Tuesday, April 4, 2017

A Wedge Tale... by Mike Cunningham

Mike Cunningham riding the Wedge, 1987. Photo by Jim Russi.  Photo courtesy of Mike Cunningham.

In August, of 1987, the Gillis Beach Bodysurfing Association was hosting a bodysurfing team from Sydney, Australia.  There were to be five or six guys, some of their wives, and one guy even brought his daughter…a somewhat scary proposition around Gillis members.  We were to billet each of them in our own homes for a few days before the World Bodysurfing Championships, which were held in Oceanside each year.
I had met Scott Sorrell in Hawaii the previous Spring, when I was sponsored by Gotcha Surfwear to appear at the Gotcha Pro contest held at Sandy Beach.  Scott was the Australian Junior National bodysurfing champion.  We had both stayed at Jon Clarke’s Kailua home during my trip, and had become friends after traveling to Point Panic each morning for a predawn bodysurf trip.  Scott organized the first Aussie bodysurfing contingent to compete at the World Championships.  The Gillis group was excited to host them.  
They arrived early in the week before the contest and we sorted them out and sent them to various homes of the club members.  We shuttled them to Manhattan Beach for a few bodysurf sessions, and we had a barbeque with our team and theirs.  One of their members was Don McCredie.  Don was a former Australian Champion and he achieved world recognition in the lifesaving community when he won the 1983 World Interclub Lifesaving Championship Bodysurfing Race, at Makapuu, Hawaii.
In this race, they lined up 12 guys with a line in the water just outside the surfline.  They waited for a set wave and then let the guys go.   The object was to ride the wave as far as you could and then run up the beach and finish on the dry sand.  Don had won after three grueling heats and was considered the Australian Champ.  Career-wise he was a professional fireman from the Manly Beach area of Sydney.  Don had brought several pairs of what he called “Hydro Fins”.  He had invented them based on the successful keel design the Aussies had unveiled the previous year in winning the America’s Cup in sailing.  The Gillis bodysurfers were the first in the United States to try out the prototype.  The fins seemed to be good, but very large, heavy and stiff.  The fins needed to be used in some bigger waves than what we had in Manhattan Beach.  
The Aussies wanted to try the Wedge.  Everybody wants to try the Wedge.  It just never cooperates. The Wedge needs a South or Southwest swell.  And it just so happened that on that particular week, just before the World Championships, a large South swell was approaching the California coast.  We made plans to go to the Wedge on the Thursday before the championships.  
The contest began with some of the preliminaries on Friday, so it seemed perfect…the Aussies would leave, go down to Newport Beach, get to bodysurf the Wedge on a big day, and then continue down to their hotels in Oceanside for the weekend championships.  The swell was from a “chubasco” hurricane off Mexico, and it would be a short, if intense, large surf event.  The contest was in the window, but the surf would die down before the finals on Sunday.
Scott had stayed with me, and we drove down to the Wedge together.  I had called an old friend, Jim Russi, from Surfer Magazine, to photograph the event.  We met at the Wedge about 7 am and, sure enough, huge sets came in.  It was a conservative ten to fifteen feet.  With the bounce effect, the middle of the peak had even more size.  The water was a bit crowded, but everybody got in as fast as they could.  What they did not prepare for was the temperature.  It was about 57 degrees.  The Gillis guys had wetsuits, the Aussies just had speedos.  They froze.
After about an hour, and waiting for the inconsistent sets, the shivering Aussies got out, and went shoreward for some hot coffee.  A few of them got into a car and went to the donut shop about 2 miles down the Balboa peninsula.  I had gotten out and said goodbye and went back out in the water.  I was joined by a couple of locals and my friend Fred Simpson.  Fred and I had a friendship that went back a few years and being the inventor of the Viper Surfing Fin, he was very glad to meet Don, a fellow swim fin inventor.  
