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

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.

Many people migrate from all over the country to live this life. They are mostly waiters or bartenders or delivery-truck drivers--jobs that they can quit at a moment's notice if a big storm is brewing out at sea and it kicks up some massive swells. They subscribe to the notion of the never-ending summer, penniless and happy.

A lesser-known group of wave-riders surf in one of the calmest bodies of saltwater in either hemisphere. They use the same terminology and wear the same fashion. They practice the same set of ideals and live for the ride. Yet there are noticeable differences between them and their Southern Californian brethren and sistren. Their boards are longer because they don't get a chance to ride big waves very often. Their bodies are heavier, and they talk with a drawl.

Shaun Allen is a Coast Guard member and a waiter in his spare time, when he's not carving up the surf.
Shaun Allen is a Coast Guard member and a waiter in his spare time, when he's not carving up the surf.
Initially, folks wait out the big storm. Then they return for big waves.
Initially, folks wait out the big storm. Then they return for big waves.

Meet the unsung down-home version of the West Coast thrasher, the Texas storm chasers and die-hard surfers who congregate on South Padre Island. They migrate here from all over the state and faraway lands like Oklahoma, Argentina, and West Virginia. Most are snowboarders in the wintertime or skaters. In true Texas fashion, the men among them are built like linemen. Most have little surfing experience, since there just isn't anyplace in Texas with big enough waves for them to sharpen their skills. Still, in the Rio Grande Valley they become members of a choice society. They mimic the So Cal look, wearing long shorts that protect their thighs and rash guards to spare their stomachs, nipples, and shoulders from the wax that they cake on their boards for traction. (The wax rash hurts. Imagine hundreds of tiny cuts on your belly exposed to sea salt.)

Before daylight, usually around 6:45 a.m., 10 to 15 faithful start arriving at Isla Blanca Park, driving more pickups than woodies. Surfing is a rhythmic pursuit, and you have to be in tune with the waves if you're ever going to catch one.

In Los Angeles, music plays up and down the beach in the early morning. Older surfers plug in The Beach Boys. Jimmy Buffet plays for those in their early 30s, then old-school Chili Peppers, some Bob and Ziggy Marley here and there, then Sprung Monkey, Creed, and Godsmack. A few of the adrenaline junkies have Ministry and Soulfly cranked. The cars may be old, but the stereo systems are all topnotch.

Down in South Padre, the vibration is decidedly different. Many cars are tuned to Spanish-speaking radio stations; others have on the weather. Last week, a group of twenty-somethings dressed every bit like West Coast surfers were listening to Buck Owens from a factory stereo in a Ford Ranger.

Snare, a 27-year-old bartender originally from Waco, has been surfing since he moved down here two years ago. Although a novice by surfing standards, he rides the lip like a professional.

"I think I can handle the West Coast waves," he says confidently while rubbing Mr. Zogs Sex Wax on his board. "I say that, but the closest I've ever been to California is San Antonio. The waves here suck, yeah, but they're my waves, you know. And I make do."

Their moves are as smooth as their California counterparts'. They paddle out into the deep and sit--for a significantly longer time than a Pacific or Atlantic surfer would. The Texas Coast has horrible surf 330 days of the year, though South Padre Island is the best of a bad lot, thanks to prevailing southeast winds that combine with jetties and sandbars to amplify the swells into breaking waves. But for the most part, it's pretty glassy. Squirrelly waves peter out before they can curl, and when there is a surfable wave, every surfer jockeys for position on it. But this is the best surfing in Texas, and a true gulf surfer prays for rain and wind. Last week, their prayers were answered--though, thankfully for the non-surfers living in South Texas, not to the degree they might have been.

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On August 14, people living off Texas Highway 100, the 40-mile stretch of roadway between Harlingen and South Padre Island, were ready for the worst. Tropical Storm Beryl was at sea, threatening to grow in strength to hurricane force.

It's a poor area, and many homes have skeletal boat frames on their porches. Years of heavy winds blowing off the sea make the weathered houses lean a little to the west. The local high school, Port Isabel High, bears a striking resemblance to the old Dallas County jail, both having identical tiny windows and dull brown brick.

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