Big Waves—Big Ideas

Posted by dwallace on February 8, 2011 in Big Waves |

The first time I saw the ocean I fell in love with it instantly. I was in Hawaii because my step-dad had just got stationed there. I would sit on the beach, a light Westerly trade wind blowing in directly in my face, mesmerized as the burnt, rusty-orange sun slipped down from the sky and hid behind the curtain of the horizon. Then my step-dad would yell, “Doug, get your butt up here! It’s getting dark. We’re leaving.”

The thing I loved most about the ocean was watching the waves crashing onto the shore. The water would run up the shore after a wave would break, little air bubbles popped up from the sand and white foam. The smell from the ocean-spray would hit your nose and wake you up like a punch-drunk boxer inhaling smelling salts.

During the winter, my family would drive to the North Shore of O’ahu and watch the waves roll in. Waimea Bay and Pipeline have some of the biggest waves in the world. I’d watch surfers paddle out, barely making it over the waves that seemed to touch the sky. Then they would swing their boards around toward the shore and paddle as if their life depended on it. Once they started moving with the wave, they would push down on their boards and pop up as they freefell five stories straight down.

From the shore the surfers looked like little dots flying down the face of these fifty-foot walls of water, a long white tail followed behind them from their boards. Then the massive moving wall of water would pitch over the reef and I’d watch the wave fold in half and form a huge barrel. You could fit a semi-truck in some of those tubes.

I’d watch the surfer, intensely hoping to see him fly out of the barrel, knowing that if he didn’t make it, he could die.

I sat on the beach watching the way the wave would build up, up, up, higher toward the sky. And just when I knew it couldn’t get any higher, because of the white trickles that form at the top of the wave when it’s had all it can take, the wave would pitch. The waves are so big on the North Shore that when they decide to break, it looks like it folds over in slow motion. The lip of the wave hangs in the air for a full three to four seconds, as if a force is slowing down time and gravity. Then you hear the inevitable, “Thaa-Thoomp!” The concussion hits you like a foul ball in the chest from the tons of water hitting the ocean as the wave topples over itself.

As I learned more about waves, I found out that every winter, earthquakes up near Alaska and the Artic Circle are what generate the waves on O’ahu’s North Shore. When there’s a slip in the fault line, or a giant storm up North, about a week later O’ahu experiences perfect 25 to 35 foot waves.

The waves have to travel over half the Pacific Ocean before it’s even seen. A wave starts off so small and so deep that it can’t even be seen from the surface. It’s not until it travels thousands of miles and hits the perfect spot that the wave can been seen in all its glory.

Often when I’m reading or writing I think about the waves on the North Shore of O’ahu. All stories or books start as an idea way up North in someone’s mind. They have to travel a long way to get to book form. Sometimes they are blown away by the wind. A writer gets discouraged or bored with the subject and the idea fizzles out. But occasionally some ideas that do make the long journey over the open water of a writer’s mind and hits the reef with perfect timing. Readers drop in and take the ride. And the noise that one book can make, is like the concussion of a big wave, which can live on forever, long after the writer is gone.


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