Time Is Wiping Out Wedge Surf Purists

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's shortly before 10 a.m., and the Wedge seems to be on steroids. Hurricane Hernan is sending meaty 6- to 8-foot swells into the world-famous surf spot on the tip of the Balboa Peninsula.

At this freak of physics, the incoming walls of water carom off a rock jetty and collide with the following swells, morphing them into giant, triangular waves with vertical faces of 15 to 20 feet.

They break close to shore with explosions of white water, cavernous tubes and the rumble of a freight train. Their power can hurl people skyward or drive them mercilessly into the shallow sand bottom. The beach vibrates.

Near the "Danger: High Surf" sign, a small fraternity of aging bodysurfers and a few of their young proteges prepare to take on the mountainous waves with swim fins and scanty Speedos.

They are the venerable Wedge Crew, the Knights Templar for a few hundred yards of beach and water.

For years, this dedicated band of purists has advanced the esoteric art of bodysurfing, and for years they have tried to protect their niche against the onslaught of the bodyboard--a popular, mass-produced slab of plastic so easy to use that the dead could ride them.

"It takes a special kind of person to look at a powerful wave and try to tackle it with no vehicle," said Tom "Cash Box" Kennedy, a 38-year-old Laguna Niguel resident who's been a fixture at the Wedge for almost 23 years. "There is magic in the combination of you and the wave and nothing else."

Probably no more than 40 people bodysurf the Wedge, and only half that number brave the water from May through October, when storms in the Southern Hemisphere churn up the powerful ground swells that make this place famous.

The following is small--almost cultlike--and seems to be shrinking. Age, injury and the demands of job and family have thinned the ranks, and Generation Next seems less willing to conquer a towering wave with only its hide.

Today, the roster includes a grocer, a biologist, a holistic-health counselor, a flight instructor, a swim fin manufacturer, a professional photographer, grandfathers and the unemployed. With a few exceptions, they are in their late 30s, 40s and 50s. The youngest is 16. The oldest, at 64, is Fred Simpson, a pioneering bodysurfer who owns Viper Swim Fins. He started going to the Wedge in 1961.

Some adorn themselves with Wedge tattoos, and virtually all answer to nicknames: Smoker, Sac, Beets, Potato Head, Tank, Big Daddy, Pinkie, Dandyman, Daddy-O and Rock.

They have their own daily surf report recorded by Kevin "Mel" Thoman, 45, of Corona del Mar, a clothing line called Wedge Wear and a cocktail mixed in their honor--you guessed it, the Wedge--an elixir of white and gold tequila, mandarine Curacao, Triple Sec and pineapple-orange drink. The Studio Cafe on Balboa Peninsula serves it.

"The Wedge has become so much a part of my life, I lose sleep over it," said Ron "Romo" Romanosky, a professional photographer who has chronicled the surf spot since the 1960s. "It is hard to get the addiction out of your system."

What keeps the brethren coming back year after year, decade after decade, is the wave--a tricky, unpredictable beast at any size. When a swell hits, appointments get canceled, trips are rescheduled, sick days at work are leveraged and family obligations go unfulfilled. Some members of the crew have been known to wear swim trunks under their work clothes. Just in case.

On big days, bodysurfers can go from near-standing starts to 30 mph in seconds. The acceleration is so great it feels as if they are being sprayed with a fire hose and their skin is rolling back.

The ride begins by being sucked up the steep face of an oncoming wave while swimming forward. Below the flagging crest, a few strong kicks generally produce enough momentum to get going.

Once the rider is underway, the left arm is angled downward and the right arm is extended toward the sky. The back is arched and rotated against the wave's face, while the legs hug the vertical wall. Water explodes in all directions, and the roar is deafening.

"If you get a perfect Wedge wave, it closes over your head. The sun goes out," said Simpson, who helped develop modern bodysurfing techniques. For all the thrills and sense of accomplishment the Wedge bestows, there are serious risks. Rip currents drag swimmers around or trap them in front of huge waves that break with such force they can knock people out.

Water rushing off the steep beach can smack into incoming waves, tossing surfers into the air. The turbulence can become so severe that swimmers have a hard time making headway. On the beach, the tempestuous surge can pluck unwary spectators off the sand and roll them into the ocean.

The Wedge remains one of the few beaches, if not the only one, on the West Coast where lifeguards caution visitors before they put down their towels.

"Small days can break bones. Big days can drown you," said Matt Larson, 31, of Irvine, who has bodysurfed the break since he was a teenager.

Compression fractures of vertebrae and wrists are common among the Wedge crew. So are ruptured discs, torn ligaments and concussions. One regular, 42-year-old Terry Wade, has smacked the bottom so many times that the bones in his lower spine are fused and held together with a titanium brace. He now teaches flying in Bakersfield and contemplates a return next year. "There are few places where someone can ride a 30-foot wave bodysurfing. The Wedge is one of them," Wade said.

The federal Works Progress Administration created the wave machine by accident in the 1930s when it built a jetty at the end of the Balboa Peninsula to protect the entrance to Newport Harbor.

The Wedge was first known as the Hook. Surfers considered the large waves unridable. Then a handful of people started bodysurfing there after World War II. More ventured in during the '50s and early '60s, such as Simpson and Romanosky, a knee-boarder who is tight with the bodysurfers.

The Wedge became so popular in the early 1990s that the small contingent of bodysurfers felt their art was being squeezed out by a growing throng of bodyboarders. It was a trend that exploded with the advent of the Morey Boogie Board, a stubby piece of plastic foam that made it relatively easy to catch waves. Shrink-wrapped and sold even in drugstores, the little board opened up wave-riding to the masses.

"There used to be a little tightknit group in the 1970s," said Bill Sharp, 41, a veteran knee-boarder and editor of Surf News Magazine in Newport Beach. "Now, it's 'Y'all come.' "

The result was tension in the water and frustration for the outnumbered bodysurfers who had spent years honing their skills. To their dismay, the flotillas of bodyboarders--known derisively as "boogers," "spongeheads" and "lemmings"--could catch waves almost effortlessly on the forgiving slabs of plastic.

The fabled break, Romanosky said, had regressed into "a soulless mosh pit of surfing."

To save their place in the lineup, Wade, Thoman and Kennedy formed the Wedge Preservation Society in 1993 and asked the Newport Beach City Council to ban all boards. A war erupted between the groups of wave-riders.

In a partial victory for the Wedge Preservation Society, the City Council agreed to let bodysurfers have the break to themselves from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. May through October, the high season for big waves. But at times, especially when the lifeguard tower is empty and no city officials are around to enforce the ban, the battle over the breakers resumes.

The larger problem for the bodysurfers is attracting fresh blood. While the Wedge Crew likes its underground status, the core group is beginning to fade. Wade is on the injured list. Craig "Quebe" Bowman, 48, died a few weeks ago. Simpson has stopped surfing because of a slipped disc and skin cancer.

Occasionally, the crew converts a bodyboarder to its religion. But that remains a hard sell. "Everyone rides a Boogie now," said Thoman, the unofficial leader of the preservation society. "It takes a lot of time and energy to be a good bodysurfer. It seems like you're always paying your dues."

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