The Lip Comes Down

Wipe out trying to bodysurf the Newport Wedge and you'll burst an eardrum, yank out a shoulder, or snap a few ribs. Daniel Duane tackles the mean blue beast and meets the elite riders who court her lash.

Wedge pioneer Fred Simpson, the pope of Newport Beach     Photo: Jake Chessum

bodysurfing at newport

Wedge pioneer Fred Simpson, the pope of Newport Beach

bodysurfing at newport

Wild man Kevin "Mel" Thoman

bodysurfing at newport

Newport Beach alpha dog turned flight instructor Terry Wade

bodysurfing at newport

Current wave master Matt Larson

bodysurfing at newport

Wall Street refugee J.T. Nickelsen, defender of the turf

bodysurfing at newport

Midget gidgets: Kennedy at home with daughters Katy, Caroline, and Cailin

WITH A SINGLE POWERFUL STROKE, 33-year-old Matt Larson launches himself into one of the most violent waves on earth. Lying prone in the water, his right arm at his side, the unofficial reigning master of this wave drives his center of gravity down and forward, reaching out with his left hand while flaring his legs and arching his back. As the peak grows higher and higher, moving toward the beach where I'm standing, Larson soars sideways across its face. Then it happens—the ocean turns itself inside out, and for an instant Larson is a black blur behind a ten-foot-high curtain of blue water. Wearing nothing but his Speedo and black Viper fins, Larson again shoots into view and lets the wave flip him to his back, rocketing forward, now headfirst and upside down, hands wide on either side to control his position and speed. The crowd starts to scream as he snaps back onto his chest and drives into the final collapsing cavern, radiating purpose even as he vanishes into the explosion.

Welcome to the world epicenter of extreme bodysurfing—and to the underground art of riding very big, very powerful waves with little more than your own skin. Here, alongside the 2,800-foot jetty protecting the harbor in Newport Beach, California, the elite sport, practiced at an advanced level by approximately 100 people worldwide, reaches its most intense and brutal expression. Every summer, swells that begin life off New Zealand, half a world away, finally slam home in North America at the tip of this breakwater, 40 miles south of Los Angeles. As the waves approach shore, they bounce off the jetty's boulders and, in the final seconds before landfall, merge and morph into a backbreaking and monstrous wave known as the Newport Wedge.

The Wedge breaks so hard, in such shallow water, that even highly skilled bodysurfers sometimes crack vertebrae and shatter ankles, dislocate shoulders and separate ribs. And they don't always walk away: The constant pounding surf tends to build up hidden sandpiles in the wave's impact zone. In 1979, a particularly bad year, five young men rode the wave into these invisible hazards. Every one of them ended up a quadriplegic.

Unlike board surfing, bodysurfing has no pro circuit. The more notable of the few organized contests include the Pipeline Bodysurfing Classic, held each February on Oahu's North Shore, and the World Bodysurfing Championships, a casual affair in the tamer waters off Oceanside, California, some 50 miles down the coast from Newport Beach. But no trophies are offered at the Wedge, which tops out at around 30 feet high—just the biggest jolt of natural adrenaline in all of Southern California. To ride this monster, "you've got to be fast and fit," says 48-year-old Hawaii resident Mark Cunningham, four-time winner of the Pipeline event. "Grab your nuts and pray for a happy ending."

Which is, of course, precisely what makes the wave irresistible to Matt Larson, a Santa Ana, California–based massage therapist and father of two, and the rest of the Wedge Crew—a tight-knit group of a dozen or so locals who have little patience for contests and fly completely under the radar of the big-wave marketing juggernaut. With the pop-culture machine currently devouring everything even remotely surf-related, it might at first seem odd that Hollywood hasn't started nosing around Newport Beach. But the Wedge is an elusive wave that breaks only a few times a year—it peaks during the summer months—and because of its unpredictability, it's no place for a board. Thus it remains a kind of unspoiled inner sanctum of wave riding at its purest—and most challenging.

"Bodysurfing is just too arcane a sport," says Matt Warshaw, author of The Encyclopedia of Surfing. "Not enough people can even do it." There are no soft-drink tie-ins here, no Imax cameras, and no sponsored poster boys. There's just the monster itself, and the Wedge Crew, a tribe of unsung heroes who like it this way, guarding their traditions as if their lives depended on it.

