- Pam LeBlanc American-Statesman Staff
Here in Austin, we know live music, breakfast tacos, hipsters, barbecue and weirdos. And lately, it seems, we know surfing, too.
The Central Texas surfing scene traces its roots not to salt water spray and riptides, but to a chain of surrounding lakes. First we water skied on them; today we also wakeboard, wake surf and jet surf there. As the city has grown, its community of transplanted — and new — surfers has grown, too. Now the city is home to its own surfboard shapers, surf photographers, surf bands, a surf club and North America’s very first manufactured surf lagoon, spewing out a steady stream of perfectly formed waves.
In the words of one local surfer, we’re becoming the landlocked surfing capital of the world.
Meet some of the rippers and shredders here along America’s Third Coast.
1. Doug Coors
Why a surf park in Austin?
Lots of reasons, says Coors, who opened NLand Surf Park, the first manufactured wave park in the United States, in 2016. Now he’s opening an on-site brewery and plotting new features, including a swimming pool, at the 160-acre park east of the Austin airport.
“People here really love their watersports,” Coors says. “It’s a very young, vibrant city, plus it’s got great weather. And land is still relatively inexpensive.”
It hasn’t been all sunshine and tasty waves, though. The park initially battled Travis County over water quality issues and whether it should be treated as a swimming pool or natural lake. In the end, park owners agreed to send daily water quality reports to county officials. Then, at the end of the first season, park operators discovered that surfboard fins had slashed the liner of the 14-acre surf lagoon, causing water leakage. Crews replaced the liner and reconfigured berms surrounding the pool.
Surfers are once again enthusiastically catching head-high waves, and Coors is now talking about building additional surf parks around the country. (No, he hasn’t said when or where.) Earlier this month, the park hosted a demonstration by pro surfers from California.
“I honestly think this is the best place to learn to surf,” says Coors, who splits his time between Fort Collins, Colorado and Austin. “Having the ability to surf consistent long waves and dial in technique is a big deal.”
Coors says he believes we will one day see a generation of pro surfers who grew up surfing in Austin.
“It’s an exhilarating feeling, harnessing an ocean wave and having that freedom of standing on a simple board,” he says.
2. Kenny Braun
Braun, a professional photographer, grew up surfing on the Gulf Coast. He moved to Austin to play music and attend college but kept dreaming about his beach days. To reconnect, he decided to create a coffee table book based on the Texas surf scene. “Surf Texas” was published in 2014.
“The first time you slide down that wall … you’re just coming in with the whitewater, but then you get better and you drop into the wave and you make a bottom turn and you start just going down that wall,” Braun says. “Man, you do that one time and you’re hooked. I don’t know what it is, but you’re hooked. You’re literally right on the pulse of the planet. You look around and the dolphins are doing it and the fish are doing it too … I’ve always surfed, and I always will as long as I’m able.”
Many of the images in the book were informed by memories and dreams, Braun says. “I started going down whenever I thought the surf would be good. In Texas, when it’s good you’ve got to go. So many elements have to come together.”
The book includes photos of surfers catching waves behind tankers in Galveston Bay, something the state is known for (much to the chagrin of some Lone Star surfers.) “It’s the perfect setup, one of best in world, with fully loaded oil tankers coming in off the Gulf at full speed,” Braun says. “It’s 26 miles from the opening of ship channel, and that whole time they produce a really nice waist-high to shoulder-high wave you can ride for 20 minutes.”
3. Tom Haney
Haney grew up near Galveston and fell in love with surfing after dipping his toes in the ocean as a kid. He shaped his first board as a teenager, started refurbishing vintage surfboards, lived in Hawaii and became a merchant marine so he could surf all over the world.
He moved to Austin, started building racing stand-up paddleboards, then discovered wake surfing. “I liked it, but the boards were horrible,” he says. “So I built one, and it worked really well.”
These days the 43-year-old hand-shapes wake surfboards and traditional surfboards at his company, TukTuk Boards, and operates what he calls the “world’s tiniest surf shop” off Quinlan Park Road near Lake Austin. He also pilots his own mobile surf shop, housed in an old yellow school bus, and sells wake-surf-themed T-shirts, hats and sweatshirts.
“To me that ‘landlocked surfing capital’ thing is we’re all just making do,” Haney says. “If we had our druthers, we’d all be in the ocean right now, but there are all these activities that have built up to fill the void.”
4. Nick Wiersema
Surfing means caring about the ocean environment, and former pro surfer, biologist and environmental consultant Nick Wiersema heads up the Central Texas Chapter of the SurfRider Foundation, a nonprofit organization focused on beach advocacy and beach access.
He’s also a wake surfing judge and the board-shaping genius behind Chaos Surfboards, which designs, crafts and manufacturers wake surfboards. Here in Austin, he says, the traditional surf scene overlaps with the lake scene.
“Particularly in the ocean, it’s about the solitude of paddling out and sitting on the board — that time you have with yourself and engaging with the ocean,” he says of his love of the sport.
“A boat wave is different than a wind-driven wave in the ocean. You don’t have to paddle in, the boards don’t have to be as buoyant to paddle into speed, and things move a little slower in wake surfing. It’s kind of like surfing slowed down.”
