...From a boy
I wantoned with thy breakers—they to me
Were a delight; and if the freshening sea
Made them a terror—'twas a pleasing fear.
—George Gordon, Lord Byron
Body surfers are not all drunken, longhaired, pothead jerks.
—Definition overheard at the Wedge
As any Wedge man can verify, the sport of body surfing is full of people who at one time or another have demonstrated a potential for becoming either poets or jerks or both. Body surfing—or the art of riding a wave without benefit of a board or raft—is also full of people who don't know what they are doing. Indeed, there may be no other physical activity, including golf, in which so many are so bad, be they latent poets or jerks—or both.
Most body surfers live in California, which is the cradle of the sport—as well as of Big Boys and Orange Juliuses—in the U.S. In the late '20s and early '30s when body surfing caught on at the Long Beach and Balboa piers, husky watermen went "straight off" or "over the falls" in a direct line to the beach. The widespread use of fins by the Navy's underwater demolition teams during World War II brought about a dramatic change, however. After the war the best body surfers began using fins, which enabled them to swim faster and to catch more waves. As a result, they began to ride on the shoulders of waves just in front of the breaking portion, where board surfers rode, and they learned to cut right and left. More radical innovations followed. Where formerly the only way to plane was on the stomach, with arms down to the side, body surfers now experimented with their sides or backs tucked into the wave and their arms out in front or behind or at 90° angles. Arms and hands became stabilizing rudders, body surfers rode parallel to the beach instead of head on into it, and tricks such as spinners, barrel rolls, cutbacks, roller coasters and Iron Crosses proliferated.
Today the sport is most expertly practiced at places like Makapuu on Oahu and on those marvelously named beaches that fill the dreams of all little Southern Californians: Zuma, near Malibu; the Redondo breakwater; the Huntington Beach Pier; Brooks Street in Laguna Beach; Trafalgar Street in San Clemente; and Windansea and Boomer Beach in La Jolla. This is not to mention the undisputed, full-out, righteous, unrealoutasightleadstud and, of course, bitchin' king of body-surfing spots, the Wedge at Newport Beach.
Even if body surfing were not the purest form of riding waves, the most fundamental test of man against ocean, the hairiest water activity going and, as someone once said, "the closest thing to the great trauma of being born"—all of which it probably is—the Wedge would be one of nature's finest showcases.
Originally formed where the west jetty of Newport Harbor meets the beach at the tip of Balboa peninsula, the Wedge is located just a few breakers away from what was once the finest surfing spot (both board and body) in California. This was at Corona del Mar, where Duke Kahanamoku played hooky from the movie sets in Hollywood because it reminded him of Waikiki. In the mid-'30s, however, to protect its harbor, the city of Newport Beach added 100 yards of rock to the end of the concrete east jetty so that it extended over 400 yards into the ocean. This finished Corona del Mar, on the east side of Newport Bay, as a surfing mecca. But on the west side of the west jetty the water was doing wondrous things, which still occur today. South swells formed by tropical storms, budding hurricanes and the dreaded chubascos of Mexico press toward shore with tremendous force. As each wave strikes the end of the jetty, the force of water pushing against the rocky outcrop-pings along its length builds up a side wave that breaks at a 45° angle to the jetty. The following south swell catches the side wave created by the preceding wave, and they join, forming a great peak, or wedge. This giant double wave gives the Wedge its name.
To an eye innocent in matters of wave size, any Wedge day looks dangerous, even those when Wedge men don't bother to put on their fins because the surf is too small. Five-foot waves, for instance, sometimes look like 15-footers to novices. One experienced body surfer claims to have caught a memorable 22-foot wave. Though the size of breakers varies drastically from year to year, depending on the storms to the south, on a good day the Wedge generally has waves averaging 10 feet. Veteran Wedge men judge the size of the breakers by how they correspond to the power poles on top of the jetty. "They're breaking eight poles out" means a big day. "Four poles" is average, and "two poles" is a bummer.
Just as it offers the most interesting and challenging rides in body surfing, the Wedge also provides the most dangerous. Only Hawaii's Banzai Pipeline approaches it as a water hazard, but the Pipeline's reputation is largely based on the fact that the surf breaks on jagged coral.
