FROM A POINT PERSPECTIVE
Meanwhile at the Wedge, a real life drama is being played out at the world-renowned bodysurfing spot, as those brave enough to get in the water seek the adrenaline rush that comes from riding the enormous, dangerous waves. Photographers document the spectacle from the shoreline with their cameras mounted on tripods. Some Balboa Peninsula Point residents can be seen among the hundreds of observers watching the action as the bodysurfers paddle out to meet the challenge of the enormous moving mountains of water.
One of those bodysurfers is our own neighbor Rick Piani, who has been surfing at the Wedge since he was ten years old.
Rick has been bodysurfing here since the late 70’s/early 80’s when his family started renting a house here every August. His father would take him as a young child down to the Wedge. After sitting on the beach watching the surfers ride the big waves with no boards – just their bodies – Rick was inspired to join the action.
In the 1970s, about 40 bodysurfers formed a now famous group called the Wedge Crew. They bodysurfed the Wedge and also socialized away from the beach . They visited Disneyland and Magic Mountain and, of course, threw big wild parties. The history and antics of the Wedge Crew are told in the 2014 documentary “Dirty Old Wedge”, which can be streamed online.
The Wedge Crew developed a well-organized hierarchy for bodysurfing at the Wedge. The older guys ruled the place, getting first shot at the best waves. The younger surfers would bottom feed off of the leftovers. If you were young, you kind of got the scraps, but it was still fun. Rick was just 10 years old when he started working his way up the hierarchy of the Wedge Crew.
Technology has changed how surfers monitor the conditions at the wedge. In the 1970s and 1980s, one of the Wedge Crew members who lived in Corona del Mar would look across the jetty to check the waves every morning. Then he would put a message on his telephone answering machine. Then everyone would call the answering machine to find out what the surf was doing that day. When there was a big swell, another one of the Wedge Crew members would take pictures of the big waves. He would develop the pictures and then there would be a party that night and everyone would look at the pictures of the swell.
Later, there was an entity named Surfline, which would send out a fax about the waves. Now Surfline has a webpage. There’s also now a camera at the Wedge that allows people to go online to check out the surf conditions live.
But before all the technology, a person just had to show up at the Wedge and hope that the waves were good. Now with social media and other technology, news about big waves at the Wedge travels instantly.
There was a time when the big waves didn’t always draw big crowds. That ended in the early 1980s with the arrival of TV news vans, with their long telescoping transmitter antennas, broadcasting video of the big waves to all of Southern California. After the big waves were shown on the news, big crowds began to show up. The peaceful tranquility of our neighborhood changed.
The invention of the Boogie board in the 1980s was not welcomed by the bodysurfers. Eventually the number of bodyboarders far outnumbered the bodysurfers.
In 1993, the contention between the two groups came to a head. The bodysurfers put on ties and suits, dubbed themselves the Wedge Preservation Society and went to the Newport Beach City Council with a proposal that would restrict boogie boards to a few hours in the morning and a few hours in the evening. The ragtag bodyboarders weren’t as organized. Not surprisingly, the bodysurfers prevailed. From May 1st to October 31st, the blackball flag flies at the wedge from 10 AM to 5 PM. During that time, it is bodysurfers only.
Even with the restrictions on Boogie boarders, it can still be overcrowded with just the bodysurfers. The huge waves in April were the biggest in 12 months. There were 60 people trying to bodysurf at one time, causing a watery traffic jam.
The Wedge is considered one of the best bodysurfing spots in California. It is deemed to have the biggest waves in all of California. Because the waves are big, surfers need to get into them faster. That is why body surfers use two fins and why Boogie boards became popular.
Even before the jetty was built, the Newport harbor entrance was the greatest surfing spot in North America. In June of 1926 a speedboat piloted by 16 year old George Rogers Jr. capsized near the harbor entrance, killing all four passengers onboard. In order to make sure that such a tragedy would never occur again, George Rogers, the father of George Rogers Jr., spent 10 years getting the approvals to build a jetty. When coming to the harbor entrance, George Rogers had a heart attack and died while piloting his boat in almost the exact same spot where his son had died 10 years earlier.
Built in 1936 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Newport Jetty was installed at the entrance to our Harbor. The purpose was to make the notoriously dangerous harbor entrance safer for boating. The project accomplished that goal, but also resulted in the creation of the Wedge, as waves hit the new jetty and bounced back bigger and faster right down on the beach next to the new jetty. The harbor entrance had been made safer. But today, the Newport Jetty is famous for creating one of the legendary surfing sports in the world, drawing top bodysurfers from all over the globe looking for a chance to ride the infamously challenging waves at the Wedge.
Because the waves break right on the sand, bodysurfers run the risk of getting injured or worse at the Wedge. The most common injury is getting the wind knocked out of you. There have also been dislocated shoulders, broken
bones, compound fractures, broken necks and even deaths. Rick has seen three deaths at the Wedge.
It’s a scary scene when a bodysurfer gets knocked out in the water. They come up floating face down in the water. The experienced bodysurfers can help the lifeguards when a rescue is necessary. The lifeguards also work to prevent inexperienced bodysurfers from going into the water at the Wedge.
As a safety precaution, when he is riding a wave, Rick tries to keep his body parallel to the shore. So when he catches a ride, he rolls up the shore on the sand. But there are times when a wave turns you around and you don’t know where you’re going to land. That is scary. Getting hurt is always in the back of everyone’s mind.
Rick likes to see the power of the ocean. After you catch a few big waves, you become more comfortable in the water. The crowd, which can grow to around 1,000 people, never influences Rick. The guys in the water with you are the ones who push you to do more.
The swell from Hurricane Marie in 2014 created the biggest waves that Rick has ever seen at the Wedge. They were 25 to 30 feet tall.
The Wedge is internationally known. People from other parts of the world fly here for the big waves. A lot of the Hawaiian bodysurfers fly here for the big swells. They stay with the local surfers, and when the waves are big in Hawaii, the guys from here fly to Hawaii and stay with their bodysurfing friends in the islands.
Rick always wanted to be near the Wedge so he feels fortunate to have bought a house on the Peninsula Point in 2002. As a homeowner, the large crowds are frustrating to him, but he feels fortunate to live in this neighborhood.
Another concern for Rick is that the crowds trash the beach. Rick and others formed a group named the Wedge Group Preservation. They clean up the Wedge after every big swell.
When he goes to the Wedge now, Rick still sees familiar faces. Our Peninsula Point neighbor John Wadsworth and his kids surf the Wedge. Some of the older guys from the Wedge Crew are in their 70s now. Rick still talks to them. And Rick still surfs the Wedge.
Beyond continuing to surf the Wedge, Rick is helping to make sure there will be a new generation riding the big waves. Among the youngsters in the water at the Wedge today are Rick’s sons, Rowan and Ryan.
MAKING THE WEDGE ACCESSIBLE
Earlier this year Manhattan Beach and Huntington Beach added portable roll-up mats extending from sidewalks out onto the sand at their beaches. The mats allow wheelchair users, baby strollers and someone who has difficulty walking to enjoy the beach. CFBPP board member Bob Yant is a quadriplegic from an ocean diving accident at Island Avenue. He uses a power wheelchair. Bob has asked the city of Newport Beach to explore the possibility of adding a beach mat from the end of the sidewalk in West Jetty Park. This is the sidewalk that leads to the Wedge surfing spot. We hope that CFBPP and the city can come together to increase access for people to watch the big waves and surfers at the Wedge.