Risky waves at the Wedge

NEWPORT BEACH — Drawn by unusually high summer surf, die-hard body surfers, some burning their sick days, took to the Wedge on Tuesday.

They rode 10-foot waves with nothing but fins as three major storms in the Southern Hemisphere made their presence felt along Balboa Peninsula and much of coastal Orange County.

Onlookers cheered. Fellow surfers strategically whistled from the shore, giving the body surfers ample warning of the monster waves approaching from behind.

The last thing a body surfer would want is to get caught in between the sets.

From a distance, the sound of the crashing surf could have doubled for artillery shelling in some war movie as the body surfers waited in 55-degree water next to the jetties.

Curmudgeons like Ron Romanowsky, who was body surfing long before boogie boards emerged on scene, was behind his camera, documenting the entire affair.

Lifeguards put up the yellow flag to remind everybody that conditions should be regarded with caution. Red flags are expected by the weekend as more storms brewing in the Southern Hemisphere are expected to bring even larger southern swells.

"About a few minutes ago, I heard some lady say, 'Oh no, there goes another one putting on their fins again and getting ready to die out there,'" said Jason Harney, a high school choir teacher from Aliso Viejo and father of four.

Last year, an inexperienced body surfer was killed after he broke his neck, reminding everybody that this is an extreme sport that comes with fatal consequences.

Guys like "Big Dave" and Mel Thoman and Terry Wade were out there as well.

These guys have been riding waves at the Wedge since the mid-1970s, and Thoman was instrumental in getting the Newport Beach City Council in the early 1990s to outlaw body boarding from 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. May through October.

There were simply too many people to contend with, and the body surfers were there first, they said.

"We always say that you could just put a dead person on one of those boards and push them into a wave, and they'd be able to ride it," said Thoman, 53, a Culver City native and the de facto leader of the "Wedge Crew."

During the night, Thoman stocks shelves at an Orange County grocery store; during the day, he puts on the fins and lets it fly.

"We've even got tattoos," said Thoman, sporting a cool "W" on his right biceps.

Another body surfer who lives and works as a hotel manager in Las Vegas flew in a couple nights ago when he heard about the approaching surf.

"I'm thinking about moving back," he said. "This is the only place on the continental U.S. where you're going to get waves this big."

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