The Wedge has always been a source of concern to local safety officials, primarily because of the dangers that await the hundreds of young and unaccomplished surfers who visit Newport every summer. Over the past few years, in fact, the Wedge has been the scene of innumerable injuries and several deaths, but though most of Newport's surfing beaches are patrolled by lifeguards, only lip service is paid to the Wedge. This is because it is almost impossible for a lifeguard to swim out through the conflicting currents to help a man in trouble. Danger signs are posted everywhere, but they don't stop body-surfing tourists, who come from all over the world to test their skill or their courage or something. The city of Newport Beach constantly is being sued for damages due to surfing accidents, but the city always wins. "The warning signs are up, and everybody knows about it," says Justice Robert Gardner of the State of California Court of Appeal. "The reputation of the Wedge prevails every time. A citizens committee tried to close the Wedge in 1963, but we made an impassioned plea for a man's right to break his neck if he wanted to."
Gardner, an avid body surfer even now at 59, has written what is believed to be the only book devoted entirely to the sport. It is, as yet, unpublished. He seldom surfs at the Wedge anymore, but he is respectful of it and close to maniacal in his protective attitude toward the sport. "There are only about 500 people in the whole world who know how to body-surf," says Gardner. "There are maybe 25 who are good enough to surf the Wedge. That leaves 15 million flatlanders who go straight off all the time and usually fall on you while you're cutting. Sometimes it looks like there are that many at the Wedge. They're foolish. No, they're idiots." If asked, Gardner will explain that a "flatlander" is a person who does not know how to body-surf correctly. Normally this person will live inland, or "on the flats." Of course, he could live on the ocean and not know how to body-surf. This would be enough to qualify him as a flatlander, but perhaps not enough to be a "turkey" or a "goon," both of which denote incompetence. Turkeys and goons are often harassed at the Wedge by a little maneuver known as "head hopping," which is nothing more, or less, than having one's shoulders or head grabbed from behind and then having one's whole self slammed, banged, slapped, shoved and pushed under the water. It is very difficult to catch a wave after being head-hopped.
"The Wedge is nothing but a great big screaming shore break," says Gardner. "Nobody should be in there unless he knows what he's doing. Body surfing is different from board surfing, particularly at the Wedge. What's the difference? You get creamed every ride, that's what. Every ride is a disaster. I've learned discretion. I ride only what's civilized."
Gardner also points out that there is a marked difference between board surfers, who are, it has been said, scruffy, unsociable characters with a tendency toward drunkenness and rowdy behavior, and body surfers, who possess only upstanding gentlemanly qualities. Because of these attributes and contradictory philosophies regarding the best way to ride a wave, the two groups have become mutual enemies.
"Board men are just a bunch of phony hangers-on," Gardner contends. "They've improved 100-fold over the past eight years, but that's because we got rid of all the hodads. There are no phonies in body surfing. There is no glory in carrying a pair of fins. It's a basic, primitive thing. It's just you and the ocean.
"Most of the body surfers I know are employed or going to school. There are never any complaints from beachfront owners about body surfers stealing or wrecking things or using bad language. But those board guys, oh, boy! They don't like body surfers because we're in their way. Well, the rule of the ocean is that a man coming in on a wave has the right of way, and it ought to be obeyed. I rode over a board-surfing guy at Brooks Street one time and flipped him good. I've dumped people who were purposely in my way. You hit them, you understand. I got right up on top of a board surfer recently. He was there deliberately. I hit him right in the middle of the back with my knees. He was out of the water the next time. He learned his lesson. You have to hit them to survive in the water. Why do board surfers try and force us out? There is no place in the body-surfing picture for maladjusted people."
Don Redington, a former All-America swimmer at USC who now runs a real-estate-appraising company in Los Angeles, was one of the first men to popularize the Wedge. He says it used to be a normal progression for a waterman to body-surf before he moved on to board surfing. "Now most of them skip body surfing," says Redington. "It's because they're bad swimmers. They don't want to make the effort of swimming out to the wave when they can paddle out on a board. Board surfers regard us as low-class incompetents, but we were capable swimmers first. Board guys hunt for waves in mush and garbage. We're much more selective. Some people claim I was the first to head-hop at the Wedge. Well, if I was, I'm not ashamed of it."
Among the few who are accomplished in both board and body surfing is Mickey Mu√±oz, a surfboard shaper who once doubled for Sandra Dee in faraway action shots in a surfing epic of the '50s. Mu√±oz, 33, credits himself, along with Joe Quigg and Carter Pyle (a former Stanford tackle), with rediscovering the Wedge. Quigg and Pyle have since moved to Hawaii, but Mu√±oz is still active in Dana Point, where he drives a Ford van containing many surfboards.
