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 a high end 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.
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 or worse, toward the rocks of the jetty . There have been fatalities at the Wedge during the Storm Break. This can be very unnerving if you are tired and not a strong swimmer to begin with. “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 wipe-out.
Back in the early 1960’s, when we were college students, during one storm break my buddy Craig and I decided to challenge the Wedge. Craig 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 was to soon find out that I was not very “Seasoned” either. But I was a macho college football player and I couldn’t turn down the chance to brag to the guys … “Yeah, the last time Craig and I were in the storm break at the Wedge …etc., etc.”.
There was a good crowd that day including our girl friends. The break was large, not monsterish, but big and dangerous enough for my purpose.
There was also a good bit of rip-current. After swimming feverishly for maybe a half hour to catch a few waves and missing most, I found myself exhausted and stuck in a rip current. I was really tired and had that “panicky, not in control” feeling. I wanted to be someplace else, like onshore watching.
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, it dawned on me that I needed to do something, … fast! … So I yelled in the best I could do for a casual sounding “hey Craig!”.
Craig, who was only maybe 20 yards away, but who’s focus has always been a bit hard to re-direct, didn’t seem to hear me. So in a tone just a bit louder, I yelled again “hey Craig!!!”
I was fading fast, and wondering which was worse, drowning or being smashed on the rocks, when Craig finally yelled back “what do you want?” … Great … I couldn’t holler “I want help!!” so I just yelled “Come over here…” … “Why” shouted Craig … was he doing this on purpose, was he still sore about the dings I put in his dads 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 again “Just come over here!!!!” with what must have been obvious panic in my voice, probably heard over the whole beach. Then it must have dawned on Craig that I was heading for the rocks and sounded panicky.
Once Craig saw the situation, he easily and leisurely swam over to me, grabbed my hand and yanked me out of the rip in nothing flat. No problem! I should know 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 at this moment I was exhausted, and somehow no rational course of action of any kind had occurred to me.
When we came out of the water to the beach, Craig’s girl friend said (quite loudly I thought), “Craig, didn’t you see that he was in trouble out there?”
I tried to act nonchalant, like I didn’t hear that. But I was on dry land and too tired to care, and I never tried to body surf the storm break at the Wedge again.
But my grandson does…