hit Africa, southern Europe, Britain, the Caribbean, and the Americas. By the time it hits the east coast of the US, McGuire believes, it would top 100ft.

The American writer Susan Casey has been interested in oceans ever since she swam competitively in open water at the age of eight. Her sensational new book, The Wave: In Pursuit of the Ocean’s Greatest Furies, looks at the science — such as it is — behind waves, but also celebrates the bravery and artistry of Laird Hamilton and friends.

“The first truly big wave I saw was in Hawaii,” Casey told me. “It haunted me. And a few years later, I saw a photograph of a man riding a wave more than twice as big. These people are one of a kind,” she says. “While everyone else is fleeing, they want to get in there to the cenre of the action.”

To better understand the tow surfers, Casey employed Hamilton to help her reach the spots where big waves erupt, and where the surfers try to catch them — a logistically complex undertaking that might often require helicopters, boats and other equipment, as well as exquisite timing and courage. And, as Casey acknowledges: “It was inevitable that we would have to have some kind of incentive for Hamilton to do that.” (Casey was reportedly paid nearly $1m for her book, but has declined to reval to anyone how much she paid Hamilton.)

Casey was not with Hamilton when Lickle had his accident: she was chasing a swell along America’s west coast. But when it comes to understanding extreme seas, Casey concluded, the surfers have an advantage over most scientists. “Feeling a 70ft wave rising beneath your feet, while not the type of fieldwork that will win you a Nobel Prize, is at the very least an informative experience,” she says. “Perhaps there is an extra incentive to fathom the waves when your life, as well as your pay cheque, depends on it.”

Reading the ocean is a key skill for big-wave riders. Hamilton, Lickle and others have studied the Polynesian tradition of wayfinding, the art of using one’s senses to navigate long ocean journeys. “The Hawaiians were in tune with everything,” Lickle told Casey. “They saw it. They felt it. They charted it.” And just as the Hawaiians spent years learning to understand the sea, Hamilton has spent his whole life preparing. “He knows he’s walking the edge,” Casey says, “but that’s where you feel most alive.”

Hamilton found it difficult to describe to Casey the experience of riding big waves.

He said it was like “trying to describe a colour in words”. Sometimes he answered without speaking — by touching his heart.

But one thing was clear: “If you can look at one of these waves and you don’t believe that there’s something greater than we are,” Hamilton said, “you’ve got some serious analysing to do.”

I asked Casey what, of all she had learnt about climate change and the oceans, gave her the greatest cause for concern. I didn’t expect her to answer “hubris”.

“Humans think we can do whatever we want to the planet and the ocean. The American attitude in particular is, ‘Let’s put this thing over here, thank you very much.’ We think engineering can do anything. I hear people saying that the oceans are acidifying so we should dump iron filings in them. But we don’t know what that might do. Let’s be a bit more humble.”

You might argue that the surfers who chase big waves are hubristic. Casey disagrees: she argues that they’re appropriately humble — the older ones like Hamilton, anyway, if not some of the newcomers. “They don’t try to master the waves. They can only survive by being with the waves,” she says, precisely.

According to surfers, encountering giant waves does something to time itself: a 10-second experience feels as if it lasts two minutes. Casey was able to experience that for herself when, towards the end of her book, she rode on a giant wave with Hamilton on the back of his Jet Ski. The experience was revelatory, Casey says. “Nothing I had done or seen or been through had made me feel so alive. Intellectually, I had always known that big-wave surfers were addicted to their pursuit. Now I knew why.”

But like all addictions, it can become too much. The truly humble attitude is to avoid big waves altogether — at least, for as long as climate change allows. After his accident towing Hamilton, Lickle decided to put an end to his quest for ever-bigger waves. “The accident was kind of a ticket out,” he told Casey. “You know what I mean? We had a gang. And you couldn’t get out of the gang. There’s so much peer pressure, like, ‘Come on, you’re the man! Let’s go!’ You can’t just walk away because… you just can’t. But if you get shot up and almost die, they let you out.”

The Wave by Susan Casey (Yellow Jersey Press, £17.99) is published on September 16. It is available from The Sunday Times Bookshop for £16.19, including postage and packing. Tel: 0845 2712135

3464 words. First published 22 August 2010. © Times Newspapers Ltd.