DESPITE TEXAS’ NEARLY FOUR HUNDRED miles of coastline, the word “gulf” probably calls to mind an orange gas-station sign before it evokes the image of a surfboard. Even sunbathers who frequent Padre or Port A would tell you that surfable waves are as much of a legend as Sasquatch. And that assertion would be well-founded: The waters off our shores are ordinarily tranquil; they’re intensified only by hurricanes and other types of stormy weather. Not many vacationers look at the alarming coil of colors on Doppler radar and think, “Let’s hit the beach!” Hanging-ten has long been the spontaneous privilege of locals who can grab their boards the moment the sun ducks behind the clouds.
Right now, however, the Gulf Coast’s reputation for surf is changing. Lloyd Sandel, who owns the state’s oldest surf shop, Surfhouse, which he founded in Houston in 1967, says that Texas surfing is even more popular than it was in the sixties. The resurgence of the classic longboard in the nineties helped: It’s longer, wider, and thicker, making it easier to manage the mushy Gulf waves. So has the recent arrival of Webcams—minute-by-minute Internet displays of wave activity that allow folks five hours away to hightail it to the coast and paddle out into the cold water while the surf’s still up.
But the biggest reason surfing is hot in Texas is that surfing is hot everywhere. “Men in their forties are getting back into the sport. In fact, half of the guys in the water are over forty,” Sandel says. “Young girls are picking it up. Whole families are taking surf vacations.” In Hawaii or California the result might be sardine-tight beach crowds. But because of the Texas surfer’s preference for unfashionably inclement weather, the experience remains unhurried and nearly solitary.
Kenny Braun, a Texas Monthly contributing photographer, began taking the photos on these pages two and a half years ago. He started surfing in 1974, when he was fifteen years old, on Surfside Beach, about an hour and a half from his hometown of Houston. Unlike the iconic, bright blue postcards of hotdoggers and hollow tube waves, these moody black-and-whites reflect the slow pace of our particular scene. “The Gulf Coast?” Braun says. “I love it. It’s quirky and funky and non-mainstream. I love the thick air, the way it smells, the fried shrimp. I wanted to pay homage to one of my favorite places on earth.”