Staggering out of the water on a warm summer afternoon, Paul Choi felt a little groggy and very lucky.
After taking off on a six-foot wave, he was tossed and turned like a load of laundry, then deposited on the beach.
Choi, 18, a novice bodysurfer from Anaheim, suffered only a minor setback--he lost a swim fin.
Others haven’t been so fortunate:
* A 37-year-old Pennsylvania man died July 30 after he was knocked over by a four-foot wave and suffered multiple neck injuries while bodysurfing near Alvarado Street in Newport Beach.
* A 49-year-old Norco man broke his neck and died July 25 while bodysurfing at Huntington State Beach. Lifeguards said three- to five-foot waves swept him off his feet and slammed him head-first into the ocean floor.
* A 21-year-old Anaheim man drowned off Laguna Beach July 19 when a five- to six-foot wave crashed over him. Because he was in an unguarded area, beach officials couldn’t determine whether he was bodysurfing or swimming.
Marine safety experts classify the recent deaths as a cluster of isolated accidents. They say the waves are no more dangerous this summer than they have been in recent years.
Even so, with Orange County becoming more crowded every year, surfers say it seems as if accidents are on the increase. And many lifeguards say they are stepping up safety efforts. The fatalities serve as powerful reminders of bodysurfing’s hidden dangers. It is a sport that seems so simple, so inviting--so easy, really--but can be so unforgiving.
“There’s always a threat out there,” said Dr. Jack Skinner, who has developed several water safety programs through Hoag Hospital in Newport Beach. “There doesn’t have to be a hurricane off Baja or a storm off New Zealand. You can break your neck in four-foot surf.
“If you don’t time it right, or you’re not experienced, bodysurfing can be very dangerous. The spinal cord is like a piece of wet spaghetti. Once it’s injured, you don’t often recover its function.”
With little protection or margin for error, bodysurfers take risks every time they paddle into the ocean.
Riders often glide down 10- to 12-foot wave faces at speeds up to 15 m.p.h., with only their arms to break their fall.
And shallow shore breaks, such as those at the Wedge on the end of the Balboa peninsula, pose a grave danger--head and neck injuries.
“I had heard about people breaking their necks here,” said Choi, who has surfed the Wedge twice. “These waves will toss and turn you every way. I’ve been held under for 10 seconds.”
Most experienced bodysurfers are aware of the dangers at their local breaks. But it’s the out-of-town visitors--the inexperienced and unaware--whom lifeguards worry about.
“It’s difficult for an out-of-state person to realize that the ocean can be very dangerous,” said Eric Bauer, Newport Beach marine safety officer.
Bauer said a recent survey revealed that most surf-related neck injuries occur among males ages 18 to 30. Lifeguards often target water safety programs to that group.
“We’ve started doing lectures all over, the schools, the military bases in El Toro and Tustin,” he said. “That’s where the risk is. The Marines come down to the beach, all gung-ho and tough. They have seen surfing in the movies, and they’re going to go for it.”
Bill Richardson, Huntington Beach marine safety captain, said: “The guys bodysurfing every day are seldom hurt, but you get someone who steps off the bus from Rialto, and maybe they don’t know what they’re doing, and all kinds of things can create problems.”
It’s virtually impossible to measure the level of risk. Because many bodysurfing injuries are lumped in with swimming, wading or surfing accidents, most Orange County lifeguard stations don’t have accurate bodysurfing statistics.
“You can’t make a determination other than what witnesses state at the time of the accident,” Bauer said. “Was the person injured swimming and just thrown over the falls, or was he wearing fins and trying to catch waves?”
Surfing manufacturers estimate there to be about 2 million bodysurfers and bodyboarders in the United States, the bulk of them in Southern California. Richardson acknowledges the inherent dangers of bodysurfing but doesn’t believe the recent fatalities should deter people from the water.
“For some reason, this seems to be the latest trend of death and destruction,” Richardson said. “But (the Huntington Beach death) was only the second one in 32 years that I know of where someone died breaking their neck in the surf line.
“We had 7.25 million visitors to our beach last year (in Huntington Beach), and there was only one drowning, a suspected suicide off the pier. The chances are better of winning the lottery than drowning in our water.”
Still, bodysurfers say accidents appear to be increasing.
John Haden, 23, of Irvine, who has been surfing at the Wedge for five years, said he saw lifeguards and bodysurfers rescue as many as three people a day when the waves were big in July.
“It was pretty scary out there for a lot of guys,” he said, “even for the locals who come out here all the time. It’s out of hand.”
Tom Kennedy, a Lake Forest insurance agent, said he and other Wedge bodysurfers helped pull 10 near-drowning victims out of the water over a two-week period in July, more than any other period in his 12 years bodysurfing the area.
“None of the guys we pull out of the water are (veteran) bodysurfers,” Kennedy said. “Guys who have water knowledge are getting themselves into tough situations, but they aren’t panicking.”
Bodysurfers have few resources when in trouble. They wear only swim fins and don’t use boards and are left with only their instincts and experience to guide them.
Sometimes, that’s not enough.
Haden said even experienced bodysurfers make mistakes. Some take off straight down a wave instead of at an angle, driving themselves into the sand. Others don’t get their arms out in front of them or hook their legs or arms into the wave to slow down.
As a result, bodysurfers can strike the ocean floor with the weight of an Olympic-sized swimming pool dumped on top of them.
“The sand is wet, and when you hit it, it’s very unforgiving,” said Paul Fisher, a lifeguard at The Wedge. “The waves, between here and 6th Street, break right on the shore. When the force of the wave goes down, people get caught and hit the bottom.”
Constantly changing wave conditions can rearrange the ocean floor and increase the risk of neck injuries, lifeguards and surfers said. Larger waves produced by strong Southern Hemisphere swells have held surfers underwater for as many as 20 seconds and driven others head-first into the sand.
