Playing Hooky

The Wedge today: One heavy wave worth skipping work for.

Today, the Regional Water Board agenda looked a little light and Heal the Bay’s water quality director, Kirsten James, and environmental engineer, Susie Santilena, had the issues pretty well covered.  I was going to come in at the usual time Thursday to start lobbying on AB 376 (Fong and Huffman’s shark fin sales ban) and SB 568 (Lowenthal’s Stryofoam packaging ban).  Instead, after checking out the surf report, I decided to drive down with my son Zack to check out the waves at the Wedge in Newport Beach.  As a tourist.

I’m almost 48, and I’ve never been to the Wedge when it was super big.  I’ve seen hundreds of photos, but my few times going down there, the surf was pretty pedestrian.  Today, I finally got the chance to see the insanity in person. 

There were about a thousand people lingering close to shore, standing on top of a six-to-eight foot sand cliff that the surf carved out.  Four TV cameras and at least as many professional photographers recorded the action, tracking about a dozen bodyboarders in the water.  For the first 15 minutes, there wasn’t a wave bigger than two feet.  I felt like I was waiting for the tsunami at Santa Monica’s Palisades Park earlier in the year.

Then, a set rolled in.  The first wave seemed like a 12-footer.  It was amazing to see the physics of the wave, with a wall of water bouncing off the jetty and rejoining the swell to magnify the peak into the classic wedge shape.  I’ve never seen a wave with a more vertical face.  About half a dozen waves, ranging from 12 to 16 feet, followed the first one.  A couple of guys made the drop on the 20-foot plus faces only to eat it at the end of the ride.  No one rode a wave unscathed.  But most of the guys in the water were looky-loos. They had no intent of risking their vertebrae on surf that mammoth.

After the set, we stood around and talked about what we had just seen.  As an ocean lifeguard, Zack said that no one should have been out in surf that powerful.  Zack knew one of the guards, a Wedge veteran that joined him at State Parks Lifeguard rookie school at Huntington in the spring. He went over to talk to him during the lull. As the buzz in the crowd died down, it struck me that the Wedge has such a unique crowd-pleasing setup because it allows people to get so close to the action. The tourists would never get much closer to waves of this size.

Another 15 minutes went by before the next set. Again, the waves averaged about 15 feet in height, but one bomb stood out. Zack and I guessed that it marked the occasional 20 footer that Surfline had predicted in its morning surfcast.

Luckily, sanity prevailed in the lineup because no one had the guts to even try to catch the wave.  I had never seen anything like it.  The mountain of water was nearly vertical before it exploded down to break.  The wash came crashing over the sand cliff, soaking hundreds of people, including us.  Fortunately, I grabbed Zack’s camera bag before the foam deluge carried it away.

After that incident, it became clear the lifeguards have to be more concerned about the safety of onlookers, some of whom actually stood watching on the jetty itself, then about the body boarders.  It wasn’t hard to visualize little kids getting swept out from the sand cliff to the boiling, 10-foot-high whitewash.

By now, I had to get back to work. I had my Ferris Beuller moment.  We even stopped at Tito’s Tacos on the way back.  As Bueller said in the John Hughes 1980s classic: “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in awhile, you could miss it.”

So, check out the Wedge on a massive day.  It’s definitely worth a little truancy.


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