Ride 'Em, Surferboy

As coastal Texans head inland to escape heavy weather, landlocked beach boys are catching waves and sitting on top of the world

Tom & Jerry's was dead. The bar and grill in the heart of South Padre Island's nightlife strip usually teems with people this time of year. But August 15, as Tropical Storm Beryl threatened the Texas coast, only a handful of customers sat at tables. The bartender was taking inventory at 10 p.m., a full hour earlier than normal. He planned to hurry home, pack, and head inland for Austin.

Despite the slow night, waitress Rachel Brooks looked exhausted. The Plano native had been up near dawn because of the storm and was trying to get through her shift so she could prepare for the next morning.

Coworker Shaun Allen was anxious, trying subtly to hurry two tourists through their meals and out the door. No sooner had a credit card hit the table than he was asking for a signature and clearing their drinks. This was the 21st birthday of one of his Coast Guard buddies, and he and some friends planned a night of hard drinking--vodka, because there's less chance of a hangover--before an early morning at the Coast Guard station at South Padre Island.

Texas surfers are built more like linebackers than Spicolis.
Texas surfers are built more like linebackers than Spicolis.

Coastal residents had been put on alert the day before and were scrambling to stock up on provisions. Beryl had developed in the Gulf of Mexico and was heading toward land at 15 mph. Storm warnings were posted along 230 miles of coastline in Texas and Mexico, and thousands of people were moving toward higher ground.

Brooks and Allen didn't plan to be among them. They were headed the other way. A storm was coming, so screw the wind, rain, and floods.

The surf was up.

Brooks was not exhausted because she had been hammering plywood over windows or rushing to buy bread and jugs of water--all the mundane things that coastal residents do when a big storm approaches. She had been up at first light at the Cove, the popular surf area in Isla Blanca Park, and the waves were larger than she had anticipated. Getting into the park, though, was an ordeal. The main road was closed because of the weather, so Brooks and her crew, consisting of two guys from Houston and a few locals, parked their cars at a church near the park and sneaked in.

Isla Blanca is the definitive "spot" to surf down here and is seldom closed; it usually takes some gnarly weather for Cameron County to shut it down since the park generates $4 per car that enters. Gnarly weather, though, yields the biggest waves. In fact, it creates just about the only sizable waves on the Texas coast, which normally has about as much surf as Lewisville Lake.

When the county closes the park, surfers must dodge police cruisers' headlights to get to where they want to go. Locals and other surfing faithful walk half a mile across the island to the gulf side.

"It's been great out here, and I'm holding my own," Brooks said on Tuesday morning last week. She surfs on a 6-foot short board, less stable and trickier to ride than long boards, but better for carving up the surf. It's what you see when you watch pros Shea Lopez and Andy Irons wave riding late night on cable, executing lip-launching floaters and vertical aerial assaults.

"When a big storm hits, people from all over just come and really eat it up," says Brooks, a 17-year-old who moved with her folks to South Padre about 18 months ago because, as she describes it, her dad doesn't like to stay in one place too long. She waitresses full time and surfs when she's not shlepping drinks. Ultimately, Brooks says, once she hones her skills she wants to move to Hawaii for the really big waves, because "there's just no substitute for the big stuff."

Maybe you don't feel it, this thing that leads men and women down to the sea on boards, but there's a force in the universe. Like the tide-generating pull of the moon and sun on the sea, it plays on the minds of a tribe tuned to a different channel than the average square. They are tan and wiry with muscle and have salt-damaged hair. They smile often because they're genuinely satisfied. The older members of the tribe have deep-set eyes and leathery skin from years in the sun and saltwater. The younger have scores of tattoos and piercings. All use words like "Zen" and "rad" and "rip." They answer to only one name, whether a first or last or nick. Their music, language, look, and lifestyle are all in tune with the surf.

You find these peerless souls in Southern California calmly sitting in buffalo packs 25-30 yards out in the Pacific Ocean. If you've ever spent a day on the Venice, Santa Monica, Manhattan, Malibu, Pacific, La Jolla, Newport, or Long beaches, you've seen them. They wait in the cool waters of the Pacific for their set to roll in, then they rip floaters and cutbacks. When there's no more waves to be had, and their shoulder muscles are spent from hours of paddling, and the wax on their boards has ripped tiny tears in their bellies, they ditch their boards in the back of old woodies or pickups. They throw on Hawaiian shirts (real ones, not the kind you buy at Abercrombie & Fitch) and head to Sharkey's on Hermosa Beach.

People hang out all day at Sharkey's, but the arrival of these aqua warriors is almost ceremonial, for they made this place a slice of West Coast Americana. The bar is decorated like a beachcomber's dream. The air smells of sunscreen and the surfboard-topped tables are glossy, the result of thousands of customers resting their greased-up bodies on them. Drinks are served (often) in a communal plastic bucket with as many straws as people drinking. Everyone drinks from the same canteen. They play old Dick Dale albums and show surf videos. All the girls are good looking; everybody's happy. That's the So Cal surf scene.

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