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Tuesday, November 4, 2008

A Closer Look At Bodysurfing The Wedge In Newport Beach

The Wedge - body surfer
Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times
A body surfer takes off on one of the huge waves at the Wedge in Newport Beach, off the rocky jetty at the tip of Balboa Peninsula.

The art of bodysurfing -- less glamorous than surfing and tough to master -- lives on at the legendary, and dangerous, break. A new generation of daredevils is joining old-timers in the water.

By Susannah Rosenblatt

With the lifeguard tower boarded up, the sand mostly empty and the waves fizzling into foam, another bodysurfing season at the Wedge has drawn to a close. The daredevils who brave the wild waves at the legendary Newport Beach break are shelving their fins until next spring.

The die-hards -- guys whose concussions, fractured vertebrae and broken bones are testament to their devotion to the Wedge -- have mellowed with age. The waves -- which ricochet off the rocky jetty at the tip of Balboa Peninsula, smashing together in white-frosted peaks that can tower 20 feet -- have not. The Wedge chews up novices, flinging them onto the hard berm of sand or sucking them back into the churning surf.

Wedge Crew

Photos: Wedge Crew



The bodysurfing fraternity that held tanning tournaments and packed party houses during the Wedge's rowdy 1980s heyday has morphed into middle-aged dads. Fights used to break out among dudes angling for waves. Now, mentoring is more likely as newcomers learn to navigate that wall of water from the old hands who still can't get enough.

With a younger generation surfacing once again at the Wedge, the art of bodysurfing -- less glamorous than surfing and tough to master -- lives on.

"It is a dwindling thing -- there aren't the number of active bodysurfers that there were," said Tom "Cashbox" Kennedy, 44, who's been riding the Wedge for more than two decades. "With this new influx of fresh air, with these younger kids coming, it's like 'Wow, good, we're not going to die on the vine.' "

The Wedge crew, who call themselves the Wedge Preservation Society, successfully petitioned the city of Newport Beach to ban boards -- particularly the growing legions of bodyboarders -- at their prized spot from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. from May through October. Thus a landmark, and bodysurfing preserve, was born.

"Most people grow up, mature and leave the place," said Fred Simpson, 70, one of the Wedge patriarchs, who has spent nearly 40 years in the surf here. He also helped create Viper fins, standard equipment on the feet of many Wedge regulars. Of the Wedge crew, Simpson says, "Like me, they never matured."

Juggling kids and mortgages, the most devoted have bought houses close to the Wedge or created work schedules flexible enough that they can slip into a pair of fins on a long lunch break.

And there's no denying that it's the older guys -- the ones with the battle scars and the war stories -- who are still the best.

"The old guys rip," said Sean Starky, a bearded, long-haired 22-year-old. "They still kill it."

"The best guys are like dolphins on the waves," said Ron Romanosky, a longtime bodysurfer, kneeboarder, photographer and board maker.

Bodysurfing, which requires fins, nerve and perfect timing, never hit the commercial mainstream like surfing. The sport, which some bodysurfers consider an art form, has remained pure while skirting the pop-culture radar. That, and the practice required to become skilled, have thinned out the ranks frequenting the Wedge.

But some have noticed a resurgence.

"It seems like there's a whole new group there getting stoked on it," said Kevin "Mel" Thoman, 51, a Wedge veteran and the scene's de facto social coordinator (he has the tattoos to prove it).

"It's infectious; you don't really want to stop," said Ben Frazier, 18, who's been bodysurfing since the beginning of high school.

As long as the young guys know their place in the pecking order and show skill, the crew at the kinder, gentler Wedge is happy to show them the ropes.

"I love to see these guys charging these big waves," Kennedy said. "It's almost like the way I used to feel when I was their age. There's some sort of fire in the belly you need."

Simpson has seen generation after generation come and go at the Wedge. But though the old crew is happy to see newcomers keeping their passion alive, there are no plans to hang up their fins.

"We'll have a new crop," Thoman said, "and I'll be down there in a wheelchair."

Rosenblatt is a Times staff writer.