Tanker Surfing the Texas Gulf Coast

I had heard about it for years, but the stars never fully aligned until a few weeks back. Along the Texas Gulf Coast there is this thing called "Tanker Surfing." It is basically as insane as it sounds... Find a huge ship going the right speed, at the right location, and if the conditions are right, you'll catch a leg burning, minutes long wave, on a wooden paddle board of course. 

Photo Courtesy Steve Nelson

Now here's the story of how our epic trip came together. I received a message from Jon (aka "Abstractconformity") at about 8 p.m. and all it said was, "Tanker surfing 0700." Normally, a 7 a.m. wake up call is easy, but knowing that I had a few more hours of work in the shop and wouldn't be asleep before midnight, this was a major dilemma. Throwing caution to the wind, I loaded up the wood paddle boards, set the alarm for a whopping three hours of sleep and then set off for the three hour trek to the Gulf Coast.

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Right on que, I pulled in at 6:50 a.m. to catch the early morning light as the sun rose over the ship channel. No time to waste, we met Steve at the dock, loaded the boards in his boat, and then the hunt for our wave began. 

When you're tanker surfing, it is not as easy as finding a ship and riding the wake. The ship has to be over a certain size, loaded, traveling the right speed, and over the right part of the channel. Here's where inside knowledge comes to play in this story -- both Jon and Steve are pilots. If you don't know what a pilot is, visit Jon and Steve's Instagram pages. These guys are the "cream of the crop" of the merchant marine industry driving 600 to 1000 foot long tankers day and night. 

I digress, if you haven't seen one of these tankers up close, its impossible to capture via images how truly massive these things are. However, for reference, each "box" on the deck in the image above is the size of an 18-wheeler. I'm not going to lie, as we got closer to the first ship, excitement turned to straight panic. What if I'm rolled by a wave...what if I'm bashed on the rocks...what if I just suck...what if...

Before a full blown panic could set in, Steve yells, "It's go time." We had found a loaded ship, traveling fast enough, and throwing a killer wave. When it's go time,  you've essentially got 20 seconds to get your board over the side of the boat and get in position for the approaching wave. You may ask, "Why the rush?" Well, Google tanker surfing accident. Need I say more?

As the first wave came in, Jon and I were in perfect position. The wind was blowing perfectly in the right direction. Paddle! Paddle! Paddle! And...we both miss it... I can't describe how disappointed and dejected I was after seeing the perfect wave rise, fall, and pass me up. As I'm licking my wounds, Steve pulls the power boat around and yells, "You gotta get closer to the rocks you Kooks! If it feels sketchy, thats right where you want to be!"

Again, no time to waste. We load up the boards and set out in search for another ship. This time, we were set and ready as the power of Jin Yuan's wake comes rolling through with more than 2 billion cubic feet of LNG on board. At this point my arms were tired, I was tired, and I missed breakfast, but I paddled on. As the waves started bearing down on us, I could feel my board begin to rise as I started accelerating down the face of the wave. Boom! The moment had come, I was up and I was officially tanker surfing. 

Let me tell you, the three hours of sleep, three hour drive, and skipped breakfast were totally worth it. For over two minutes at a time, we caught wave after wave all day. Over the length of the ride, the wave changed from steep to mush to steep again. It was the ride of a lifetime.

 Photo Courtesy Jon Dunway

Photo Courtesy Jon Dunway

Moral of the story, if someone you've met via Instagram says lets go tanker surfing...you go, no questions asked. 

By Tony Smith

Founder @JarvisBoards

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