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Newport's Wedge lives up to its reputation: 1 hurt in thundering surf

A day with big surf in Newport Beach is like a snow day in New England, Newport Beach Deputy Police Chief David McGill explained.

Residents near the tip of Balboa Peninsula hunker down or get out of town in anticipation of the throngs of surfers, boarders, swimmers and spectators who swarm the infamous Wedge, which by early Wednesday lived up to its nasty reputation by pummeling 25-foot waves into shallow water.

Quiet pauses between sets were interrupted by thundering waves that tossed some body boarders, limbs flailing, "over the falls" -- but also delivered rare, blissful rides that made calling out sick seem like a worthwhile idea.

And the Wedge delivered its usual big-day punishment. One body boarder dislocated his shoulder early in the morning, requiring paramedics to take him away on a stretcher.

Early reports that lifeguards rescued two swimmers north of the Wedge around 7:45 a.m. were inaccurate. Lifeguards were called but the swimmers were fine and not in need of rescuing, officials said.

But by 10 a.m. the morning had gone by in relative safety, lifeguards standing at the ready while oohs and aaahs erupted periodically from the crowd lining the shore, most clad in T-shirts and shorts, but a few in office attire.

"I just love the sound of the crowd," Newport Beach resident A.J. Bobinski said, amused, as she watched surfers slide across the waves. "These guys are crazy!"

She and her family got into their car a little later than planned in the morning, joining many other resident and visitors appreciative of the show.

"They don't have to travel around the world to see big surf," she said. "It's just right in their backyard."

They'd arrived at 6:30 a.m., Thermoses in hand, giving them enough time to catch some good waves before her husband, Richard, a Costa Mesa chiropractor, had to see his first patient at 8:30 a.m. (As it happened, the patient had hurt himself in the surf at the Wedge several days before.)

"You want to catch guys that get a great slot," he said of the surfing spectacle, "and then there's the wipeouts, of course."

And then, as a body boarder caught a huge wave, he said, "This is why you come here."

Lifeguards advised everyone to stay out of the water and the general concern was that only seasoned surfers challenge the Wedge.

Dan Nappi, his son and two grandsons stood back from the crowd.

"This is too big for me to surf," said Nappi, 62, who usually surfs in the mornings with his son.

The Huntington Beach residents had no plans to get in the water this morning, but they didn't want to miss watching the swell.

"The hollowness and the power of the wave" was captivating, he explained.

"I don't know what the word is," he said. "It's gnarly."

A wave crashed, sending water up the beach and dousing the crowd in front of him.

"And that's why we're back here," he said, glancing toward his 6- and 4-year-old grandsons beside him.

A lifeguard placed bright orange cones on the shore, urging people back.

"You want to be as close as you can," he explained. "You feel the power of the wave as it hits the sand."

But, estimating the face of some waves to be 25 feet high, he didn't want to be too close. He understood the power of the ocean, which had killed a lifeguard during a rescue in Newport Beach in July.

Among the morning surfers was Mike Lucas, 26, who charged into the water around 8:30 a.m. The Huntington Beach resident couldn't recall waves so big at the Wedge for four or five years.

"You always have a nervous excitement," he said of the feeling before entering the water.

He explained that he had been reminding himself the night before that he would need to focus.

"Once you get out there, you get in the water, you get this overwhelming calmness," he said. "You know you're at the mercy of nature."

Some surfers waited 20 or 25 minutes for a break long enough to paddle out.

"You realize you could be dead in a second if you don't know what you're doing," Lucas said, his body board tucked under his arm, his shoulder-length hair still dripping.

He caught four waves.

"I got pounded by a lot more," he added with a laugh.

As Lucas headed out of the water, the clock had struck 10, when the blackball rules that forbid board surfers would begin to be enforced.

Lifeguards didn't plan to go out and get board surfers out of the water, but once they came out they wouldn't be allowed back in until the summertime blackball lifted at 5 p.m., Capt. Boyd Mickey said.

About eight lifeguards were helping to man the Wedge, with two or four manning the water and the rest keeping an eye on the still-massive crowd lining the shore.

"The waves kind of help emphasize that they need to move back," he said of the incoming tide that sent water creeping toward the onlookers.

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