How Newport Beach Got Its Very Weird Wave

“Dirty Old Wedge” tells the story of the rise of bodysurfing, and the conflict with other watermen that followed, at one of Southern California’s most popular beachfronts.

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Apr 22 2016, 3:40pm

All images courtesy Hunt House Pictures

The Wedge, off the coast of Orange County's densely populated Newport Beach, is unlike any other wave in the world. Appearing first as a ripple, the wave initially builds into the sort of two-foot mush a beginner might paddle into during his first surf lesson. Then with little warning, it quadruples in size and speed to create a hulking mountain of water with barrels that rarely have an exit. Where and how large the Wedge will break baffles even its most experienced aficionados. Newcomers often don't stand a chance of riding it, usually getting washed up on the shores of the multi-million-dollar American dream-home Riviera that inspired the television series "The O.C."

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The Wedge is a fortunate accident of engineering, the result of a jetty, built in 1936, that extends 1,900 feet offshore from Newport Beach—a cosmic happenstance between nature and man's will to control it. As incoming waves bounce off the jetty, the combination of forces produces thirty-foot faces just a few meters from shore in dangerously shallow water. Whenever the Wedge breaks on a south swell, the nearby city is the first to notice. Then the larger wave-riding community hears about it, and soon the wave is crowded.

"It's the most publicized wave in the world, but no one knows the story behind it," said Tim Burnham, the director of a new documentary about the Wedge that premieres tonight at the Newport Beach Film Festival.

Burnham partnered the filmmaking duo Edwin Eversole and Jack Murgatroyd of Hunt House Pictures to make Dirty Old Wedge, which was initially funded through a Kickstarter project that the three set up. At the core of the narrative is the rise of bodysurfing at the Wedge in the 1950s. The film follows the subsequent clash between bodysurfers, the first ones to ride the wave, and everyone else who followed them, usually on a board.

By the early 20th century, Newport Harbor was one of California's most popular beachfronts. It was also dangerous for both nearshore swimmers and boats crossing the harbor. In 1926, a local businessman named George Rogers lost his son in a boating accident in the rough waters of the harbor. He spent the next ten years lobbying for a safer harbor. Finally, in 1936, the harbor's West Jetty was extended from 1,000 to 1,900 feet.

With the longer wall, Newport Harbor became tranquil and easily passable for boats. The original wave was long gone, and the menacing Wedge took its place. Shortly after the jetty project was completed, Rogers, diminished from his lengthy bout of politicking, died of a heart attack at sea in nearly the same spot where he lost his son.

The newly added 900 feet of jetty acted as a mid-harbor backboard that reflected waves back on themselves. With the right swell direction, reflected waves combine with incoming waves to produce the exponential rise in energy we know today as the Wedge. Because the heavy surfboards of the 1950s were too slow to handle its steep faces, the first ones to tame the Wedge wore nothing but fins.

According to Burnham, Fred Simpson is the godfather of bodysurfing at the Wedge. Before Simpson, the majority of wave riders were World War II veterans chucking themselves over the falls. Simpson brought a daring, graceful to the water that many would emulate. He created his life around the sport and eventually founded Viper Fins, the de facto choice among Wedge locals (and a sponsor of the film).

As riding the Wedge grew in popularity, bodysurfers found they had company in the lineup. Soon, the Wedge was crowded with more than just bodysurfers.

"The Wedge has so many dynamics that go into it," Burnham said. "There's the bodysurfing element, the boogie-boarding element, and surfing."

Throw in the addition of skimboarders—who approach the waves from the beach rather than from the lineup—and you've got a veritable washing machine of boards, egos, and bodies.

In the film, Burnham traces the first signs of conflict at the Wedge to the rise of bodyboarding and the media attention that followed. Bodyboarding surged in popularity during the '80s and early '90s—something that never happened to bodysurfing. Aspiring bodyboarders took to the Wedge to seal their place in the nascent scene, landing cover shots on magazines and making enemies in the water along the way.

"There was major incentives for bodyboarders to get into magazines, whereas the bodysurfers never had that," Burnham said. "They were out there for the purest reasons. They had a passion for bodysurfing."

The conflict reached a pinnacle in the early '90s. Fistfights, mostly the result of newcomers unfamiliar with the local pecking order, were nearly as common as Frisbee games. The local crew of bodysurfers soon became frustrated with taking boogie boards and surfboards on the head.

Despite friendly relations with many surfers and bodyboarders, the so-called Wedge Crew successfully lobbied the local government for a "blackball ban" in 1993, which outlawed using boards at certain wave breaks. Particularly strict at the Wedge, the ban prohibits using any board during peak daytime hours in the summer.

Dirty Old Wedge follows the story of the wave and its bodysurfing pioneers to the present. Even today, the insular community of bodysurfers is wary of both newcomers and members of the media.

"We had to earn their trust and enter their ranks before most of them would talk to us," said Eversole, the film's producer.

Blending rare footage of early days at the Wedge with state-of-the-art high definition footage, the film is a comprehensive look at the culture and history of one of waveriding's most infamous sites, one that remains as dirty, dangerous, and awe-inspiring as the day it was inadvertently created.