Huge waves challenge Southern California surfers, lifeguards

A surfer raises his arm to acknowledge a screaming crowd at the Wedge in Newport Beach. Thousands of spectators lined the beach Wednesday to watch waves as high as 25 feet tall generated by Hurricane Marie off the Pacific coast.
(Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times)

Pounding surf off Newport Beach had already prompted several rescues Wednesday morning as onlookers gathered to watch surfers and bodyboarders take advantage of the huge waves, some estimated at more than 20 feet high.

By 8 a.m., lifeguards had already responded to reports of swimmers in distress and an hour later, they were performing a rescue on live television, trying push beyond the breakers to reach a lifeguard boat as one huge wave after another forced them underwater.

The surfer was eventually taken to an ambulance, an ice pack on his shoulder.


From the safety of the beach, crowds of people -- some in T-shirts and shorts, others in business attire on the way to the office -- looked on.

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 resident had no plans to get in the water, but they didn’t want to miss watching the swell, courtesy of Hurricane Marie churning in the Pacific Ocean.

“The hollowness and the power of the wave” was captivating, he said.

“I don’t know what the word is,” he said. “It’s gnarly.”

Just then, a large 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, he didn’t want to be too close. He understood the power of the ocean, in which a lifeguard was killed in Newport Beach in July.

As the swells peak Wednesday, waves as large as 25 feet could hit spots that typically see large surf, such as the Wedge in Newport Beach, experts said. Beaches that typically see waves in the 8- to 12-foot range could see breaks of about 15 feet.

“I just love the sound of the crowd,” Newport Beach resident A.J. Bobinski said as she too watched surfers cut across the waves. “These guys are crazy!”

Her family arrived at 6:30 a.m., coffee 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.

She and her family had joined a similarly large crowd the night before to watch.

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

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

Residents toward the end of Balboa Peninsula by the Wedge typically hunker down or get out of town for days like this in anticipation of thousands of people flocking to the beach.

Along Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu, surfers parked and ambled out of their cars, drawing out their boards before trekking down to the sand. Some simply took in the record-setting waves from the adjacent rocks.

At famed Surfrider Beach near the pier, enthusiastic surfers were still coming in and out of the water at 9 a.m.

Among them was Dan Urbach, 50, of Pacific Palisades, who woke up at 5 a.m. to take advantage of the swell before work. He said the faces of waves were as high as 15 feet.

“This is the biggest Malibu I’ve surfed in over 40 years,” he said as waves crashed against the bottom of the pier and gobbled up a young man and his orange board. “It’s a little bit of an adrenaline rush, which we rarely get here in Malibu.

“It’s fun and exciting, but you’ve definitely got to be experienced.”

Forecasters warned that while the huge waves may look alluring, for many, they can be deadly.

“This is not a run-of-the-mill surf event,” said Dave Bruno, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service. “Everybody should stay out of the water.”

Dangerous surf could also cause local flooding during high tide, which will peak at 11 a.m., he said.

The coasts of Long Beach, Port Hueneme and Malibu, Cabrillo and Zuma beaches could see flooding, Bruno said.

In Seal Beach, where rushing tide waters flooded the ground levels and garages of several homes Tuesday night and early Wednesday, officials were busy building sand berms from the pier to 14th Street to protect against the high tide.

Firefighters also plan to position 6,000 sandbags in front of doorways along the beach, he said.

Strong waves will extend from Santa Barbara County to northern San Diego County throughout Wednesday, forecasters said.