South Texas surfers ride out waves caused by tropical storms and hurricanes (2024)

With their eyes on Hurricane Beryl’s trajectory through the Gulf of Mexico this Fourth of July weekend, South Texans are monitoring the storm and wondering what the direct impact will be on the southwest Gulf of Mexico.

Beryl made landfall on July 1 in Grenada, strengthening at times to a Category 5 hurricane before winds dissipated to maximum sustained speeds of 115 miles per hour as it passed southwest of the Cayman Islands on Thursday morning, bringing strong winds, a dangerous storm surge and damaging waves to the area, according to data from the National Weather Service National Hurricane Center and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Forecasters predict the now-Category 3 storm to weaken as it moves toward the Yucatan Peninsula with expected impact by early Friday. On Wednesday afternoon, one NWS meteorologist in Corpus Christi predicted the storm would make landfall just south of Brownsville as a Category 1 hurricane, possibly traveling up the coast to make landfall farther north.

South Texas surfers ride out waves caused by tropical storms and hurricanes (1)

“We’ll see increased swells and rip current risks throughout the coast," said Cory Mottice, a warning coordination meteorologist with NWS - Corpus Christi. "There could be dangerous rip currents this weekend and rain bands moving ashore in deep South Texas on Saturday, with possible rain and gusty winds arriving in Corpus Christi on Monday. Local rains could lead to flash flooding."

Scientists will have a much better handle on the storm by Friday, enabling them to predict where it will make landfall to assess the impacts on currents, as well as how much wind and rain it will bring, he said.

As many South Texans brace for heavy rain and winds, Texas surfers take a broader view, embracing storms as an aspect of living near the ocean. Many are looking forward to chasing the thrill of a big storm wave or swell.

Seeking out swell waves

During a swell, waves along the shores of Corpus Christi can reach up to 8 feet, said Tommy Shilts, the Blue Water Task Force coordinator with the Surfrider Foundation who has been surfing for almost 50 years, starting in Texas before seeking out breaks in Mexico, the Pacific Coast and Puerto Rico.

He said he surfed at South Padre Island when Hurricane Gustav hit the coast of Haiti in 2008, where waves reached up to 18 feet.

The fear of encountering a large wave and knowing what to do is part of the experience, he said.

“When you hit that right window of tropical storm swell, it’s a lot of fun and some of the best surf you’ll get all year,” Shilts said. "When I was paddling out to surf 18-foot waves at Gustav, I heard about three freight trains behind me, and when I turned around and saw the wave, I thought, 'What the heck am I doing here?'

"Then I remembered that’s why I’m here," he said. "You have to be pretty Zen about lowering your heart rate very quickly and calming down. You don't have a lot of time. You can’t be all freaked out."

Surfers rely on a buddy system, strong surfing skills and a solid knowledge of weather and tidal flow to choose the best days and times to surf and to watch out for each other in the water.

Many storms that produce the “fun waves” that surfers seek out will land along other parts of the Gulf Coast, yet the heavy currents and rip currents that develop during hurricanes and tropical depressions can carry extra debris into the water and to the shore, from logs and lumber to plastic, he said.

Tropical storm surges will also push sea life toward the shore at once, covering the beach in jellyfish and other marine animals that are blown in during the storm, the surfer said.

Knowing how to dodge debris is important, as is having a reliable and foolproof route to the shore.

Driving on the beach is not advised during tropical storms. The NWS encourages motorists to abide by the slogan, “Turn Around, Don’t Drown,” if they encounter flood waters when driving.

The days that bring excellent tropical storm surf are the same days where the ocean water will be pushed all the way up to the dunes, Shilts said.

Being smart during storm surges

“The thing about Texas surfing is we all have to become amateur meteorologists, because you’ve got to be able to read the charts,” he said. “And we’ve got it down to where my boys will call me and say, ‘What’s up today with the surf?’ and I’ll be like, ‘Between 2 and 4 today, man. Don’t miss it.’”

On high tide days, surfers will seek out an alternate place to park, such as next to boat ramps or hotels, and walk the extra distance across lagoons to paddle out to the water.

Surfers can also lose their surfboards in the water during storm surges, resulting in a situation where they can’t swim back to shore.

This is when rescues are important.

“Surfers do more rescues than anyone I know,” Shilts said, describing how over the course of his career, he has administered first aid on the beach, including tending to a surfer who was bitten by a shark at Packery Channel in December of 2022.

And while people’s lives are sometimes lost in surfing accidents, surfers recognize the inherent risk of going out to breaks and swells and try to advise fellow surfers and clientele to make smart choices to minimize the risks posed by the sport.

In addition to surfers, beach walkers are another denizen of Corpus Christi and Padre Island beaches who are can be well-attuned to observing the natural conditions on Texas shores to keep aware of any approaching storms. Some can make predictions based on the change in tides, the location of seaweed or the behavior of shorebirds.

“Because we live here, we get tropical depressions all the time,” said Padre Island resident John Knutson, who said he has lived on Padre Island for five years. “From May through November, it’s almost a weekly thing. Some of the storms have the ability to drop a tremendous amount of rain on Park Road 22.”

Early each morning, he walks the natural beach on North Padre Island “to get his mind right,” taking photographs of the sunrise rising over the waves as well as any other shoreline features or weather developments that he observes, sometimes sending the pictures to NWS, he said.

Noting these occurrences, from the rise of the tides up to the dunes in the days before a storm to the subtle shifts in flight patterns of laughing gulls or terns as they respond to drops in barometric pressure, helps him stay attuned to the natural world to be more intuitive about tropical storms and hurricanes.

For instance, in the days before Tropical Storm Alberto hit the coastline, he predicted there would be wind and rain with possible beach erosion and local flooding.

“Living here helps me be more intuitive of what’s happening around us,” he said.

More: Where is Hurricane Beryl now? Storm weakens Thursday as path continues toward South Texas

More: History-making Hurricane Beryl likely to hit South Texas as Cat 1 storm next week, NWS says

More: Hurricane Beryl tracker: Maps show storm's projected path as it heads toward South Texas

More: Hurricane season 2024: What Coastal Benders need to know

This article originally appeared on Corpus Christi Caller Times: South Texas surfers ride out waves in tropical storms, hurricanes

South Texas surfers ride out waves caused by tropical storms and hurricanes (2024)
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