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Texas, The Gulf of Mexico, USA, NORTH AMERICA


Like much of the Atlantic shore, the Texas coastline is fronted by a series of barrier islands that create a 350-mile-long Intracoastal Waterway, stretching from the Mexican border at Port Isabel to Port Arthur and the swampy mouth of the Sabine River. The exposed outer beaches of this sandy barricade is entirely beachbreak, except for the occasional rock armoring, augmented by a series of fishing piers There is a definite north-south split in wave size and consistency here. From Sabine Pass and High Island’s Meacom’s Pier on the border of Louisiana, down to Corpus Christi and North Padre Island, soft, mushy waves are the rule, owing to the broad, gently-sloping continental shelf. These northern areas are the closest to the population centers of Houston and Dallas, so the Galveston and Freeport area beaches attract daytrippers that can put crowd pressure on the more popular spots. The birthplace of Texas surfing, the shores of the Galveston-Freeport area are bunkered with featureless white sand beaches and fringed with the kind of waves you’d expect – most always gutless junk. As with the rest of the Texas coast, anywhere this amorphous monotony is interrupted, things get more interesting. The game in Texas is finding a groin, jetty or pier that will at least give a suggestion of focus and order to approaching swells. Galveston’s series of small jetties create lots of surf spots (like 37th and 61st Streets) but not much quality. (East Texas guys surf at Meacom’s Pier, east of Galveston.) Outstanding (by comparison) are Galveston's Flagship Pier (which, unfortunately, tends to overload when waves are breaking beyond the T-head), the old Surfside Pier, Octagon House, and the Surfside Jetty. The latter is about a half-mile long and is the premier large-swell spot in upper Texas. When conditions are right (a.k.a. a "jetty day"), surfers walk out the flat-topped jetty and jump into the line-up (paddling from the beach on a bigger day is just about impossible). The lulls between sets are too short and the distances between sandbars are too great, and seemingly unrelenting walls of whitewater pummel the flagging paddler. It's brutal. Best on a S or SW (yes, it’s true) swell, which creates sufficient wrap to smooth out the waves, the Surfside Jetty can also handle more direct E swells if it’s glassy or offshore wind. Usually, a big E swell moves the action to the Quintana Jetty (parallel to the Surfside Jetty on the south side of the Freeport Channel). Quintana is usually mushy and muddy, but when a big swell sweeps in from the east and wraps into the lee of the jetty, it can be an awesome sight for surf-starved locals or lucky travelers. You can check out Quintana from the upper deck of the Jetty Park Pavilion. A few times a year a huge E swell will break inside the channel – clamshell A-frames are reputed to spin off long (up to 500 yards) peeling waves. Catch this spot on a double overhead day and you’ll think you’re somewhere else. Most likely to ‘happen’ in spring or very early summer. Away from the influence of piers and jetties, the disorganized Texas sandbars help disperse the crowds, especially when the windswell is a bit bigger and breaking further outside. Slowed by the gently sloping bottom, the weak waves are more suitable for longboarding than anything else. One exception is the isolated break called Matagorda, at the mouth of the Colorado River off the Matagorda Peninsula (about halfway between Galveston and Port Aransas). Here, the deeper waters of the inlet channel focus the swells onto shallow sandbars; the resultant barrels keep the northern shortboarders in practice. Further south, at the entrance of the Cavallo Pass to Matagorda Bay, the Port O’Connor jetties offer a definite low-key alternative. You’ll need to take a boat or the ferry out to the Matagorda Island State Park to check these sometimes excellent spots. South of Port O’Connor, the Coastal Bend area provides abundant sand beaches, interspersed with piers and rock jetties. Passes through the barrier islands (most of it the Padre Island National Seashore) are few and far between from Matagorda to Mexico, but that’s where the best surf tends to concentrate. Just north of Port Aransas, there’s often good surf off San Jose Island, but it takes a ferry or boat to get there. The Horace Caldwell Pier in Port A sets up good peaks on both sides, depending on swell direction. Further down Mustang Island are the short Fish Pass Jetties (although Fish Pass isn’t a pass anymore either), which create pockets of wind protection and more stable sandbars; this is a good