"The Wedge had been a body-surfing spot 15 and 20 years ago," Mu√±oz says, "but then nobody surfed there anymore because it was too dangerous. We started riding it again about eight years ago, and we told people to come down and try it. The Wedge helped revolutionize body surfing. We had to develop a radical style just to survive. When we started we made only about 5% of the waves. When we were through we made 75%.
"The reason was that I brought back this new riding technique from Hawaii, where Buffalo Keaulana had broken away from the classic style and dropped his outside arm below his body to act as a hydrofoil. That's what did it for me. Back when we were riding, the Wedge was considered pretty far-out stuff, something really neat. Now it's a rite of manhood in Newport. The Wedge has always been very bitchin', but the group there is pretty much divorced from the rest of the surfing world. They're isolated. They're too far out on the peninsula."
While the current Wedge crowd—a fraternity of approximately 25 men between the ages of 19 and 32—will support the testimony that Quigg and Pyle were the true original Wedge men, while they will admit that Mickey Mu√±oz is one of the really creative body surfers of his time and while they will concede that what Mu√±oz says about the Wedge being a manhood rite and being definitely bitch-in' is true, they will not accept him as a spokesman for body surfing or the Wedge. As a matter of fact, present-day Wedge men hate Mickey Mu√±oz.
"Mickey Mu√±oz' brain is five sheets to the wind," says Kevin Egan, a bartender at the Ancient Mariner in Newport and an up-and-out-at-7-in-the-morning regular at the Wedge. "He's overrated. He's blown all out of proportion. He came up to the Wedge one day, saw it and liked it, and the next time he brought a whole camera crew, writers and the whole bit, to do a story on himself at the Wedge for Surfer magazine. Then he left and never came back. He takes a camera crew with him wherever he goes. All the stories in the surfing magazines talk about Mu√±oz riding the Wedge, but it never happens. He's never here. We all resent it."
"Mu√±oz hasn't been at the Wedge in six years, except maybe to take pictures of himself," says Ron Romanosky, another regular. "He's a turkey. A Mexican turkey. And a goon besides."
"If Mu√±oz popularized the Wedge, I know a lot of guys who would like to beat up on him," says a third Wedge man. "Get him up here right now and we'll all head-hop him."
Although their life-style seems tame by the surfing standards of yesteryear, some of the Wedge men will, on occasion, slip into those erratic tendencies that people "on the flats" have come to believe are characteristic of the species. Among those who can be found most any morning between 7 and 11 sitting on the sand several paces from an ancient spit upon which is scrawled WEDGE, WE LOVE YOU are: Egan, a transplanted Easterner who is murder on the side wave but gets sick in moving cars; Romanosky, a good-looking Vietnam veteran who angers easily and is considered the only blond Polish knee-board rider in existence as well as the best knee-board rider period; Bill Sinner, a salesman for Carnation milk products who moved from Whittier to the Newport area just to be near the Wedge and who now and then hands out chocolate-fudge Instant Breakfasts as a dole to his compatriots; Pat Carden, a former MP in Korea who fires off blasts on his Acme Thunderer whistle to scare turkeys and goons out of the water; Ralph (Redbeard) Polston, 6'5", 250 pounds, who stands on, not in, public bars a lot and ripples the muscles in his usually uncovered stomach; Fast Eddie Nastri, who got his name by unsuccessfully hustling pool players superior to himself and "always goes right" at the Wedge; and Nick Hudson, an unemployed ski-lift operator who collects food stamps because there are no ski lifts in Newport Beach and who goes to his Coast Guard Reserve meetings with his arm in a homemade sling in order to "provoke hassles."
Perhaps the experiences of Kevin Egan serve best to illustrate to what extremes a passion for the Wedge will take a man. While body surfing at the Wedge, Egan has pulled every muscle in his lower back, slipped two discs, pinched several nerves, broken his hand, been knocked unconscious twice, opened up countless parts of his body for stitching, fractured his spine and marked and scarred his feet to a point where they now look like twin topography maps of the Sierra Mad-re. Egan passed out two years ago on Christmas Day from the constant pain caused by some of these injuries. Still he comes to body-surf.
"I could have gone to Notre Dame. I could have done what my parents wanted," Egan says. "My brother is a doctor, and he was going to pay my way through school. He was against Notre Dame. He offered me two weeks in Hawaii if I stayed home and went to college here. I stayed home and graduated from Cal State Fullerton, but I never got my trip. I got gypped. But I don't hold any grudges. It's only cost me $40 for X rays the two times I tried to kill myself on waves.
