By JOE NICK PATOSKI
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 industrial park 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 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 plastic vinyl, plywood islands, hoses, pipes, pumps, pressure gauges, blue paint and wood to resemble a 1/12th scale model of a beach waterfront inside the building. His wife used pipe cleaners to fashion little palm trees with sand sprinkled around for effect.
This is the model 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 like nowhere else in the surfing world. The combination of terrible conditions and Texan hard-headedness makes for some inventive options such as the one Mr. Fulbright has been developing for the past 18 months while securing all the necessary patents and copyrights.
"I’ve finally got it going but I’ve spent all my savings. So we’re desperately seeking funding."
He started surfing at the age of 12. He’s been looking for a better way to surf ever since. "As you get older, you get more particular," he says. He’s 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."
While a student at Texas A&M, he and his landlocked pals would surf behind boats on Lake Somerville. When they weighted down the boat towing them with extra people, they could generate wave waves large enough to ride without a tow rope.
He and some buddies took that idea a step further six years ago, after watching oil tankers cruise the bay between the coast and the Houston Ship Channel.
The light bulb went off while 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.
"Well, I bought a 17-foot Boston Whaler," he 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. 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, their exploits were captured in the 2003 documentary film, Step Into Liquid, which profiles 50 surfers from around the world and their secret surfing spots.
Mr. Fulbright and his buddies have sworn to each other they won’t divulge 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.
Oil-tanker 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.
"It’s very hard to line up a wave. 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, which he calls Surf City Texas.
"What can we do?"
Oil tanker surfers and Mr. Fulbright’s invention go hand in hand, he contends. Both were answers to his eternal question, "What can we do to satisfy our surf fix?"
"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’s already commissioned a logo of a steers’ skull head like the Eagles’ album covers surrounded by big water and set up a Web site, SurfCityTexas.com. Surfing Magazine ran a feature in the 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.
Joe Nick Patoski is a freelance writer in Wimberley, Texas.