area within Mustang Island State Park. Down the way a bit, on Padre Island, are the J.P. Luby and Bob Hall piers. The former is a designated surfing pier with adjacent party beach. Bob Hall is the most consistent spot, attracting crowds of combatants for the pushier peaks on either side of the pier; it holds a larger swell. Check out Condos, a better than average section of beachbreak peaks between the two piers. Heading south from Corpus Christi down the long expanse of Padre Island National Seashore, the general prognosis for surf improves, with empty waves breaking on even emptier beaches – a total of about 80 miles (128km) available only to 4WD vehicles. Although it’s all one island from Port Aransas south, the name changes – from Mustang to Padre Island to South Padre Island. In the north, Mustang and Padre islands were once separated by Packery Channel; its sanded-in remnants are still visible from a bridge on Highway 53 heading towards Port Aransas. There are plans afoot to reopen this pass (to provide easier Gulf access for Corpus Christi fishermen) with proposed jetties at the entrance that would add new surf spots to the area. From time to time hurricanes have caused ‘washovers’ that have temporarily breached this long, narrow barrier island, but the most recent sanded-up quickly. This is not to say that the next storm won’t create a new pass in the island, but for now, the low, narrow sandbar is broken in only two places – the Port Mansfield Pass (about 50 miles [80km) south of the asphalt road terminus in Padre Island National Seashore, although you can access the pass from both north and south with 4WD) and the Brownsville Ship Channel (the Brazos Santiago Pass at the town of South Padre Island (formerly Port Isabel). Both of these passes are flanked by granite jetties, the only hard structures creating swell focus and wind protection along this 150-mile stretch. These four ‘corners’ hold the best Texas has to offer by way of longer, lined up waves that work on all swell directions and provide some shelter from all but dead onshore E winds. Inside both sets of jetties there can be organized sandbars creating excellent ‘mysto’ set-ups, particularly during hurricane swells. South Padre Island is famed among the general population for its spring break college-student invasion; among Texas surfers it’s known as the place to find the biggest surf. In fact, the popularity of this locale can likely be pinned in large part on the surf culture that flourished here in the ’60s and ’70s. “In those days, it was upscale beach camping,” remembers Gail Hull, daughter of pioneer Don. “We had a grassy area and facilities and ‘Tent City’ became the cleanest, funnest, most athletic group of young partiers to ever make the news. We had a big surf contest at Easter every year; spring break was just starting to be a week holiday from school, so more people started to come. People like Pat O'Neill (he'd drive his Porsche out from California), Nancy Katin, Dru Harrison, and Mike Purpus were there in the early ’70s when it really started to build. So when the media came and showed how beautiful the beaches were and all the fun people were having, well … the rest is history. Now it looks more like Miami Beach.” From the Port Mansfield South Jetty, past miles of isolated 4WD beachbreak, to the jetty breaks at Port Isabel (with Brazos and Boca Chica islands beyond), the surf is regularly larger, more powerful, and in a healthier shape than the rest of the state. The waves here also tend to be more consistent, and long-period groundswells are not uncommon from fall to spring. N swells can set up a good left at Boca Chica – not as hard-breaking as the north side of the jetties, but can have excellent shape. On large swells, the classic Cove spot breaks in the channel between the jetties, occasionally producing some very long rides. While surfers from the West Coast or Hawaii might imagine Texas surf as small and gutless (which it typically is), it can have juice … and size. “You hear talk of sets pushing triple overhead,” writes Houston Chronicle sportswriter Joe Doggett, a surfer himself. “I'm not saying it cannot happen, but I've been following these things since 1964, and I've never seen irrefutable proof of a triple overhead wave with surfable form in Texas. But, surf in the double overhead class is for real, and the ‘big days’ occur more often than many inlanders and non-surfers may realize. Statistically, overhead surf hits the Texas Coast several days a month and, at least a few times each year, the ante is upped to the double overhead level.” So, there is surf in Texas, and while it may not compare with the black-diamond spots on the