"This is my life now," says Egan. "I could have signed on as a steward on a boat, gone all over the world, but I'm not sorry. I just want to ride waves. Before I was married I never got in before 4 in the morning. It was lucky I was away from home. Each day I came back to the apartment there would be a party going on whether I knew about it or not. I mean, my mother doesn't understand drinking beer out of surfing fins. I think people know what the Wedge is now. They respect us for the skill and the guts it takes to ride it. Of course, my mother still can't understand the water syndrome. She says anyone who stays in the water as much as I do has to be psychologically upset."
Egan admits that Wedge men can be pretty tough on turkeys, goons—and the Newport Beach Body Surfing Association. "It's a joke," Egan says. "Nobody who lives anywhere in Newport is in it. Hardly any of them come to the Wedge, because they can't ride it. They give us bad names. They're the grubby ones. They're mostly younger guys. They asked me to join a few years ago. I'm 24. I told them I was too old for clubs. Sometimes if they do come to the Wedge we'll head-hop them. I say, 'Get the hell out of here, you with your water-polo hats on.' They wear water-polo hats. We can be a nasty group, I'll say."
"The Wedge guys are hogs," says a young surfer down the beach at 19th Street. "They hog every wave for themselves. I saw one of those guys—a Wedge hog—down at a beach in San Diego. They have all these old guys down there. Well, not really that old. But guys who think slow and surf straight off. You know, over the falls. Guys about 35. Anyway, this Wedge guy kept head-hopping these old guys and stealing all the waves. One old man said, 'You from the Wedge? One of those hard riders?' He said 'Wedge? Wedge? No, where's that?' He was laughing and laughing. Then he head-hopped the guy again. He was a miserable Wedge hog."
Egan's wife Kathy, a striking blonde who works for Signal Oil and Gas Co. in Huntington Beach, takes her husband to task for his treatment of less proficient body surfers. "You ought to be more thoughtful," she told him recently. "You don't even care about turkeys who are yelling for help until the very last moment. You try to teach them a lesson by scaring them to death. I've heard one of your friends shouting to a turkey in trouble, 'Swim for the rocks. The rocks!' You know that's the worst place to go. The turkey could be killed."
"You didn't hear that," said Egan. "You just thought you did. Most people who yell for help don't need it. I'll be swimming 30 yards from some turkey and he'll be yelling for help while he's standing up. Standing up! All he has to do is walk into shore, and he wants me to come help him. But you just ask the lifeguards how many turkeys we pull out of the Wedge every summer."
"Oh, how many do you?"
"Gee, Kath, how should I know? Plenty."
"Well I did, too, hear somebody tell a turkey to go to the rocks," said Kathy. "You're too hard on those goons."
"This is no place for beginners," says Egan. "The lifeguards couldn't do anything even if they were around. I once saw five guards trying to get to a guy in trouble on the rocks. They never reached him. I don't think they ever found the body. A lot of bodies disappear here and wash up somewhere else. They're transients who should have stayed away in the first place. But we don't want lifeguards. The Wedge is crowded enough with tourists. If people see the place is patrolled they'll think it's safe. We want to limit the Wedge to just those guys who know how to ride it."
Fred Simpson, a regional sales manager for the video products division of Craig Corp. who at 32 is considered The Old Man of the Wedge, says: "For us there's nothing to be afraid of. We're not fearless. Everything we do is calculated. We go out there because we know how to handle it. I used to go up and down the beaches hunting for surf. No more. The Wedge is like the local tavern now. We're not riding the Wedge to be killed. Of course, sometimes we get eaten. The thing is you have to draw a line somewhere. Everybody has a limit. Some people just haven't found theirs yet. I can do three big ones and then I'm exhausted. I hurt here and here and here. I go home."
One young Wedge regular was not so fortunate. In August of 1969 18-year-old Steve Meyer shot onto the inside peak of a relatively small wave and, though experienced, took a horrible pounding. He woke up in the hospital, his spinal cord severed, his body paralyzed practically from the neck down. On certain days friends carry Meyer down to the Wedge, where he can view from a wheelchair the booming surf that changed his life. Someone suggested to him that he place a sign on the back of his chair reading I AM A VICTIM OF THE WEDGE. Meyer says he is "thinking about it."
Often disagreements develop between Wedge men as to the proper way to negotiate the breakers. Some regulars, like Romanosky, ride the Wedge on a knee board, which resembles a sawed-off surfboard and is about five feet long. (Regulation boards are considered too dangerous at the Wedge.) Others prefer a belly board. "I came down here for a long time just to body-surf," says Bill Sinner. "Then last year I went to the belly board. I don't know why. It's faster, I guess. I won't say it's any better, but I just wanted to change."
