Catching a Break: Surf City Texas
A group of Galveston surfers has been surfing the wakes of ships in the Houston Ship Channel for six years. Photography by Erich Schlegel.
The Dallas Morning News
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
April 4, 2004
TEXAS CITY, Texas It’s too flat to surf the beach and not quite warm enough to chase oil tankers in the bay, but James Fulbright is still obsessing over the perfect wave.
The 46-year-old Galveston surf shop owner has the classic sun-bleached look and uniform of a surfaholic, down to the scruffy beard, baggy shorts and flip-flops. And he’s got that hard-headed ‘tude common to Texas surfers, a pitiable cult for whom lousy natural waves are a semi-permanent way of life.
When the weather’s nice and Gulf is flat, as is usually the case, Mr. Fulbright and three friends are surfing some of the most perfectly formed swells in the world by riding the wakes of supertankers plying Galveston Bay. This mastery has earned them fame in surfing circles worldwide.
But when it’s too windy or too cold to surf behind oil tankers, as it has been pretty much for the past five months, Mr. Fulbright takes his passion inside a metal building in a salt-rusted industrialpark near Interstate 45.
There, he obsesses about a surfing technology he’s so serious about, he’s almost exhausted his personal savings, he explains as he bids adieu to two similarly attired gentlemen – also in T-shirts and shorts – leaving the oversized shed.
"They’re engineers who heard about it and flew over from France," he says.
"It" is a modified 35-square-foot kiddie pool assembled from a mess of black vinyl, plywood islands, hoses, pipes, pumps, pressure gauges, blue paint and wood to resemble a 1/12th scale model of a beach waterfront.
His wife used pipe cleaners to fashion little palm trees, with sand sprinkled around for effect.
This is the prototype of a surfing wave machine that he hopes will revolutionize the sport of surfing by taking it off the beach and into water parks around the world.
"Want to see it work?" he asks excitedly, moving to jigger some buttons and levels before getting a response.
At the far side of the kiddie pool, a burst of pressure fires out of a compressor, creating a small wave that is split into two parts by a wooden divider.
"See how they both peel down the line?" he says, grinning. "It’s pretty crazy, isn’t it?"
Mr. Fulbright’s zealotry and imagination are informed by the realities facing every surfer in Texas, condemned by the eternal frustration of realizing that no matter how much one wills it, the Gulf Coast is a lousy place to surf, unless a hurricane or tropical storm is brewing.
"Gulf Coast surfers are an extremely devoted bunch. We’re the most devoted group of surfers on the planet. We take what we can get, and drop everything we’re doing on a moment’s notice to ride a wave."
But out of such frustration comes determination and creativity. In late February, Mr. Fulbright concluded 18 months of testing and dismantled the scale model in the water tank to focus on building a full-scale prototype. (The project is featured in Tom Banks’ documentary Wave Maker, which will be screened at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston on April 9th as part of Houston’s FotoFest film festival.)
"I’ve finally got it going but I’ve spent all my savings. So we’re desperately seeking funding."
Mr. Fulbright started surfing at the age of 12. He has been looking for a better way to surf ever since.
"As you get older, you get more particular," he says. He has done the traveling bit, going to California, Mexico and Costa Rica. "Half the time, it’d be flat there like in Texas, but you’d blow all that money getting there."
John Benson passes the time between ships surfing the wake of the chase boat. Surf bored. Photography by Erich Schlegel.
While a student at Texas A&M University, he and his landlocked pals would surf behind boats on Lake Somerville. When they weighted the towing boat with extra people, they could generate waves large enough to ride without a tow rope.
Mr. Fulbright and some buddies took that idea a step further six years ago, after watching oil tankers pass through the bay between the coast and the Houston Ship Channel.
Then the light bulb in his head went on while he was working at a surfboard fin factory.
"One day, I overheard two sailors who sailed from Clear Lake to Kemah talk about how their 35-foot boat almost got swamped by a rogue wave generated by an oil tanker. I thought to myself, ‘Hmmmmm.’ I asked them if it was surfable. They didn’t surf but said it might be.
"I bought a 17-foot Boston Whaler," Mr. Fulbright says. "I studied the waves. I studied the tides, the currents, and the depths of the bay. I hung out in a bar in LaPorte where all the pilot boat captains drink. I started buying drinks. I’d asked where they found waves that they avoided, what channel markers.
"They thought we were crazier than hell asking where to go surfing in the bay," he says. "It took me about six months of reconnaissance but I finally found some constant spots. Lo and behold, I caught the wave of my dreams."
The supertankers left wakes of perfectly shaped swells so good that the unusual surfing exploits of Mr. Fulbright and his buddies were captured in the 2003 documentary Step Into Liquid which profiles 50 surfers from around the world and their secret surfing spots.
The group members have to not divulge to others where they go.
"This morning I ran into a guy on the beach who said he had information I could use if I gave him information," Mr. Fulbright says. "I said, ‘No way.’"
Still, they’re loyal to their sense of place. Mr. Fulbright and his friends also have another rule that when surf is up on the coast, oil-tanker surfing is not an option.
Ship-wake surfing is not for everyone, Mr. Fulbright cautions. It requires more planning, patience and precautions than beach surfing does.
"You can’t just jump into it. It took me years to get it down. We respect distance from the ships, distance from other boats. We’re very particular when we go."
But there’s a payoff.
Last fall, he says, "I caught a wave that I rode for three miles in ten minutes. Nowhere in the world can you ride a two- to three-mile wave. When it’s been flat on Galveston for a week, we’re surfing till our legs cramp up."
Lining up a wave takes a while to master, he says.
"It takes a boat. It takes skilled maneuvering. That water is littered with sunken boats, pipelines, shallow shoals. You have to burn a whole day to do it. You can’t just do it a little while. Someone has to drive the boat, and nobody wants to drive. I usually have to because it’s my boat. But dude, let me tell you this," Mr. Fulbright says, his eyes lighting up. "It’s worth it."
So is going broke and having to hustle for investments for his wave machine and a park built around it, which he calls Surf City Texas.
Getting a fix
Oil-tanker surfers and his invention go hand in hand, Mr. Fulbright contends. Both are answers to the endless quest to satisy his surfing addiction.
"I’ve wanted to have a wave pool since I first started surfing," he says. "The ones that exist are really bad. My focus was to make a great wave that is really challenging and as natural a surfing experience as possible."
"As Gulf Coast surfers, we’re damned and determined to surf when we want to," he says. "We’re so desperate we’re chasing around oil tankers. That’s how desperate we are. But who would have imagined the best waves, better than any waves in the world, are in our own backyard?"
Or in his own metal building?
He has already commissioned a logo of a steer’s skull – similar to an icon on the Eagles’ album covers – surrounded by water. And he’s set up a Web site, SurfCityTexas.com.
Surfer magazine ran a feature in its July issue, identifying Mr. Fulbright as a "Texas tanker-wave hustler" and calling his idea "the latest, and possibly greatest, advancement in wave-pool technology."
Now all he needs is dough. "It’s not sophisticated technology," he says. "It’s a bunch of pipes and a pond." That happen to generate some awesome waves.
Almost as good as an oil tanker does.