Wedge, The


Thick, punishing, highly specialized surf break adjacent to the west jetty of Newport Harbor, at the tip of Balboa peninsula in Orange County, California; ridden mostly by bodysurfers, bodyboarders, kneeboarders and skimboarders, although stand-up surfers have also made their mark.

The Wedge is a classic "rebound" wave: each incoming swell pushes against the jetty rocks and rolls back as a refractory wave, which then vectors against the following swell, effectively doubling the wave's height and power, and giving it a distinctive A-line "wedge" shape. Backwash from the steeply canted beach often adds a third wave into the mix.

The Wedge needs a swell from the south or southwest, and is usually biggest in late summer and early fall. While the Wedge peak can take shape more than 50 yards off the beach, the wave folds over much closer to shore, and terminates just a few yards from the wet sand. Rides here are short and invariably come to a brutal end; with the exception of Pipeline and Sandy Beach in Hawaii, the Wedge has injured more wave-riders than any break in the world. As of 2013, it was estimated that the Wedge had killed eight people, paralyzed another 35, and sent thousands to the hospital with sprains, fractures, and dislocations. The Wedge thrill has nonetheless proven to be one of the most addictive in surfing; a devotee in 1971 described it as "the closet thing to the great trauma of being born."

One of dozens of man-made surf breaks in California, the Wedge was created in the late '20s when the Army Corps of Engineers built a 2,000-foot granite boulder jetty on the west side of the Newport Harbor. Surfers in the '40s and '50s occasionally watched the explosive waves breaking in the nook formed by the jetty and the sandy beach, but not until the late '50s did bodysurfers ride the newly named Wedge consistently. Bellyboarders and kneeboarders joined the lineup in the early '60s, followed by bodyboarders in mid-'70s and skimboarders a few years later.

Bodysurfer Fred Simpson, at his prime in the '60s and early '70s, invented the arm-extended "outrigger" position (also known as "the Fred"), rode with control through cyclonic Wedge tubes, and has long been the break's most revered figure. Other top Wedge bodysurfers through the decades include Jim Scanlon, John Forbes, Don Reddington, Kevin Egan, Terry "Sac" Wade, Mel Thoman, Mark "Big Daddy" McDonald, and Tom "Cashbox" Kennedy.

Ron Romanasky, a Wedge kneeboarding fixture since the mid-'60s, is also its top chronicler, writing more than a half-dozen surf press features on the Wedge since 1970, and photographing the break regularly. "It really is a freak show," Romanasky wrote in 1989, referring to the crowded Wedge lineup, full of "the competent, the clowns, the idiots, the showboaters and the wannabes." Other notable Wedge kneeboarders include John Ramuno, Rick Newcombe, Bill Sieler, and Bill Sharp. Stand-up surfing, once a rarity at the Wedge, has become more popular since the early '00s; Christian and Nathan Fletcher, and Jamie O'Brien, are among the best-known pros who have willingly (and always with cameras rolling) gulped down their Wedge medicine. Infighting among the various Wedge factions—bodysurfers, kneeboarders, bodyboarders, stand-up surfers, skimboarders—has been part of the Wedge scene for decades.

A staple in surf magazines and surf movies since 1960 (including a fine cameo in 1966's The Endless Summer), the Wedge has periodically turned up in the mainstream media as well, hitting a peak in 1971 with a photo feature in Life magazine and a lengthy exposé in Sports Illustrated. In 2004, writer-surfer Daniel Duane penned a six-page piece on bodysurfing the Wedge for Outside, in which he describes a frantic, panicky moment spent trapped in the impact zone of a big set before nabbing a classic Wedge barrel ride. While the city of Newport Beach has refused to legislate against riding the Wedge (and has successfully fended off dozens of personal injury cases), it has understandably never permitted any type of Wedge surfing competition.

Surf guitarist Dick Dale lived in front of the break for years, and "The Wedge" was included on his 1963 Checkered Flag album.