The History of Blackball at Wedge

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 swelllinesmag@gmail.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.

W TowerWedge 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.

11086694_973397486011317_2003887813_nWhile 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.

-EJ

1966 Ordinance 1162

1978 Resolution 9451

1985 Resolution 85-94

1993 Resolution 93-33

Purple Blob Report: Summer 2014

Newport Point- Hurricane Simon
Newport Point- Hurricane Simon

Record breaking Pacific Tropical season, solid Southern Hemisphere energy, early start for the Northern Hemisphere, warm water, moderate winds, clear skies: the 2014 summer surf season was/is phenomenal. An all-timer, a comparison for epic summers of the future, literally one for the record books. Wave-riders are battered and rashed… but smiling in remembrance of summer and excitement for winter.

Velella velella
Velella velella

 Summer has the potential for weak storm tracks and minimal swell. Last summer was terrible. This summer was special. Purple blobs sent swell from various directions. Minimal marine layer allowed for plentiful sunny days.  Four thunderstorms graced San Diego in July and August. The water temperature moved into the 70’s in June and remained mostly trunkable well into October. The appearance of millions of velella velella- aka- ‘by-the-wind sailors’ on our beaches was seen as a positive omen by many water-people. Peter Hamann of San Diego Fishing Adventures says, “This summer was exceptional! The warm water allowed fish that normally stay deeper south to move north and provide us with amazing fishing.”

The 2014 Pacific Hurricane Season is one of the strongest since accurate measuring began in 1971. The Accumulated Cyclone Energy or ACE index, which measures overall storm energy, sees 2014 at 45% above the average as of press time. The season doesn’t officially end until Nov. 30th. SwellWatch forecaster, Nathan Cool remarks, “I’ve never seen so many hurricanes form in the NE Pacific in one year that took a northward trajectory, bringing not just swell to SoCal, but also torrential rain to inland areas.”  With 21 tropical storms, 15 hurricanes and 9 major hurricanes, 2014 compares favorably with the benchmark 1992 season.

Notice the "Record Warmest" off the coast of Central America where storms form and off Baja where storms enter the SoCal swell window.  Photo: NOAA
Notice the “Record Warmest” off the coast of Central America where storms form and off Baja where storms enter the SoCal swell window. Image: NOAA

Very warm water in the entire Eastern Pacific and low wind shear in the upper atmosphere fed a healthy storm track moving westward off the coast of Central America. The season started fast as Hurricane Amanda formed on May 24th. June and July combined for 5 tropical storms but nothing substantial. Then August exploded.

Hurricane Genevieve started in the East Pacific, then passed through all three North Pacific basins. She strengthened into a Category 4 hurricane south of Hawaii and was reclassified as Super Typhoon Genevieve after passing over the International Dateline. She then moved north and met her demise over cool water.  Hurricane Iselle followed, moving west and reaching Category 4 status. On Aug. 7th, she (now a tropical storm) was the strongest tropical cyclone to ever make landfall on the Big Island of Hawaii.  Next, Hurricane Julio strengthened into a Category 3 as he moved to the NE of Hawaii, delivering fun surf to places unaccustomed to such tropical swell. Hurricanes Karina and Lowell reached category 1 status as they moved into the California swell window. Lowell delivered a fun sized pulse of tropical swell that was a hint of things to come.

Aug. 7th- Four Hurricanes in the North Pacific  Photo: Global Wind Map
Aug. 7th- Four Hurricanes in the North Pacific. Image: Global Wind Map

Beginning on Aug. 10th, the National Hurricane Center monitored a tropical wave as it moved off the coast of Africa and across the Atlantic Ocean. Nine days later, a low pressure system crossed over Panama into the Pacific. Above average water temperatures and low wind shear allowed for rapid intensification and on Aug. 22nd, the NHC classified her Tropical Storm Thirteen-E.  Just six hours later, she became Marie. Moving into the SoCal swell window on a N-WNW track, she strengthened into a Category 5 hurricane with 160mph winds on Aug. 24th.  

 

On the evening of Tuesday the 26th, abnormally long, 18” tropical forerunners began to show at south facing beaches that could handle the SSE direction. First light, Big Wednesday, the 27th: 25ft. Wedge freight trains off the Jetty, perfect 12ft. Malibu reeling past the Pier, 15ft. Newport Point as good as California gets. The wind stayed down for the rest of the day and everyone near the coast was treated to a decadal spectacle of Ocean power and beauty.

