- Pam LeBlanc American-Statesman Staff
A three-hour drive from the nearest ocean wave, Austin’s surf scene has arrived.
A few weeks ago, some of the country’s best surfers sliced down the face of a wave rolling across a 14-acre, manufactured lagoon east of Austin in an event designed to showcase a California surfboard company.
A surf band played. Spectators sipped pineapple and mango smoothies and nibbled raw fish salad called poke. And somewhere outside the fence, a bunch of cattle probably wondered what happened to their old grazing grounds.
Local surfers say an influx of coastal transplants has fueled the trend, already rooted in a lake scene that started with water-skiing in the 1960s and ’70s, morphed into wakeboarding in the 1990s and evolved into wake surfing a decade ago. That lake culture spilled into related sports, from stand-up paddleboarding on Lady Bird Lake to jet surfing on Lake Travis and traditional surfing at NLand Surf Park. Local surf bands play a monthly show at the Nomad Bar, Austin artisans hand-shape surfboards, a fitness club called City Surf offers exercise classes on surfboards mounted on stability balls, and a social club hosts surfboard swaps, river cleanups and meetups where members discuss beach outings.
“When you combine weather, warm waters and an active population, it’s conducive to that surfing lifestyle,” says Mike Klein, a board member of the Austin Surf Club. “I can surf in the morning at NLand, then in the afternoon I can jet surf and wake surf. No other city has this level of variety of surfing available to them, and I think that’s what truly makes Austin the landlocked surfing capital of the world.”
Surfing’s a multibillion-dollar industry around the country. Surfers — and tourists who want to try surfing — spend money in the coastal towns of California, Florida and Hawaii. Studies show surfers don’t fit the stereotype of uneducated, pot-smoking slackers, either. A 2011 study by the Surfrider Foundation with Surf-First, titled “A Socioeconomic and Recreational Profile of Surfers in the United States,” concluded that the average American surfer was a 34-year-old, educated and employed male who earned $75,000 annually and hit the waves 108 times a year, spending at least $40 a visit.
That’s big money, and Central Texas surf industry types want a piece of that wave.
Colorado beer scion Doug Coors, who first dreamed about a landlocked surf park some 20 years ago, invested more than $20 million to build NLand Surf Park, which employs about 200 people and can accommodate up to 140 surfers in the water. The park opened in October 2016, after delays caused by flooding and a dispute with Travis County that was resolved when the park agreed to file daily water quality reports.
NLand Surf Park is the only park of its kind in North America, and the second in the world along with a similar park in Wales. Another is in the works — Barefoot Ski Ranch, which already operates a waterslide and cable park northeast of Waco, plans to open the world’s third surf park there next summer, just a two-hour drive from Austin.
At NLand, guests pay between $60 and $90 an hour to surf a wave that reaches heights of 6 feet in places. They paddle out to catch a wave created by a wedge-shaped hydrofoil that rolls across a lagoon the size of nine football fields every two minutes. The main advantage over the ocean? Predictability — and no stingrays, sharks or jellyfish, if you care about that sort of thing. Customers can hone their skills on a series of identical, perfectly shaped waves without waiting for Mother Nature to deliver. That makes it easy for novices to learn and improve.
“Austin has always been one of the best wake surf places in the United States,” says Coors, who is opening an on-site brewery at NLand and says before the end of the year he’ll announce plans to build additional parks in other landlocked cities. “We’ve just added one more dimension to that scene.”
His timing is good. Surfing is set to become an Olympic sport at the 2020 Tokyo Summer Games, and the surf community expects to see a surge in the popularity of its favorite sport. You can bet Austin surfers will tune in.
Tom Haney, a longtime surfer and founder of TukTuk Boards, which handcrafts wake surfboards and traditional surfboards, says a lot of people in Central Texas head to the coast whenever conditions grow favorable for surfing. “In one way, we’re really just an exurb of the coast,” Haney says.
Nick Wiersema, head of the Central Texas chapter of the Surfrider Foundation, a national nonprofit organization that works for beach access, coastal protection and clean water, says the surf culture ties right in with the city’s hippie-centric past and high-tech future.
“The surf culture as a whole kind of always has been a beatnik culture that fits very well with Austin,” Wiersema says. “Two, as the tech industry grew here, so did the population of surfers. They come from California and lots of places. They travel to surf, they have the money.”
Klein, with the Austin Surf Club, agrees.
“The number of traditional surfers we have here for a landlocked city is truly amazing,” he says. “When you combine it all you have this rolling thunder of buzz that’s starting to build and build and build. I don’t think it’s that far off before people outside the state start to look at Austin as a global surf destination for surf of all types.”