The Newport Beach Wedge
"You need two fins, one on each foot to enter the water," blasted the loudspeaker atop the wooden life guard tower adorned with a large capital letter W. Five heads of late teenage boys bobbed together in a close group in the smooth glassy grey water. A chunky rock jetty extended out a mile into the sea at the southern tip of the Balboa Peninsula. It was a cool "June Gloom" morning with a coastal marine layer of clouds typical for this time of year. The wind was still and the sea was calm.
But nine days prior, there was a raging low-pressure system in the South Pacific Ocean somewhere between New Zealand and Chile interacting with an adjacent broad area of high pressure, creating a fetch of gale force winds extending for hundreds of miles and pointed northward. This phenomenon creates a "groundswell" that over the course of nine days traverses across the Tropic of Capricorn, the Equator, the Tropic of Cancer, and finally filling into the Southern California coast, most prominently at places like Newport Beach, which faces almost 180 degrees south.
At the wedge this morning, there are long "lulls" of no wave activity. Things are deceptively calm and peaceful. Until every 10 or 15 minutes a "set" will appear on the horizon, a group of 10 waves or more that appear and grow larger and larger until exploding close to the beach. The buoy readings off Southern California were 3.5 feet at 19 seconds. This can create powerful 5-8 foot waves at a normal beach, but the Newport Wedge is not a normal beach.
The Wedge is a mutant wedge-shaped peak, a man-made freak of nature caused by refraction of waves that compound upon each other before exploding mere meters from the beach. It is a beautiful monster that beckons only the bravest body surfers. As a midwestern man, I did not fully appreciate the power of this place.
I watched as a set approached along with a herd of spectators there to observe the beautiful wonder of raw natural power. The first wave of the set rose to 10 feet in height and about that size in width and threw it's top out in front of itself another 10 feet creating a cylindrical space inside the wave called the "barrel." After detonation a plume of angry whitewater shot another 10 feet in the air. The broken wave travelled the short distance to the beach, where it rushed up a steep embankment of sand. As the great volume of water from the first wave of the set made its rapid retreat back into the sea, it greeted the second wave of the set. The meeting of these two waves moving in opposing directions created the phenomenon of "backwash" where the second 10 foot wave of the set momentarily distended upward another 10 feet. In this exact location is where you want to be to catch the wave.
I am not totally naive to the dangers of the ocean. I lived in Southern California as a youth and spent as much time as I could riding up and down the Coast Highway in San Diego on my bicycle, surfboard fixed behind in a special rack above the back tire, with a damp wetsuit in my backpack, chasing waves. However, I had never been to the Newport Wedge, and candidly I was out of shape, not having many occasions to visit the ocean in the previous decade. I was now a husband and father, had a career, and I had more important things to focus on as I grew older in the Midwest. But the ocean still called to me as I sat on the beach that day.
I promptly found a surf shop and bought a pair of size 12 swim fins. When I returned to the Wedge, I tried to nip the fear bubbling up in my stomach before it took over my mind. I could see clearly that all of the waves in the area were breaking in the same small playing field and that it was only about five feet deep there. What could go wrong? I could swim around in the area and worst-case scenario, if I got "caught inside" by a set wave, I could swim down to the bottom and lay on the sand five feet below me and the wave would pass over me without me hardly noticing.
As I sat on the beach in my short wetsuit and figured out how to put the swim fins on my feet, a young man and woman walked down toward the water in front of me, just to dip their feet in the water. A young lifeguard jumped out of the tower and sprinted at full speed down to the couple. He was lien and muscular, with blonde hair, bleached almost white from the sun. He told the couple to stay back at least 20 feet from the water.
I waited for a lull in the wave activity to waddle toward the water in my fins to make my way out to the "line up" of the five young body surfers. The lifeguard focused his attention on me making my way down the steep sand embankment. I was pale, obese, no upper body muscle tone. The way I walked, provided a subtle but appreciable signal to the lifeguard. My stride was not like someone who had done this before. As I got down to the water, he slowly jogged up to me.
"Hi Sir, it’s really dangerous out there, maybe you should stay out of the water today." I looked at his blue eyes and said nothing. "There is a really strong current here, I can show you some other beaches in the area that are not so dangerous." This lifeguard was about 18 years old, and I thought to myself, I was travelling all over Southern California chasing waves before you were even born. I had studied Youtube videos of the Wedge, I have spent countless hours of my youth surfing. Also, the spot where we were talking was an amphitheater, with the spectators above the berm watching me, I couldn't turn back now and make the walk of shame.
