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Archive for Sunday, June 26, 2005

Texas surfers hang 10 in tanker wake

June 26, 2005

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— 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 four 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.

Surf's up!

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, Kenya and Western Australia 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.


John Benson rides a wave caused by a passing super tanker. Benson was surfing in May in the Houston Ship Channel in Galveston Bay, Texas. Benson and his friends ride waves made when a passing tanker's wake hits a shallow shoal in the bay, creating a wave that can carry a surfer up to four miles.

John Benson rides a wave caused by a passing super tanker. Benson was surfing in May in the Houston Ship Channel in Galveston Bay, Texas. Benson and his friends ride waves made when a passing tanker's wake hits a shallow shoal in the bay, creating a wave that can carry a surfer up to four miles.

"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 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 wade 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 secret.

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."

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