Perfect storm for dangerous waves

Waves from Tropical Storm Ignacio off the coast of Baja California, Mexico, have once again highlighted how perilous riding them can be — at Newport Beach’s Wedge in particular.

Wednesday, a man suffered a possible spinal injury when he spilled over a wave and went tumbling into the ocean floor and came floating up, face down, lifeguard officials said. Waves were unexpectedly large Wednesday and Thursday, up to 15 feet at the Wedge on the end of the Balboa Peninsula, when a southern swell hit the coast thanks to the cooling tropical storm from down south.

Last month, a man was killed at the same location when even larger waves, up to 25 feet, slammed him into the jetty and held him churning underwater until he drowned. Those waves came thanks to a tropical storm as well. It was the first death at the Wedge in more than 20 years, but other incidents have been close.

In June 2008, a man was seriously injured at the Wedge when he went over the top of a 12-foot wave and crashed into the ocean floor.

These incidents serve as a reminder that what makes the Wedge great can also make it deadly.

“That swell is coming out of deep water and into shallow water pretty quickly,” said Kevin Wallis, of “You get the first wave of a set approaching, it hits that jetty and bounces off. When things are working just right, it bounces right back into the approaching wave and it builds up into that big, built-up wave.”

When that trademark Wedge wave comes up, you’d better be ready, lifeguards said.

“The tendency is to get caught up in that breaking wave. When they get caught up and eventually crash and fall, they’re doing that in shallow water. That’s why you see spinal injuries along the Balboa Peninsula,” Wallis added.

Lifeguard Battalion Chief Jim Turner agreed. While waves crashing in shallow water, known as shore-breaks, are common along the peninsula, and there are frequent injuries anywhere along the coast where it happens, the Wedge’s waves are bigger.

“It’s exacerbated because it’s bigger and can jump on people quicker,” Turner said.

When the Army Corps of Engineers built the jetty at the mouth of Newport Harbor more than 50 years ago, they also build a “wave reflector,” as Wallis put it. The first wave in a set at the Wedge hits the jetty, bounces back down shore, toward the Balboa Pier, and hits an incoming wave, creating a wedge wave. They climb faster and taller than anywhere else in Newport Beach. Given the ocean floor’s steep ascent there, it’s a recipe for disaster for the ill-prepared.

“The big thing, obviously, with experience, comes knowledge and where to position yourself when to ride these waves,” Wallis said.

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