NEWPORT BEACH — For Anthony Lopez, body surfing the Wedge isn't a hobby. It's a way of life.
But after today, and a summer of enjoying the Wedge's world-class waves by themselves, Lopez and other Orange County body surfers must begin sharing the Wedge with their rivals--including knee boarders, skim boarders and anyone else using flotation devices.
"It's a sad day," said Lopez, 25.
Last May, the City Council reacted to complaints about increased danger caused by too many people in the water by "blackballing" body boarders from the Wedge from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. between May 1 and today.
That action gave Lopez and other body surfers the place all to themselves during those hours and dates, but as of Monday, the other surf-lovers are allowed back in.
Since 1985, boards and other flotation devices have been banned from the site from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. between June 15 and Sept. 10. The council's decision in May banned body boarders for the longer period.
"The City Council went overboard against body boarders," said Bill Sharp, 35, a Newport Beach body boarder. "They were in a big rush to grant this big compromise of seven hours for them but no one stopped to realize that in October the sun rises later and sets earlier. It puts a crunch on the amount of time we get in the water."
The Wedge, at the end of the Balboa Peninsula, produces some of California's premier waves, which are known for their steep drop and speed of the ride.
During the summer, powerful south swells bounce off a rock jetty, creating 20-foot waves and larger. It's one of Southern California's attractions that draw hundreds of spectators who "ooh and aah" while macho body surfers attack "Big Wedge," as it's called during big swells by local wave riders, with trunks and swim fins.
In the 1960s, the Wedge became famous among die-hard watermen. But with the advent and popularity of lightweight wave-riding products like Boogie boards, and polyurethane knee boards, competition for each wave increased.
Body surfers note that the Wedge is a tiny beach, only about 70 yards long before the next break, known as "Cylinders." With more people in the water, conflicts were inevitable.
"I've seen pushing and shoving between the body boarders and the body surfers in the water that led to fights right there on the sand," said Les Walker, 27, a Newport Beach surf photographer. "How would you feel if you've been body surfing this place for years and consider it your personal playground and then 10 body boarders arrive and dominate the waves?"
"The thing is," said Phil Castillo, 29, a data communications manufacturing salesman when he's not body surfing the Wedge, "is that a body boarder has more flotation and can get into the wave earlier." That causes concern when a body boarder catches a wave and drops down on a body surfer. The collisions can often be heard from shore.
"It's not that we're against any body boarders," said Lopez's friend, Craig Plitt, 24, of Newport Beach, "but there's a lot of inland people who come here and don't know what they're doing."
Lt. Jim Turner of Newport Beach's marine safety division said most compliance with the restricted hours has been good. Lifeguards have to make verbal requests, but no citations were issued, he said.
Body boarders "found enforcement to be a little bit uncomfortable," Turner said. "We've been told we have limited resources and we're here to administer the natural resources for the best use by the public. It isn't going to make everybody happy."
For Sharp, president of Katin USA, manufacturers of surf trunks, it meant setting his alarm clock and getting up early to "dawn patrol" the Wedge before the 10 a.m. restriction.
Summer is now gone, and with it, the huge south swells that can stir the gut of anyone who rides the Wedge regularly.
"For us, it's the end of the show," Sharp said. "Now, we can only hope to get a freak, late Southern Hemisphere swell in the winter. Between now and May we may see a couple of good swells. Or we may not see anything."
The good news, said Castillo, is that he saw fewer conflicts. And, this past summer's swells "were incredible" for Wedge riding, "especially after 10 a.m.," Castillo said with a wide grin.
In addition, older body surfers such as Chris Klinke, 45, of Newport Beach have actually returned to the Wedge because of the new ordinance.
"I used to ride here, and in fact I remember riding this place during a big swell Thanksgiving Day, 1969," Klinke said. "But because there's always too much competition here, I usually go to Laguna Niguel at a place called Dana Strand. But I heard about the blackball and came back a few times this summer to ride the Wedge."
Sharp said he believes the real blackball test may come next summer.
"The true challenge will be on an epic day," Sharp said, "when surf the size of something like in (the movie) 'Big Wednesday' comes. I know there'll be guys out there in body boards who refuse to come in and (lifeguards) will have to go in and get them."