Texas Tanker Surfing : Finding the Serpiente by Nate Floyd

Posted on February 4, 2022

I can’t remember when I first heard about tanker surfing. It must have been around 2003 when the movie “Step Into Liquid” came out; when James Fulbright introduced the act of riding tanker waves to the (surfing) world. We were already surfing behind fishing boats, well before the wake surfing scene was established and wakeboard boats were mastered. Tanker surfing became a natural extension of trying to find a rideable wave in the often flat and excruciatingly hot Texas summers. I don’t tanker surf all the time, but I do find the time to chase a few several times a year.

Tanker waves are completely different than ocean waves - yet you can still get that feeling you are after. It can be much more of an ordeal trying to get a tanker wave than just paddling out into the ocean. Sometimes the ships don’t work out and don’t produce anything at all. So many conditions must align for a tanker wave to work out. Winds, tides, ship speeds, ship draft, hull shape, incoming/outgoing, etc…  And even when it all seems perfect, there is always the chance that no wave is produced. You can spend a lot of time, effort, gas, and money chasing tankers for sometimes no reward. I enjoy the chase and the luck of the draw, however. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. 

This trip was special, because I had told Nacho repeatedly while we were traveling in Mexico that he needed to visit Texas. It was a far fetched dream with how busy his schedule is but he ended up being in the United States a couple of months later. He rerouted his trip for a few days, and we pulled the trigger and decided to make it happen. We kind of got screwed with two days of strong winds and extremely bumpy conditions. We had a few ships day 1 put off a wave, but nothing along the lines I had imprinted in his mind. On the second morning of chasing tankers, we got a huge ship on the books. We followed it all the way across the ship channel, bouncing through the chop hoping to find a moment. Right at the last section, we found some glassy conditions tucked up behind an island.  Everything came together. We ended up scoring the most picture-perfect wave; the kind you dream of and draw on your notebook in class. I looked at Nacho and told him that’s what I wanted you to come experience. This is tanker surfing. 

The coolest part of tanker surfing is the chance of riding a wave for miles. Yes, miles. And if you don’t get a wave that connects that far, it is almost always longer than anything you can catch locally in Texas. But it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. There is a lot of risk involved in chasing tanker ships and riding the waves they put out. Sudden tidal changes from the boat can put boaters/swimmers/surfers in immediate risk. Waves can pop up out of nowhere as they interact with the changing bathymetry of the ship channel. There are also the unknown factors of what lies below the surface: oyster reefs, rebar, driftwood, industrial pipes, wrecked boats, and any number of unseen and unmarked obstructions. I highly recommend anyone interested in tanker surfing to check out the professionals (James Fulbright). Things can go wrong very fast, and people have been injured riding the waves these tankers produce. The thrill of riding a tanker wave however usually lasts with someone for a lifetime. There is something so surreal about riding a wave for that far and seeing the tanker off in the distance in front of you. You can feel the energy emitted from these ships, and truly get a taste for the power of water.

Taking some of the Howler squad to chase tankers and give them a glimpse of what is possible out there was thrilling. Even though we had 2 days of bad weather and I ended up getting beat up bad on some rocks; I was happy that Nacho and I shared a good wave and that everyone got to experience the hunt.  Catching it on film was just a bonus.