Photograph by Erich Schlegel
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Shredding swells in the Houston Ship Channel in Galveston Bay, Texas

Photograph by Erich Schlegel
TravelTraveler Magazine

Ride an Oil-Tanker Wave

Find a spike of adrenaline surfing a three-mile wave behind an oil tanker in Texas.

To an elite group of surfers, the Texas oil rush means a spike of adrenaline from riding a three-mile wave. During the sweltering summer months in Galveston, in-the-know surfers head to the 50-mile-long Houston Ship Channel, where dozens of vessels churn through one of the country’s busiest ports each week. Here, cresting waves that come off the hulking ships don’t break like they do on shore.

Once a well-positioned oil tanker chugs past, surfers jump from their boat into the sea to catch a wave unlike any other. Some have even scored
 20-minute rides.

“For the first couple of minutes you’re blown away by what you’re doing,” says Captain James Fulbright, the founder of Tanker Surf Charters. “Then you settle in and start realizing that you’ve discovered another dimension in surfing.”

Fulbright, who owns a local surf shop, noticed the tankers created serious swells after meeting a sailor in 1994 whose boat had been swamped by a “rogue wave”
 coming off a passing ship. “I immediately went out and bought a boat,” Fulbright recalls. He and a few friends kept their spot secret for years, but in 2003, after a proposition from filmmaker Dana Brown, Fulbright introduced tanker surfing to the public in the documentary Step Into Liquid.

In 2009, Fulbright launched Tanker Surf Charters, which brings small groups into the channel twice a week in the summer. To avoid overcrowding, Fulbright has taken out only a few hundred experienced surfers, though he argues that it’s safer than near the shore since his boat picks up riders after the wave, however many miles later that is. “It’s the longest wave in North America as far as I know,” says Fulbright.

Toast to a day of surfing in Galveston at the Spot, where five connected food and drink venues cater to lively crowds. For a calmer nightcap, try the rooftop bar at the Tremont House, a 19th-century hotel that’s hosted six presidents.