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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.