Big Wave Chargers

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The ocean’s powerful beauty and brutality come face to face at The Wedge.

By Bruce Porter

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Of the thousands of surf spots around the world, only a handful are known to put the fear of Poseidon into surfers brave—or foolish—enough to give it a go. Famous names like Mavericks in Northern California, Waimea Bay on Oahu’s North Shore, Teahupo’o in Tahiti and the almost mythical Shipstern Bluff in Tasmania, Australia, give rise to waves of 20 feet or more. In the surfer handbook of cool, big powerful surf still trumps gravity-defying maneuvers, ensuring these hallowed beaches are reserved for magazine covers and the fireworks finale in every surf film made.

An indisputable entry on the list of legendary big-wave breaks, where nature’s beauty and brutality meet head on, where reputations are made and the danger is real, is The Wedge in Newport Beach.

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A Wave with Many Faces 

The Wedge is perhaps the only monster surf that was created by mankind. In 1934, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built a jetty to give Newport a harbor with access to the open ocean. As an unanticipated result, on the north side of the jetty’s granite boulders, summer south swells, whether originating from Baja, California, or far in the South Pacific, reflect off the jetty only to meet up with the wave following behind it. The momentum of those forces, moving from deep water to a sharp incline at shore, forms a magnificent pyramid of water, amplifying its size, and launches the crest to a wide hollow that is fiercely coveted by a certain breed of thrill-seeking surfers, bodyboarders and bodysurfers. “On a big south hemi, most beaches may be 6 to 8 feet, but The Wedge could be 15 to 20 feet,” says Rick Fignetti of Rockin’ Fig surf shop in Huntington Beach.

Local bodysurfer Sean Starky further explains, “There are a couple of faces of The Wedge. On small days you have a side wave that goes into a corner bowl, and that’s a fun wave to bodysurf. When it gets bigger, there’s an A-frame peak with a big barrel, which is how we really like it.

“That’s the joke here,” he adds with an expression that says it’s better to laugh off the dark clouds than to dwell on them. “Small days you’ll break your back and big days you’ll drown.”

“It’s a big, gnarly wave with a super steep drop,” Rick says. “You can have a 15-foot wave breaking into 5 feet of water—so [there are] consequences if you don’t make it. You’ve got to be pretty confident about yourself to go out there.”

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Adrenaline Junkies Only 

When I was in high school back in the mid-1980s, The Wedge was a gauntlet, a rite of passage for youngsters who wanted to be part of the select few. Not that anybody could actually surf The Wedge on a regular board—that would be next to impossible. The top pros of the era—Shaun Tomson, Mark Richards and Rabbit Bartholomew—steered clear of the place. After all, the Wedge is a shore-break wave, fit for bodysurfers and bodyboarders only. The face is too steep, the takeoff too quick. They crash into ankle-deep water.

Even on days when the wind is calm, as a swell builds to a small mountain, ominous dark ripples foreshadow what’s to come. For bodysurfing, at least one fin is required, no matter the tide; two when it’s really big and breaking out farther, to get enough push to ensure the wave doesn’t catapult you over the falls. The Wedge is a left, so with your left hand as a skid-plate, you stretch your right shoulder back into the face to keep from tumbling out of control. Your eyes are wide and your senses are humming. It’s a long trip down, picking up speed the whole way, but it’s never fast enough to avoid the inevitable.

There’s a chance to slip through the underside of the wave, but more often than not, it’s false hope. Just as you break to the surface, the vortex will pull you back with a vengeance. With the curl blotting out the sun, the exhilaration of the ride pushes your fears aside. In the moment before it all goes colorless, instinct forces you to take a final breath.

That’s the crazy part: There’s no way to make The Wedge. You’re going to get tossed—and hard. The wave lifts you up and slams your body into the sand. You can’t predict exactly how it will go, and this is when fear will creep back into your mind. It’s fate that determines if you will be The Wedge’s next victim—and experience in these waters doesn’t necessarily improve those odds as much as we’d like to believe.

The whitewash whips your body around like a rag doll in an Oklahoma tornado. It may only be six or seven seconds, but suddenly your brain signals that you have another couple before it all goes really wrong. And just then, the whitewater rushes away, leaving you in shallow water only a few short yards from the safety of the beach. But it’s no time to celebrate.

Chances are, the strength of the current isn’t going to let you advance halfway to dry sand before the next swell comes rolling through. You definitely don’t want to be the unlucky tourist who takes on the full force of a nasty 10- to 20-foot wave. So, against all your strongest survival instincts, you race to duck dive underneath the oncoming set.

Sometime in the next few minutes, as you’re treading water and gasping for air and life and limb, you’ll get the bright idea that it would be fantastic to do it again.

