Do you ever have those times when a story about a celebrity seriously injuring themselves in the ocean makes you feel instantly cooler about yourself?
Yeah, I didn’t think I did either until recently…
Allow me to explain. Our epic summer of a thousand road trips has come to a close, with the final stretch being way down in southern California to visit various family members.
We ended up getting quite a few beach days in, with some fantastic boogieboarding in San Diego and Newport. On a particularly big surf day, we drove the boys and their cousins down to the end of the Balboa peninsula to show them The Wedge.
The Wedge is a man-made phenomenon bought about by the huge rock jetty of Newport Harbor, and its odd angle to the end of the peninsula, combined with a very steep beach. The steepness of the beach on the end of the Balboa peninsula creates what is called a shore break. That’s when the swell coming in waits until it is right on top of the beach to form the wave. Shore break is also what happens to your bones if you don’t time the wave correctly.
The Wedge is a particularly insane shore break, because the jetty/beach angle collects the swells from two different directions and stacks them up on top of each other, forming a weird double wave shape that gives the crazy break its name. For a certain part of the year, the lifeguards don’t even allow surfboards or boogieboards to go out – only bodysurfers. I guess they are trying to minimize the different ways you can snap your neck.
When I was in college, our water polo team traveled down to Newport for a tournament, and the local guys insisted that we all go to The Wedge one afternoon. I had never heard of it, and I will never forget seeing it for the first time. It was profoundly frightening. I had no business being out there, but when you are in college, you fancy yourself to be bulletproof, and if those crazy kids out there can bodysurf that insane monster of a wave, then so can I, dammit.
What ensued was probably one of the most terrifying and thrilling twenty minutes of my life thus far. Even when you are successful in catching the wave at The Wedge, there is no way out of it, so you just end up getting rag dolled up onto the sand anyway. When you are unsuccessful in timing the wave, things get a lot worse.
If you miss it on the bottom, it’s a lot like a semi truck landing on you while you are getting waterboarded. If you miss it on the top, it’s a lot like getting flung up onto the beach by a catapult with a rocket launcher attached to it, and then having a semi truck land on you while you are getting waterboarded.
I even fell out of the middle of the wave once. I remember falling past two or three other people suspended in various elevations in the green wall of foam and landing on my back in about six inches of water, before getting waterboarded by the aquatic semi.
I will always remember the experience fondly (except for the various parts erased by the multiple concussions), but seeing The Wedge again recently made me just shake my head. I can’t believe I ever went out in that crazy surf.
I recently learned the story of another college student who fancied himself bulletproof and took on The Wedge. It didn’t go so well for him, but the results changed the world.
It seems our USC football player was friends with an Olympic gold-medalist in swimming, named Wally O’Connor. Wally was a Wedge pioneer, being one of the strongest swimmers on the beach at the time. This was a little before my time, actually – 1926 to be exact.
Wally showed his friend how it was done, riding one of the hellacious waves right up onto the sand. When it was time for the man with the USC football scholarship to give it a try, it didn’t go quite so smoothly.
On his first attempt, the young man caught the wave briefly, but ended up out of position only to learn how unforgiving The Wedge can be. He snapped his collarbone and dislocated his shoulder, simultaneously ending his football and college careers, and dashing any hopes of the law profession he was planning.
His is not a sad story, however. He knocked around a bit after that, finally ending up working a low-paying job in the props department at 20th Century Fox. It was there that he was discovered as an actor and went on to become a household name synonymous with pure manliness itself.
I’m glad I only recently heard this story of a day at the beach that changed the course of history for the better. If I had heard it beforehand, I may not have gone out into that water back in the early nineties.
I certainly didn’t bodysurf The Wedge with any kind of measurable style or grace that day, but at least I can say I did it a little better than John Wayne did.
See you soon,
Copyright © 2021 Marc Schmatjen
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