Friday, May 2, 2014

Big Wedge Fail

I’ve written about close calls and surfing mishaps before. I guess that’s because I was never much of a surfer (a duffer in golf terms) and I have more wipeout stories than stories of epic days. But I also had more fun than bummers. I don’t surf anymore, but I still have the soul of a surfer. I have such a deep love of surfing (standup, bodysurfing, belly boarding, knee riding, boogie boarding) that I think the surfer identity has fused with my DNA (if you are a surfer I’m speaking to the choir). That’s why, even thought I risk getting called out as a poser, I still tell the stories. So, here’s another one.
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A bitchin' pair of jams
Yup, these look boss
Rich Pugliese bought a new pair of jams (floral patterned swim trunks popular in the late ‘60s) and his mom customized them by taking them apart and sewing them back together, with decorative piping in the seams and around the hem. I didn’t like it. I thought it compromised the ethic of simplicity and was a throwback to 1950’s styling. It looked like something to wear wile lounging around a Las Vegas swimming pool. Rich was to find out these alterations not only compromised the purest’s ethic, but also the integrity of the construction as well (sorry Mrs. Pugliese). Eager to sport his new high fashion swim attire, he called me up and invited me to go to the beach. So that night, when he was through pumping leaded fuel into gas guzzling, American-made behemoths at the Mobil station, we loaded our gear into his gold Pontiac Safari station wagon and headed off in the general direction of Huntington Beach. Our plan was to crash in his car so we wouldn’t have to drive down in the morning.

When we got to Huntington Beach we cruised around aimlessly for a while, not really having any real plan for what to do. Poco was playing at The Golden Bear that night. We pulled up as close as we could to the overcrowded venue. Without getting out of the car we could hear the sounds of deftly played guitars and drums leaking out the open entrance of the auditorium. It sounded great even from there. Messina, Furay, Schmit, et al. These were our musical heroes of the time. If we’d had any real money on us we might have gone in. It would be a few years down the road before I would finally get to hear Poco for real at what I think was called The Stapleton Arena in Denver. It was a horrible music venue, but I saw some greats there.

After a few laps up and down Highway 101 looking for something interesting to do, we resigned ourselves to dining at a backwater coffee shop, one we had been to a few times. I don’t remember the name of the place, but the sterile ambiance was bland and beige, and so was the food. Around 1 or 2 o’clock we headed out to find a safe looking residential neighborhood where we could camp out for the night in the back of Rich’s wagon. We slinked around Costa Mesa until we found a spot that looked good. It was our usual M.O. to park between two houses. That way, we believed, the people in each house would think the unfamiliar car parked out front was associated with the neighbor next door, and not be suspicious enough of the out-of-place station wagon to call the cops. It seemed to work; we plied this stratagem several times and we were never confronted, rousted or, worse, arrested.

Settling into the back of our roving motel-on-wheels, we grabbed a few hours sleep before rising “early” and being on scene for some fresh surf.

In the morning, and nowhere near as early as we had planned, the daylight made the gold Safari stick out like a sore thumb. Not only were we under the spotlight, the sun made the wagon’s interior hotter than a sauna caught on fire. So, wiping sweat from our faces, we crawled from the back of the rig to the front seats, never getting out of the car, and hi-tailed it from that neighborhood to a less conspicuous place to park. After having a hardy breakfast of potato chips, fruit, and other assorted gedunk, we headed to Newport Beach to check out the Wedge for bodysurfing potential.

The Wedge diagram
The Wedge was a favorite haunt of ours. It’s a place where the surf is enhanced by manmade alterations to the shoreline. At the very end of the Balboa peninsula, on the west side of the Newport Jetty where the beach meets the rock breakwater, waves are squeezed into the 90 degree corner and forced up onto a very steep beach. When timing is right, the resulting outgoing backwash collides with the next incoming wave and compounds into an upward explosion. This new and improved! wave-on-steroids creates an almost vertical face that provides the adventuring surfer the opportunity for a short but exciting ride – a ride that just may end with a pile-driver-pounding into the hard packed beach sand, which lies mere inches below the wave’s feet.

The Wedge Breaks on sand. Note "backwash wave" at left
 That day was starting up with a beautiful, sunny, Southern California morning. The sky and water were blue, the sand shone bright yellow, and the air was already warm. There was a curiously large gathering of people watching the bodysurfers. But wait! There were no bodysurfers! And I mean there were zero bodysurfers, at least in the “inside” shore break. This was impossibly unusual. The shore break is the waves that bodysurfers and belly boarders (today boogie boarders and even stand-up board surfers) ride at the Wedge. There was always a crew surfing the punishing Wedge waves, but that day not only were there no bodysurfers or belly boarders in that large break, the break itself was gorgeous. There was a very nice peak and a decent left break by Wedge standards. On a day like this a surfer could catch one of those waves near wave’s peak, and slide along its steep face up to 4 or 5 seconds. To add to the disbelief that no one was surfing this daydream, there was a great backwash wave that day.

Boogie boarder riding the backwash onto the main break
The backwash wave is a phenomenon created when the breaking waves filled up a pool formed by a cove shape in the rocks of the breakwater. After being filled by an incoming wave, the pool emptied, and the out flowing water created its own wave the rolled out perpendicular to the beach, or going sideways. On good days (like this one) that wave would break near the sand and roll out to the water, creating a sideways break that made it possible to surf in a semi-circle – out away from the beach - across the face of the next incoming wave, and then back toward the sand  again. That was the best thing ever when the conditions were right, and conditions that morning were perfect. But this miracle of nature was empty of souls. Not even one surfer!

