The Wedge – A Body Surfing Legend
Orange County California has always been famous for its beaches and beach culture. Surfing the Huntington cliffs in the north, and Salt Creek (now long gone and replaced by the Ritz Carlton Resort) and Trestles in the south, beach volleyball, surfer girls, keeping that tan … The beach culture craze was at it’s zenith in the mid 1960’s. And the craze has never really gone out of style.
The Wedge at the Newport Harbor jetty has been world famous since the 1930’s as a body surfing hot spot when the conditions are right. Ocean swells coming from storms in the southern Pacific bounce off the 1900 foot long stone jetty marking the entrance to Newport Harbor, and merge with the next set of incoming swells and create a wedge like peak that can be twice the size of the original wave. During the storm surf peaks of 6 – 8 feet are normal with 20-30 foot monsters not uncommon. The powerful surf breaks in relatively shallow water and can smash the strongest swimmer into the sand if you don’t know what you are doing. Strong rip-currents are also a hazard when the storm break is up. These can pull a swimmer out away from the shore and/or worse, into the rocks of the jetty. This can be very unnerving if you are tired. But “Seasoned” Wedge body surfers know how to handle these conditions and love it.
To this day when the storm break is up, you will find lots of good body surfers in the water, and crowds of spectators on the shore, waiting for the next challenger.
Back in the early 1960’s, when we were college students, during one storm break my buddy Doug and I decided to challenge the Wedge. Doug was a competitive swimmer, worked as a lifeguard, and he was a very good college water polo player, and turbulent water was just like a water polo game to him. It wasn’t to me, and I have never been a “strong” swimmer, and I was to soon find out that I was not very “Seasoned” either. But I was a macho college football player and couldn’t turn down the chance to be able to say “Yeah, the last time Doug and I were in the storm break at the Wedge …etc., etc.”.
There was a good crowd that day in 1964 including, our girl friends. The break was large, not monsterish, but good enough for my purpose. But there was also a good bit of rip-current. And after swimming feverishly to catch a few waves and missing most, I found myself stuck in a rip current and I was really tired and had that “panicky, not in control” feeling. I wanted to be someplace else fast, like onshore watching the action. But no way was I going to holler out for help …at least not yet… But as I was being steadily pulled towards the rocky breakwater and not being able to do anything about, it dawned on me that I needed to do something, … now!… So I yelled in the best I could do for a casual sounding “hey Doug!”. Doug, who was only maybe 10 yards away, but who’s focus has always been very hard to re-direct, didn’t seem to hear me. So in a tone just a bit louder, I yelled again “hey Doug!!!” I was fading fast, and wondering which was worse, drowning or being smashed on the rocks, when Doug finally answered “what?”. I couldn’t holler what I really wanted so I just yelled “Come over here”……… “Why” shouted Doug …….. “why …?”, was he doing this on purpose, was he still sore about the dings I put in his dad’s truck …? I was now sure the whole crowd was following our conversation and I would be humiliated as well as dashed on the rocks and drowned. So finally I yelled “Just come over here!!!!” with obvious panic in my voice. Then it must have dawned on Doug that I was heading for the rocks and I didn’t seem to be very happy with the situation.
Once Doug saw the situation, he quickly and easily swam over to me, grabbed my hand and yanked me out of the rip in nothing flat. No problem! I knew to get myself out of a rip I should swim parallel to the shore out of the rip and then back in towards the shore. Easy, right? Except that I was exhausted, headed for the rocks, and somehow no rational course of action of any kind occurred to me.
When we came out of the water to the beach, Doug’s girl friend, sitting right next to my girlfriend, said (louder than necessary I thought), “Doug, didn’t you see that he was in trouble out there?” It was a fair question but one I wished she hadn’t asked.
But I was too tired and relieved to be on dry land to care, and I never tried to body surf the storm break at the Wedge again.