a. The History of Blackball at Wedge
c. The Science of Tropical Cyclones
d. The Night Womp
a. The History of Blackball at Wedge
c. The Science of Tropical Cyclones
d. The Night Womp
The following article is an historical account of the Blackball Flag and its significance to the bodysurfing culture at Wedge. The referenced Ordinance and Resolutions are attached to the bottom of the article for those who seek more information. Feel free to contact email@example.com to provide more information or personal accounts referenced throughout the article.
The modern form of bodysurfing has been around since the early years of the 20th century. In those days, bodysurfing was the most popular water sport. Many of the top bodysurfers were also top athletes of their time. Olympians like Wally O’Connor raved about the “thrills, pleasure and exercise of body surfing.” It attracted many well-known football players of the mid-century too. With all these highly competitive people pushing each other to bodysurf bigger and better waves along the southern California coast, it is no surprise many found a sticking point at the end of the Balboa Peninsula.
Bodysurfers are reported to have found Wedge sometime near the 1930’s. They called it “The Hook.” These early pioneers hurled themselves over the falls with rudimentary tools and no social media. Wedge stayed that way for many years. By the 1960’s, there was a dedicated contingent of bodysurfers and as the number of beach goers throughout Newport continued to grow the City Council was forced to shape new policies.
In April of 1966 the Newport City Council issued Ordinance 1162. They designated surfing areas to protect surf bathers from “hazardous surfing.” The council decided the best way to communicate these established areas was through the use of signal flags. “The authority to prohibit surfing set forth in subsection (b) may be exercised by displaying signal flags consisting of a solid black circle on a yellow background. When such flags are displayed on the beach they shall signify that surfing is prohibited.” Newport City Council had officially adopted the Blackball Flag as a tool to protect the public. They had no idea how iconic this symbol would become.
Wedge was not included in the early Blackball adoption. It wasn’t until 1978 that Wedge would be added to the protected beaches 12-4 p.m. during the summer months. The dedicated local crew of bodysurfers continued to grow and evolve through these ancestral generations. Alternative craft riders like kneeboarders were also present. Tom Morey’s 1971 invention, the bodyboard, sent another flood of riders into the impressive wedging shore break. According to the 1978 resolution these riders were allowed to ride waves even when the Blackball Flag was flying because Blackball only prohibited stand-up surfing.
The Wedge landscape went through another transformation in 1985. According to hazy memories a bodysurfer was run over by a kneeboarder. The vocal bodysurfer urged the council to strengthen the blackball. The council agreed and in November of that same year Section 6 was added. Section 6 stated “All flotation devices such as boogie boards, surf mats, etc. are prohibited at the area commonly known as The “Wedge” when the Blackblall Flag is displayed.” This was the first direct reference to Wedge in official Newport Code. Wedge bodysurfers now had exclusive rights to the wave in the afternoon hours.
While the bodysurfers had fought to gain this time to safely practice their art, they were only scrapping for the wave during the worst hours of the day. In southern California surfers are lucky to have favorable winds as late as 10 a.m. much less 12 p.m. So, in 1993 the dedicated bodysurfers set up for another run at City Council. This time, the boys put on their Sunday’s best to ask for a chance to preserve bodysurfing’s roots and future at Wedge. This group of bodysurfers called themselves the Wedge Preservation Society and they are still around to this day.
Both sides of the issue brought their case before the Newport City Council. On the 10th of May 1993 Resolution NO. 93-33 was passed and the Blackball as we now know it was born. Three key changes were enacted. The Wedge area was clearly defined as the West Jetty to tower “P”. The blackballed hours were extended to include the hours between 10:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. And the last major change was to extend the blackball period from May 1st through the end of October encompassing the bulk of southern California’s south swell window. The bodysurfing community, which first pioneered Wedge, now had means to safely carry on their craft for the years to come.
Fast-forward to 2014, under the guise of “fairness,” a group of photographers and board riders attempted to rally support against the current Blackball regulations at Wedge. Thanks to W.P.S. and the watchful eye of the other passionate bodysurfers, letters poured in from around the world to the Newport City Council expressing the importance in maintaining Wedge’s bodysurfing heritage. They decided to create a working group to gather data and put forward proposals the following year. On April 7, 2015 the Blackball Working Group recommended putting forward a resolution to both reduce the number of months Wedge Blackball should be enforced and to reduce the physical area defined as Wedge. They provided little relevant data to support the changes and in the end the resolution was not adopted. Modern Blackball policy may seem safe, but it is very clear that we cannot rest on our laurels. There are many parties of surf enthusiasts working hard to get a bigger share of Wedge waves. Whether their motives be to make money from selling photographs to the surf industry or simple greediness in hopes to surf Wedge beyond the prime morning/evening hours which they already control, we need to remain vigilant. Maintaining vocal support for the preservation of bodysurfing’s rightful place in the Wedge lineup is up to the cultural descendents of those first adventurous riders.
Pierce Michael Kavanagh is a lifelong bodysurfer with a deep appreciation for the Ocean. In the premiere of his short film, director PMK shares the fast-paced world of the womp at a speed our feeble human brains can process. Enjoy it on repeat.
Pierce is also the director of the San Diego Surf Film Festival. Checkout the line-up of international filmmakers set to debut May 20.
Tropical cyclones are incredibly powerful and dangerous natural phenomena. Every year, coastlines all across the globe are impacted by these tempests. When the storms move toward land, heavy rain, strong wind, storm surge and tornadoes all contribute to their destructive power. Depending on location and strength, tropical cyclones are called tropical depressions, tropical storms, hurricanes, cyclones, typhoons, super typhoons, etc. Wave-riders have a strange relationship with tropical cyclones. We know their power but enjoy their wave energy. Let’s look at the cyclogenesis of these storms.