"I have two fins, I know what I am doing, I'll be alright."
I made the swim out to the lineup, which again, was only about 20 yards from the beach. A set came. I rose to the heights of the wave crests and turned around and observed the explosions 15 feet below me. The set ended and my hair was still dry. I sensed the water was moving around chaotically in different directions more and faster than I expected, which created some surprise and deviation from my expectations gleaned from previous experience surfing. There was fear and apprehension from this, but the thrill of being in the lineup of the Wedge was great enough to keep me out there.
The lull lasted 10 minutes with a break in the action. I kept my eyes peeled on the horizon, for the next set. Suddenly, the group of five other body surfers took off in a frenzy out toward the horizon. I could not see any waves coming in. I stayed in place behind the pack. Then I saw it. A wave appeared out in front of me twice as big as any wave I had seen all day. A second wave bounced off the jetty and refracted toward the first wave. The two waves merged into a teepee shaped wedged peak.
I knew I was "caught inside," that this wave was going to detonate a couple yards in front of me. The sheer size and power of this monster wave threw off my previous calculus of how survivable a leisurely swim was out here. This was not going to be so easy to just swim to the bottom, lay flat on the sand and let it pass over me unscathed. There was too much water, too much energy.
I knew the first general principle of ocean safety: Always remain calm. Panic causes the heart to beat faster depleting oxygen. In the brief moments I had to prepare, I tried to slow down my mind and repeat to myself, "Calm, Calm, Calm." This was life or death, but that was the best thing I could do. I stared into the "wave of the day" as it crashed before me.
I took a big breath and swam down to the bottom. A brute hand of water lifted me up ten feet and slammed me back down to the bottom, again and again it repeated, up up and down down. I could feel my body rising and falling again and again in the fiery turbulence of watery hell. There was no point to try to swim or maneuver my body, other than to protect my head and neck as I slammed into the sand. I allowed my mind to go into a meditative state for the next 15 seconds as the wave rag dolled me to oblivion.
When the beatdown subsided, I made a quick intuitive judgement which way was up. I was not able to reach the bottom so I swam up against currents of water still tugging me in every which way. Now I knew why you must wear fins at this place. I penetrated the surface and took in a desperate gulp of air.
I survived, but the nightmare was just beginning. This was not a good situation. I was out of breath, I was hyperventilating. The next wave of the set began its rapid growth in front of me. The backwash from the first wave of the set was pulling me out at rapid speed and it was totally useless to try to fight it. Although I was able to remain calm throughout the first beatdown, I was not calm anymore. At 37 years old, obese, and of a sedentary lifestyle, I was not the same person I used to be when I lived in California, and furthermore this wave was not like any other I had experienced.
Nevertheless, I repeated, “Calm Calm Calm” in my mind and tried to regain control of my breathing. I could not stop the hyperventilation. I had never hyperventilated in the ocean before. I let my body go limp as the backwash sucked me out to see and into the impact zone. The backwash hit the second wave and it swelled up to the sky. I only had the strength to swim a couple feet down as it exploded on my head. The washing machine cycle repeated. I swallowed water. I was fading out into black and visions of my family flashed. I bet there was 15 feet of water above me. I felt my heart pounding as I thought of my low odds of being able to swim all the way up to the surface. A voice came to me and said, “Don’t despair.” I thought about my fins and my moving my legs. I emerged.
The second wave had pushed me most of the way to the beach. There were no more large waves in the set and I kicked my way through the short distance to the beach. I crawled onto the sand and a collapsed in front of all of the spectators. The lifeguard ran to me in fraught silence. He helped me up to my feet and did a review of systems, “How is your head, your neck, your arms, your legs?” “My knees are bleeding, and I swallowed some water, but I think I am OK.” He put his arm around me and I limped up above the steep berm. I was too weak to stand, so I laid on the sand, still hyperventilating, and shaking with much fear and trembling.
What is the point of this story, why is it here, and what lesson do I want to impart to clients? As I looked up at the lifeguard, I saw a professional, a highly trained expert who paid his dues and put in a lot of time and work to understand this wave, before he was assigned to look after and guard the lives of the people who visit the Wedge. I knew that I had committed a cardinal sin. I ignored his advice to stay out of the water that day, I did not “trust the expert.” Trust the expert!