The denizens of the Wedge live to flirt with catastrophe.
They are a subculture within a California subculture. A normal surfer cruising down the coast during a big south swell doesn’t say to his friends, “Hey, let’s check out the Wedge.”
But the ones who do go there — including a cadre of kneeboarders who are generally viewed as insane — check nowhere else.
Now a fight has intensified over who gets to spend the most time being pummeled by the venerable summer monster.
The Wedge is actually a man-made phenomenon, created by two waves coming together. The first wave reflects off the west jetty of the Newport Harbor channel and crosses the path of the one following it. They jack up where they intersect, two 10-foot waves morphing into a 20-foot behemoth that breaks like an A-frame cabin catapulting onto the sand.
Spectators gather on the beach to gawk as everyone in the water scrambles to catch the peaks as they lift up and hurl over. Poorly positioned riders go over the falls and into the maelstrom like rag dolls in an industrial washer. (Plenty of newcomers have lost their shorts.) The lucky ones glide into the airy chasm at the wave’s core — the barrel — for their moment of glory. They either shoot out of it, to hoots and hollers from the spectators, or the barrel pinches closed on them, pile-driving them into the sand.
“It’s not a soft wave,” said Fred Simpson, 75, a member of a hardened group of bodysurfers called the Wedge Crew. “It’s a violent wave. And it’s a gigantic barrel.”
For the last 20 years, between May and October, no boards have been allowed in the water between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m., to give the original wave riders — bodysurfers — a chance to catch some by themselves. They are slower and more vulnerable in the water and can easily be overrun by board riders hydroplaning along the surface.
But there’s not many of them, and nothing is more frustrating to surfers, kneeboarders, bodyboarders and skimboarders than watching great summer waves go unridden.
So city officials are considering whether to remove the ban on boards, shorten it or leave it.
Paulo Prietto, 30, who runs a skimboarding school for kids through Newport Beach’s recreation department, said the current ordinance is simply unfair.
“There are significantly less bodysurfers than board sport enthusiasts,” said Prietto, who’s been riding the Wedge for 15 years. “Yet the biggest group that uses the Wedge is pushed out into a narrow window.”
Prietto says he believes Newport Beach should reduce the so-called blackball hours to noon to 4 p.m. in July and August. In May, September and October the hours should be reduced to noon to 3 p.m., he said, and bodyboarders should still be allowed to go out; in other blackballed spots like T-Street in San Clemente, only hard boards are banned.
Prietto joined about 200 others at a meeting last Monday in the Newport Beach Civic Center. Officials listened to many suggestions but said any changes to come before the City Council would first need to go through the Parks, Beaches and Recreation Commission.
Bodysurfers argue that board riders get the best hours of the day, morning and evening, when winds are calm or offshore and the conditions are clean.
“We feel that it’s worked for the last 20 years,” said Kevin “Mel” Thoman, another Wedge Crew member. “We don’t think the Wedge needs to be looked at at all.”
The unwritten rules of the surf basically give the wave to whomever catches it first. But by the time bodysurfers start stroking, the boarders are already going. Either the swimmers back off or they get run over.
“There’s no way a bodysurfer can even compete with any type of board,” said Thoman, 56.
“I just feel that [the Wedge is] a worldwide, world-known bodysurfing mecca, and we want to preserve that, at least part of that, for future generations.”
Bodysurfers have been catching waves at the Wedge longer than anyone.
For the Wedge Crew, the break became a lifestyle. They lived together in houses — with names like the Fun House, Brown House, Twinkie House and Dump House — partying plenty and watching home movies of their body-whomping feats and fails.
In 1985, lifeguards began using the blackball flag to bar all flotation devices when they felt it was warranted.
Eight years later, the Wedge Crew and others lobbied the City Council for their own daily time slot in the water. The city agreed to try it out.
The blackball seemed to work, and the council made it permanent two years later. The conditions haven’t changed since.
“We basically felt like there was a victory for bodysurfing worldwide,” Thoman said.
But the decision didn’t go down easy. Nowhere do more types of riders converge on such a narrow break. Of late, skimboarders have been particularly vocal about the ban.
Bob Cook — a surfer who goes by “Bucket Bob” because he sits on a bucket and shoots photos of the waves — said resentment gets really high when a big south swell rolls in.
“Never once did any of the other groups restrict them from going into the water, ever,” said Cook, 57. “Bodysurfers do not deserve it for six months. No one deserves it for six months.”
Ron Ziebell, 47, who broke his back bodyboarding at the Wedge, lamented that the debate seemed to have little to do with safety.
“The flag is a safety flag, nothing to do with one group having the rights to the waves than another group,” he said.
He said there was no reason bodyboarders — whose boards are soft — should be banned, and that the blackball hours should be reduced.
Others say the biggest safety concern involves visitors who don’t have water skills in heavy surf.
“You’re riding a wave that, in a sense, isn’t meant to be ridden,” said surfer Spencer Pirdy, 26. “It’s not for the inexperienced or faint of heart.”
Even on warm days, Pirdy wears a wetsuit instead of trunks, which a good roll in the whitewash could doff in a blink. He surfs until the blackball flag goes up, and most often, he’s so tired he’s happy to give the place to the bodysurfers. Occasionally, he grabs some fins and joins them.
He’d like to see the blackball removed in May and October when crowds are smaller and lifeguards aren’t even there, but he doesn’t complain.
“The hours we get are pretty much the optimal hours,” he said.
Pirdy says there’s far more camaraderie in the water than was reflected at the meeting, especially on the big days.
“When it’s really doing its thing, the core group that regularly go down there is out, and everyone shows respect to one another.”