Surfing Hurricane Katrina

Chris Hoelscher warms up during the Sunday evening session.
Chris Hoelscher warms up during the Sunday evening session.

A late August storm has ended a long flat spell for South Padre Island. Unfortunately, this storm also destroyed New Orleans. It’s kind of difficult to write about how awesome the waves were when our nation is facing the worst natural disaster on record. Thoughts and prayers are with our Gulf Coast neighbors.

It’s almost ironic too, because I didn’t get very many shots of this storm. Sometimes a surf photographer surfs more than he photographs. I know others got some snapshots, so hopefully they will turn up. If you were there, you know all about it already. Big! And offshores to boot!!

The swell started showing Sunday, August 28th. The first morning session produced 5 foot with an offshore breeze. But by noon it was blasting from the north and blown out.

Surf the next day was BIG! Not only was the sizeable swell there, but the winds were perfect. A stiff offshore breeze was working for several hours throughout the morning. The surf looked best over at Boca Chica. Huge ocean swell was bombing the spoils on the other side and offshore winds swept up the face, throwing spray back toward the rising sun. Most surfers emptied out from the parking lot and groups of them began the journey to Boca. Waiting for them on the outside were long period set waves that jacked up with 15 foot faces.

The channel wasn’t working during the high tide at Dolphin Cove, but some clean reeling backs were visible over at Barracuda’s. Upon further investigation, I found out it was 4-5 foot over there and clean as can be. Probably the best I’ve ever seen it there. Unfortunately, I can’t paddle with my camera gear so no pics. By the time I returned to Dolphin Cove, the tide had dropped enough and it started breaking at the same size but much more inconsistent than the other side.

When I returned to check the surf out front, I ran into Miley and Rusty S.. They had just returned from surfing the outside jetty spoils and were visually excited. They were calling it 20 foot faces with stiff offshores out there. Padre hurricane bombs, graced with the offshores. Simply awesome…

Paul Moly, carving in the morning light.
Paul Moly, carving in the morning light.

Around mid afternoon, the winds became less favorable and began blowing out the waves. Winds shifted from WSW to N and quickly NE. It took a few more hours, but finally they clocked around to S and the waves began recovering a bit. Even with plenty of size in the water, it is always amazing how much the wind dictates the quality.

The next morning, Tuesday, the surf had dropped to waist high but again was meeting against offshores. Clean and green.

Hurricane Dennis – Surfing some perfection.

They just keep coming… and it’s still only July!

Surfing Hurricane Dennis Swell, South Padre Island Texas.
Surfing Hurricane Dennis Swell, South Padre Island Texas.

After Arlene and Cindy, the question was whether or not those first two storms would be followed by another…or more precisely, how long? Dennis answered that question, and it did so in less than a week.

Only a few days after the swell from Cindy subsided, Dennis was well into hurricane status and about to slam Cuba as a Category 4 storm. It was tracking at a fast 18 mph, but the path was the kind we look for. It was expected to travel from the southern portion of the Gulf to the north. Surf is always best on the west side of a tropical cyclone, so we only had to wait and wonder what size it woud be.

Being a weekend, and a summer one at that, a crowd had arrived looking for a chance to catch the first part of the swell. Nothing but wind chop on Saturday, but by Sunday some small lines were coming in. The hurricane had made landfall (again near Pensacola) on Saturday, July 9th. Typically, SPI will get some swell the next day…but this storm was further away than most. Dennis was just off the coast of Florida and the swell it generated travelled nearly the entire width of the Gulf of Mexico. While the lines did begin to show on Sunday evening, the next morning would prove to be the true arrival of the swell.

Hurricane Dennis Swell
Hurricane Dennis Swell

Surf on Sunday was no more than waist high close outs. Regardless, surfers lined just past the impact zone from the rocks all the way to Second’s. Every now and then, something came through that peeled long enough to pull three top turns. But this was way below even wind-wave average for this break, much less what we expect from groundswell. As fate would have it, being that most surfers on this coast are super-stoked, it turned out to be a very good thing that some knowledgeable surfers were in the water late afternoon.