Through SurfRider, Wiersema helps lobby for legislative concerns (like the plastic bag ban), organizes lake cleanups and spearheads the annual paddle on Barton Creek on International Surfing Day each June.
5. Ted James
Surf music in Austin? Heck yeah!
James created the independent record label Deep Eddy Records, which specializes in instrumental surf music, some of it peppered with spaghetti Western, spy tune or Middle Eastern sounds, in 1996. Since then he’s released more than 50 CDs, including a 2017 compilation CD titled “Surf Austin.”
“For one, Austin’s a guitar town, and every type of music is represented here — anything you can think of,” he says. “(Surf music) is music that’s created to emulate the feeling you get when you’re surfing. Say when you’re watching a Western movie and you hear that twangy sound and it makes you feel like you’re in the West? Surfing music has that same feel.”
Austin is home to about two dozen surf bands, including James’ band, the Nematodes (for a groovy mashup of cowboy and surfer sounds, tune in “Bandera” — or just about anything — off the “Five Guns West” album), and others including the Boss Jaguars, the Bat City Surfers and the Del-Vipers. You can catch a surf show the second Saturday of every month at the Nomad Bar.
“I think of surf music as a wide-open palette,” he says. “It’s amazing how much interest there is in surfing and surf music in Austin and all over Texas, really.”
6. Curtis Wilson
Surfers come with their own brand of sun-bleached, flip-flop-wearing fashion style, and Wilson heads up Austin’s own surf apparel brand, called Surf Austin, with themed screen-printed T-shirts and accessories.
“People look at it and say, ‘Wait a minute, there’s no surfing in Austin.’ But we are surfers in Austin,” says Wilson, an international airline pilot for FedEx. “My desire is to see surfing Austin develop as a surfing destination. And the Surf Austin brand promotes all types of wave sports.”
Wilson hosts local wake surfing competitions, including last year’s final qualifying round of competition for athletes hoping to make it to the national wake surfing
competition in Orlando. “That really put us on the map,” he says.
And since fashion and music go together like, well, salt and sand, Surf Austin collaborated with Deep Eddy Records this year to release the 2017 Surf Austin music sampler, featuring singles from 13 Austin area surf bands. And did we mention beer? Wilson is in talks to develop a special Surf Austin beer, which he hopes to release next summer.
“I was in Waikiki recently and I rented a board,” Wilson says. “The surf was relatively flat and I paddled out 100 yards and there were 35 to 40 people there — kids, some older men and women, old guys with gray hair and beards, worn-out hippies, and every age in between. Everybody was friendly to each other, everybody felt the vibe, we were all just enjoying the water and waves. That’s what surf is all about.”
7. Steven Ward
A transplant from Newport Beach, Calif., Ward moved to Austin in 2007. “I didn’t come to Austin on purpose, I had to come for work,” he says.
The city of Austin paramedic worried that the move to an inland city would be rough, but the lively wake surfing scene and nearby surf park eased the transition.
“Growing up on the beach my entire life, I thought, ‘If I’m going to have to move somewhere, this would be one of the places,’” he says. “There’s so much here it blows my mind. Come this spring I will have two of the three surf parks in the entire world within driving distance from my house — the one (under construction) in Waco and the one here. You also have wakeboarding and wake surfing — that’s way more fun than I ever thought it would be. It’s just a different avenue, a different way to surf. There’s no way anywhere else in the U.S. would even come close.”
No, it’s not California, but it’s about as close as any place can get. “For those of us who are transplants, we’re extremely grateful for what’s available. But I miss being in the ocean, that’s the one difference.”
8. Mike Klein
“Coming here was a huge shock, leaving the beach and surfing I’ve done all my life,” says Klein, who moved to Austin three years ago from Newport Beach. “When you come here it’s an awesome city, but there’s kind of a hole. But there’s a ton of other people in similar situations.”
Getting involved with the Austin Surf Club helped fill the void. He now serves on the board of the club, which connects local surfers, fosters the growing Austin surf industry and provides a place where members can plan trips and swap tales. It’s not all that different, Klein says, from the surf clubs in California that date back a hundred years or more.
“The club has shined a big spotlight on the number of surfers here, whether they’re Texas born or from different places,” Klein says. “We’re not just getting people together that share a common love of a hobby. For us, it’s sharing that way of life. Without sounding too hippie, I think there’s a very spiritual element and connection with nature and love of being in the water and enjoying something so freeing.”
9. Kyle Ray
No ocean waves? No problem. You can still surf, no boat or ocean needed.
Ray opened JetSurf Academy ATX, where customers hop on motorized surfboards, powered by a tiny, hidden engine.
Think personal watercraft crossed with a wakeboard, add a hint of dirt-slinging, engine-buzzing motorbike, and you’ve got the idea. JetSurf boards can attain top speeds of 35 miles per hour.
“It’s just exhilarating,” Ray says. “You control how fast you go and where you want to go.”
And now Ray is expanding his corner of the Austin surfing market to include electric stand-up paddleboards, or SUPjets. He’s been testing the quiet, jet-propelled boards on Lady Bird Lake. They cruise about 5 miles per hour, providing a gentle push when you need help battling wind or current.