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Third Coast State of Mind

When the surf’s good, Texas (yes, Texas) surfers drop what they’re doing and head for the water.

By July 2010Comments

Just a couple of boards. Photograph by Paul Hagey

As a landlocked Texan visiting the Third Coast near Corpus Christi, surf wax smeared on the clean epoxy surface of a surfboard caught me by surprise. I thought (along with the persistent question, Surf in Texas?) working surfboards were always surf-shop smooth. But, undoubtedly, you’d slip off into the murky Gulf of Mexico water without the wax and wouldn’t be picking BB-sized clumps of it out of your body hair for the next couple of days. Just a couple of insights you might glean on a visit to the clearly passionate, though slightly disadvantaged, Texas surf scene.

You might also learn that sometimes Texas gets waves larger than two feet and that surfing can be a good excuse to sit in the ocean and stare at a cochineal-colored setting sun, that immersed between slightly salty waves and a rippled, cloudy sky, it’s really quiet, that bigger waves come in groups, that a surfer can be forged even in Texas—the power of the ocean pushes and pulls and finally pushes you. As the iconic surf film Step Into Liquid put it, surf is the manifestation, at a human scale, of one of the unifying forces of the universe: the wave. And, for most of us, it’s just a few hours south. An estimated twenty-thousand Texans from Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, Austin, and points all along Texas’s curving shoreline, live the surfer’s life.

Just sitting on a board can be difficult, not to mention catching a wave. Like any relationship, to hook one is both a matter of giving and receiving. If a wave stands out on the near horizon that promises to break where you are, keep your legs together and paddle strong toward shore. Then, you might feel the powerlessness of transition as energy begins to carry you. Stand up, and ride. The traditional Texas state of mind doesn’t easily accommodate this possibility—a ripped, surf-stoked existence. But diehard surfers in Texas, and there are some, swear on a respectable, if inconsistent, Gulf surf. Everything’s bigger in Texas, if not in size in the surf’s case, then in spirit.

Twenty-seven-year-old Spencer Gambill was leaning on the back counter of Covered Up Surf and Skate, one of the newer surf shops on North Padre Island, on a recent Sunday. “I’ll surf till I die,” he says readily. Gambill’s uncle introduced him to surfing when he was twelve and, apparently, the fever hasn’t subsided in fifteen years. It’s the same fever the nation and a handful of Texans caught in the early ‘60s when surfing first became a commercial enterprise in the state. Gambill estimates that fifty to one hundred surfers compose the Corpus Christi area’s hard-core surf crowd. A good portion of them, as with many older surfers at other Texas spots, began surfing in the ‘60s.

One of those was sixty-three-year-old Cliff Schlabach. As with many others, hearing the Beach Boys first inspired him and a friend to surf. In high school they drove forty-five miles from their small town to Corpus Christi’s Bob Hall Pier in 1963 in search of boards and surf. They had never seen a surfboard, but found 10- and 11-foot boards for rent at the pier. After a recent Sunday morning session at Packery Channel, just a few miles north of where he first landed in 1963, Schlabach stands looking out over the surf he’s known for forty-seven years. His contentedness, as he surveys the water and its horizon, was palpable.

Schlabach is part of a tight-knit group of older Texas surfers whose stories are remarkably similar: they discovered the sport in high school in the ‘60s and stuck with it. He and others have passed the life onto children, friends, nieces, and nephews, and in the process established an extended Texas surf family of three generations. Friends his age, surfers, come say hi periodically as he and his wife wrap up their session. A little later, as we chat looking over the surf at the lineup of roughly thirty locals waiting for the next wave, a friend comes up to tell a dirty joke, as Schlabach good-naturedly groans. Surf culture in Texas is alive and well.

You might have to take someone’s word for it, but decent swells do slam Texas’s 350-plus miles of coastline from the murkier waters north near Galveston to the bluer waters south around South Padre Island. At times, waves reach heights of six or seven feet and, when accompanied by tropical storms or hurricanes, they can be larger. Wind, for the most part, causes waves, a swell which, depending on how far offshore it begins and how far below the surface the ocean’s bottom remains as it travels to shore, can produce waves big enough to surf. A wind event that generates surf is like a large boulder thrown in the ocean sending out series of pulses in all directions.

In Texas, since there are no coral reefs or exposed rocks along the shore, waves reaching the coast break over sandbars. Currents formed from the interplay of waves, gulf-bottom sand, and manmade ocean-jutting structures, create sandbars large enough to make a decent, consistent surf. Thus, the state’s most popular surf locations are associated with jetties and piers, distinct pinpoints along the coast. From north to south they are: Flagship Pier in Galveston, Surfside Beach Jetty just south of Galveston, Matagorda Island (known for sharks) where two jetties frame the Colorado River as it enters the Gulf, Horace Caldwell Pier in Port Aransas, several spots around Corpus Christi including Fish Pass, Packery Channel, and Bob Hall Pier, then there’s a jump south to difficult-to-get-to Port Mansfield Jetty, and then, finally, South Padre Island Jetty. 