A nearby banana boat ride, one of those tourist related pay-rides, was loaded with kids and heading out beyond the impact zone. Before the waverunner that was pulling the float could get very far out, a sneaker set came in. Rising up beyond the nearby surfers, and the kids on the banana-float, was a larger pulse from Dennis. It took out the waverunner and tossed the kids off the float. Of course they had life-jackets on, but when the pilot regained his place on the waverunner he was no help in getting the kids back on. Nah…he freaked and bailed! Quick thinking surfers paddled over to the screaming kids and brought them in two at a time. We have no information on who that pilot was or where he went, but pretty sure he won’t be back. Guess he’s never taken a set on the head before? The evening ended with pats on the back and talk of what the buoys were doing. A quick check on 42002 showed 8 foot at 16 seconds. Bummer…sounded small.

Hurricane Dennis churned up a solid east groundswell.
Hurricane Dennis churned up a solid east groundswell.

Surfing – Tropical Storm Arlene

Texas surfers are keeping a close eye on the Gulf of Mexico this season. The first named storm has already produced some ground-swell for the coast, and it’s only mid-June! It could be a good season, it could go flat…no one really knows. It’s all part of the mystery behind weather. However, when it comes to the preferred break to catch these storm swells, there’s no mystery to it. Even if the weather shows offshore winds in Corpus (Hurricane Ivan), everyone heads south.

CJ Bradshaw on a mid-morning grinder.
CJ Bradshaw on a mid-morning grinder.

Arlene sent the first pulse late Saturday afternoon. Slowly, the surf climbed from waist high to chest. Strong onshore winds took away any chance of good conditions, but the lines were visible. Sunday was the forecasted day anyway, this was just a warm up session.

The next morning, early light revealed solid 6′ ground-swell marching towards the beach. Out by the jetty spoil a few waves were nearing the 7 foot mark, but morning sickness was affecting the quality. Even the second bar straight out front was suffering some double-up and general mushy conditions, but nobody thought twice about it…they charged it. Arlene was a fast moving storm that made landfall Saturday. The swell had peaked during the night and would be nearly flat before Sunday was over. Any able body paddled out…the rest jumped the jetty.

Sometime around mid-morning, the crumbly conditions lifted and good form started showing. It started getting pretty hollow straight out front during the heat of the day. The sun was out full force, the air was hot and the winds weren’t too bad. It was definetely the time to be on it. Even if it was siesta time, the waves were calling.

Britt Turkington finds a nugget just as the morning sickness begins to lift.
Britt Turkington finds a nugget just as the morning sickness begins to lift.

By late afternoon the size was gone. Still fun, but the juice had stopped flowing. People were milking every bit of the swell though. No one would let go, and rightfully so. Even at a small waist high, the lines were much more groomed than a windswell. As the sun set, ending this fine day, a handful of surfers were slashing the waves like they still had all the energy in the world. Surfers that had started their day dropping into head high mini bombs, ended it with enthusiasm on the waist high left-overs. It takes a lot more than a little bit of wind chop to stop the stoke of a Texas surfer. If there’s waves, they are on it!

Hurricane Ivan Pushes Dolphin Cove to the Breaking Point!

Surfing in Dolphin Cove, South Padre Island.
Surfing in Dolphin Cove, South Padre Island.

Big Wednesday! Hurricane Ivan produced a marvelous three day swell for the lower Texas coast. The swell peaked around 16′ at 16.5 seconds on wednesday. Incredible numbers for our area, the only thing missing was an offshore wind direction.

Big and gnarly on the outside!
Big and gnarly on the outside!

Huge waves crashed on the third sandbar and showed the full height of this swell. It was barely rideable because of treacherous currents, but a few people ventured out to surf these rare gulf monsters. One board payed the price and snapped like a twig. The nose eventually washed up into the ship channel and a couple of surfers were rescued by the Coast Guard. It was too crazy out there…much safer in Dolphin cove. Or was it?

Waves in Dolphin Cove were coming in at a steady 5-7 feet with an occasional eight foot clean up set. The crowd that arrived to surf the cove was tremendous and overwhelming. Nearly every wave had at least three people on it. Someone shoulder hopping a wave was affectionately coined a ‘party wave’ by onlookers in the parking lot. It was a sad display of etiquette, or lack of, and became a reminder that crowds and point breaks just don’t mix. Not only did the surf style suffer for the individual, but the images captured revealed more of a barnival than a shred fest.