Soon after, a huge set came in.  Several waves came in and some of the riders out there took off.  I was the last one outside with a chance at a heavy, and with Russi and the cameras on the beach, I thought it was “do or die”.  So I positioned myself for the last wave of the set.  It was a huge clamshell…a wall with no shoulder…everyone caught inside but me.  I took off and noticed a large bump coming at the wave as fast as the wave was going toward shore…backwash.  It hit the fifteen foot wave, jumped it up about five more feet, and threw me airborne.
It was like diving off the 10 meter board at the Olympics. Pitched, I free-fell twenty feet, all the way to the trough, and well out in front of the breaking wave.  With both arms outstretched above my head, I hit the water with a smack, and my head was shoved toward my left, with my ear compressing on my shoulder.  Pop!  My eardrum was broken.
I had trouble getting any form of equilibrium, sensing which way was up or down underwater.  I could hear seawater flushing in and out of the broken eardrum, feeling the cold inside my skull.  I opened my eyes and looked for light to get my bearings. I finally made it to the surface, and found I could not hold my head above water.  I floated on my back, thankful it was the last wave of the set. 
Within a couple of seconds I found that I could raise my head and focus on the horizon, though a bit nauseated.  Fred swam by and asked if I was alright, and I nodded.  I told him I had just broken my eardrum.  He asked if I needed some help, and I shook him off.  He still escorted me in a few yards, just to make sure I would get in all right.  I was glad he was there.
I went in to the beach, pretty much got in the car, and drove to Hoag Hospital by myself.  I had left word to the Aussies about my condition.  Waiting in the ER, I noticed blood streaming out of my ear canal, and it worried me as I waited.
After waiting in the emergency room for about an hour, an ambulance arrived.  They came in a different entrance, so I did not pay attention.  Suddenly the ER door burst open.  It was Scott Sorrell!  He was wide-eyed and he saw me and hurriedly said, “Mike!!!  It’s Donnie…he’s broken his leg!!!”
Sure enough, Don McCredie had taken off on a Wedge bomber, rode it all the way to shallow water, and got pitched.  In the tumult at the end of the wave, his fins and legs wrapped around themselves, and punched hard on the sand. His fin-clad foot ended up facing backwards.  He tore most of the cartilage in his knee apart, twisted his tibia and fibula so hard that nerves were severed, and he became permanently crippled in mere seconds.  My earache self-pity went away real fast…
That weekend, Don and I went out on the Oceanside pier and talked.  I was the defending World Bodysurfing Grand and Age-Group Champion, Don McCredie was a former Australian National Champion and Lifesaving World Champion.  He was in a cast and a wheelchair, and I was definitely out of the water for the contest as well with my cotton-stuffed ear.  We were both in good spirits, but depressed we could not compete…the incident beginning a lifelong friendship. My ear healed without a problem, but Don was not so lucky.  He had many surgeries.  Doctors tried all kinds of new techniques.  The nerves never grew back fully.  The Wedge left his lower leg permanently paralyzed.  He would never be a fireman again, but his fins achieved worldwide success.  The Hydro Fin was born.
Even now, DMC Fins, his Australian fin company, have advanced the swim training fin to new levels.  Many international olympians in Rio wore his training fins in workouts.  And he most recently unveiled the “Repellor” Surfing and Lifeguard Rescue fin.  This fin promises more speed and less fatigue due to its reverse vee rail design that flexes outward and snaps back on the upswing of the kick.  The proprietary material the fins are made of, make them the most comfortable fin on the market today.  And they were made and invented by a lifeguasrd for lifeguards!  They are now available to USLA members at a substantial discount @ DMCfins.com,  discount code USLA25

Mike Cunningham, 
April 4, 2017
Manhattan Beach, California
*** Many Thanks to Mike for sharing this memory from the Wedge back in the day with all of us.
Here's to more of our alumni contributing stories and content to this blog so that we can continue to keep our alumni entertained and "in the loop".
Until next time.....

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