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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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Even the people who have surfed with him for a long time don't know Walter's last name, and they don't bother to ask. He is the only Walter in these parts of consequence. He says he's "in between" jobs at the moment and instead passes his time on the beach. Originally from Argentina, he's been here five years. Why here? Texas women, waves, and occasional marijuana use--that's Walter's life.
"Dude, there's been some killer waves out here these last couple of days," he says. "When there's a storm, you hang around and surf until all the waves are cashed out."
"Fuck, yeah," echoes Mike, 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds. He looks like a nightmare when he catches a wave, a behemoth with all kinds of weird, red facial hair and several iron-cross tattoos. He and Walter are here almost every day, and while they welcome the company of the storm chasers who only show up for the big stuff, they ride without limits.
Walter is a genuinely good guy who looks like Anthony Kiedis, and Mike is probably nice also, but he's too scary-looking to talk to. They say that most of the time not many people surf South Padre waters, though windsurfers come down to take advantage of the calm water. Walter says he likes the crowds because he wants people to get involved with the sport locally. He surfs even when the waves are 2-footers, because he says he's drawn to the ocean--like Allen and Brooks and anyone else who's ever caught a wave and walked on water. The storm was a payoff for so many days and hours spent riding scratch waves. Walter squints as he paddles out into the deep, trying to block the direct rays hitting his face with his long black hair. This is Texas Gulf Coast surfing. The sun, rising in the east, is in your eyes as you paddle out, and at dusk, cowboys surf into the sunset.