A soft wind ripples across the sand at Newport Beach, California, and over the jagged outline of the jetty, the tops of sailboats float by. A yellow flag with a large black dot, signifying a ban on boards in the water, hangs over the lifeguard stand.
The guard on duty is losing patience as he paces the shoreline in his cherry-red board shorts.
He raises his megaphone and announces to the surfers, boogie boarders, and skim boarders that it’s time to get out of the water. No one budges.
A few minutes later: “Once again, the blackball flag has been up for 25 minutes… Out of the water immediately, before P.D. gets involved!”
The ocean finally empties out, stragglers pulling their boards behind them.
The group of guys waiting by the rocks in their speedos, wetsuits and fins – some showing no shortage of girth and grey hair – make their way into the churning water.
Starting now, the waves belong to them – the bodysurfers.
The beach fills up with more people, including photographers and a TV news cameraman, who have come to watch the show at “the Wedge,” the name of this surf spot at the end of the Balboa peninsula. Bordered by a jetty that separates the Pacific on one side from the Newport Harbor entrance channel, the Wedge is also the name of this surfing venue’s signature wave – famous for shooting higher, harder and more abruptly than the peaks at almost all other surf spots in California.
To add to the allure, the Wedge slams perilously onto the sand in the shallow water close to the shore, and for decades legions of body surfers have risked injury for the thrill of climbing aboard.
Some have ridden it all their lives. Others have ridden it to their deaths.
What sets big-wave body surfers apart from other oceanic athletes isn’t simply danger, but rather the insistence on riding waves the hard way, that is, by dint of their own might and grit.
When asked why, body surfers talk about an organic oneness with the water – a purity and intimacy that board riding can’t deliver. But there’s also pride in being able to take a punch.
The Wedge is among the world’s best-known body surf spots, alongside Sandy Beach in Hawaii. Like some aquatic Everest, it draws devotees back year after year, including Lance Jencks, 69, a lifelong Wedge body surfer and the oldest still-active regular.
“I’ve been coming here every summer for 51 years, and no one else can make that claim,” he crows. With his long grey-blondish tresses and bright yellow speedo, Jencks is a colorful figure, given to wry musings.
Jencks bought his home a few miles away in Costa Mesa just so he could have access to the Wedge every summer. Over the years he’s suffered numerous injuries, including a head-on collision while zipping along in fast-moving surf, but nothing has gotten in the way of his annual pilgrimage.
Jencks’ devotion is far from unique. Talk to anyone on the beach and you’ll hear similar stories: The teacher who chose his profession in order to have summers off for the Wedge. The guys who made the Wedge their careers, working night jobs for twenty years in order to have their days free to body surf. The guy who was here 44 years ago to body surf on the morning of his wedding and is back in the water on this day, his anniversary, as his wife looks on from the sand.
Today the waves are rising maybe eight to twelve feet – challenging, yes, though a far cry from the 25-foot monsters that dangle thrill seekers from dizzying heights before spitting them into the water below.
But even when it seems manageable, the Wedge is a place where gashes, concussions, fractured bones, drownings and rather bizarre Jet Ski wipeouts can happen in a flash.
In fact, later this very day, an experienced bodysurfer will break a vertebra in his spine. According to a local news account, fellow body surfers in the water initiated the rescue after they heard him cry out for help. He underwent surgery and reportedly will make a full recovery in time. He left a reporter’s question of whether he’ll be back to body surf the Wedge unanswered for now.
* * *
The Wedge originates at the jetty where water bounces off it and merges with the wave behind it, forming a peak that can propel a body surfer as many as eighty yards to the next beach over. The skilled body surfer rides the wave parallel to the shore, shooting out of the barrel like at an amusement park flume ride.
There is a technique: body surfers have to launch themselves into the fast-moving waves. They extend the body to its full length, often cocking one arm to the side and pointing the other straight ahead, palm facing out as if making a “stop” gesture, and planing on the water. Some like to add a flourish, riding on their backs or twirling rotisserie-style.