 

Hurricane Odile approaching Baja. Photo NASA
Hurricane Odile approaching Baja. Photo NASA

Two weeks later, Hurricane Odile made landfall on the Baja Peninsula as the strongest storm ever to do so, with 125mph winds on Sep.15th. The widespread damage to Cabo San Lucas is a terrible reminder that these storms aren’t just fun swell producers but also extremely powerful and dangerous.  Hurricane Simon strengthened and took a favorable swell producing path during early October.  Tuesday the 7th saw another round of solid, clean hurricane swell lighting up Newport Point and Wedge. 

The Southern Hemisphere filled in the gaps nicely between hurricanes with consistent SW swell. There were no real standout southern hemi swells but it wasn’t dormant either. With a bit of patience, fun sets were always on their way… eventually.  Locally fun swell for southern exposures meant the surf rarely dropped below waist-high for weeks at a time. A glorious, fire-free Santa Ana wind event with pulsing SW swell lit up the California coast in early October. Even the North Pacific pitched in with a series of early season swells derived from typhoon remnants off the coast of Japan. 

Santa Ana dreams.
Santa Ana dreams.

Here are reviews from two Newport locals that have been in tune with summer surf for more than 50 years combined:

-Wedge Historian Mel Thoman says, “I’ve been recording “Wedge Calendars” since 1978 and that year remains #1 for size/shape/number of swells/conditions etc. 2014 made my Top 10 by the end of August and then vaulted into the Top 3 by October. It’s 2 or 3 for sure. The whole Crew charged hard with great vibes in and out of the water.”

Newport Summer 2014 Photo: Ron Romanosky
Newport Summer 2014 Photo: Ron Romanosky


-Long-time Wedge observer and pundit, Ron Romanosky, gave this review of 2014: ”This last summer’s swells rank among the top 5 in the last 3 or 4 decades.  Fantastic weather kept the waves rideable from first to last light far more than usual.  And let’s not forget the warm water!  By their performance in big waves, several of the young guns of Wedge bodysurfing now reside at the top of the list of Wedge’s top dogs. They/we know who they are.”

Purple Blob Review: Summer 2014
Consistency4/5
-No major Southern Hemis but plenty of swell around even between the epic tropical pulses.
Conditions5/5
-Sunny skies, warm water, minimal on-shore flow…yes please.
Intensity5/5
-One of the largest, most intense summer swells in California surf history and a series of other very solid swells. Not much else to ask for out of a summer season.
Overall- 5/5
-An all-time classic.

Winter 2014/2015 Forecast

To El Niño or not El Niño?  Eastern Pacific sea surface temperatures have fluctuated over the past few months and with them the predictions for El Niño. From very strong to moderate back to strong. My prediction: This is the beginning of a 3 year El Niño cycle. Starting moderate this year with low pressure dominating the Gulf of Alaska; bringing abundant NW winter swells to California and Hawaii. Along with reservoir-filling precipitation and feet of powder to all slopes. Then another strong tropical summer in 2015 and an epically strong El Niño winter next year. Pumping swell for years to come!
-KS

Sources
National Hurricane Center
Surfline- Hurricane Marie
Wikipedia- 2014 Pacific Hurricane Season 

Fred Simpson Bodysurfing Wedge by Ron Romanosky

Bodysurfing Wedge: The Fred

Bodysurfing Wedge: The Fred

At times, it is hard to pinpoint and other times the differences are striking. With each wave you stumble to or with every grainy youtube video you devour, you may have noticed variance in bodysurfers’ style. The way a person bodysurfs a wave, much like the human gait, has a long list of factors. Biology is one. Imagine Michael Phelps and Danny Devito bodysurfing head-to-head, they simply aren’t using the same tools. If both wanted to maintain the optimum speed on any given wave they would need to utilize different styles. Despite this, many riders of differing heights and roundness seem to have developed stylistic similarities within the confines of unique waves.

An important component in understanding the practicality of bodysurfing styles, is a basic understanding of hydrodynamics in relation to the speed of a bodysurfer. Speed is likely the most crucial aspect to catching and staying on a wave. A bodysurfer’s speed is primarily determined by kicks, drag and floatation. These three variables are not independent and are intentionally manipulated by skilled bodysurfers.

The resulting style is not particular to region or even community, but a particular wave. There are magnet waves, that pull bodysurfers from across regions. These waves break in a distinct manner according to their bathymetry and swell windows. Due to the specific break, you can understand why many of the waves’ expert riders share stylistic similarities. Each commonality serving a particular purpose in riding each particular wave to its maximum potential.

