Kenny Braun’s life changed the day his next-door neighbors came home with a pair of surfboards.
It was the mid-1970s, and from then on Braun’s life in Houston centered around strapping boards on the car and driving south to Galveston. He and his two high school buddies were far from the first to catch waves along the Texas Gulf Coast, but they were early members of the Texas surf scene. Since then Texas has become one of the top six states for surfing in the country. “We didn’t even know what we were doing,” said Braun, now a professional photographer based in Austin. “We’d mostly go to Surfside because the big jetties help set up the sand bars better.” The University of Houston auditorium used to show surfing movies like “Endless Summer” on the weekends. “The auditorium was full of other surfers,” Braun said. “You watch and try long enough, and you get the hang of it. One good ride, one good turn is all you need, and you’re hooked. There’s just something about sliding down these walls of water.”
Braun’s decades of familiarity with the Texas surf culture are on display in “Surf Texas,” published by the University of Texas Press this spring. In it, he captures the euphoric highs of carving the waves – in one shot, a trio of surfers are joined by a dolphin – as well as the quieter moments of hanging out on the beach, all presented in a nostalgic black and white. “Texas surfers have to be more patient. They have to settle for lesser waves,” Braun said. “We know there’s better surf breaks out there, but Texas is our home break, so we love it.”
When Braun started out as a photographer in the mid-1990s, shooting surfers from the beach was a passion project and an excuse to return to his beloved shores. Since then, he’s photographed surfers and the beaches they populate from Galveston to South Padre Island. The beaches along the southern Texas coast, he said, have the best and the most consistent waves, especially when a distant storm churns up the calm Gulf of Mexico waters.
One sight that’s unique to Galveston is tanker surfing, a sport reportedly invented by Galveston’s James Fulbright and his friends that involves riding along the shoulder of a wave created by a tanker ship on its way to the Port of Houston.
“Galveston Bay is perfectly shaped and formed geographically, with the ship channel at one end and open gulf on the other. When these fully loaded oil tankers come in through the bay, they make these beautiful, shoulder-high waves you can ride for 20 minutes,” Braun said. “It’s really mellow because you see the wave coming forever and it breaks in the shallow bay. It’s the perfect setup for a nice ride.”
Braun says that in his years of surfing along the Texas coast, the only changes he’s seen are that surfers have gotten better at watching weather patterns to predict good waves and that there are overall a lot more surfers in Texas now than when he started back in the ’70s.
“There are more surfers in Texas now than there are cowboys,” Braun said. “Most people don’t realize it because they go to the beach in the summer when the waves are flat and nothing is going on. Usually people make excuses for the beaches here: ‘Oh, it’s not California; it’s not Florida.’ I’m not making excuses. I love it.”