In Recess

Clean Breaks

A Galveston judge presides over the waters of the Gulf Coast when the surf is just right

Interview by Eric Quitugua

Surfer

Some hang out a shingle. Others hang 10.

At work, Judge John Ellisor’s turf is the 122nd District Court. But between 25th Street and the 61st Street pier in Galveston, when cold front-spun waves curl toward the coast, it’s not uncommon to find the judge there scouting the water with a towering surfboard in hand. To some, Texas and surfing may not be synonymous, but don’t tell that to Ellisor, who has made the Gulf Coast his playground since the 1960s.

Surfing isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks of Texas. How would you describe surf culture in the state and what do you think it was born out of?
Well, I know people have been surfing in Texas at least since the ’50s. I first became aware of it in the early ’60s. My older sister’s friends were surfers, and I started bugging my dad to go surfing probably when I was 11 or 12 years old.

Once you’ve surfed and had the fun of being out there and riding waves, it gets into your consciousness and is hard to give up.

Who taught you how to surf?
My dad bought me my first board when I was probably 13 or 14, and the stipulation was that I couldn’t get in the water without wearing a life jacket. I tried to convince him that wasn’t cool. We took the surfboard to Lake Travis—we had a cabin up there—and I would ride the surfboard behind the boat for several years before I ever got it in the water down in the Gulf. I could wear a life jacket there and wouldn’t be embarrassed.

What was the first board that you owned?
It was one that we bought from some friend’s neighbor— paid $20 for it. It was what was called a pop-out, a type of board that was produced by an injection process into a mold and the surfboard would pop out. They were great big old thick things. You basically could just go forward on it. After that I bought a board produced by Dewey Weber called a Weber Feather because it was a little bit lighter in terms of weight.

How do waves in other coastal spots in Texas compare to Galveston?
As you go down the coast toward Port Isabel, it seems like you get more of a swell and oftentimes bigger waves and better form. But that’s debatable. At any given time of year, you can have really good waves here in Galveston.

Most people think of surfing as a summer activity, but in Texas, it’s really more of a fall, winter, and spring thing. Our best waves are generally produced by cold fronts. As a cold front approaches the coast, there is an onshore wind that pulls the waves up. And then as the cold front arrives and blows into the waves, it straightens them out and cleans them up for a period of hours—sometimes a day or so. You’ll have really good clean surf as a result of the cold front.

Do you think it’s like that across the entire Gulf—not just Texas but across to Florida?
I’m not sure, but I know it is that way in Texas. In the summer, we’ll have the occasional tropical storm that happens some place else, and the swell comes across the Gulf and we get pretty good waves for a day or two. But when the storm is too close, like when Hurricane Ike came in, the water was so rough that even though the waves were bigger, it was not really enjoyable because it was like being in a washing machine.

What would you say is the most important lesson you’ve learned surfing, whether it’s the surfing itself or the big picture?
You learn to rely on others. I generally surf with somebody else. I have had times when I’ve caught a cramp and fell off my board, and if there hadn’t been people there to pull me out of the water, I’d have been in trouble. There’s a sense of family and support among surfers. That’s not the case everywhere— there are times and places you can go where surfers are territorial and don’t want you to surf in their waves. For the most part, I haven’t experienced that here in Texas. We generally get along really well and help each other out. TBJ

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