Tanker Surfing, Born in Galveston Bay, Remains an Extreme, Elusive Sport

JAMES FULBRIGHT, ALONG WITH BROTHERS DOUG AND JOE MIMS, is zipping through Galveston Bay in a 23-foot powerboat, stalking a massive wave. The churning, white-capped swell—nearly two miles long and four feet high—trails behind a hulking Greek oil tanker, the Astro Sculptor.

Navigating waters nearly 50 feet deep, surrounded by barges, fishing boats, seagulls and albatross, the men have been chasing the tanker all morning, waiting for it to pick up speed. A computer affixed to Joe’s boat—running software that names and tracks tankers’ speed and paths—shows the Sculptor hitting 14 miles per hour. “Look at that monster,” whoops James, a slender, tanned fifty-something with sun-bleached locks. “That’s a beauty—let’s get in there!”

James and Doug drop their 12-foot longboards into the water and paddle furiously toward the wave. “I’ll give you five bucks if you knock Doug off his board,” Joe yells from the boat, ribbing his lookalike brother, who, like him, is in his fifties. The grinning surfers find their footing and shoot off into the distance, quickly dwindling into tiny specks.

Tanker surfing is said to have started locally in the ’60s, when a small group of fisherman and sailors started riding the waves made by cargo and tanker ships along Galveston Bay’s Redfish Island and Atkinson Island. Today, James is a kind of godfather of the sport, though he’s a bit of a controversial figure, thanks to his appearance in seminal 2003 surfing documentary Step into Liquid.

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