Texas surf, always inconsistent, often small, is best in fall, winter, and spring, when warm and cold fronts stimulate swell-generating wind events as they clash back and forth across the Gulf. Surf becomes ideal with a slight offshore breeze that helps stand up incoming waves which, if they are big enough, helps them curl in on themselves, forming the iconic pipeline wave and a surfer’s dream. There are dry periods, too, especially in summer. This fact might be the basis for Texans’ general unfamiliarity with the state’s surf scene; the surf is worst just when most Texans visit the beach. However, summer is not all dead to surfers; it also brings hurricane season and the promise of near world-class surf, and a constant monitoring of storm-associated swells by locals.

Generally, surfing gets better as you head south down the coast because, as noticeable from a satellite view of the Gulf, the continental shelf tapers from far offshore at Galveston to nearer offshore at South Padre Island. The thinner continental shelf in the south creates less relative drag on an incoming swell. Texas’s surf power is also limited by the distance a wave can travel to get to the coast. The best, largest, and most powerful surfing waves are those that travel long distances, thousands of miles, unimpeded. The farthest a swell can travel in the Gulf is five- to six-hundred miles. Despite these character flaws, Texas surf is undeniably good at times. [See video evidence at texassurftv.com.]

Surfing fever exists regardless of surf quality or consistency in Texas, and Lone Star surfers acknowledge they are a little more desperate, um…passionate, than those with access to better surf. They often go out in conditions, they acknowledge, that Californians would scoff at. Creative solutions exist, however. In Galveston, James Fulbright, as profiled in Step Into Liquid, initiated tanker surfing, which involves surfing the wakes of oil tankers as they come and go from Galveston Bay. Three years ago, in August, to capture a good swell and a nice offshore wind meeting in the middle of the night, Terry Harris rented two light plants, like those used to light up highway construction scenes at night, and placed them on Meacom’s Pier near High Island in Galveston and pointed them at the surf. The eight one-thousand-watt bulbs lit up the Gulf to help about thirty surfers catch the swell he and some friends had been monitoring from its origin near the Bay of Campeche on the north side of the Yucatan Peninsula. Now part of Texas surfing lore known as the “Light Show,” the crazy reflections of the intense light on inky waves and the waves’ seemingly sudden emergence out of nowhere from the dark, made it a surreal experience, remembers Harris.

And beyond these more drastic measures, when the surf’s good, Texas surfers drop what they’re doing and surf. As forty-year Texas surfer and Corpus Christi attorney Rudy Cortez explains, the locals still take the day off work to catch a good surf, just like they did in high school. When it’s good, it’s good. 

Though the surf is less consistent and not as powerful as on other states’ beaches, Texas surfing has several attractions. Outside of a short time in winter, the water is warm—no wetsuit needed. The Texas Open Beaches Act of 1959, which established all Texas Gulf beaches as public property from the tide lineup to the first line of permanent vegetation, established that no beaches in Texas are private. Businesses that do build along the beach have to make room for public access. Cars are also allowed on the beach. And last year Proposition 9 passed, which essentially writes the Open Beaches Act into the state’s constitution. The free, wild, unfettered possibility of tailgating and everything that comes with it on any beach at any time stokes the Texas surf spirit. 

If you’re thinking about experiencing Texas surf, check some of the well-known surf sites like magicseaweed.com, which give projected swell maps, seven-day surf forecasts complete with projected wave heights, and stars for good projected surf delineated into morning, noon, and night. Also, as of June 2, it’s hurricane season. It’s possible to monitor buoys in the Gulf to get a good idea of when and where an associated swell will hit the Gulf. Perhaps most effective, contact a local surf shop for the lowdown of an area or befriend one of its many fevered locals. 

Then, you might experience, even in Texas, the stoke that surfers hesitate to expound. “It’s not just the act of surfing. It’s the evening on the water, a dolphin, maybe, in the breach, a group of friends, exercise,” says longtime Texas surfer Dan Parker. You might also experience a surfer’s break as Joe Vulgamore describes a day at Packery Channel in Texas’s own surf magazine, Texas Gulf Coast Surfing: “The South-side was head-high with light offshore’s and throwing barrels like Donkey Kong.” 

For surf, there’s the West Coast, the East Coast and, believe it or not, the Third Coast.

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