Blood, sweat and slabs: The chequered history of California’s The Wedge

An interview with the creator of the new documentary: Dirty Old Wedge

When people think of world famous waves they tend to think of the ones with natural beauty like Pipeline, Kirra, J-Bay, Cloudbreak and more recently Teahupoo.

But there is a fair case for California’s man made monstrosity, The Wedge, to have a seat at the table.

Created back in 1936 after alterations at Newport Harbour, The Wedge has become mainland America’s most photographed and controversial wave.

It has featured in seminal surf film The Endless Summer and 1950s guitar god Dick Dale even named one of his cracking surf rock instrumentals after it.

While originally dominated by bodysurfers, it wasn’t until the invention and subsequent explosion of bodyboarding that tensions began to rise at the spot. Fights were frequent and eventually a new “blackball” law was brought in to remove all surf crafts between certain hours.

Wedge local Tim Burnham admired the chequered history of his favourite wave, so much so that he has made a documentary on it all, entitled Dirty Old Wedge.

The film goes through the history of the spot, as well as into the rivalry between bodyboarders and bodysurfers throughout the 90s.

Riptide caught up with Tim to find out more about the film.

Riptide: So tell us about yourself. How did you get into surfing and how did you get into filming?

Tim: I’m 32 and from Newport Beach, CA, home of the Wedge. I don’t have a background in film but have always been intrigued by story telling and the art of filmmaking. The story of the Wedge and the Wedge Crew was so unique to the world of surfing that I felt it could make for a great film so I teamed up with some guys that actually knew what they were doing, Jack Murgatroyd and Edwin Eversole of Hunt House Pictures, and the rest is history.

I have been riding waves ever since I was a young kid. Started bodyboarding/bodysurfing/surfing at a young age. I find myself bodysurfing more than anything now but enjoy all forms of wave riding depending on the conditions and wave type. I actually used to be a pretty competitive bodyboarder in my teens doing the whole contest thing every now and then.

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Tim Burnham charging The Wedge on a bodyboard recently.

tell us about the film Dirty Old Wedge?

Dirty Old Wedge is a story about the history of the Wedge focusing mainly on the bodysurfing culture there and their relationship with the wave and one another. The Wedge Crew, as the bodysurfers had come to be known, had a pretty big reputation in the surf world as being a hard-charging, wild bunch of guys. After being down there for a while and meeting some of the older guys and hearing all their stories I felt that it would make for a great film. Four years later, we created a coming of age story that captures the true passion of these guys and what they did and are still doing today.

Who are some of the main subjects/interviewees in the documentary?

Ron Romanosky, a legendary Wedge kneeboarder and photographer, narrates the film and helps guide the story. Fred Simpson (creator of Viper Fins), Danny Kwock (Quiksilver & Volcom Executive), Mel Thoman, Terry Wade & Mike Stewart, along with many other Crew members, are featured in the interviews throughout the film.

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Behind the scenes of Mike Stewart being interviewed for the film.

What made you want to make the film?

Like I said in one of the above answers, the story of the bodysurfers at Wedge was a unique one that hasn’t been told and I felt that it was one that should be. There is so much focus on that wave in the media but you never hear anything about the bodysurfing element – So much history and so many different characters all passionate about the same sport and a unique wave.

The film touches on the sensitive issue of bodysurfers versus bodyboarders, as well as other board sports that use the wave. How did this problem all start and how long has it being going on?

Without giving too much away, the film definitely includes the drama that occurred in the early 90’s which created the current blackball regulations that are in effect at Wedge. I don’t know if I can pin point an exact time when it all started but I do know that it hit a pinnacle in ’93 when the bodysurfers felt they needed to do something to help regulate the amount of people in the water.

The introduction of the bodyboard to the Wedge and the mass media attention it received through bodyboarding magazine at the time (mid to late 80’s) was creating an unsafe environment for everyone, boards or no boards, and instead of taking matters into their own hands through physical altercations, the bodysurfers went about handling it in a diplomatic way through the city council. The blackball regulation seems to be working great and is a necessary evil to help keep things fair down there. I know both sides of the court would like to have even more time allocated for them but as the rules currently stand, it’s a fair split and helps keep the peace.

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Going through archived photos of The Wedge.

Is the film biased towards bodysurfers?

It’s a bodysurfing film but I wouldn’t say it’s biased by any means. We tried to capture the sentiment of that era. From my research in talking to guys that were at the Wedge in the 80’s to the early 90’s (boarders & non boarders), the overall consensus was that most guys on bodyboards at that time were not very skilled watermen and tended to create problems in the water with their lack of understanding of wave etiquette. Being that there is only one peak at Wedge, surely anyone can understand how frustrating it might have been to have a massive crowd of inexperienced people in the water all going for that one wave. As a bodyboarder and bodysurfer at Wedge, I completely understand how difficult it is to compete for waves when the crowd is maxed out. It is pretty much impossible to catch waves (the ones you’d want at least) as a bodysurfer at Wedge if there are any boards in the water.

Some people have said the film projects bodyboarders in a bad way. What are your thoughts?

I haven’t heard any negative feedback from any of my bodyboarding friends. I think they understand that at that time things were pretty hectic and it all had to do with the mass marketing of the bodyboard, especially at the Wedge. At the end of the day, I knew we weren’t going to make everyone happy. We set out to make an honest film about a culture of wave riders and I feel like we accomplished that.

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A bodysurfer sliding into one of The Wedge’s notorious barrels.

What is it like today between the bodysurfers and bodyboarders at the wedge? Are there still fights and problems or is it a mellower vibe out there?

It’s a way more mellow vibe for sure. Every now and then something will come up with the blackball where guys have words with one another but for the most part everyone seems to be getting along. A lot of bodyboarders are now bodysurfing more and vice versa. It’s really cool to see that respect being shown amongst the groups.

The wedge has had a colourful history these past 30 or so years. Do you have any predictions for the future of surfing/bodyboarding/bodysurfing at the spot?

I think what we see each year are guys from all aspects of wave riding pushing the envelope more and more. I wouldn’t say it’s heading in a specific direction but I get really excited to see some of the younger kids step it up and push themselves in the bigger stuff. It’s a great time to be a Wedge rider right now.

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The documentary interviews some of the original Wedge bodysurfers

When and where can we catch the film? Is there an international screening (e.g., Australia)?

Hoping to do a few film festivals Down Under soon! We’re working out the details and should have all our information posted on our website in the next month or so. My brother lives in Bondi so it would be great to get down there and party with him for a couple weeks!

You can find out more about the film, including screening dates at http://www.dirtyoldwedge.com/

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