“The way the waves have been this summer, (they) can be overhead in seconds,” Kennedy said. “There’s also so much time between sets, 30 minutes or so, that people jump in the water and go swimming, then get caught when a (big) set comes in. We’ve been pulling out more people this summer than ever.
“Everything is magnified with this size of waves. The current is stronger, the speed, everything.”
When Skinner noticed in the summer of 1983 that about half of those in Hoag’s intensive care unit were surfers with serious neck injuries, he developed a 20-minute water-safety film titled “Wipeout.”
The video chronicles the cases of three neck-injury patients and features interviews with injured swimmers, families, nurses and doctors. The film offers advice on how to bodysurf properly.
Jim Turner, Newport Beach Marine Department lieutenant, said copies of the video have been sent to every lifeguard department along the California coast. Newport Beach safety officers have made hundreds of presentations at area schools and would like to extend educational efforts farther inland.
“People just don’t know the dangers,” Fisher said. “We’ve had one death. That’s a lot. We have a committee on public education, hoping to avoid stuff like this, but you can’t educate people from Pennsylvania. You can’t educate everyone.”
The warning signs are there. At Newport, for instance, signs on the back of each lifeguard tower and each beach entrance alert swimmers and surfers to the ocean’s many hazards.
There are signs at other county beaches as well, and lifeguards in Laguna Beach have tried handing out flyers containing safety tips to beach-goers.
But while such measures might help shield cities from costly lawsuits--such as the $6-million verdict John Taylor of Claremont won against Newport Beach in 1984 after a diving accident paralyzed him from the neck down--they might not adequately educate the public.
“I talked to two injured surfers a few years ago and asked if they had seen the signs on the lifeguard tower,” Skinner, 62, said. “One said he had taken his glasses off on the beach and couldn’t see very well without them, and the other said he was making sure he didn’t step on any broken glass.
“There’s almost sign pollution out there with all the warnings about dogs, bottles, big waves. I’m not sure people read all the signs that are posted. Lifeguards are doing everything they can, but they have a tough job, having to worry about near drownings, neck injuries, gangs and contaminated water.”
If they miss the signs, bodysurfers should at least start with common sense.
“A few weeks ago, I took off on a five-foot wave, went up on the lip, looked down and decided it was too much for me,” Choi said. “You have to be careful.”
Kennedy said most Wedge surfers are former high school or college swimmers and water polo players who can handle large waves and strong currents.
“You have to start off with basic water knowledge,” Kennedy said. “The guys who come down here don’t panic when something happens in the water. When you panic, you make poor decisions.”
Haden encourages using swim fins, which make catching waves easier and safer, and asking lifeguards about changing conditions.
“When we see a guy out there who doesn’t have any fins on,” he said, “we swim over and tell them outright--'get out of the water and get some fins on.’ ”
Haden has ridden waves at the Wedge for five years and, except for a few minor bumps and bruises, he has been injury free.
He hopes it will stay that way. For everyone.
“You just don’t underestimate a place like the Wedge,” he said. “People don’t realize the power of the wave. And they don’t wake up until the lifeguard is pulling them out of the water.”
Essentials of Bodysurfing
Bodysurfing is a simple, inexpensive way to enjoy the ocean, but it’s also one of the most dangerous forms of wave-riding. With no boards or flotation devices, bodysurfers have only swim fins to help them. But lifeguards and surfers say following a few tips and using common sense can remove some of the dangers.
The Basics: Proceed with Caution
1. Catch a wave: Spot incoming wave. As it begins to break, turn and begin swimming, with your head above water, to build enough speed to catch the wave.
2. Move at an angle: Start by moving across the face of the wave at angle. Many injuries result from being driven into the sand.
3. Arms in front: As wave breaks, decide to go left or right. It’s important to get arms in front of you to bear the brunt of any impact. Continue steering with arms and kicking to maintain speed and control through the ride.
Use Fins: They help you swim faster, make large waves easier to handle. Buy them at a surf shop.
Talk before you ride: Speak to lifeguards and locals before getting in the water. Ask about the currents that could pull you away from shore or down the beach. What are the danger spots? Watch the locals ride for a while.
Understand high and low tides: Ocean floor often shifts during tide changes, creating danger spots beneath the surface. Many injuries result from bodysurfers being driven into a sandbank hidden in shallow water.
Pay attention: Always face incoming waves. When a large wave approaches, dive under it instead of trying to swim over it.
In trouble, stay calm: If a current carries you away from the beach, relax and swim at 45-degree angle toward the shore.
Limits and Locations
Orange County is home to a wide range of surf breaks, both natural and man-made. Because of the variations in wave strength, some spots are safe for novices while others should be attempted only by the very skilled wave-rider.
Venues for Beginners: The presence of the continental shelf at such locations as Seal Beach, Bolsa Chica State Beach and Huntington Beach slows the waves, diminishes their energy and creates good learning conditions.
The Wedge for Experts: The jetty at the Newport inlet produces a compression effect when a reflected wave collides with the next wave transforming a gentle, five-foot wave into a gnarly 10-foot peak.
Where to Go
The best breaks for beginning bodysurfers are above Newport Beach. South County breaks provide bigger and more challenging rides but also an increased risk of injury.
Seal Beach Pier
Bolsa Chica State Beach
Santa Ana River jetty
Green: Generally safe conditions for average swimmer
Yellow: Larger surf and rip current; use caution when in water
Red: Large surf and hazardous conditions; strong rip currents present. Use extreme caution.
Sources: San Clemente, Huntington Beach and Newport Beach marine safety officers and county bodysurfers
Researched by Mike Reilley / LOS ANGELES TIMES