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Early Season Wedge
Photo: Kyle Stock

An infamous magnet-wave is the Wedge of Newport Beach, California. Described by it’s riders as a freak, proper Wedge has a focused breaking point amplified by the refracted backwash of earlier waves. Long-time Wedge Crew member Tim Burnham describes, “The takeoff at Wedge is extremely critical. It breaks really fast and is super steep and the key to riding Wedge well is to hold a high line and maintain speed.”

If that wasn’t difficult enough, “Not only does the acceleration of the Wedge-peak force riders to seek a highly streamlined form, but the powerful and at times unpredictable backwash, can send bodysurfers over the falls if they haven’t gotten a full head of steam.” Longtime riders of the Wedge know this to be fact and have adjusted accordingly.

Wedge riders extend from fingertips to toes. The longer and straighter they are able to hold their body, the faster they will cut through the wave. Every inch of their body pulled into a tight line to reduce drag. To reduce trim, Fred Simpson and the rest of the 70’s crew began rolling their bodies onto a single hip and extending with their lead hand. They tucked their opposite hand near their armpit and the Chicken Wing was born (some riders leave their opposite hand near the waist which is also referred to as the broken wing). This stylistic adaptation is primed for dealing with pitching, nasty, unpredictable Wedge.

    Fred Simpson years after he pioneered "The Fred," what would go on to become The Chicken Wing     Photo: Ron Romanosky
Fred Simpson years after he pioneered “The Fred,” what would go on to become “The Chicken Wing”
Photo: Ron Romanosky

The Chicken Wing could also be called a modified Layout. The Layout was born, as most adaptations are, to accelerate. By expanding the rider’s flotation, the Layout increases a bodysurfer’s speed. In a Layout, the rider increases their body’s planing surface across the face of the wave. The greater the area of a planing surface, the more flotation and consequently, the more speed you can generate.

Mel Thoman, Wedge Crew member for the last four decades stresses, “(the) ultra importance of …putting the most pressure for speed and stability on the lead hand as it literally has all the lift and control during your ride.” You may see riders with their palms up or reaching out for a handshake, but this will not fly at the Wedge. Your hands are vital to providing lift, control and speed in the belly of a Wedge monster.

Over 40 years, the Chicken Wing has evolved. With each new generation of Wedge riders, the Chicken Wing is fine tuned. Some members of the Wedge Crew in the 80’s and 90’s began showing a mechanical-like rigidness when flashing the Chicken Wing. The rigidness is highlighted by a physical flex and release cycle.

The Flex: When a rider needs more speed they turn their head slightly away from their lead hand. This motion allows their trailing shoulder to roll on top of their lead shoulder, forming the body into a flexed line. The angle of their lead arm and torso is increased by this roll. With an increase in this angle, the rider’s body is a more efficient planing surface. The chest and stomach float easier because your center of gravity is shifted towards the head. The Flexed position is the part of the cycle most easily identified as The Chicken Wing.

Picture 093
Mel Thoman in the middle of the switch
Photo: Ron Romanosky

The Release: According to feel, a rider may release the Flex to a prone riding position. The Release position is categorized by a more acute angle of the lead arm and torso. The head is facing down the line. In the Release position, the rider can look at their line and make decisions about whether or not to hold or return to the Flex position. Some riders will pull their chicken-winged hand to their front and use it as an additional planing hand.

In the video below provided by Tom Lynch, you can see Matt Larson with total control of his speed. Matt has been riding Wedge since the 80’s. He is still a standout in the line-up. Pay close attention to the first two waves in the clip. Matt uses the Flex position for speed and the Release position to judge his line and target velocity.

The newest group of bodies eager to ride the liquid bucking-broncos embrace the Chicken Wing as much as anyone. They understand through blood and bruising how important form is to their craft. There’s even rumor of them going so far as to add a chicken head to their wingin’ ways. Ridiculous props aside, these guys are carrying on a well-founded tradition through style and dedication.

Charlie McAuliffe Photo: Ron Romanosky
Charlie McAuliffe
Photo: Ron Romanosky
Parker Chicken Wing
Parker Varner
Photo: Thomas VanMelum

There are innumerable waves across the world. Each with it’s own unique bathymetry and swell window creating thousands upon thousands of liquid mountains. As we wander from peak to peak, we will continue to evolve in pursuit of harmonic slides on each new face. We’ll learn that the wave you ride ultimately determines the way you ride it.

-EJ