By Joel Anderson
The Associated Press
GALVESTON BAY, - The hull of an approaching oil tanker appears on the horizon of Galveston Bay, a mammoth gift in murky waters for surfers James Fulbright and John Benson.
The towering ship is trailed by a thin line of white water nearly four or five city blocks long, about 4 feet high.
"I think we're ready to rock 'n' roll on this one," Fulbright said, peering through binoculars.
"Let's do it," Benson said.
The laid-back vibe quickly disappears, and Fulbright kicks his boat into gear. The boat slams against the water, and, in a few minutes, Fulbright has maneuvered it into the path of the wave as Benson waits, prone on his surfboard.
Fulbright and Benson, along with a tight-knit crew of surfer friends, have discovered an unusual way to catch a wave, taking advantage of the waist-high wake from massive ships and tankers that plow their way to ports along the Texas coast with bellies full of oil.
The ships keep surfers riding in lean times along the western Gulf Coast, where the waves aren't always so swell.
"We could be the rare breed who could surf every day because of man's greed for oil and gas," Fulbright said. "We're tapping a resource that would normally go untapped."
With surfing under his belt on the North Shore of Maui and Oahu, Fiji, Mainland Mexico, Bahamas, Virgin Islands, Europe and all of Central America during more than 30 years, Fulbright and his buddies finally found an unlikely nirvana in the waters of Galveston Bay.
Fulbright, a local surf shop owner, came up with the idea about a decade ago when he was working in a surfboard fin factory. He overheard a couple of sailors talking about how a passing tanker had swamped their boats with water.
"That got me curious about it. I started investigating it after that," he said.
After hanging out at a local tanker pilot hangout, reading every navigational map he could find and pestering local fishermen into telling him the spots with the best waves, Fulbright rediscovered the art of tanker surfing, lost since the 1970s.
After seven years of practice, Fulbright finally feels he's got a handle on the idiosyncrasies of this quirky sport.
A lot of preparation is required before Fulbright and friends pile into his 17-foot Boston Whaler and head for open water. In addition to the costs of maintaining the boat and gas for the trip, they must closely monitor the shipping schedule and weather forecast, along with wind speed and water depth.
Even then, they must hope there's a steady stream of tankers - ones with the right heft and moving at the right speed - to make it worthwhile.
"It's too much work with not a lot of reward for just anybody to do it," said Lt. Peter Davis of the Galveston County Sheriff's Beach Patrol, himself a tanker surfer. "You're out there all day in the boat, and there's no guarantee that there will be anything good to surf. It's for people that are really dedicated, if not fanatical."
Fulbright, Benson, Davis and their friends certainly qualify. The tanned, muscular Texas natives in their 40s and early 50s share a boyish enthusiasm for surfing.
After searching from Brazil to Thailand, they found their sanctuary in the sooty, shallow waters of Galveston Bay near the 50-mile Houston Ship Channel, which connects the Port of Houston and dozens of petrochemical plants with the Gulf of Mexico. It's one of the busiest waterways in the world and not among the most scenic.
"We have our own private wave pool," Benson said. "It's all been worth it, dude."
Their ingenuity has earned them celebrity in surfing circles: They were featured in the surfing documentary "Step Into Liquid."
With their increasing fame, Fulbright and friends have struggled to keep their sport a secret.
"We definitely had doubts about getting it out there like that," Fulbright said. The documentary "didn't show the potential of the waves out here. They really helped us out, in a way."
Fulbright has identified six prime surfing spots, each one with its own name, and he protects them fiercely. He used to make reporters and other guests sign confidentiality agreements, but now he refuses to tell visitors how far they've ventured offshore.
Once they spot an approaching ship, Fulbright and his buddies steer their boat about a half-mile to the side or behind the tanker as it passes. As the wave rolls toward them, they jump into the water and catch it - often providing a ride several miles and minutes long.
"Most of your normal moments in surfing are fleeting, so fleeting that your mind and body can't react to it," said Fulbright, who once rode a wave in Galveston for 17 minutes, or about the equivalent of three miles. "Here, you're in the moment so long, it's like time has stopped for you."
About 40 ships and tankers make their way each day through Galveston Bay to ports in the Houston area, said Alton Landry, operations manager of the Marine Exchange for the West Gulf.
Sometimes weighing up to 120,000 tons and traveling at about 10 mph, these ships push 35 feet of water from the bottom of the channel into the shallow bay that encircles it. The surge then rises, and so starts the dangerous game.
"That would not be my place to play," Landry said. "There's an awful lot of ship traffic out there, and there's no police out there to direct it. I'd find something else to do."
The U.S. Coast Guard discourages the practice, especially since tightening security since the Sept. 11 attacks.
Fulbright and his friends also have their share of critics among Texas surfers. Their detractors say the attention tanker surfing has attracted has hurt the state's reputation as a serious surfing destination.
"Texas has much better waves than that," said Larry Trevino, manager of a surf shop on South Padre Island, 200 miles to the south. "I just wish the movie would have shown some of that. To show that on the film ... it was a letdown."
Adolfo Garcia, who operates a Web site called corpusbeach.com, called tanker surfing "an act of desperation."
But Fulbright already is looking beyond the swells of Galveston Bay in pursuit of the perfect wave.
He's putting lots of money, including his children's college fund, into a new indoor-surfing venture called Surf City Texas. It would be the first surf park in the country, and Fulbright hopes someday his venture will result in an endless summer for surfers.
"I think it could be big," Fulbright said. "Surfing is not only a way of life for me, it's a business."