The Wedge

The Wedge

posted in Blog, Photography, Surfing/Wave Riding, Travel | Wednesday, July 21st, 2010

Okay, right off the bat, this was THE most fun I’ve ever had watching and photographing wave riding! Ever. It even trumps yesterday when I was watching and shooting ridiculously long and perfect overhead barrels peeling down the beach at Malibu (solid second place). I’ve known about the Wedge since I was a teenager and I’ve seen people riding there in surf movies, but I’ve never seen it in person.

Located next to the north jetty on Balboa Island in Newport Beach, the Wedge, on a decent swell, is not for the inexperienced or the faint of heart. The combination of a large wave heading into the corner between the beach and the jetty, a strong backwash, and a ricochet wave that bounces off of the jetty, can create a jacked up situation with a tall, steep, wedge shaped wall and tons of H2o that crashes down on one to two feet of water (or even sand from what I’ve read). Even some of the pros there are known to sport spinal fractures and shattered bones.

I had been watching the surf reports online. At first they thought the waves would hit their peak on Tuesday but then they changed it to Wednesday. Surfline was calling for 12-15 footers at the Wedge with some 18 foot sets. A south, southwest swell was heading in, prepared to light the place up.

We headed down to Orange County and the way we went took over an hour driving time from the house in Manhattan Beach where we were staying. We hit the Starbucks in Hermosa at the beginning of the trek and as we drove through the neighborhood on Balboa Island, nearing Jetty Park and the Wedge, we really could have used a bathroom stop. But, it took a little longer to get there than we had hoped, a legal parking space was difficult to find,  and we wanted to get some shooting in before Blackball. By law, between 10:00 am and 5:00 pm, from May 1st through October 31st, only bodysurfers are allowed in the water at the Wedge. No surfboards. No bodyboards. Just fins. The lifeguards raise a yellow flag with a large black circle on it. And it’s called Blackball. If you’re a bodysurfer, you love it. If you’re a board rider, it stinks.

It was about 9:30 and we wanted to see some board riding. The morning fog had not burned off and there was a row of spectators and photographers lined up on the beach when we arrived. Two TV stations had film vans there while we were there and one guy was being interviewed by a film crew down near the rocks. Another guy was yelling at him from the water. Some of the locals seriously dislike media exposure as it draws more people to the Wedge.

Sets were coming in from two different angles and some waves had a distinct, sideways ricochet wave crossing the regular wave face. Many of the waves ended with a bone-crunching impact that triggered a collective gasp amongst the viewers from the beach. One guy got punched upward by a backwash, double wave combo and when his head eventually bobbed up, he looked seriously dazed. Some waves were glassy and clean. Others looked like white water washing machines on steroids.

Just on the north side of the Wedge is the shore break impact zone called the Cylinders. I had read that if you get caught in that spot, you should swim for deeper water rather than trying to reach the shore. The backwash is strong and powerful there and you could exhaust yourself by trying to reach the nearby but elusive sand. We watched a standup paddle boarder go over the falls on a big one there and snap his leash. He swam back to deeper water and then across to where he could exit more safely. Similar to a rip current. Or maybe it is a rip current.

The surfers were screaming across the faces of huge waves, some of which were more than triple overhead. The boogie boarders were taking some back jarring freefall drops and bouncing and skittering across the bottoms of the mountains. Some were also doing el rollos where they carve up underneath the lip of the wave and are thrown out in a rolling 360, landing back on the wave’s face (or getting caught in the lip and then having their own face pummelled in the sand). The skill of the riders and the awesome power of the waves were an amazing thing to watch.

At 10:00 the Blackball flag went up and the lifeguards called for all board riders to leave the water. Slowly the surfers and boogie boarders started making their choices for last wave of the morning, not wanting to waste their final ride on something too small. The last remaining board left the water about 10:20.

Now the bodysurfers had the place to themselves. While I have bodysurfed in the  past, compared with what I saw today my previous experience bodysurfing was either a distant cousin or not related at all. These guys would pull into the face of the wave, let it suck them up high, and then they would pop out and drop down the wall, sometimes with almost all of their body (or wetsuit) exposed. With an arm extended downward they would hydroplane on the palm of their hand along the moving glass wall. They were doing rolls and other maneuvers and sometimes ended their rides inside the throats of mean water monsters who seemed to clamp down their jaws in a whitewater explosion of self destruction. And the waves break near shore so the view was always up close and personal. You couldn’t help but wince at some of the clearly painful finales.

Meanwhile, next door in the Newport Bay inlet, kayaks are riding the swells between the rock jetties. A long breaking wave inside the south jetty provides plenty of fun for the two kayakers who are taking turns in their own private playground.

I would have loved to have stayed all day but the missed bathroom break earlier that morning was taking its toll on more than one of us in the group. We headed back to the car and began our search for a public restroom. From there it was lunch, a couple surf shops, and then a stop at Huntington Beach where massive construction was underway for the upcoming US Open of Surfing. I really wanted to go back to the Wedge after 5:00 but it didn’t work out.

Some people have a bucket list of things of things they want to do or things they want to see before they die. Well, if the Wedge was on my list, I’m not crossing it off yet. I want to go back. Mind you, it’s in the “to see” category rather than the “to do” category. Otherwise I might not have a chance to cross anything else off of that list.

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