The source. Jeff Herman in the ship channel.

The source. Jeff Herman in the ship channel. Photo by Davis James

With tales of mile-and-half long rides propagating through the cyber sphere, Texas tanker surfing has been growing in popularity over the last decade. Surfers have flown in from around the world to wait for cargo ship generated swells to break over shallow shoals in the Galveston Bay ship channel. Though not exceptionally large by global standards, tanker waves are some of the biggest in the Gulf of Mexico, and they can set up surfers for rides of epic duration. Several outfitters now offer guided trips, and even Jimmy Buffett has got in on the action. But kayakers haven’t been as prevalent on the breaks. Recently, C&K contributor Jeff Herman went down to the Texas coast to see whether boaters have been missing out.

Story by Jeff Herman

“Remember, you have to get on the first wave. It has all the energy.“ I nod understanding to the camera boat captain as I buckle my helmet. Then the chaos erupts.

“Go! Go!” he shouts.

I’m frantically trying to snug my spray skirt while photographer Davis James holds my boat steady in the chop. I sneak a glance to my left and see a stunning 5-foot wall of water barreling towards us. The camera boat is precariously situated between the wave and my kayak. The captain yells, “We gotta go!” and guns the motor.

Now, there is nothing between me and the tanker wave except 20 or 30 yards. I dig with my Werner, taking a few quick power strokes as the monster wave approaches fast. I hear it crashing over my right shoulder.

“I don’t have enough speed,” I say to myself. Then my kayak goes over.

I hip-snap up for a breath and reach out and try to brace and hold. The power of the wave collapses my skirt on one side, and water starts dragging me back under. I reach for the grab handle and bail out just as the spin cycle starts.

Setting up. Photo by Davis James

Setting up. Photo by Davis James

Texas tanker surfing is predictably unpredictable. Large container ships coming to and from the port of Houston have only one path: the Galveston Bay ship channel. This 40-foot deep channel runs down the middle of the shallow bay system. You set up a few hundred yards outside the channel and wait for the critical combination form, speed and displacement from the cargo ship to generate a good swell. When the right set comes in, you have to act quickly to get on the leading wave. If you wait too long, you get pummeled as my tumble proved.

The day of the swim, I had three small rides on decent two- or three-foot tanker swells. The new Jackson Karma RG was perfect for the action, but I never found the holy grail of tanker surfing: that big five-foot wave primed for a magic half-mile ride of the year. Instead, my bad luck and lack of set up time had me chewed up in a break.

Still, riding a wave for a 100 yards is intoxicating. Even 50 yards will bring you back for more. Tanker surfing is the real deal: that genuinely unique experience which every sea kayaker and thrill junkie should try.

Crashed. Photo courtesy of Jeff Herman. kayak texas tanker surfing

Crashed. Photo by Davis James