The classic wave-riding stance, affectionately dubbed “the Fred,” was developed by Wedge long-timer Fred Simpson. Now 78, Simpson was a water polo player and experienced body surfer who first came to the Wedge in the summer of 1962. Though it wasn’t a big day, he was barely in the water when a wave hit him in the small of his back and pushed him down against the sand.
“I had never had that happen to me in any wave anywhere,” Simpson recalls. “It came to me: this place has got to have power when it gets big. I was hooked within a minute of going in the water.”
After graduating from UCLA, he landed a job in sales for Xerox, and wore a speedo under business suits to sneak off for Wedge body surfing assignations. The years rolled by, and in 2001, at age 62, he took his last wave. His battles with spindle cell melanoma, as well as the toll of body surfing injuries – including a concussion, broken wrist and compression fracture – have kept him out of the water since. He was at the Wedge when four deaths occurred, three in the 1960s and one in the early 2000s, and has witnessed too many injuries to recount.
Simpson was clever enough to merge his passion and his livelihood in 1979 when he designed special fins, or what some call “flippers,” to give body surfers maximum maneuverability in rough water. He continues to command respect as a sort of Wedge founding father, recently the subject of a tribute/roast from fellow riders at this summer’s fortieth-annual World Bodysurfing Championship in Oceanside, California.
Simpson and his cohorts are members of a proud but somewhat obscure fraternity, says Peter Neushul, author of The World in The Curl: An Unconventional History of Surfing. The sport is rooted in Southern California’s aquatic sports culture of year-round pools, swim team, water polo and beach lifeguarding.
With the jetty ensuring a powerful bouncy wave, “Every summer, at least four to five times a year, you’re going to have fifteen to twenty faces on the Wedge.”
The Wedge is personally memorable for Neushul, who visited as a youth with his water polo team to body surf. One of his teammates lost two front teeth that day.
Despite the Wedge’s immense reputation, big-wave body surfing remains largely unknown. With so much going on under the water, Neushul says, the sport doesn’t lend itself to photography as board surfing does, and it doesn’t yield contracts to promote boards, clothing and other products.
Which is okay with the Wedge guys.
“Body surfers are purists,” says Tim Burnham, a Wedge regular. “They don’t have sponsorships. They don’t get paid to ride these crazy waves.”
Most Wedge body surfers profess respect for the longboard riders, but they harbor great resentment for the boogie boarders, who invaded their space in the ’80s and ’90s, prompting Wedge swimmers to demand that the city council ensure a “blackball” – no-board hours – in the summer.
Whether fighting bureaucrats, waves or one another, Wedge bodysurfers like to scrap.
“It’s an aggressive sport,” says Simpson. The guys fighting for the best takeoff position have been known to get physical, and the veterans don’t tolerate newcomers who get in their way.
“There’s a pecking order,” Simpson says, “a caste system.”
At the top are the more senior surfers who call themselves Wedge Crew, and you can find them at “the pit,” their name for the sandy part of the jetty where they park their gear and towels. Younger riders can’t just sign up and be a part of the crew, but can gain recognition from them slowly over time. Newer Wedge body surfers who want to ingratiate themselves have to avoid getting in the way of the older guys, and it helps to be willing to learn from them and show respect to the best riders.
One such legendary figure is Mel Thoman, now 59, who made his mark not just for excellence in body surfing but as what Simpson called “the social director” of the hardcore Wedge contingent.
As a young man, Thoman took a night job at a grocery store called Lucky’s in nearby Laguna Beach, allowing him to devote his days to the Wedge for the next twenty years or so.
“The Wedge grabs some people, and it keeps them there,” he explains.
He lived in group houses with other Wedge body surfers who had nicknames like Cashbox, Potato Head and The Demon. They christened their abodes the Wedge House and the Fun House, among others.
“We were a rowdy bunch,” he remembers.