How completely bizarre; no one was enjoying this most awesome of all Wedge conditions. Instead, there was a group of would be bodysurfers floating around “outside” - way outside - where there was absolutely no action at all. They were all waiting in an area that pretty much looked like a swimming pool. Rich and I just looked at each other and asked “what’s up.” We stood there with our fins hanging from our hands, watching the lineup. The stunning shore break was going to total waste, while the group of floating heads seemed content to bob around in the deep water for nothing. Rich and I continued to check it out for what seemed like a small eternity. The good waves were empty, and there was no promise of waves outside where the pack was waiting. We finally had enough watching good waves go to waste and decided it was go time. We donned our fins and headed into the surf.

The bodysurfing was awesome. The backwash break was strong. It was easy to catch a wave and ride out the short distance into the main break, tracing a crescent path across the waves. Since there was no one in the surf but us, it was as if Rich and I had our own personal playground to romp in. In no time we each had several good rides. Our fun time, however, was just about to grind to a halt. Had we watched the lineup five more minutes, we would have seen why all the surfers were waiting outside.

Big Wedge waves can cause serious damage to the human body
Suddenly both of us heard a sound that turned our heads. From the beach, the group of bystanders were now on their feet, whistling and pointing to the water beyond the bobbing heads. Whistling was a signal to surfers in the lineup that sets of waves were coming in. We spun our gaze around to the water, and way outside was a huge wave coming in. As big as it was it was still not big enough to break outside where the throng was waiting; they were parked too far out for this one. It was, however, going to break right on top of Rich and me if we didn’t move. Our situation didn’t look good. The wave was tall and thick. A massive amount of water was about to pound us into the sand. To save ourselves, we had to either get out of the water, or swim out beyond the wave. We both decided to try to get out of the water. I started to swim hard toward the shore, which was a mere fifteen or twenty yards away, with every fiber of muscle I had. But the wave was sucking all the water away from the shore like a colossal wet vac. I couldn’t swim against the strong out-rushing current. I realized even though I could practically reach out and touch dry land, getting to it was impossible. I turned around and started to swim back out do deeper water, trying as hard as I could to get over or through the incoming wave. That should have been my first choice, and I had wasted time and energy with my initial escape plan. Now I was in a trap, and there was likely no escape. To mangle a metaphor I was between a wave and a hard place. I knew I was about to get crushed and it scared the hell out of me.

With fins churning and arms flailing my progress was not sufficient to calm my panic, and justifiably so. I started to go up the face of the wave, and I was barely able to punch through the lip to the back side. From that vantage point I could see a second wave, bigger than the first, and all the surfers outside getting in position. Now I knew what they had all been waiting for. The second wave was coming to kill me if the first one failed its mission to do so.  Making it through the wave did not give me enough distance to escape its “tractor beam” pull. It sucked me backwards, and with the ju-jitsu move of a Titan, it pulled me over its shoulder and body slammed me to the sand at its feet. The pounding of my life was on. I was being crushed and pummeled, trampled, and assaulted from head to foot. The washing machine tumbling wouldn’t stop. I was pounded into the sand on my back, then on my head, then on my shoulder, then on my face. The compression from the weight of the wave on my chest made it hard to hold my breath. I was in a panic and wanted to get to the surface for air, but I had no idea which way was up, and was powerless to choose my own direction even if I did. I knew I would die.

Suddenly, by the dumbest luck, my head popped out of the water. I only had time for one gasp of air before the second wave of the set repeated the same treatment I had just barely survived. I opened my eyes to try to get some sense of where up might be, and all I could see was brown sand and white bubbles churning in the tumult. Again at the end of my lungs endurance, my head came up and I caught a single breath before a third wave took me under. This time I was pressed against the bottom and eating sand. I was clawing against the sand in the direction I imagined the shore to be. Suddenly the wave gave me a push from behind. In a ten yard rush I was washed forward, and the wave spit me out on the sand like a piece of gristle it no longer wanted to chew on. On my hands and knees, gasping for air that seemed devoid of oxygen, my lungs burned. My head hung low, and I vainly tried to spit out a mouthful of sand.

Not one of the bystanders came to my aid. They didn’t enter the water to help me when I was struggling, and once out on dry land I was summarily ignored. I suppose it was some kind of Darwinian instinct to allow the dim-witted bodysurfer to perish. I was invisible to them.

I was not a Wedge neophyte. Normally I had that place wired, but that day I did not get the memo! Glad to be alive, though embarrassed in front of the crowd, I made it to my feet. Rich had survived an ordeal similar to mine, and he now had a more humiliating problem. His mom’s custom tailor work on his jams was completely undone. The substandard stitching had all come apart in the ocean mauling. They hung like limp pieces of fabric in a sad imitation of a native loincloth. He was trying to grasp the tattered pieces of ripped fabric together with his hands, having little success doing so. Adding insult to injury, he lost one of his fins. Losing both fins would have been aggravating. Losing one fin was abuse. With too much of his manliness on display, we quickly headed back to the Pontiac wagon.

We had been schooled by The Wedge that day and survived a very close shave. Teenage boys seem to live through situations that defy the odds. That was the closest to death I’ve been in the water. But Rich and I lived to tell and retell the tale, and we laughed about it. We didn’t go back in the water; we simply headed home. We didn’t have much appetite for more bodysurfing that day. Besides, it seems Rich didn’t have any decent jams.