The Right To Die At The Wedge
by Steve Heilig, June 1, 2016
One of the most famous waves on the planet is called simply “the Wedge." Or rather, one of the most infamous. It's in Newport Beach, Orange County, Southern California, right where two long jetties made of big rocks stick out on either side of the entrance to the large bay and harbor full of small islands, huge and medium yachts, large mansions and smaller older single-family homes, a couple long-lasting commercial fishing outfits, bayfront eateries for both tourists and locals, and more.
Most of the time it is pretty peaceful there. Seagulls patrol the waterfront and jetties, small craft and large sail in and out, and humans, tens of thousands of them, come and go, checking out the undeniable beauty and spending their cash. There are even palm trees. Despite all the (over)development of recent decades and masses that invade pretty much year-round but especially in summer - with associated traffic jams - right at the beach, it remains bucolic. As has been observed, short of installing oil platforms (they have tried), "the one view they can't ruin is staring out to sea from the sand."
But sometimes it gets outrageous. A big swell of waves from the south, rolling and building across the open sea from Mexico a thousand miles away or many more, will line up and begin to strike the ends of the jetties. The huge masses of water roll down the line of rocks, foam flying up and out from the impact point and the wave itself getting higher and higher, until the steep sand beach makes it top-heavy enough to start to break in a mass of churning blue and white water that lands like concrete almost on the sand itself. At last count, perhaps ten people had died there since counting began, and many more had been paralyzed or at least hurt, sometimes very badly. But still they come.
As a kid growing up just on the other side of the harbor channel, we'd either bike or drive all the way around the bay to if we wanted to get to the wedge. It could take up to an hour, especially in summer when the tourist traffic got thick. Quickest was to just paddle across the channel, an illegal but not too challenging feat (there were waves inside the channel on a big swell too, but those were not only illegal to ride - you could get a "speeding" ticket - but more dangerous as the water there sucked even faster into the jetty rocks). I didn't go to the Wedge all that much but at a minimum on a big day it was worth it to watch the spectacle.
My last time out there was memorable. It was Fall, when the waves got good and the crowds thinned out. I'd been invited down to the hometown to give a noon talk at the local hospital, just up the road from the Wedge. I took the one-hour flight down wearing my "work clothes" with only a carry-on backpack containing my swim trunks, fins, flip-flops, and lecture notes, as I was only staying one night and that with my mom. I rented a car, did the talk - about the hot topic of "physician-assisted dying," put on the front pages by the creepy Dr. Jack Kevorkian, who was a dead (sorry) ringer for Hannibal "The Cannibal" Lecter in "The Silence of the Lambs" as played by Anthony Hopkins - stayed around to chat a bit, and then headed over the bridge over the coast highway down the peninsula to the Wedge. After a bit of a search I found parking a couple blocks away, changed into my trunks in the car, hid the key, and walked to the sand.
The presence of a sizeable crowd on the sand, with at least one TV crew and multiple lifeguard jeeps, was the first warning that I might be in over my head. WAY over my head, as sure enough, a "set" of waves was surging down the jetty, wholly burying the rocks in foam and mounting up into a two- or even three-story wave at breaking point. I felt myself start to get a chill of fear, even though it was a very warm clear day. About a dozen bodysurfers bobbed just outside the break zone. I slowed my walk and watched two of them stroke into a huge wave and fly down the face, vanishing in chaos. The crowd cheered.
I knew that if I didn't keep walking towards the water, if I stopped to watch with everybody else even for a bit, I'd most likely chicken out and not go. Which would be smart, I could already hear myself telling myself, I'm too old for this stuff. But something pulled me on - I'd come this far and this close - and I kept walking, right down to the steeper sand where the water was surging in and out, where I knelt and pulled my fins on, and ran the few steps down and dove right in.
Brrr, for a second, but the relatively chilly water actually felt fine and my whole being was focused on getting out of the impact zone to orient myself - I'd not been out at the Wedge in many years. Fortunately it only took a few quick swimming strokes, mostly underwater, to get there. I looked around and was reminded that pioneering Wedge local Ron Romanasky once wrote that "It really is a freak show - the competent, the clowns, the idiots, the showboaters and the wannabes." I was probably one part each. Plus, coward. I've never been into seeking fear, just fun, unlike some of my skydiving, rockclimbing, big wave-surfing friends. I like a mild thrill. And here I was in the wrong place.
The set waves were way too big for me. Terrorizing, really. I floated "outside' the breaking zone, watching and feeling the power surging up and under and past me. But so did most of the guys - all guys - out there with me. This was not uncommon - many bodysurfers went out, hung out, and got back in without a single wedge wave. This looked like it might be one of those kind of days for me too.
But then I saw, and recalled, a strange Wedge phenomena - the cross wave. Between the big main waves, a much smaller but actually better-shaped wave often bounced off the jetty and shot left, winding up hitting the big wave just before it broke. If you timed it right, you could get a great fast exhilerating ride for quite some distance, burrowing down under the main one at the end, popping out the back and avoiding the dump onto the sand. I had done that before and loved it and today figured it might be my ticket back to land unbroken. So I watched a couple cross waves from outside and then drifted towards the jetty, carefully keeping an eye on the outer rocks to see when the next swell was moving in. It was a tight sort of dance as too close to the jetty and you could be dead; likewise, far enough away but too far inside and it could be like a two-story house being dropped on you.
A big set came; one, two, three bombers, as expected - but not guaranteed - rolled under me and exploded in the shallows, and then in a relative moment of calm I took about five strokes over towards the rocks as the backwash hit and bounced right at me in the form of an eight-foot rolling tube of water - a nice left. For a second I felt my feet on the sand as the water sucked out, reminding me just how shallow and dangerous this might be. But committed, I launched off and into the wave, feeling the rush of energy as it picked me up and shot me down the face like a speedboat. My left arm was out, pointing the way as I flew along, ten yards, more, and then saw, looming like death itself, the next huge primary wave rising up ahead, more like a shadow than an actual object. One deep gulp of air and I dove down, pumping my legs and fins as hard as I could, and shot under the beheamoth, popping out the back as it thundered down. I was left about 15 feet from the sand and it was a quick few swimstrokes to land me there, almost casually plopping onto the beach. I'd made it, and that one wave was worth the whole trip. As on overwrought Wedge rider once gushed, it felt like "the closet thing to the great trauma of being born."
"F----n' awesome, dude!" said a young guy standing there with his own fins, and while by then I was supposed to be too cool to care about such things, I had to admit it felt nice to hear.
Later that evening, at my dad's for dinner, he asked me about the hospital talk. I went into my academic spiel about Kevorkian being the wrong guy with the right message, the problem of "futile" overtreatment, "active" vs "passive" euthanasia, blah blah blah. He sipped his Chivas and nodded, patiently, and then said, with his typical Midwest engineer's perspective, "Well, that sounds right. But all I know is, that's probably not the last face I'd want to see in this lifetime." Pop nailed it as usual, but when I then told him I'd gone down to the Wedge afterwards for some waves, he just shook his said and said "What, are you trying to kill yourself or something?"