Thoman bid farewell to the partying when he got married and had a baby in his forties. In addition to fatherhood, injuries and illness have conspired to keep him from the Wedge in recent years. He faced three bouts with cancer, which required radiation that made his bones more brittle. In 2011, he rode a wave and landed sitting down, facing the beach, and it turned out he’d fractured his coccyx, or as he put it, “cracked my ass.” A torn meniscus followed a couple years later.
How long does he expect to ride?
“As long as my body holds out. Your mind says go but your body says no.”
Like Simpson, or anyone whose passion demands youthful vigor and indestructibility, he can’t keep it going forever. The Wedge is really about making your peace with the end: whether it happens in a skull-crushing moment under the waves or over a lifetime.
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In 1971, Sports Illustrated featured an article on “the undisputed, full-out, righteous, unrealoutasightleadstud and, of course, bitchin’ king of body-surfing spots, the Wedge at Newport Beach.” The piece includes an account of two young women riding waves that some witnesses said reached eighteen feet, nine years earlier.
It’s not clear if any women have matched that achievement in the decades following, since body surfing at the Wedge remains a mostly male endeavor. But at least one woman, Dana Willard, 35, proved intrepid when she became a Wedge regular fourteen years ago.
It wasn’t even her idea.
She was body surfing at a Newport Beach spot several blocks away when one of the regular crewmembers saw her and invited her to give the Wedge a try.
“I knew the Wedge and said, ‘No thank you sir, you’re crazy,’” Willard recounts. But she found the courage to show up, dragging some girlfriends. She still remembers her first impression: “Nothing but dudes and speedos.” Pretty soon she was coming frequently, her girlfriends unwilling to take the plunge. Sitting on the beach while she swam, “they were bored,” she recalls. She, on the other hand, was enthralled.
She made a habit of Wedge life for several years, bartending at night and sleeping and swimming at the Wedge by day.
“In my twenties, I was spending as much time as possible there. They were some of the best days of my life; it was awesome. Sometimes the sun is setting and you’re in a wave…” she recalls, her voice trailing off like one such wave dissolving into the beachfront.
A man drowned one day she was there. Another time, someone kneed her in the nose during a ride, drawing blood and causing a concussion. She rode the less threatening waves, often floating over or diving under the big ones. But even that was harrowing.
“You swim under the wave, hold onto ground and feel your eyelids shudder and pressure on your jaw,” she says. “You can feel it in your whole head. You go under and have to shoot straight up. It’s like clawing your way up a wall.”
With a family of three kids at home, including a three-month-old, Willard doesn’t get to the Wedge very much anymore.
“Life kind of takes over and you get a real job and get a family,” she says. But family isn’t always about blood. Now, she says, in addition to being a place to see old friends and dodge waves, the Wedge is a place for her kids to meet their uncles.
* * *
It’s another late August day at the Wedge, and the blackball is on, and Lance Jencks is getting ready for his dip. Jencks is chatty today, discussing pantheism and marriage. About his first wife, whom he hasn’t seen in more than forty years, he jokes, “She’s gone but the Wedge is still here.
A fellow body surfer responds that comments about ex-wives are something you hear a lot at the Wedge.
Preparing to go in, Jencks places plugs in his ears to prevent infection, and he now wears a cap to protect his scalp from the sun. He had a stroke in 2000 and also faced down squamous cell skin cancer. His hands shake as he tucks his hair into his cap and fastens it under his chin.
But once in the water, he no longer seems fragile. He moves just fine – floating up with the currents, letting some wash over him and taking some waves too – one on his back, even.
After his swim, he and a comrade engage in a discussion about what brings them back to the Wedge, with the friend saying, “It’s a unique wave, powerful, making you one with earth and nature… It’s spiritual.”
Jencks nods. “When the wave hits, it’s a cathedral,” he says, his fingertips pressed together, pointing up. “And what you have here,” he adds, looking around, “is a priesthood.”