Normally knee-and belly-board riders are kindred spirits of body surfers inasmuch as both groups are what they themselves call "at one with the wave." They also call this quality "reducing the medium."
"Still, any board is a crutch," said Egan the other day. "If you're talking about total involvement, we're already there. I don't know about you, but if I had two good legs I'd want to walk on them. I wouldn't use crutches."
"A rotten parallel, sir," said Bob Bell, another board rider who was formerly a cook at Th' Dorymen Fish 'n Chips in Newport. "An example that means nothing. The difference in body surfing and belly boarding is one of class and style. It is like a Porsche vs. a Volkswagen. If you want to go slow you drive a Volks, fast, a Porsche. A board is fast."
"Are you saying belly boarding is more bitchin' than body surfing?" said Egan.
"I'm not," said Sinner. "I'm saying it's different, faster."
"I am," said Bell. "I'm saying it's more bitchin'."
"Our sport is like the Greeks," said Chris Klinke, another body man. "No artifacts do we need. Just man and nature. You miss the experience with the board. You miss the naturalism, the bare, basic humanity of the body alone against the water. That—my God—is no Volkswagen."
"Klinke, you're full of it," said Sinner.
Almost every Wedge regular, be he body man or short-board aficionado, desires only one thing beyond catching the perfect wave and riding it into the jaws of eternity. And that is taking a picture of it. Photography is the chief avocation of Wedge men, and if, as some people have it, they are masochistic in nature, wishing to be whipped around and crushed on the sea floor, they are, by the same token, no less megalomaniac because they love to watch themselves doing it or being done in by it.
"It's an ego thing, certainly," says Nick Hudson. "But it's also something to do when you're not in the water. You can't be out there in the Wedge all the time. And when you're onshore and you see a big one you just want to die. So you do the next best thing—photograph it and the guys on it. It eases the pain. It's bitchin'."
"We want to express ourselves in our photography," says Bell. "It's probably an obsession, but it's neat. Look at this equipment I have. Is it bitchin'? Look at these pictures. Can you see the expressions on the face? You can just count the hairs on the man's face, that's all."
With the advent of every big surf day cameras on tripods are lined up at the top of the sand berm ready to be snapped as rapidly as the waves give cause. Later the Wedge men may sell their pictures to surfing magazines or trade them among each other. On special nights in the summer they will get together for a mass showing of movies and slides. Egan himself has about $5,000 worth of camera equipment and hopes, someday, to make photography his profession. Together with Mike Fitzwater, a free-lance photographer, whose work includes publicity stills of "Mickey and Diane," a local husband-and-wife singing team, and John Ramuno, who, when asked his profession, answers "retired," Egan plans to publish the first body-surfing magazine. The three entrepreneurs have a name for the magazine—New Visions—a cover, a layout, "outasight" pictures and some money. But no publisher. "For our second issue we're gonna have just the whole bitchin' Wedge," says Ramuno. "A page of Wedge waves. A page of Wedge guys. A page of Wedge chicks. A page of Wedge goons and turkeys. People will think it's bitchin'. What an unreal, righteous issue!"
No photography or magazine text, however, can fully capture the tense anticipation followed by the near delirium that overcomes the crowd onshore when a huge set of waves approaches the Wedge. Roars and cheering accompany especially thrilling rides, and shouts of "Outside! Outside!" warn surfers in the water of impending crashers. "No, that's wrong," says Egan. "Goons caught on to that and started shouting 'Outside!' when there were only East Coast tinies outside. Now they're always going 'Outside!' What do we do now? We signal. Hand signal."
As is the case with most outasight places, great numbers of legends, some true, abound about the Wedge. Local men say its fame has spread throughout the globe. "These are the best body surfers in the world right here," says Ralph Polston. "I began at Boomer Beach in La Jolla, and all of us down there used to think we were the greatest, and we'd come up and show the Wedge guys how to surf. Well, I did one day, and I got my tail cleaned. I ate surf for two days straight. I mean ate it. Hawaiians come over here all the time to beat the Wedge, and they end up eating it, too. I mean, eating it.
"In the oral test the Navy gives under-water demolition team candidates they try and scare you—'Well, men, we're going out in some really heavy surf today'—stuff like that. One officer said to me, 'I see you're from Southern California. You surf?' 'Yes, sir,' I told him. 'The Wedge.' He looked at me like he had seen a ghost. 'You surfed the Wedge?' he said. He was stoked for all time. I was in Hong Kong with an Australian a few years ago, and when he found out I was a Wedge man he literally jumped up in the air. He dragged me into a bar and wanted to know all about it. We got ripped that time. I mean ripped. Outa...bitchin'...sight!"
