Bodysurfers can thank the Army

NEWPORT BEACH — Here's one gnarly example of a righteous form of federal government intervention: If it weren't for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, we'd never have those gigantic waves at the Wedge.

It's a stretch of beach at the southern tip of the Balboa Peninsula that's been overrun with bodysurfers these days due to swells coming in from three storms in the Southern Hemisphere.

In the 1930s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built the rock jetties to separate the sea from Newport Harbor, creating a more finite channel and subsequently holding the open waters at bay.

The construction put an end to the boats that were capsizing on their way in and out of the channel.

The end result, however, from a bodysurfer's perspective, were beautiful sets of waves that would come crashing up against the man-made rocks, doubling back on themselves.

The effect was a "wedge-like" wave, that choice white foamy stuff that's been compared to the big surf in Hawaii and Australia and nowhere else in the continental U.S., except for Newport Beach.

"That's not to say the waves weren't big before the jetties were built," noted Jim Turner, the Newport Beach lifeguard battalion chief. "They were."

Now there's a method to the madness, and the diehard bodysurfers sit in the middle of the lineup and wait for it. Some pray for it, call in sick for it and get up as early as dawn to do it.

"You'll find the biggest wave about 30 to 50 yards off the jetties," Turner said. "And as the waves hit the rocks, the energy bounces back and you get an increase in the size of the wave. It's simple physics: The wave has nowhere to go but back onto itself."

Of course, die-hard bodysurfers have tons of words for the wave in their own unique vernacular. Mostly, they're "peaky." And when you catch a "peaky wave" that happens to be 12 feet high — sometimes higher – it's one big adrenaline rush.

It's also highly addictive.

Which is why there's an informal club called the Wedge Crew.

Which is why some men have tattoos of the "W" emblazoned on their biceps.

Which is why others have managed to build their lives and work schedules around the Wedge.

The great size and strength of the waves, not to mention their awkward, manmade location, is also why lifeguards make all bodysurfers wear fins: so they can high-tail it in the event a set of waves starts crashing up against those jetties.

Remember: There's a reason why fish have fins.

For some, a matter of seconds can mean the difference between life and death by rock or a broken neck on the sand beneath shallow waters.

If you want one reason to think twice about wading into the water at the Wedge, consider what Kris Okamoto has to say about how a spinal injury can paralyze somebody.

A certified neuroscience nurse who works at Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian, she summed up the science behind it all, painting a blow-by-blow picture.

"What happens is surfers will hit their head and the impact pushes the head into the shoulders and that compresses the vertebrae," Okamoto said. "The bone breaks, the spinal cord compresses, the oxygen supply is cut off; so is the connection to the nerves. That's when the serious injuries come into play."

Okamoto has seen plenty of injuries in the 31 years she's been a nurse.

Today, she's the director of Project Wipe Out. Since 1979, the intervention program has been teaching people how to avoid spills and fall appropriately to avoid major injuries.

She said that most of the spinal cord injuries, however, don't occur at the Wedge. More are hurt surfing along the Peninsula or diving off the Balboa and Newport piers.

"Project Wipe Out," Okamoto said, "began when five of our seven beds were filled with patients with spinal or neck injuries."

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