UNLIKE OAHU'S BANZAI PIPELINE, Northern California's Maverick's, or any other world-class big break, the Newport Wedge has the unusual distinction of being entirely man-made. Between 1934 and 1936, the Army Corps of Engineers bulldozed 200,000 tons of boulders into the ocean off Newport Beach, extending a fingerlike jetty first built in 1918 to protect the entrance to Newport Harbor. As an unintended side effect, they also created one of the strangest wave dynamics on earth.

Here's how it works: Grinding alongside the boulders, headed for shore, each wave generates a reflected wave that bounces off the jetty and moves sideways behind the original. When that "side wave" hits the next incoming wave, the two combine to form a double-size mutant triangle. Precisely where the waves converge, the ocean floor rises abruptly. The big peak has no place to go but up.

As early as the 1920s, bodysurfers all over Southern California were tucking their arms and riding waves to shore headfirst. At the Newport jetty, however, that technique would have landed them in a wheelchair. For decades the Wedge remained largely untouched—even through the post–World War II years, when fins developed for Navy underwater-demolition teams started showing up in military-surplus stores. The stiff black rubber fins allowed bodysurfers to catch bigger waves, then angle across their faces.

It wasn't until 1961, when former UCLA water-polo player Fred Simpson redesigned the fins and figured out the right body position, that the Wedge was finally mastered. Others followed Simpson, and by the seventies a full-blown urban surf tribe was sharing raucous "Wedge houses" and living in utter debauchery. They held mock tanning contests and regular keggers, sported Wedge tattoos, and—according to one lifelong member—bedded more than a few young girls. They had their own surf report, their own Wedge cocktail (white and gold tequilas, curaçao, lime and orange juice, plus soda), and even their own Wedge Wear line of T-shirts, bearing pictures of themselves in action.

At the time, most of the Crew—which included characters like Terry Wade, Kevin "Mel" Thoman, and Tom "Cashbox" Kennedy—had the roguish exuberance of an out-of-control fraternity. A typical anecdote goes like this: In 1986, the Crew decided to mix things up at the World Bodysurfing Championships. They had long ridiculed the event; to them, the tame surf farther down in Oceanside made it a championship in name only. Wedge pioneer Simpson, who hung up his Speedo and retired from bodysurfing in 1989 after a brush with melanoma, was at that time making a living selling his fin design under the Viper brand. As a sponsor of the Oceanside event, he was handing out prizes and hanging the banners.

Then his buddies crashed the party. "It's a family event, with dancing and surf movies," recalls Simpson, now 66. "Well, the a-holes from the Wedge showed up and—Katie, bar the door! There was a slide show, and the boys are all chanting, 'Oceanslime! Oceanslime!' [a putdown of the host city], and then Kennedy streaking across the stage, guys thumping their asses, spilling beer, babies crying, women screaming."

Simpson didn't participate in the madness, but he caught an earful from the organizers after the fact. "They said, 'Simpson, tell your people to stay away.' I said, 'Hey, I don't even know those guys.' But the truth is, I love it. My attitude is, 'Hey, I don't know who left the gate open, but the dogs are back.' "

The Crew kept a firm grip on the Newport Wedge until the eighties, when a new threat emerged: the recently invented boogie board. With a little practice, just about anyone could flop down on one of these foam platters and catch a ride. Before long, mobs of "boogers" had so cluttered the Wedge that bodysurfing had become nearly impossible. In retaliation, the Crew lobbed sand-filled socks at the interlopers as they launched themselves into the wave—and even spiked the beach with nails and glass.

In 1993, worried that their way of life might disappear, Wade, Kennedy, and Thoman formed the Wedge Preservation Society. Petitioning the municipality, they won for all bodysurfers what amounts to legal title to the Wedge, for the best part of the year.

"The City Council finds that 'The Wedge' is an area particularly suited to bodysurfing and that flotation devices . . . pose a danger to bodysurfers at The Wedge," reads City of Newport Beach Resolution No. 93-33, passed in May of that year. In the name of public safety, the bylaw prohibits all board surfing—including boogie boarding—at the jetty between 10a.m. and 5 p.m., from the start of May to the end of October. Wedge bodysurfing stands today as a protected cultural treasure—a rare instance in which one recreation group is effectively handed the only keys to a public resource.