The days are gone when Wedge men used to fill their socks with sand and smash a turkey's face bloody as he came over the falls. Or when a person like Nick Nick, a bona fide Hell's Angel (now deceased), would show up in his denims and chain belt, sharpen the aluminum fin on his short board, say something like, "O.K., men, where are they?" and go out looking for goon bodies to accidentally cut open. Tales of more recent vintage and of considerably less macabre tone are given currency by Pat Carden, the self-appointed "keeper of the legends." Carden says that on one memorable day he and another body surfer took off on a giant wave and flew so high they landed on the other side of the jetty. They got up, staggered around, saw they had ended up on the opposite side of the rocks from which they had started and wondered only if they had gone under or over the power-pole wires 40 feet above the surf. Observers assured them that Carden had gone over, his friend under. But it wasn't until two years later when he overheard a goon describe the incident to his date and insist to same that he was a witness that Carden realized how history is made.
There is one Wedge happening that has come to be an issue of grave disagreement among those who insist they were there. It involves the appearance at the Wedge of two girls, Candy Calhoun and Nancy Corfman, on what is described in Justice Gardner's book as "Big Tuesday" of August 1962, "when," as Gardner has written, "both girls rode the huge surf then pounding at the Wedge. Candy and Nancy [who is the former Nancy Gardner and the justice's daughter] had surfed but a few moments when, by unspoken agreement, most of the rest of the surfers left the water to watch the two girls. Estimates vary as to the size of the surf that day. Some say 18 feet, some say 20 feet. There was common agreement that Nancy took one free fall of at least 12 feet. Every camera at the beach tried to take the shot, but they were all fogged up with flying spray. But whatever the size of the surf, the girls rode the biggest the Wedge had to offer to the cheers of an all-male audience."
"Judge Gardner is full of it," says one Wedge man. "We didn't get out of the water. We were teed off that the dumb chicks came over and got in our way. They're O.K. surfers for girls, but nobody messes with a Wedge man's waves. There might have been some clapping, but a lot of guys head-hopped those chicks."
"There was no head hopping," says another regular. "They were friends. We all knew them. But it wasn't any 'Big Tuesday,' either. That's stupid."
"There sure was head hopping," says the first Wedge man.
Girls are tolerated as spectators at the Wedge only if they are on the near side of 25, slim, blonde, tanned, wear a bikini and have a face like Candice Bergen. Girls as dates, however, are a different thing.
"It isn't worth bringing a girl down here," says Dave Brooks, a regular who went to Boston University for a year before coming back to be close to the Wedge. "You get a girl all the way down from L.A. and wipe yourself out screaming wildly and showing her your moves on the waves. Then you come into shore, and she says, 'Did I see what?' You want to smash her face in. 'See what? See what?' I once yelled. 'I just killed myself for you, baby. Give me an ego trip, girl. See what? What were you doing, eating sand?' "
Ron Romanosky, who has a habit of throwing his knee board onto the rocks and damaging it severely whenever he considers his performance less than perfect, recently brought his girl, Linda, to watch him at the Wedge. After he had ridden some big ones and realized Linda had not watched any of them he stormed over to Kevin Egan. "Linda's been talking to your wife all day," he said. "You know what they're talking about? Shampoo. Shampoo! She didn't even see my rides. I'll kill her." And away went Romanosky's board onto the rocks, severely damaged again.
Only one area in all of body surfing has a more savage appearance than the Wedge, and that is its appendage 250 yards to the west. There, a huge curling wall of surf ("It's so big you could drive a truck through it," says one Wedge man) that smashes straight down into ankle-deep water is known, for obvious reasons, simply as Brutal. This mass of breakers, normally devoid of shape, is spoken of with reverence, almost as if Brutal were some terrible creature that awaits careless surfers and then systematically destroys them. Wedge men generally avoid Brutal, for it affords no escape route, such as diving underwater. As Kevin Egan says, "If you want to swallow a lot of water and sand and destroy your body, Brutal is ideal."
