Since the inception of surfing in the US, surf culture has been engulfed by sun-bleached hair, sandy beaches, and stalking the biggest swells. But Jon Steele, life-long surfer and adventure seeker, challenges all of that. He and his buddies catch waves in Galveston, Texas by chasing 150,000-ton cargo ships and oil tankers.
Galveston may not be the first surf destination that comes to mind when you think surfing, but for years, it has attracted the fearless, those who live to push the limits: Tanker surfers. When Steele first caught wind of tanker surfing in 2003, his hunger for adrenaline and passion for the sport grew.
"Tanker surfing is the exact opposite of natural wave surfing and other waves around the world” Steele explains, “with regular surfing waves you can see the beach, reef, or point to which way the wave will break. In tanker surfing, the wave just kinda appears and the surfer has to feel the wave and where it’s moving towards…”
As you can imagine, tanker waves differ drastically from natural waves. For one, tanker surfing is done in completely open waters as deep as 50 feet. While natural waves may be taller, the cargo and tanker ships produce extremely long waves. Under perfect conditions, surfers have been able to ride tanker waves for miles–basically a surfer’s dream come true.
Steele explains tanker waves as more of a tidal bore rather than an ocean wave. “It’s really hard to imagine a wave just forming out of nowhere until you see it for yourself…then you start paddling hard to catch up to the wave, and off ya go for a twenty-minute ride with a grin as big as the Rio Grande!”
An uncrowded, unpredictable, unbroken paradise. Steele and his friend, one of the modern-day pioneers of tanker surfing, have learned how to navigate the open waters better than anyone. They endure challenges that are never a thought for natural wave surfers. Boat traffic, loads carried by the tankers, and optimal water displacement are all taken into account on top of the weather, tides, and shallow reefs.
“With any surf excursion, there are always things to be wary of, and no trip is ever the same” Steele states. But don’t be fooled, these obstacles are all worth it for the ride. While the trips require preparation and may be unpredictable — they’ll do just about anything to catch these mile-long miracles. On a single trip, a crew may travel 100+ miles just to follow a ship through the entire channel.
Steele has been tanker surfing for over 15 years. Instead of allowing his location to hinder his passion, he found a whole new way to bring it to the next level. He is now a part of Galveston’s community of top Texas tanker surfers who live for excursions to out to these deep waters. Today, surfers from all over the country flock to Texas to brave these waves. If you’re looking for an edge, or to learn more about this extreme sport, head down to Galveston to check it out for yourself.