world tour, it can be its own flavor of delicious. Like much of the Atlantic shore, the Texas coastline is fronted by a series of barrier islands that create a 350-mile-long Intracoastal Waterway, stretching from the Mexican border at Port Isabel to Port Arthur and the swampy mouth of the Sabine River. The exposed outer beaches of this sandy barricade is entirely beachbreak, except for the occasional rock armoring, augmented by a series of fishing piers There is a definite north-south split in wave size and consistency here. From Sabine Pass and High Island’s Meacom’s Pier on the border of Louisiana, down to Corpus Christi and North Padre Island, soft, mushy waves are the rule, owing to the broad, gently-sloping continental shelf. These northern areas are the closest to the population centers of Houston and Dallas, so the Galveston and Freeport area beaches attract daytrippers that can put crowd pressure on the more popular spots. The birthplace of Texas surfing, the shores of the Galveston-Freeport area are bunkered with featureless white sand beaches and fringed with the kind of waves you’d expect – most always gutless junk. As with the rest of the Texas coast, anywhere this amorphous monotony is interrupted, things get more interesting. The game in Texas is finding a groin, jetty or pier that will at least give a suggestion of focus and order to approaching swells. Galveston’s series of small jetties create lots of surf spots (like 37th and 61st Streets) but not much quality. (East Texas guys surf at Meacom’s Pier, east of Galveston.) Outstanding (by comparison) are Galveston's Flagship Pier (which, unfortunately, tends to overload when waves are breaking beyond the T-head), the old Surfside Pier, Octagon House, and the Surfside Jetty. The latter is about a half-mile long and is the premier large-swell spot in upper Texas. When conditions are right (a.k.a. a "jetty day"), surfers walk out the flat-topped jetty and jump into the line-up (paddling from the beach on a bigger day is just about impossible). The lulls between sets are too short and the distances between sandbars are too great, and seemingly unrelenting walls of whitewater pummel the flagging paddler. It's brutal. Best on a S or SW (yes, it’s true) swell, which creates sufficient wrap to smooth out the waves, the Surfside Jetty can also handle more direct E swells if it’s glassy or offshore wind. Usually, a big E swell moves the action to the Quintana Jetty (parallel to the Surfside Jetty on the south side of the Freeport Channel). Quintana is usually mushy and muddy, but when a big swell sweeps in from the east and wraps into the lee of the jetty, it can be an awesome sight for surf-starved locals or lucky travelers. You can check out Quintana from the upper deck of the Jetty Park Pavilion. A few times a year a huge E swell will break inside the channel – clamshell A-frames are reputed to spin off long (up to 500 yards) peeling waves. Catch this spot on a double overhead day and you’ll think you’re somewhere else. Most likely to ‘happen’ in spring or very early summer. Away from the influence of piers and jetties, the disorganized Texas sandbars help disperse the crowds, especially when the windswell is a bit bigger and breaking further outside. Slowed by the gently sloping bottom, the weak waves are more suitable for longboarding than anything else. One exception is the isolated break called Matagorda, at the mouth of the Colorado River off the Matagorda Peninsula (about halfway between Galveston and Port Aransas). Here, the deeper waters of the inlet channel focus the swells onto shallow sandbars; the resultant barrels keep the northern shortboarders in practice. Further south, at the entrance of the Cavallo Pass to Matagorda Bay, the Port O’Connor jetties offer a definite low-key alternative. You’ll need to take a boat or the ferry out to the Matagorda Island State Park to check these sometimes excellent spots. South of Port O’Connor, the Coastal Bend area provides abundant sand beaches, interspersed with piers and rock jetties. Passes through the barrier islands (most of it the Padre Island National Seashore) are few and far between from Matagorda to Mexico, but that’s where the best surf tends to concentrate. Just north of Port Aransas, there’s often good surf off San Jose Island, but it takes a ferry or boat to get there. The Horace Caldwell Pier in Port A sets up good peaks on both sides, depending on swell direction. Further down Mustang Island are the short Fish Pass Jetties (although Fish Pass isn’t a pass anymore either), which create pockets of wind protection and more stable sandbars; this is a good area within Mustang Island State Park. Down the