Whatever awe the Wedge men may have left over from a couple of barbarous days at Brutal is reserved for, and directed at, one of their own—a short, long-haired 28-year-old named Mike Virgil. Due to past reputation and recent modus vivendi, Virgil, by design or not, has stamped himself as the archetype of the Wedge, or, rather, as the kind of man our society has always wanted the archetype of the Wedge to be. He is somewhat of a mystery to most of the regular personnel, partly because he is quiet and withdrawn, usually absent from their get-togethers, and partly because he is considered to be somewhat abnormal. Virgil endures as a source of wonderment to his fellows because of the unique way in which he rides the Wedge—a flat-out, straight-down free fall, sometimes sideways, sometimes backwards, sometimes even over Brutal, most of the time looking for all the world like what he wants to do more than anything else is hit the bottom in such a way that he will snap his neck in half.
"Virgil is out there to take on the biggest wave he can find," says Egan. "He doesn't care where it is or if he can ride it or not. It might break at Brutal. It might break over the jetty. No matter. Sometimes he rides, but most of the time he just free-falls. That's his thing. He's amazing. He's a wild man. No, he's an animal."
Virgil will show up at the Wedge only on days of gargantuan waves. Anything less than 10 feet does not interest him. On these occasions he will sit on top of the berm alongside his pretty wife Cherilee, staring out at the Wedge but saying nothing. The other Wedge men watch him carefully to be sure not to miss any portion of the performance. "I didn't know they did that," says Virgil. "That's pretty neat. That's respect. I guess I do ride the biggest waves." When he has, as he says, "timed" the waves and is ready to go, he will rise as if by divine guidance and enter the water. Swimming out through the crashing surf, Virgil will pass up waves that might cause night moaning in lesser men and wait for what he thinks will be the biggest peak. Then he will proceed to catch his wave and start the "ride," first gliding through the water, then turning, kicking into a swim and falling on his side or his back, down, down, down, finally disappearing into the foam, where some spectators believe he will stay forever. Mike Virgil, however, always comes back up. "I may look like I'm being wiped out," he says, "but I'm not. I have a green room that I duck into where there's no turbulence. Only calm. I can reach out of the disaster and touch the calm. It's so damn great I can't even believe it."
Virgil grew up in Pasadena as a legend in the field of high school fisticuffs. He played football as a linebacker, maintaining an image, Nick Hudson says, "as the baddest guy around." Hudson says Virgil was "the baddest" both on and off the gridiron and "used to cold-cock guys and lay them out instantly." Perhaps because most of his time was spent engaged in such activity, Virgil never learned how to read.
When he was 16 he moved to the beach and became fascinated by the Wedge, seeing in it a chance to develop fully the body-surfing skills he had learned elsewhere. On his first ride at the Wedge, Virgil took off backward in an over-the-falls move, a stratagem that was to endear him forever to veteran Wedge riders since they believed it to be the product of mental derangement. As he hurtled over the top, a backwash wave thundered from the shore, swept him around and upside down, turned him over a second time and slammed him feetfirst into the sand. If he had gone down headfirst, Virgil says now, he would have been killed. As it was, the top half of his leg pointed south, the bottom half pointed west, his knee was "destroyed" and he was in a cast for three months. "I figured then the Wedge was a virility deal," he says. "At least it got me out of the Army. I had to keep going back."
From that point on Virgil was considered Mr. Wipeout. Six years ago he broke his collarbone when a wave did thrust him headfirst into the sand. Two years later in one of his perfectly demented straight-off numbers, he smashed head on into a goon and/or turkey who was coming the other way. The goon's jaw was caved in and broken in four places, while Virgil needed nine stitches to close the wound over his right eye.
"I don't usually get mad," says Virgil of the latter incident. "I mean, people see me up there and they usually get out of the way. People don't swim under me. I don't get uptight about others in the water. I don't call them turkeys or goons. I call them people. They're just out there doing their thing, like I am. Anybody who is out there at the Wedge has plenty of hair, let me tell you. I never head-hop, either. That's kid stuff. But this time I was hot. I came out of the water prepared to duke this guy. I might have killed him, but he was hurt bad enough already.
"I don't think I do anything unusual at the Wedge. I don't free-fall all that much. I ride. It's not a philosophy. It's just my deal. I'm not erratic like they say, either, although sometimes I think my brain is slowly being destroyed. You ask a lot of questions, don't you? You get me uptight, you know it? I feel like I'm taking the third degree from a cop. I was a freaked-out kid when I was younger, but that's all in the past. I'm just trying to grow up and be a human being."
Virgil's carefree style at the Wedge appears to have emanated from some escapades in his younger days, such as the time at a party when a young lady approached him and asked where she might find an ashtray. "Why, my dear, right here," said Virgil, taking her lighted cigarette and extinguishing it in his mouth. He also won a small bet one time by burning a hole in a dollar bill that was resting on the back of his hand. In the process he also burned two holes in his wrist.
