The History of Tanker Surfing

  • It is important to note that tanker surfing in Texas was practiced as far back as the late 60’s, to some degree, by a select few surfers who also fished the bay waters. Back in the 60’s and 70’s, tanker surfing was practiced not in open waters like today, but along the shorelines of two islands in Galveston Bay, Redfish Island and Atkinson Island. In addition, a few people also caught small ship waves breaking along the western shoreline of Galveston Bay, and later along the Texas City Dike.

    During that period in time, ships were less frequent and much smaller, but they still created small waves which also caused erosion. That erosion eventually destroyed Redfish Island and the other breaking areas by the late 70’s. Interest in surfing ship waves, and the waves themselves, disappeared for the most part, as breaking waves had not yet materialized in open waters. That changed when dredging operations ultimately allowed for deeper draft vessels to travel in the channel and the dredge material being strategically placed created the shoals and spoil banks we surf over today. Redfish Island has been recently refurbished as well, thanks to another Army Corp of Engineers’ dredging project. Today, container and tanker ships are much larger and more frequent, our channel is deeper and wider to accommodate even larger vessels and the dredge material taken from widening and deepening our channel is being used to create more submerged shoals, and recently is even being used to make new islands where shoals once were. Tanker waves now break both in open waters over submerged shoals that border the ship channel and along shorelines of these newly formed islands.

    Word spread with movie’s release

    Tanker Surfing in Texas was actually first exposed to the public on in 2001. This story, written by James, was originally the response letter to a mysterious fax he received in 2000 that simply read, “Are you the one who rides barge waves?” The fax was sent by the producer of what was originally coined “The Endless Summer 3″ and later named Step Into Liquid, John Paul Beegly.

    James, along with his two friends John Benson and Peter Davis had been secretly researching and surfing the ship waves in the Houston Ship Channel for some years prior to the “infamous fax” and had shared their experiences with only a couple of people. As the story goes, one of those confidants evidently mentioned Fulbright’s antics to a guy he was sitting next to while on a flight from LA to Singapore in ‘99. That guy turned out to be surfer/filmmaker Chris Malloy. Chris was in the middle of filming Thicker Than Water and, after hearing of 2-3 mile rides in Texas of all places, considered highlighting Fulbright and his friends and called James.

    Ultimately a tight production timeline for Thicker Than Water and the fickle and seasonal nature of tanker surfing would not allow Chris’ film crew to capture James and his friends in time, but that earlier in-flight conversation between two strangers officially exposed the urban legend. The word was out. One year and a mysterious fax later the wheels began rolling for Texas to ultimately showcase an exciting and very unique type of surfing to the world, in part thanks to Dana Brown’s vision for Step Into Liquid and for Fulbright’s countless hours, miles and commitment he put into tanker surfing.

    The media storm ensues

    Since the release of Step Into Liquid in 2003, tanker surfers Captain James Fulbright, John Benson and Peter Davis have been the subject of numerous magazine articles and newspaper feature stories. Some of the features are available to view on the press page of this site. James, John and Peter have been on the CBS Evening News, ABC News, Fuel TV, NPR, Good Morning America, where James was shown tanker surfing with dolphins, and the three were the first surfers to ever be featured on ESPN Sports. In addition, James Fulbright, John Benson and Peter Davis were awarded the GERT Medal of Merit by Columbia Sportswear as “Pioneers of the Greater Outdoors”. They are currently featured in a national television ad campaign by Columbia Sportswear. They have also been written about in recently published books including: Surfing World Stormriders Guide, West of Jesus by Steven Kotler, The Last Oil Shock by David Strahan, Oceans.Vagues.Spots by Anthony “Yep” Colas and Texas Curiosities: Quirky Characters Third Edition by John Kelso.

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