A Wave Peels In Austin

Opening day at Austin's desert oasis, NLand Surf Park

-By Shawn Magee-

On a normal Friday morning in central Texas, as billowing, gray thunderheads gather over the dusty plains of agarita and cacti, my brother Ian and I are driving down highway 71 snaking through urban sprawl of Austin, and almost magically, we are going surfing. It is opening day at NLand, America’s latest designated surf park.

We arrive at the entry gate as the first wave of the day is set loose. A hoot erupts inside the park. The people standing in the ticket line rush to the fence, trampling flowerbeds, trying to catch a glimpse of the wave. A man dressed in hospital scrubs is standing next to me craning his neck, obviously mindsurfing the empty wave.

“I’m one of those Texans who checks Surfline every day,” says Robin Boone, a medical device representative and native Austinite. As we watch the waves, he starts reminiscing, glassy-eyed, about his years on Maui and in Florida. He has booked two hour-long sessions later in the week and has only stopped by today to check out the setup before going into surgery. His stoke is palpable.

Inside the park, people are mulling about. It’s not as busy as I would have expected on opening day, but the lineup is full and won’t even have an open slot until later in the week, we found out. So we relax and check out the scene. Thirty foam boards crowd the inside, while twelve more advanced surfers try their luck on “the reef.”

The wave pool itself is divided down the center by a massive boardwalk, where spectators can get up close to the action. Underneath its planks is a cable hauling a 14-ton foil (like a giant snowplow), which displaces the water and kicks up a shoulder-high wedge, which peels for nearly 200 yards. There are two sides to choose from, East and West, and the surfers are split between the two. At $90/hour for a session on “the reef” (which is closest to the plow), you better know where your lineups are. In one hour, with a rotating lineup, a surfer has eight chances to surf a wave. Whether you make it or eat shit, that’ll be $11.50, thank you kindly. I’m crushed every time I see someone blow a takeoff. But to everyone here (maybe except to me), the money seems secondary. Everyone is beaming, high-fiving, full of good vibes.

After a while I become so tired of talking to stoked people that I go looking for someone having a bad time. A critic. And I find him sitting at the picnic table outside the facility’s very clean and yummy, So-Cal-surf-inspired restaurant — a crusty guy in lime-green shades looking at the waves with a big scowl across his unshaven face. He looks at me, and we acknowledge our mutually dry-docked situations. He almost spits out the words “no beer” and throws me a big thumbs down. I know how he feels. Although plans for an on-site brewery are in the works, at this early stage, there are some things missing from the post- and pre- and non-surf experience, and beer may be
one of them.

It is clear that this will never be Mexico, or Indo, or California -– places where the flow of seasons and the rhythm or winds and tide and swell intervals rule a surfer’s life. The wave at NLand will always be the same, and as a wise surfer once said, “Without the risk of getting skunked, one can never score.” Which begs the question: If a wave is always good, can you ever score? I plan to find this out at 2:00 pm this coming Thursday. But philosophical quandaries aside, right now there is a wave breaking in central Texas. And for so many surfers living in this desert, it is, without a doubt, an oasis.