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High surf puts lifeguards on alert in Newport Beach

With waves topping 20 feet, they keep a sharper-than-usual eye on south-facing beaches, where the swell is greatest. 'It's days like these when all the training we get really pays off,' one says.

July 26, 2009|Esmeralda Bermudez

Rescue calls crackled over the radio as John Moore, eyes locked on the waves, drove his lifeguard truck over the warm Newport Beach sand: Two people were trapped on a jetty, another one was spun into a riptide and two more had wandered onto dangerous rocks.

Though it wasn't yet noon, the 20-year veteran lifeguard officer was predicting that there would be nearly 500 rescues by day's end, a startling figure compared with the 20 to 30 rescues performed on an average summer day.

But there was nothing average about this weekend.

With a high-surf warning in effect, waves were topping 20 feet Saturday -- among the highest seen at the beach in a decade -- and guards were keeping a sharper-than-usual eye on brutal surf that could knock even the most astute beachgoers off their feet.

Along many of the shoreline's south-facing stretches -- where the swell was greatest -- people were keeping a safe distance beneath beach umbrellas.

"It's days like these when all the training we get really pays off," Moore said.

Such was the case at the Wedge, a popular bodysurfing spot on the south end of the Balboa Peninsula where waves ricochet off a rocky jetty.

On Friday, aficionados left the shore with rattled nerves after a 50-year-old man was killed when waves hurled him against the rocks.

But the accident didn't keep bodysurfers from descending on the water Saturday morning. This type of surf only comes every few years, after all.

With them came a crowd of several thousand people who lined up along the Wedge's shore to photograph and gasp and cheer in unison as the men took turns riding each massive wave.

The tunnels were often so huge, some surfers simply bobbed in the water, without challenging the waves, then returned to shore.

Tom Kennedy, known to be among the most fearless in a local bodysurfing group called the Wedge Crew, was a crowd favorite. Known as "Cashbox," he took time between each wave to greet surfers he had not seen in more than a decade, some who flew in from Hawaii for the event.

"This is what it's all about, this is what we wait for," said the 44-year-old sales manager, who has been bodysurfing for more than two decades. "An impressive, powerful swell, crowds screaming and old friends."

Throughout the shore, a handful of extra lifeguards were on hand cautiously watching who entered the water. Those without a lot of experience and the right equipment were turned back. By afternoon, several rescues had been made.

Although in other areas of the beach one lifeguard can rescue three to four swimmers at a time, at the Wedge on Saturday it often took three lifeguards to save one surfer, swim him out to clear, steady water and then deliver him to a rescue boat.

Cynthia Mulcahy of Costa Mesa looked on with fascination and jitters, often hopping back to avoid the foamy outflow. She had brought her 5-year-old niece to witness the power of nature.

"I'm terrified," she said, standing elbow to elbow with the pack of onlookers. "I see them take off on the wave and I just hope they know what they're doing."

A few feet away, Scott Stovall stood at the front of the crowd, hoping the surfers would take more risks. "I really want to see some of these guys really tear it up," he said.

The 48-year-old bodysurfs on occasion, but not in water like this. "No way," he said. "I value my neck."

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esmeralda.bermudez @latimes.com

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