Choppy but fun as hell!
Choppy but fun as hell!

The cove only reached a rideable point for one day. After that, on thursday, it was surf-business as usual out front along the beachbreak. The waves were still breaking on the outer bar, and some even wrapped all the way onto the inside. Long beautiful waves peeled and reformed from the tip of the jetties to out front of the pavilion. With the right board, and the right choice of wave, you could grab one from rather close to the channel marker and ride it all the way to the sand. The currents had calmed down and the size dropped by several feet. The water was clear and sparkling and temperatures were perfect. You had your pick of wave, 10 foot on the far outside, 5-7 in the middle and waist to chest in the corner by the rocks. Plenty of room, and lots of action!

Surfing Mainland Mexico 2004

Kieren Evans tucks into a warm winter barrel.
I prepped for this surf trip to Mexico same as I did the last one. Actually heading north to Austin to help varnish a Chris-Craft yacht and make some travel cash. Anyone who knows about old wood boats knows how much maintenance and constant work those money pits need. Well, lucky for me that other man’s pit was part of my travel purse to a warm mountainous land by the sea. My friend Brian and I had worked on this boat before, and completed the same trip. He usually stays for about three months and I’ve only been able to hang for about two or three weeks. This time was going to be different for me. Finally, I had a solid month to spare and would dedicate myself to photograph the trip.

A couple of the things guys talk about as they cross the desert.
Right after lunch on December 29th, 2004 we left the Austin area and headed south. We spent the afternoon driving to Laredo and making all our last minute phone calls. Most were to Murph, to hassle him for not making the journey with us. After crossing the bridge though, our cell phones were stashed deep in the glove box and forgotten about.

The night time drive through the Mexican desert was just as uneventful as it would be in the day time, except for a particular train crossing.  Luckily there was a road sign for the upcoming crossing, but no lights.  I slowed to about 40, everything just looked black ahead.  Suddenly I spotted a dim flashlight swinging back and forth, a man standing by the road.  Then I saw the train.  I had to slam on the brakes, and the guy with flashlight looked like he was just about to decide whether or not to jump back.  Then, since my idle truck was now providing lights for the area, the guy with the flashlight jumped on the slow moving train.  I suppose he made his way to the front to dismount at the next crossing and swing his flashlight like a pendelum in the black desert night. After that incident, we drove for a few more hours and decided to rest up outside of Zacatecas.

Driving on the mountain roads of Michoacan.
Shortly after dawn, we were on our way again and had perfect timing to hit Dos Burros for some brunch. Might as well get a fine meal because that mountain road outside of Guadalajara could make it the last burrito! Conquering the winding path up to the city was not as much of a challenge as finding the right periferico though. One road can make navigating that city an experience of exhaust fumes in standstill traffic, or exhaust fumes in speeding traffic. Asking the right person on the side of the road allowed us the latter and in a short while we cleared the city.

The last leg of the trip was ahead of us and remaining daylight looked promising. We pushed through the Colima mountains and hit the state line sometime around early evening. After that it was just a blur of coconut trees along the road and we pulled in to our first camp spot. I had been working toward this moment for over a month. Before internet sites with updated swell maps, this moment was even more intense because there was no telling what would be found. One thing is for sure, it’s usually bigger in anticipating thoughts.

The swell I was looking at was nothing like what my mind had created along the drive. It wasn’t a shock and I was still grinning with stoke because I knew I had so much yet to see. I had a month to roam the Michoacan coast, what was not to like? It was a good time to get the camp dialed in and make all the social rounds to various others. Lots of people from all over the world, but also a strong presence of Texas surfers.

Justin Jalufka finds and inside floater on a mellow day in paradise
Justin Jalufka finds and inside floater on a mellow day in paradise

One of those hot winter days, I was having the daily lazy siesta in my hammock, when a white truck drove by and parked near the river mouth. Shortly after that I see a few guys head out front for an afternoon session in the blazing sun. One guy was just hammering the waves out there. Spray was flying high and he carved with pure style. I checked the truck to see Texas plates. Turned out to be Justin Jalufka and his friends. When they came in, we talked and made plans for a shoot the next morning.

The swell didn’t get any bigger overnight but that didn’t slow Justin and his crew down at all. They had already been surfing other spots before they came here and had to leave soon. As long as it was rideable, they were going to get wet and soak in the remaining water time their trip allowed for.