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Surfing the Impossible

Almost 30 years ago, during one of those mad summer swells, I found myself washed up on the beach at Cylinders, the adjacent break known for its close-out barrels. As I was walking along the wet sand, fins in hand, I saw the most incredible thing: There was a young surfer who looked as if he should have known better. My friends and I were used to seeing a few old-timers on longboards, but they never caught waves—and as it was understood, this was in everybody’s best interest—but here was this kid. I remember it like it was yesterday. His shortboard had primary-colored polka dots and a Quiksilver logo. And sure enough, he made the drop.

I’d never seen anything like it. Echo Beach local Danny Kwock not only surfed The Wedge, he shredded it. I’ve witnessed spectacular feats in major sports, but nothing compares to this triple-overhead tube ride capped with an off-the-lip snapback. Danny won’t remember that particular wave like I do, because for the next 90 minutes he continued to tear The Wedge in ways I didn’t think were possible.

“He’s pretty much the guy who pioneered surfing out there,” 26-year-old Billabong team rider Spencer Pirdy says of Danny, whose exploits at The Wedge were a catalyst for his later business successes working for beachwear companies. “There’s this one cool picture I’d always look at—I thought he was like a god. He was the guy, along with a few others, who gave me the idea that I could do it too.”

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The Wedge Crew

The Wedge is the sort of place where the locals keep track of its unsung heroes, past and present—guys like Kirk Blackman, bodysurfer Fred Simpson of Viper Fins and kneeboarder Ron Romanosky. In the water, there’s no love lost between the different groups of riders—in fact, the city had to implement restrictions on floating apparatuses between 10 a.m and 5 p.m. from May 1 through Oct. 31.

“At any break there’s going to be a pecking order,” surf photographer and team manager for KatinUSA Joe Foster says. “At The Wedge, it is guys like Bobby Okvist, Spencer Pirdy and a few others who really charge it.”

“You get all types of personalities—it’s a melting pot,” Spencer says, painting a picture of the carnival-like atmosphere around a big swell. “There are the drunk tourists who’ll jump into the water, get sucked out and have to be rescued. There are the aggro guys yelling at each other; little kids skimboarding; bodyboarders, bodysurfers and surfers who’ll intermingle, sometimes clash.”

“The Wedge has three different takeoff spots,” former Newport Harbor student and current KatinUSA team rider Bobby Okvist says, describing why The Wedge is primed for serious collisions. “There’s the side wave, 50 feet down there’s the peak, and another 50 feet down there’s the shoulder corner bowl.” With so many people—upwards of 40 determined guys, and a few brave gals, on medium-sized 6- to 8-foot days—in such close proximity, all vying for the same waves, the drama is heightened.

“You’ve got the wave, which is dangerous by itself,” Joe elaborates. “Now multiply that times a million because of the crowd. You’ve got surfers and bodyboarders dropping in all over the place, skimboarders coming in from the side, and then there are photographers, too. It’s a spectacle, that’s for sure.”

“I have a weird relationship with The Wedge because I’d always been afraid of it,” Bobby admits. “You can’t set a line. You drop in and you never know what’s going to happen. It’s the fastest I’ve ever gone. You hit one bump and you’re done.”

“In Orange County, this is the big leagues,” Sean says. “You don’t start off at The Wedge. You start at Schoolyards (14th Street, named for Newport Elementary) and work your way up. I started riding here at 14, 15—nothing too crazy. When I turned 16, that’s when I started riding bigger waves.”

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Ten years later, Sean is a senior member of the Wedge Crew. “There’s no ceremony!” he jokes of the informal alliance. “It’s like anything else—you don’t have to be the best rider, you just have to show respect and put in your time to become a local.” The designation allows Sean, who is one of the best bodysurfers around, to take advantage of the unwritten rule that locals get first crack at any given wave.

“I’ve learned that you can’t hesitate,” Spencer says. He thrives on the challenge of taking off at the apex, the most difficult section of the wave. “You have to be 100 percent committed. When a wave is coming, there’s an animal side of me that comes out. I paddle as hard as I can. And I grind my teeth to show the other guys: ‘Nah, this one is mine.’ ”

“One of the best waves for me was two summers ago,” Bobby recalls with a wide grin. “Spencer paddled over to the first wave, but the second one was the biggest of the day. It was an insane feeling. There were a lot of people on the beach screaming—and that’s kind of exciting, too, because you don’t really get that anywhere else. I had so much adrenaline flowing. … It was the cleanest, easiest drop, and the next thing I knew, I was getting launched over the backside of the wave, probably 50 feet into the air.”

None of the surfers dedicated to The Wedge seem able to fully justify their obsession to their own satisfaction. Perhaps they are simply resigned to accepting it. “But this wave is my ball and chain,” Sean says. “You never know what you’re going to get—that’s why I keep coming back. It’s an addiction.” NBM

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