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

Allen eventually fell asleep that night in the station, alarm clock set for 6:30 a.m. High tide. The Gulf of Mexico was churning, or at least that's what the weather reported. There was a terrible sense of anticipation on the part of Allen and crew. But that night, the storm shifted directions, headed toward Mexico, then broke up. The winds never blew above 45 mph, well below hurricane force. Allen woke up Tuesday morning to clear-blue skies and a gentle breeze. But the storm had done its damage out at sea and roughed up the waters, resulting in some big waves. There would be good surfing this week.

Louie's Backyard on South Padre Island's main drag is the alter ego of Sharkey's. For starters, it caters to tourists. Its expansive patio faces one of the largest freestanding structures in town: the huge crane used for bungie jumping. Bands play spring-break music year round, songs such as Hot Hot Hot and Red Red Wine.

But around the corner from the burly bouncer manning the door at Louie's, past the empty kegs and folding chairs that come out only during Spring Break, is a narrow staircase. It leads to a decidedly Sharkey-esque hangout above Louie's Backyard. It has shuffleboard and a fully stocked bar, but outsiders aren't allowed to sample it. This is the "locals only" hangout. Everyone knows everyone else.

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

The night after Beryl fizzled, the bar was filled with young Coast Guard crewmen. It was Luke Pullen's 21st birthday (even though he's telling everyone at the bar it's his 22nd because he's been coming here for a year), and the military men are hunkered down on bar stools, telling sea tales. The occasion doubled as a birthday party and tribal celebration. Despite her wimpiness, Beryl brought the first big-wave riding of the year. Many were anticipating the next morning's ride and talking about it as though they were the Big Kahuna surfing the Humunga Cowabunga from Down Under. But they all are in check when they know Shaun Allen is listening. He outranks them professionally, and can out- surf them all.

Allen, 22, is built more like a linebacker than a surfer. Standing about 6 feet tall and weighing close to 200 pounds, he keeps his hair cut close and stands with impeccable posture.

"Most people think of the Coast Guard as a search-and-rescue branch of the military, if they consider them military at all," he says. "Down here, though, we're law enforcement. We've been in some pretty messed-up situations."

Allen captains a 27-foot Boston whaler whose primary purpose is search-and-rescue and to interdict smugglers. He carries a 9mm semiautomatic pistol, but hasn't had to shoot anyone, though he says he has drawn the weapon in self-defense. His average week is filled with routine patrols and searches punctuated with chases of drug smugglers and boats carrying illegal immigrants.

"This is serious business down here," Allen says. "It's not all fun and games. It's dangerous for us to be in Mexico, since we're federal officers and all, so we have to be careful when we're down there. We pull some long shifts, so surfing is like my escape."

Allen is the product of another zero-surfing community: Morgantown, West Virginia, the rough part of town across the tracks from the University of West Virginia, nestled deep in the heart of Appalachia. Allen spent two years at the university before realizing that he wasn't learning what he wanted to know, so he dropped out and joined the Coast Guard, rising quickly in the ranks. Like many others, he borrowed a buddy's board one day and got bit. That's all it takes usually, one day fumbling around in the surf. He soon spent $1,000 on two boards.

Because he's higher up in the Coast Guard ranks than most other crewmen his age, new surfers look to him as a leader and teacher. He's willing to offer advice to any beginner and instructs them like a drill instructor would, but he gets results.

He lights up when he talks about big wave riding. His muscles start to tense with excitement, making the jellyfish tattoo on his left arm dance.

"I'm out here in the water so much, I think I'm growing gills. Every free moment I have, I'm surfing. In the morning before I go to work, I'm surfing. In the evening when the work is done, I'm surfing. I surf at night sometimes, when you can't see anything, and it's real calm and mellow. Even on my lunch break, when the guys are chowing down or working out, I'm on the beach trying to get a few good rides in."

Beryl managed to stir up the sea enough to make last Wednesday morning the ideal time to catch a wave, and surfers flocked to the beach like gulls. The wave tops were mostly between head and shoulder height, but there were some 6- to 8-footers as well. No one caught a barrel, but there were plenty of cutbacks and long rides to the beach. Traffic was high where the waves were the biggest, but no one argued. Every now and then, someone had a wave snaked out from under him by another surfer, but unlike Californians, who have been known to come to blows for such sins, these Texans were calm and forgiving.

"My bad," Walter said to a fellow rider when Walter inadvertently ran him over. Walter has a casual moral attitude and a perfect tan. From a distance, with his long, jet-black hair, he looks like a good-looking female with no shirt, until you see him up close with pierced nipples and tongue. He is the calm, Zen surfer in these parts and noticeably one of the only guys not built like a football player. Walter is always the first one at the beach, driving an old Dodge diesel. He surfs a hybrid, somewhere between long board, ideal for the cruising, and short board, used to rip it up. You can't negotiate angles on a hybrid like you can on a short board, but you can ride the nose. Walter rides the nose like a pro, hanging all 10 toes over the board's front tip. From the beach, it looks like he's flying five feet in front of the wave.

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