Not that everybody always plays by the rules. On one of the mornings I visit the Wedge, three boogie boarders refuse to leave the water. Wedge Crewman J.T. Nickelsen, a 35-year-old, 200-pound former Wall Street trader, wades into the surf to drag them out himself.

In less than a minute, a six-four, tattoo-covered boogie boarder is screaming at Nickelsen: "Why don't you do something about it, faggot?"

"You do something, you jerk-off."

"Oh, yeah," the booger replies, pumping his massive ham-hock fist at crotch level. "I'm a big jerk-off! I'm just a big jerk-off! Oh, God, I'm so scared. Here, look, let me turn around and take off my wetsuit. OK, faggot? Here I go, see? I'm not even looking. My back's turned. It's your big chance to drop me."

Nickelsen stands his ground. "Take the first swing, buddy," he says. "I'm right here."

"TERRY WADE WAS A FREAK," says Fred Simpson. It's a sunny afternoon in June, and Simpson is holding court with a group of Crew members at El Ranchito, a Mexican restaurant on Newport Boulevard. Matt Larson sits quietly at one end of the table, while 18-year-old Sean Starkey, a freckle-faced blond and the son of an Orange County plumber, leans in over his nachos. A half-dozen other guys—including Nickelsen and Ron "Romo" Romanosky, a stern Vietnam vet and 30-year Wedge devotee—chatter about a big swell on the way.

Though Simpson no longer rides the Wedge, he remains the group's respected oral historian. This afternoon he's telling the gang about Wade, who ruled the wave during the seventies and early eighties.

"He'd sit way the hell outside and wait for the real freight trains," Simpson says. "When it gets to 30 feet, the jetty starts looking like a submarine going through the incoming swells—and you can hear the wave coming down the rocks, boom-boom-boom . . . and the peak is like a small planet, like the back side of Half Dome, and you're going, Where the hell does it get vertical? It keeps going down and down . . . and now it's too late, see, because now it trips and you fall off that goddamn roof. Wade knew how to ride those things."

Of course, not everyone did. In 1987, Mike Cunningham, winner of that year's World Bodysurfing Championships, decided to take a spin on the Wedge. "He tried to do an underwater takeoff, getting pretty," says Simpson. "Guy falls out and goes 'Aaaaaaaa!' Boom! The lip comes down on him and bursts his eardrum. He tried to tap-dance." Simpson wags his finger. "The Wedge ain't a stage. No tap dancing allowed. No cute. He came up bleeding from his ear, going 'Oh, God, somebody help me.' " (Simpson helped Cunningham out of the water, and he recovered fully.)

As the guacamole goes around, the Crew offers more tributes to the Wedge's cruelty.

"When all hell breaks loose in that tube," says Rick Pianni, 36, a local commercial real estate developer, "it's like getting nailed by three linebackers at once."

"Your nose fills with sand, your mouth fills with sand," chimes in Karl Larson, Matt's 37-year-old brother, who lives in Irvine and joins his sib on the Wedge every chance he gets. "Your eyelids blow open and fill with sand."

"My shoulder got shoved straight down out of the joint," adds Pianni, the only Crew member who can afford a house adjacent to the Wedge. "My wife had to drive me to the hospital." "How many places did ValueJeff break his ankle?" asks Karl, using the Crew's nickname for an airplane mechanic who frequents the wave. "Fifteen?"

"Maybe 16. He'll never be the same."

And on it goes. Terry Wade's Wedge career ended when he hit bottom one too many times—after landing on his tailbone hard enough at age 19 to rip his Speedo and hard enough again at 29 that he had to be dragged out of the water. He retired from the scene in 1998, at age 38, with his lower vertebrae fused and braced by titanium. These days, Wade lives hours inland, in the scorching Central Valley town of Bakersfield, teaching flying whenever his chronic pain eases up. Simpson narrowly avoided a similar fate back in 1988, when he, too, fell out of the lip: "I did a compression fracture on my second lumbar, slipped a disc, split my ass cheeks, and bit both sides of my tongue off."

THOUGH I CAME TO Newport Beach a competent board surfer and decent swimmer, before leaving home I assured my worried wife I would stay well clear of the water. But after a long day watching Larson and the other Crew maniacs have an outrageously good time, I yield to the obvious temptation.

