By DINA CAPPIELLO, Houston Chronicle Environment Writer Staff
Correct: CORRECTION: This story gave a wrong age for Peter Davis. He is 38. Correction published 9/30/03 .
GALVESTON BAY - James Fulbright rides waves with no beach in sight.
For Fulbright and a small pod of friends, surf's up when the hull of an approaching tanker appears on the horizon of Galveston Bay like an apparition, trailed by a thin line of white water that signals a breaking wave.
"Dude, what do you think of that? That's a pretty big ship," said Fulbright , 45, a local surf shop owner and surfboard manufacturer who chased the wakes of tanker ships Friday morning aboard a 17-foot Boston Whaler named Surf Bored. The group of local surfers, which includes a bank president and a member of the Galveston County Sheriff's Department, has mastered one of the more unusual ways to catch a wave, piggybacking on a Texas "natural" resource - the tankers carrying oil to the refineries and petrochemical plants along the Ship Channel.
These massive ships keep them stoked, as surfers would say, in times of scarce surf on the Gulf Coast. And unlike waves on the ocean, the waist-high swell from tankers can last for miles.
"We can't rely on nature to make waves around here all the time, but we can count on tanker traffic in the Ship Channel," said John Benson, 45, a handyman and Galveston native who surfs these wakes a couple of times each week. He started surfing when he was 9, after he found two surfboards discarded in the woods.
"It supplements what we do on the beach," he said.
For five years, the tight-knit crew has quietly surfed tanker wakes - an activity that required them to closely monitor the shipping schedule, along with wind speed and water depth. Any miscalculation, and their boat could be grounded, or overtaken by a crashing wave.
Fulbright got the idea after overhearing two sailors in Galveston Bay talk about how a tanker wake swamped their boats with water.
"That gave me enough encouragement to start investigating it," he said. After a few rounds at the local tanker pilot hangout and some navigational charts, tanker surfing was born - or rather reborn, since stories abound about a group of surfers who, in the late 1970s, would surf tanker wake off Red Fish Island.
"This stuff took us years to figure out," said Fulbright , who has identified six premier tanker surfing spots, each one with its own name. "People still have no idea where we go or how we do it."
But what has long been a well-kept secret in local surfing circles is now being telecast throughout the wave-riding world. The Texas tanker surfers were recently featured in the documentary Step Into Liquid along with such legendary surfing spots as Southern California and the North Shore of Maui. Last week, the magazines Surfer and Surfing Girl were in Galveston Bay to photograph the guys riding wake.
"There's a lot of characters in surfing, and these guys in Texas are at the top of the list," said Dana Brown, the filmmaker and narrator.
"What they try to surf in, I don't think a lot of people would consider trying it. In a way, they are just as radical as the big wave guys. It seems very Texan . . . the ingenuity."
If the channel is a liquid superhighway, Fulbright and three or four surfing buddies ride the shoulder, steering their boats about a half-mile to the side or behind tankers as they pass. As the wave rolls toward them, they jump in and catch it.
Each day, as many as 18 to 20 ships - 45 feet wide and 250 feet long - plow through the waters of Galveston Bay on their way to ports in Houston, Baytown and Channelview, according to the Greater Houston Port Bureau. With a belly full of oil unloaded from a "mother tanker" in the Gulf, each one weighs about 95,000 tons and travels between 9 and 12 mph.
At that size, each pushes 35 feet of water from the bottom of the channel into the more shallow bay that surrounds it. The surge has nowhere to go but up, creating a wave that can be waist- to shoulder-high.
"All they're doing is displacing water," said Alton Landry, the port bureau's operations manager, who admitted that his son surfs tanker wake off Freeport. "It's a dangerous sport. I wouldn't do it."
But this water is exactly what Fulbright and his friends crave.
"Almost nobody has ridden a wave longer than a half-a-mile long in their whole life," said Peter Davis, 28 (SEE CORRECTION), who heads up the Galveston County Sheriff's Beach Patrol and is a frequent tanker surfer. "These waves can be waist-high to head-high. You can get a 3 -mile ride . . . Most Texas waves we are talking about last two to three seconds."
It's a practice the U.S. Coast Guard discourages, more so since Sept. 11, 2001, when security was tightened.
"On the rare occasion, we have seen people surf the wakes," said Chief Jeff Murphy, spokesman for the Coast Guard's 8th District in New Orleans. Murphy said he has witnessed surfers riding the wake of ferry boats that travel between San Francisco and Sausalito, Calif. He was unaware of any rescues along the Texas coast because of tanker surfing.
But, he added, "We certainly don't condone this kind of risk."
Over time, the wakes have gotten bigger, along with the tankers.
Albert Shannon, 52, surfed what he calls ship waves in Galveston as a child. As the marketing president for Frost Bank's two Galveston branches, he gets out to tanker surf about once a month now. He attests that the ships have grown since he began surfing 38 years ago.
"They've gotten bigger and bigger," Shannon said. "The best ships are the tanker and container ships that go up into Baytown and the Port of Houston."
To ensure that their top-secret surfing spot doesn't get out, media and other guests are asked to sign confidentiality agreements, and Fulbright refuses to tell anyone how far they typically venture offshore.
Some Texas surfers say the attention tanker surfing has attracted has done little to help the state's reputation as a legitimate surfing destination.
"In general, for surfers everywhere . . . they should have shown a little better surf," said Larry Trevino, manager of On The Beach surf shop on South Padre Island, one of the hottest surfing spots along the Gulf. "The Gulf Coast has better waves to offer than that."
The tanker surfers say they are just making the most of what they have.
"If we lived in Southern California, we probably wouldn't be seeking out weird things like this. We would be happy to go to the beach and go surfing," Davis said. "We have enough waves to create a lot of surfers, but not enough to keep them happy."
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