"I couldn't read anything at all for a long time," Virgil admits. "Cherilee has taught me since then, and now I can read like a 10th-grader. Still, last year I was studying for an English exam at Orange Coast College when I suddenly figured out that it wouldn't do any good to learn the answers if I couldn't read the questions.
"The first time I went skiing my friends had to kidnap me and tell me they were 'taking me to the river.' I went to sleep in the back of a VW bus and woke up at the top of a mountain. I hated snow. They said, 'There it is. Do it.' I went down the mountain on my side, on my back, on my front, completely wiped out, destroyed. I absolutely tore up my knees. Ruined them. I loved it. I quit my job, left home and moved to Mammoth Mountain. At the ski lodge there one night I dove headfirst down a flight of stairs—just because. Because why? Well, there were these chicks all around. I thought it would be groovy. Was I drunk? I think I might have been."
"You know you just wanted to impress those chicks," said Cherilee.
"What?" said Virgil. "What? Impress what? These were radical chicks. What's so hard? I used to dive downstairs all the time as a little kid. Also later.
"Every summer I'd work construction and dive off billboards to hurt myself or drop loads of lumber on myself to collect unemployment compensation so I could surf at the Wedge. Would I fake injuries? No, I wouldn't fake them. I'd be damn injured. But I would recover. I guess I used to live a pretty reckless life. I think I might have been drunk most of the time. I fought a bull in Mexico and got knocked down, destroyed. I signed on with a rodeo and rode a Brahma bull for six seconds. I loved it. I worked on a tuna boat and got down in the nets to throw out the sharks that we had collected with the tuna. No, the sharks didn't bite me. They were unconscious. I love tuna fish. Eat it all the time. I do what feels good. That's the way I live my life. If it makes me feel good, whether it's against the law or not, I do it. I'm not sure a lot of the things I've done weren't pure lunacy."
Cherilee says, "Mike also eats spiders and other insects and things."
Virgil says, "Neither of us eats meat. It takes up too much energy. Besides, it isn't good for you."
About the Wedge, Virgil says, "I've always been determined to find a sport I could be the best in. I was always aggressive as a kid. You know, competitive, mean. Real mean. I bit off the cheek of a Negro in a six-against-30 gang fight. They had tire irons with them. But that was a long time ago. At the Wedge, there are a lot of individualists. Guys who do one thing better than anyone else. I take the biggest waves. I started out by being way up there at the top. I could see over the jetty and watch the boats in the harbor and the people on the beach. Then I'd go down. Way down. Fast. Was it bitchin'? I don't say 'bitchin'.' That's juvenile, a teen-age word. I don't say any of that high school stuff. I say 'groovy.' It was groovy. The side-wave guys think free falling is just a hoax. But it's a ride for me. I'm riding and doing spinners and everything. Once I got socked to the bottom and lost my false teeth. The whole beach was looking for them. Now I take my teeth out before I go in the water.
"I have dreams about the Wedge. It takes me places and I'm flying, flying. I'm relaxed and drifting. All my nerves and tensions leave me. I can't go away from the Wedge and miss big sets without getting all upset and worried. There hasn't been much surf lately, and Cherilee and I are going away for 10 days. I'm worried about that. The Wedge means that much to me.
"I dream sometimes I'll die at the Wedge. It's not a death wish or anything like Evel Knievel has. I think Knievel is a smart guy, definitely not crazy. He's a good motorcycle jumper. I think I'd like to jump cycles someday. Evel has a friend who's even more way out than him. His friend has a stunt where he is going to dive-bomb a plane, an old World War II plane, and aim it straight down to the ground. On the way down this guy is going to jump out—without a parachute now—and then a little later try to sky-dive back into the plane. I don't think I'd want to try that. It's groovy, all right, but the theory doesn't seem right."
Virgil was asked why the theory didn't seem right.
"Well, he could get back in," he said. "He could get back in, that's for sure."
But what's the difference? he was asked. He crashes and he dies.
"That's right," said Mike Virgil. "That's right."
Site of Wedge is junction of west jetty of Newport Harbor and beach at the tip of Balboa peninsula.
Appellate Justice Robert Gardner makes an impassioned plea for a man's right to break his neck.
Steve Meyer, paralyzed from surfing accident, may put sign on chair reading, "I Am a Victim of the Wedge."
Mike Virgil, the wild man of the Wedge, thinks it possible his brain is being slowly destroyed.