My father grew up bodysurfing in SoCal in the fifties—he once even rode the Wedge—but I've always depended on my board. Sitting on the sand, pulling on my borrowed Viper fins, I study the monster closely. I watch Matt Larson take another run. He zooms through the wave's chaos in complete control, flying 30 yards to my right before his wave turns inside out and again swallows him in a sand-filled vortex, a zone of bone-crunching surf known as Cylinders.

At Cyllies, as the Crew calls it, the crashing wave throws a river up the steep beach and then sucks it back down hard. Which is why, the guys tell me, I should never try to climb out of the water there. I'll get yanked off my feet and dragged back into the impact zone, where I'll get beaten like a redheaded stepchild and held underwater and rubbed face first on the bottom, then pushed back up the beach, only to be yanked back into the impact zone again and then, well . . . you get the idea.

Flopping into the ocean, unfamiliar with my fins, I try to keep up with several Wedge guys as they head out alongside the jetty. The sea comes instantly alive, and a rip current pulls us 50 feet in a breath. Starkey and Nickelsen are chatting in the lineup with a 21-year-old newcomer named Aaron Piersol, who won a silver in the 200-meter backstroke at the 2000 Olympic Games and two years ago set a world record in the same event. The Crew is rolling out the red carpet for him as part of its ongoing recruitment program. The older Larson loiters alone at the far outside, interested only in the biggest waves. Two red rescue boats motor nearby, three lifeguards watch from the beach, and more than a hundred onlookers line the sand.

All of a sudden, the crowd screams and whistles, and people point to the horizon: A fresh set is rolling in. Whitewater pours over the tip of the jetty, and Matt Larson jumps in and swims for the horizon, hoping to meet the waves before they break. While everyone else follows, I swim well to their right and pause closer to the beach—a perfect, albeit risky, vantage point from which to take in the action. Larson drops in on the first wave and shoots across the wall, right toward me. I dive into the looming face to get out of his way, and pop out the back side. I'm still catching my breath as Starkey takes a turn and drifts up the now vertical wall. Kicking hard, he takes two strokes, reaches out to plane on the palm of his hand, and rips toward me at warp speed. Fantastic! I duck through his wave, too. Meanwhile, an out-of-towner swims for the next wave, but at the last moment, as the lip launches forward, he commits a cardinal Wedge sin: He hesitates. The vaulting wave chucks him into the air. Twisting in midflight, he lands in a terrible contortion under the falling guillotine. Mesmerized, I look for him to reappear, and I think of yelling for help. A lifeguard trots closer, and I can see the audience watching.

Then I turn around and confront the bad news. A fourth wave has already gone concave. I try to dive a third time, but I've drifted too close to the beach. The last sound I hear before I swim for the safety of the bottom is Nickelsen's warning scream. The wave's impact blows the air from my lungs and drills me to the seabed. Tumbling and spinning, I claw my way to daylight, only to face yet another wave. I've drifted smack into the middle of Cyllies. Frantic now, and forgetting what I've been told, I swim for the sand.

"No!" Nickelsen yells. "No! Swim the other way!"

But I've already been there, and now I want the beach, I want dry land. It all seems so close—I can even see the whites of the lifeguard's eyes. And then all that water rushes back down the berm and drags me once again into the target zone, and this time I've got only one choice: swim right toward the beast that's hunting me.

Diving into the wave's face, I feel the lip graze my feet, and then I'm popping out the back, in safe water again. So now I do what I've been told: I swim clear through the panting crowd in the lineup and over to the jetty. The huge black boulders practically vibrate as the currents drag me around, but pretty soon I'm making progress, swimming back alongside the rocks to the safety of shore. I'm only ten yards from the sand when a wave rolls beneath me and explodes just ahead. Looking to my right, I realize that the wave's much smaller reflection has just bounced off the jetty and is running straight toward me.

Nickelsen's yelling at me again, I realize, but now he's saying, "Go for it! Go for it!"

So I do. Two deep scissor kicks, my left arm stretched out, and just like that I'm a wave-powered dolphin, a human missile screaming sideways across the beach. It's a wild, bouncing ride, and I'm starting to shout and laugh when I see the tube's curtain landing out in front of me and I'm in a tight little green room. And then BOOM! The entire back side of my body slams the bottom all at once. I get tumbled like a log right up onto the dry sand, and the wave pulls back out and leaves me lying there, beached and happy.

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