way a bit, on Padre Island, are the J.P. Luby and Bob Hall piers. The former is a designated surfing pier with adjacent party beach. Bob Hall is the most consistent spot, attracting crowds of combatants for the pushier peaks on either side of the pier; it holds a larger swell. Check out Condos, a better than average section of beachbreak peaks between the two piers. Heading south from Corpus Christi down the long expanse of Padre Island National Seashore, the general prognosis for surf improves, with empty waves breaking on even emptier beaches – a total of about 80 miles (128km) available only to 4WD vehicles. Although it’s all one island from Port Aransas south, the name changes – from Mustang to Padre Island to South Padre Island. In the north, Mustang and Padre islands were once separated by Packery Channel; its sanded-in remnants are still visible from a bridge on Highway 53 heading towards Port Aransas. There are plans afoot to reopen this pass (to provide easier Gulf access for Corpus Christi fishermen) with proposed jetties at the entrance that would add new surf spots to the area. From time to time hurricanes have caused ‘washovers’ that have temporarily breached this long, narrow barrier island, but the most recent sanded-up quickly. This is not to say that the next storm won’t create a new pass in the island, but for now, the low, narrow sandbar is broken in only two places – the Port Mansfield Pass (about 50 miles [80km) south of the asphalt road terminus in Padre Island National Seashore, although you can access the pass from both north and south with 4WD) and the Brownsville Ship Channel (the Brazos Santiago Pass at the town of South Padre Island (formerly Port Isabel). Both of these passes are flanked by granite jetties, the only hard structures creating swell focus and wind protection along this 150-mile stretch. These four ‘corners’ hold the best Texas has to offer by way of longer, lined up waves that work on all swell directions and provide some shelter from all but dead onshore E winds. Inside both sets of jetties there can be organized sandbars creating excellent ‘mysto’ set-ups, particularly during hurricane swells. South Padre Island is famed among the general population for its spring break college-student invasion; among Texas surfers it’s known as the place to find the biggest surf. In fact, the popularity of this locale can likely be pinned in large part on the surf culture that flourished here in the ’60s and ’70s. “In those days, it was upscale beach camping,” remembers Gail Hull, daughter of pioneer Don. “We had a grassy area and facilities and ‘Tent City’ became the cleanest, funnest, most athletic group of young partiers to ever make the news. We had a big surf contest at Easter every year; spring break was just starting to be a week holiday from school, so more people started to come. People like Pat O'Neill (he'd drive his Porsche out from California), Nancy Katin, Dru Harrison, and Mike Purpus were there in the early ’70s when it really started to build. So when the media came and showed how beautiful the beaches were and all the fun people were having, well … the rest is history. Now it looks more like Miami Beach.” From the Port Mansfield South Jetty, past miles of isolated 4WD beachbreak, to the jetty breaks at Port Isabel (with Brazos and Boca Chica islands beyond), the surf is regularly larger, more powerful, and in a healthier shape than the rest of the state. The waves here also tend to be more consistent, and long-period groundswells are not uncommon from fall to spring. N swells can set up a good left at Boca Chica – not as hard-breaking as the north side of the jetties, but can have excellent shape. On large swells, the classic Cove spot breaks in the channel between the jetties, occasionally producing some very long rides. While surfers from the West Coast or Hawaii might imagine Texas surf as small and gutless (which it typically is), it can have juice … and size. “You hear talk of sets pushing triple overhead,” writes Houston Chronicle sportswriter Joe Doggett, a surfer himself. “I'm not saying it cannot happen, but I've been following these things since 1964, and I've never seen irrefutable proof of a triple overhead wave with surfable form in Texas. But, surf in the double overhead class is for real, and the ‘big days’ occur more often than many inlanders and non-surfers may realize. Statistically, overhead surf hits the Texas Coast several days a month and, at least a few times each year, the ante is upped to the double overhead level.” So, there is surf in Texas, and while it may not compare with the black-diamond spots on the world tour, it can be its own flavor of delicious.