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Texas Tanker Surfing

Tanker Surfing in Galveston Bay

tanker surfing in Galveston Bay, Texas with James Fulbright
A perfectly shaped Tanker Wave - with a few miles to go

Recently I took the modern right of passage for a Texas surfer... I went Tanker Surfing.  Ever since the surf film Step Into Liquid came out in 2003 Tanker surfing has been a favorite topic whenever someone meets a surfer from Texas.  Tired of always saying, "No, I haven't tried it yet" I finally took the plunge.

Now without giving away any secret spots or angering any locals I will say that a couple years ago I did Tanker surf... sort of.  There are some spots in Texas where no chase boat is necessary and you can catch a Tanker wave from shore, but let's leave it at that.  The "real" Tanker Miles out to sea, nothing but tankers and waves in Galveston Baysurfing you most likely want to hear about is the kind that happens in Galveston Bay, the entrance to the Houston Ship Channel, and this definitely requires a chase boat.  There is no one more experienced or knowledgeable in the art of finding and chasing these waves than Capt. James Fulbright of Tanker Surf Charters.  James is the guy who takes the crew out in Step Into Liquid and has taken many notable surfers and surf legends out to try the sport.

So how was it?  Very unique!  The waves are not high performance waves, but they are looooong.

Have you ever surfed a river wave, or even wake surfed?  The feeling is very similar to surfing but it's just a little different, right?  That's how the tanker waves felt, you were really surfing, it just felt a little different.  The push was different.  It really was a treat to have time to stop and look around and think about things while surfing.  The rides are a mile or more long, granted you're good enough to stay in the sweet spot.  Back to the wake surf analogy, there was kind of a sweet spot in the wave, just like when you wakesurf.  Sometimes the sweet spot was 100 yards across, sometimes it was 5 feet, and sometimes it moved quickly away from you.  The tanker waves respond to the shallow bottom contour of the bay and as it changes the wave mirrors the change requiring you to always be watching and feeling for the best position to stay in.

When you see footage or images of the wave it looks like an easy beginner wave, and it some ways it is.  It's gentle and rolling and most of the time and breaks on a sandy bottom.  However it takes some advanced wave reading skills for sure.  The other thing that surprised me was how hectic it was right before you catch the wave.  Capt. James drives the boat directly in front of the breaking wave trying to get you in the best spot, and then you had better be ready, when he yells, "GO"!  You grab the board and jump overboard paddling towards the peak.  It can be a little disorienting in middle of a huge bay, with no other surfers and no way to spot the line up.  You just pick a spot turn around and paddle HARD, and hope you're in the right spot.

The first wave I caught, I was the only one in the water and had no idea what to expect.  I paddled hard (like you have to for all mushy Texas waves) and waited for the 200 yard wide wall of whitewash to pick me up.  There was really no face or slope at all, just a huge wall of whitewater.  I popped to my feet and had the bumpiest surf ride of my life.  For five minutes it felt like I was riding a bronco.  It was different but I was loving every minute of it.  The wave finally ended and I dropped in the water only to find that it was thigh deep! 

What a surprise.  A mile from shore... and not even waist deep water.

Another thing that surprised me is how far you are from the tankers.  You don't surf behind them like wakesurfing, you're about a mile to the side and behind them, they don't even know you're there.

The rest of the rides were better than the first and had some nice open faces on them.  We all had a blast, Capt. James brought snacks and drinks for all and told some great surf stories.  We also did some surfing behind the boat and surfboard paddle races during the day.  There is a lot of downtime while you wait for the tankers, so be prepared for the lulls.  I guess when the waves are 5 minutes long then it's appropriate for the lulls to last an hour.

All in all, the tanker surfing was a real adventure.  It's something I would definitely do again.  It requires a lot of scheduling, a full day of your time and at around $200 each it's not exactly cheap.  But if you're looking for a one of a kind Texas surf adventure, then this can't be beat.  Best of all, now I always look forward to the question, "Have you tried tanker surfing yet?"


If Tanker Surfing isn't your thing, how about renting a Volkswagen surf van in California where you can travel from surf spot to surf spot on your own time.

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