The sun warms the tropical Ocean and delivers radiant energy to its surface. Wind blows over the water, it evaporates and ascends energetically into the atmosphere. The rising moisture condenses into towering thunderheads. Air rushes upward and the atmospheric pressure in the center drops. This is a thunderstorm.
An organized group of thunderstorms that persists for 24 hours is called a tropical disturbance. When winds exceed 30mph, it becomes a tropical depression. The Earth’s rotation (coriolis effect) drives wind around the warm core of the storm. For the storm to continue to strengthen, it must remain over warm water and encounter minimal wind shear. This is when vertical winds slant the storm, dispersing the heat over a larger area, degrading the storm. Without wind shear, the cyclone remains upright and continues to develop.
When winds reach 39mph, the cyclone becomes a tropical storm and meteorologists give it a name. At 74mph, the storm becomes a hurricane. Hurricanes are characterized by a defined eye and strong low pressure in the center. Around the eye is the eye wall, an area of intense thunderstorms and the storm’s strongest wind. The Saffir- Simpson Scale rates hurricanes based on wind speed. From Category 1, 74-95mph to Category 5, >155mph. Category 3, 4 and 5 storms are deemed major hurricanes with the most dangerous conditions.
A tropical cyclone is a heat engine, fueled by the temperature gradient between the warm Ocean surface and the cooler upper atmosphere. Heat becomes motion as the warm, moist air rushes upward and is replaced by surrounding air.
There are many meteorological resources devoted to studying and predicting the path that a hurricane will take. There are lives and communities at stake. Wave-riders also take a particular interest in hurricane forecasting because the path of storm is a very important aspect of it’s swell generation. Although, tropical cyclones have strong winds, they lack the size and fetch of their extratropical cousins that generate 15-20+ second groundswell. Hurricane force winds might extend 100 miles from the eye and gale force winds another 300 miles beyond that. For ideal swell impact, a tropical cyclone will slowly move toward land, strengthening as it moves but turn away or dissipate before making landfall.
North America is impacted by two distinct tropical cyclone regions: the North Atlantic and Northeast Pacific. Interestingly, it is hypothesized that cyclones in both originate from the same phenomena. African easterly waves are disturbances in jet stream flowing off Saharan Africa. They can develop into tropical storms in the warm Atlantic or continue across the Caribbean and Central America without development. Reaching the tropical Pacific, the disturbance can develop into a tropical cyclone using the warm water off the coast of Mexico and Central America as fuel.
The last shards of sunlight retreat beyond the horizon. Darkness gives chase and the few remaining surfers coast to the safety of dry sand. The nocturnal wompers begin to stir. Their playground is open for business. Some of them play in the leaked photons of pier spotlights. Others do the water dance under the light of the full moon. What is it that draws this subspecies of human into the Ocean in the vulnerable hours of darkness?
It could be the crowd. Even on days when the swell is perfectly shaped and sized the night shift remains a small-group affair. There simply aren’t that many takers. The night has the power to intimidate. Some claim that dark water leaves too much unknown. Active imagination can be a powerful deterrent. It has been our nature to create fears from dark places, but the wompers of the night embrace the chilling void.
Under the stale light of day, bodysurfers come to rely heavily on their vision when swimming to the spot. In the opaqueness of night, waves are seen mere moments before their full brunt is expressed. The night womper has to extend the power of touch to find the steady rhythm of a horizon-less sea, to smell the rising tide and taste the fading wind. If one manages to find the open corner and respond in kind, an iridescent moonlit tube ride is truly a thing to behold.
Another Night Womp Account:
“Moonriding” By Chris Robinson
The best time of day. As long as the alarm conspires with your brain to allow you to experience it. Stumble out of bed in the dark. Don’t kick anything. Out the door, grab your fins-towel-wetsuit. Morning chill. Beautiful, crisp sky. Orion and Jupiter march toward the sea. The wind is offshore. The buoys jumped up overnight.
Pull up, meet the boys in the lot. Too dark to really see. But it sounds big. Long lines of whitewater glow through the salty haze. Strip down in the biting offshore wind and pull on a cold, wet, sandy wetsuit. Always exhilarating. Stare deep into the darkness, trying to catch a glimpse of a wave. Subconsciously time the sound of sets.
Grab your fins, jump up and down to warm the blood and jog down to the beach. Gulls and pelicans laze in the sand. No one else around. A faint glow begins to the southeast. Twilight. The surf is big. But perfect. Peaks stand up and explode far outside. Of course its even bigger than it looks. Anxious laughter. Trepidation. Excitement.
Obviously, a strong drift flows down the coast. Jog up the beach, eyes peeled to the horizon. Big sets march toward shore. Plop down in the sand, stretch a bit, couple deep breaths to open the lungs. Fins on. Happy for the velcro security of fin leashes. Hoots all around.
Run backward into the water. Jump under a powerful wall of white water. Swim. Swim hard. Too excited to notice the chill. Already pulled down the beach. Much bigger than it looks. Approach the lineup. Wear a big set on the head. Big breath. Swim to the bottom. Pulled off the bottom and recycled to the inside. Swim. Swim hard.
Finally make it outside. Sit and catch your breath. Line up a clean one. Offshore spray to the face. Swim hard. Glide into a big one. Woooo. Pull into a big tube, still mostly dark outside, even darker and beautiful inside.
As the sun rises, the offshore spray becomes rainbows. The sun’s warmth battles the chill. Even if its a closeout, go right sometime in the morning light. Mind-bending, psychedelic light spins inside a morning tube. Dawn: the best time of day. No better way to start. Spend the rest of the day crunching sand and giggling about beautiful light and fun rides.
-Cover Photo by Adrian Ramirez Lopez