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Dawn Patrol

The exploits of a teenager trying to surf in Galveston.

By June 2016Comments

Illustration by Christopher DeLorenzo

The familiar waft of hydrogen sulfide and seaweed means we’re in Galveston. We turn off the Gulf Freeway onto Sixty-first Street, roll down the windows of my old Volvo, and throw one another significant looks. It’s six a.m., and the three of us have come from Houston under a cloak of darkness to execute “dawn patrol.” This June morning in 1992, we want to be first to commune with the sea. Since the release of Point Break the previous summer, when we were rising high school sophomores, we’ve been coming down to the Island as much as possible to “take it to the source,” “embrace the human spirit,” and other inspirational vagaries. We are surfers.

I park along the seawall, across from the Wendy’s. An inclination of sunlight appears, and I can make out a cluster of mussels clinging to the riprap; crabs skitter across the sand, and loud slurps of seawater filter through the rocks. The retreating tide betrays a beachhead violent with life. But the waters are, to our great disappointment, a paragon of calm.

“It will change,” Joe says, wedging himself into his neoprene wet suit with a sequence of awkward honks and squeaks. I agree. Ellis agrees.

“It will change” is one of the more recognizable refrains among Texan surfers. You train yourself to be optimistic.

We are on a first-name basis with Seth at the surf report hotline, but we don’t trust him. When the waves are down, Seth will give us the truth: “It’s pinky-toe high today, brother.” But on those rare occasions when the waves are up, Seth lies because he’s bitter that he has to answer phones (“It’s pinky-toe high today, brother”). And if the surf is really good, you get an answering machine, which defeats the whole purpose of a hotline.

Today, nobody wants to recognize that we’ve all driven out here—again—to find the Gulf of Mexico stagnant, so we take our time gearing up. The three of us all have shortboards, sleek thrusters built for performance waves, and we obsessively tend to them with Mr. Zog’s surf wax—the same stuff we chew like gum in geometry class.

The Twenty-fifth Street pier is a premier break for serious Texas surfers, and this morning it’s ours. Are we going to paddle out into this nonsense, this flat, flabby abyss? You better believe it.

“Let’s shred it,” says Joe.

After Ellis and I finish lathering ourselves with sunscreen (Joe wears a wet suit because he’s promised his mom not to get sunburned, though he tells us it’s because he’s allergic to jellyfish and carries a box of Adolph’s meat tenderizer to reinforce this myth), we grab our boards and make our way toward the pier.

“I’m going to paddle out past the breakers, then come back and try to catch something that way,” says Joe, wagging his fingers in no particular direction. I decide to go out with him, while Ellis is convinced he’ll rip tubes closer to the pier’s pillars.

Just as the three of us reach the shoreline, a gravelly voice assails my ears.

“That’s our break, cuz.”

I turn to see six or so adolescent bronzed beach gremlins. At the helm is a man in his twenties, standing with his legs spread apart, toes pointing at a deliberate angle that instantly makes me think of karate and how I don’t know it. His hair is bleached white and he looks prison strong. A tattoo across his taut, leathery chest reads “SKULL” in large Gothic letters. Skull? Reading the word has a chilling effect. Is this man’s nickname Skull, or is it, “I’m so dangerous I deal in semantics”?

Skull begins to sniff me like a dog.

“I could bite your nose off,” he says.

Did I hear this right? Bite my nose off? But I don’t move, my fight-or-flight instinct dulled by evolution, television—something.

Skull realizes this won’t be a challenge.

“Where y’all in from?” he asks, exposing a chaotic mouthful of teeth.

“We’re just in from Houston. We don’t want trouble,” says Ellis. “We’ll leave.”

Skull flexes his deltoids and a web of blue veins inflates around his neck.

“We’re going to let you stay,” he decides. “But you gotta stay on the right side of the pier. This west side break, that’s our break. Those weak-ass things on the east side, well, you carve that up all you want.”

Skull and the locals paddle out, diving under the minor undulations and waves in unison. Skull stops and balances perfectly astride his board, followed by his fellows.

We watch them float gracefully, bobbing like buoys.

“I hope that dude gets eaten,” says Ellis.

“Did you see how he sniffed me?” I ask.

“Yes!” says Joe. “Let’s just drive down to the Rusty Hook and get beer.”

But Ellis decides we need to save face and without a word takes his board and starts off to the east side of the pier. Joe and I give each other a “beer would be better than this” look, but we follow Ellis into the surf.

The three of us align ourselves opposite the locals. Between the skeletal crosshatches of wood planks and girders below the pier, we catch glimpses of what’s happening in their impact zone. Not much. Our situation is similarly serene, and it stays this way. Fat pelicans and black cormorants dive-bomb the water’s surface as both gangs of dawn patrol sit roasting peacefully in the sun. Eventually, the three of us on the east side start quizzing one another on PSAT words; Skull’s gang to the west chain-smokes cigarettes (a young initiate wades out to deliver lit ones every few minutes). Occasionally we stare at Skull’s crew, and they stare back.

We’re the first to call it a day. After four hours out in the lineup, we’re pleasantly exhausted. Joe says that on a long-enough timeline, we’ll all be stung to death by jellyfish, and Ellis is satisfied that we’ve saved enough face to eat lunch. We dry off and walk across Seawall Boulevard to Wendy’s. I have never been so sunburned. I want a Frosty for my back.

As the three of us eat in silence, we hear Skull’s menacing voice. He’s in line with his minions, talking with a group of newly arrived surfers. I try not to make eye contact, but Skull sees me, and his tone turns dogmatic.

“I’m telling you it was sick earlier,” Skull says. “We had steep faces—combo swells, some staggered tubes. Ask those dudes,” Skull says, pointing at our table. “They ripped it too.”

The just-arrived surfers look out at the placid gulf in disbelief, then at us.

“Just wait,” I say. “It will change.”

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  • Travis Bible

    A surf (barely ridable) session from 1992? That’s the Texas Monthly’s coverage of Galveston’s rich surf scene? Did you ever go out again Tyler? Will you be as easily intimidated off of the nland surf park’s wave too?

    I’ll gladly write something for you guys either about Texas’ rich surf history or today’s scene. The topic deserves better coverage than this.

  • Ulf Heoinn

    Travis, with all respect due to the vast amount of lore and history out there on the Galveston scene, perhaps you read this with the intent of a documentary piece? It is supposed to be taken in as a reminiscent account of the era much more than a scholarly investigation into the footnotes of Ed Rickett’s “Between Pacific Tides”. I for one had a very similar experience sans the beach ghouls, probably about the same time as Mr. Smith. Good piece -thanks for the memories!

  • Trey

    Of all the things that could be written about the Texas Gulf Surf scene, some one decided on a fictional piece comparing Galvestons to a 90s surf movie complete with fictional South Bay localism. You really should give Travis Bible a venue for a real in depth look into the culture or possibly contact Bob Martin or James Fulbright… Texas Monthly really dropped the ball on this!

  • Jana Mae

    I could write about the surfing scene in the late 60s. It was heaven and I was right in the middle of it. I remember the guys wearing their club windbreakers to Bellaire High School. I preferred Surfside to Galveston and I remember surfing at night – one of the dumber things I’ve done in my life. Sweet memories.