Surfing rules make waves

For surfers, everything hinges on balance — even when it comes to local politics.

A forum Monday night kicked off the public's involvement in a review of local surfing rules in Newport Beach. About 200 surfers of all ages, mostly male, filled the Community Room at the city's Civic Center, eager to offer city representatives their opinions about the fairest and safest way to share the waves.

All hoped to set straight the rules, which have remained untouched for nearly 20 years. They exchanged their boards and fins for notes, replaced their wetsuits with jackets or Hawaiian shirts and traveled from homes not only in Newport Beach but also neighboring Costa Mesa and Fountain Valley.

"I would just like to see some equity," said T. K. Brimer, who owns the Frog House surf shop in Newport Beach and is a surfer himself.

The problem can be boiled down to just that: defining equity among surfers, body boarders, skim boarders and bodysurfers. During the 90 minutes of public comment, contention particularly arose around one notorious spot, The Wedge.

Newport Beach currently regulates the time and type of surfing that can occur at The Wedge, a particularly popular place for surfers at the end of the Balboa Peninsula.

From May through October, between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m., all flotation and surfing devices are banned at The Wedge. Anyone with a board must exit the water even when large swells create the much-awaited 20- or 30-foot monster waves for which the area is known.

When the board users leave, the bodysurfers can have their time in the water. Because they move more slowly, bodysurfers say they need the blocked time to surf safely, without fear of being hit by a board.

"The bodysurfers don't feel like we own the wave; we share it," said Tim Burnham, a bodysurfer well known in the surfing community.

Not everyone sees it that way.

Suggested changes to the current policy include alternating entire days between bodysurfers and others, shortening the time that bodysurfers are allowed in the water and restricting bodysurfers to mornings and evenings rather than the other way around.

Diane Edmonds, a surfing photographer, likened the bodysurfers' claim to seven hours a day to children who steal every piece of candy from a piñata.

Another photographer, Bob Cook, likewise compared the bodysurfers to thieves — of the daylight hours.

"Bodysurfers do not deserve it for six months," he said. "No one deserves it for six months."

The group hearing the input, dubbed the Blackball Working Group in reference to the yellow and black flags that indicate when surfing is not allowed, intended only to listen Monday night.

The next step will be for the group, which includes lifeguard and police representatives, to decide whether any changes need to be made, said lifeguard Battalion Chief Rob Williams, one of the members.

If recommendations are eventually made, they would be presented to the Parks, Beaches and Recreation Commission.

Recommendations could extend beyond The Wedge to board usage between 40th and 44th streets on the Balboa Peninsula as well as parking.

Williams said he expects the group's changes would be heard at the Parks, Beaches and Recreation Commission's public meeting in January. The commission could then make suggestions to the City Council. Each step would involve opportunity for further public input.

"I really liked the tenor," said Councilwoman Nancy Gardner of the meeting in an email Tuesday morning. "There was passion and reason, always a nice combination."

After the meeting, bodyboarder Ron Ziebell spoke to the powerful pull many feel for riding the waves at The Wedge. Partially paralyzed in an accident there, he also attested to the dangers.

Ziebell said he considers bodyboards, made of foam, less of a danger than fiberglass-covered surfboards, which, in turn, pale in comparison to the wave itself.

His shirt, depicting the scan of his broken back, captured it all: "Respect the Wedge," it read.

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