Justin simply killed it out there. His surfing definitely stood out from the crowd, and crowded it was! At chest high, plenty of people filled the line up. The weekend after Justin left turned out to be the most crowded of all. Surf had come up to head high and I counted 60 people in the water at one time. Whoa, that wasn’t what I was looking for at all. Brian and I packed our gear and headed south.

Looking for freight trains.
Looking for freight trains.

Just a few hours down the road we came to Brian’s second home. A break he first visited some twenty years ago. He had a full quiver stashed at Sophia’s house so we made that our first stop. When we arrived at her home we came across her immediate family preparing for a party. Something big must have happened because they had slaughtered a cow for it and enough food was being prepared that would feed a small army. The smell of fresh beef on the grill, a cold beer in my hand and a perfect left within walking distance lent me feelings of Heaven on Earth. But we had to be on our way, after at least three tacos of course, because by the looks of things it was fixing to get very crowded with incoming family. Brian led the way to the storage area and just to the left of the door my eye caught an artistic object. It was a hand-made cross hanging on a support pole. Brian noticed me looking and pointed out that Harpoon Barry made that. He said Barry used to hang out here a lot. I’d like to think that the late Barry Welsh joined us for that evening’s surf session.

Rocky charges an early morning bomb.
Rocky charges an early morning bomb.

Almost a week went by before some size came in, but when it did the break just lit up. After a tell tale afternoon that a swell was building, the following dawn session had only the best few surfers in the water. Nothing thins a crowd like double overhead grinders. And this place didn’t have a crowd to begin with. Only a handful of surfers in the water that morning and the local heavies stood out as the true masters. Watching them surf was inspirational yet left me feeling extremely humble. Watching guys like Jorge and Flaco drop in deep, race down the line to carve a roundhouse and charge the sickest pits to a re-entry was jaw dropping. The show didn’t last long because the wind changed onshore quickly and the size wasn’t there the next morning.

It was almost another week before more size came in. A southwest swell was pushing in at two foot overhead. It was a nice manageable size, but hollow and thick enough to command plenty of respect. I had already seen a few broken boards the past couple of weeks. One kid snapped his board on it’s first paddle out. He said he never even rode it. He paddled into the early morning stiff offshores, sketched his bottom turn and next he was swimming in to look for the other half. It was a beautiful wave, but with a slip it could turn ugly fast. I stayed a few more days then drove back up north to greet an incoming WNW swell that was hitting 12-16 ft. on the virtual buoy report.

Back at the first camp I found that Mike(Miguel) was still hanging out. I told him of the updated internet information (this is how the rumors start). He already knew from a phone call to his son, who he said just might come down. I hung my hammock next to his and we waited Michoacan style for another day until the swell hit. Junior didn’t make it down, he wound up doing tow-in off the Baja coast.

knice view...
knice view…

When the swell hit, it hit hard and fast. In two days Mike, and English surfer Kieren Evans and I drove to three spots in the immediate area looking for perfect conditions. We found that the best surf was back with the crowd because that place just picks up any swell out there. It wasn’t clean perfection, but in the early morning hours it was close enough. The regular offshore morning winds swept up 15′ faces and tossed spray far beyond the back. The lefts were working well and I was out of film. It was time to retire the camera and spend the rest of my trip paddling into warm blue waves with some of my friends.

Mexico has always been a Texas surfer’s backyard playground. Some places hold art pieces created by some of us. Old boards and new boards left or sold. Sometimes it’s stories of triumphs or hardships, left behind to be brought up someday as the local asks, “You’re from Texas? Do you know, …?” And then there were a few places where the locals didn’t care where I was from. I got the stinkeye because of my camera equipment several times. I wanted no problems so I was not shy in talking to them. Basically asking if it was okay that I photograph the wave. The expected request was delivered with a warm smile. All that was asked was that I do not name the spot. No problem, because some of the places already are packing over fifty in the line up. Being a surfer myself, I was easily convinced that we should get our knowledge of where to go from our surfing family. Ask another surfer, if he’s from Texas he’ll be able to tell you all about surfing Michoacan.

Flaco going off on a speedy floater.
Flaco going off on a speedy floater.

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