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

Resident Margarita Martinez spent $50 on groceries and supplies, but said she feared that a hurricane would finally do in her shaky house (it already looks as if it's held together only by the paint). Others gathered their children and left to sleep in an auditorium in nearby Matamoros. Cameron County officials closed the entranceway into Isla Blanca Park, and shrimp boats made a mad dash for port. Hotels and resorts emptied.

By Monday night, the Coast Guard station at South Padre Island, which sits in what was Beryl's projected path, battened down, and everyone inside was tuned to the Weather Channel: Performing search-and-rescues is not easy in rough seas.

A small group of Coast Guard crewmen paid particular attention to the weather report, even though they weren't on duty. Bosun Mate 3rd Class Shaun Allen sat with his face close to the monitor, smiling each time there was mention of a severe storm. He told two companions that the island would get slammed. They let out a roar. "Hell, yeah. Bring it on," said one. The bigger the storm, the bigger the waves. And if their station sustained a little damage, it was a small sacrifice to that tide-generating force.

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.

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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.

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.

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