By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
Morgan Faulkner is shredding the wave.
The 18-year-old is in Isla Blanca Park, South Padre Island, shooting for air on a broken-nosed shortboard. The fiberglass snapped like a potato chip in the previous heat, cutting an inch off the front end. But Faulkner has gone a whole foot shorter in competition, so he's not about to let this set him back.
His waterlogged yellow jersey stuck to his back like a layer of skin, the six-foot-one, 175-pound Faulkner shoots across the lip, then he's down, tumbling into the wave, disappearing into the sun's searing reflection. Watching these surfers ride the light-reflecting waves is like eyeing a bird across the sun. The light just swallows them. One second, you see a surfer magnetized to the lip, then there's a flash and he's gone, and you have no way of telling what happened.
Faulkner's head pops up and he retrieves his board. He paddles patiently in place, seeking the wave that can make up for his spill.
Overhead, an orange Coast Guard chopper follows the shoreline and a Coast Guard boat trolls slow as driftwood beyond the breakers. They're looking for an 18-year-old swimmer who got sucked into the undertow and never came up.
The surfers pay no attention. This is the semifinals of the state championships, and they're busy counting waves. In the 15-minute heats, surfers can catch only eight waves, with judges counting the top two. You can't wait too long for the right one, but you can't just go for the first eight that come your way, either. And when the timekeeper, perched upon his folding-chair throne high atop the scaffolding, blasts the air horn, you know you've got only five more minutes.
They also have to watch out for dropping in on another surfer's wave. Dropping in can cost you a heat, and worse, respect. It's a kook's move.
Until he hits the wave, Faulkner has no idea what tricks he'll pull.
"I really don't think about what I'm gonna do on the waves," he says. "That just comes with the waves."
But he knows what he'll do in a month. He's done all he can do in Texas, so he's moving from Port Aransas to Oahu's North Shore, home of Pipeline, the most treacherous wave in the world. He wants to go pro. If he can brave the North Shore, he'll have a shot.
It should be easy to hate Morgan Faulkner.
His long blond hair frames a smooth, handsome face with a splash of freckles beneath his brown eyes and across the bridge of his nose. He's the only child of extremely wealthy parents. His mother, an attorney, and his father, who works in the oil industry, are able to back up their incredible emotional support with cash. They have taken Faulkner to the beaches of California, Hawaii, South Africa, Ecuador, Venezuela and Australia.
He drives a souped-up 1956 International panel truck and has more surfboards that he can keep track of. In August, he and his surfer girlfriend, 20-year-old Brittany Tupaj, will move into his parent's duplex on Sunset Beach, Oahu. When he's not taking business classes at the University of Hawaii, he'll be in the seven-mile stretch of waves along the North Shore that is to surfers what Cooperstown is to baseball fanatics.
And, oh, yeah, he just may be the best surfer in Texas.
He's a three-time member of the U.S. Amateur Surfing Team and has racked up first- and second-place awards in both shortboard and longboard on both coasts. His sponsors include Quiksilver and Reef Brazil, two of the biggest names in surfing gear.
So you may expect a cocky brat, and part of you almost wishes for it. Eighteen and living rent-free in Hawaii with your girlfriend? What a jerk.
What you get instead is a soft-spoken, well-mannered guy with no airs, and then, damn it, you can't help but like him. The same goes for his parents, who are only doing what any other parent would do for their child, given the means. The key is that Faulkner's drive comes not from besting opponents but from surfing against himself. Out in the water, it's just him versus the wave.
Most of the time, it's him versus the lackluster surf in Texas. In Galveston, Port Aransas and South Padre Island, the waves are strictly wind-generated, producing a continuous assembly line of modest, slow-moving swells. Ocean swells are triggered by storms hundreds or thousands of miles offshore, resulting in intermittent bursts of monster waves. Texas surfers who want to go pro can't train exclusively in Texas, and even if they get out to Southern California or Virginia, many still can't adapt to a totally different kind of wave.
No Texan has cracked the Association of Surfing Professionals' top 25 rankings in 20 years, according to the Corpus Christi Caller-Times. Bill Clinton was still president the last time a Texan made a dent in the surfing world -- but it was one hell of a dent, and fitting for a Texan. In 1998, Houston-born Ken Bradshaw roped an 85-foot behemoth on the North Shore and rode the biggest wave in surfing history. Texas surfers can't talk for long without mentioning Bradshaw in reverence.
But before he did anything in Hawaii, the short, stocky Texan had to prove himself to the notoriously territorial and aggressive North Shore locals. They call themselves Da Hui, "the group," and they have no patience for mainland haoules.
Legend has it that Bradshaw proved himself by biting chunks off the board of any Da Hui who gave him shit. It worked. He earned respect and set a world record.
Yet Bradshaw never had pro dreams; he was content to shape boards in the splendor of his North Shore home and make a name heading into freakishly large waves that most sane people would run from.
Until recently, one of Texas's most promising young surfers was Ryan Cagle. In a move that still has surfers scratching their heads, Cagle punched his team manager during a 2003 California competition.
That behavior "doesn't really work out in the surf world -- or any world, for that matter," Faulkner says.
Then, while surfing the North Shore in January, Cagle got too close to a competition he wasn't part of and suffered the wrath of a Da Hui named Kala. When Cagle paddled back to shore, Kala pinned the disrespectful haoule to the sand and knocked out his teeth. Ever since, rumors of mental illness and/or drug dependency have plagued Cagle, making him the kind of guy neither Quiksilver nor Billabong froths over. Cagle retreated from the spotlight, and Texas with him.
But Faulkner has consistently swept competitions since he was nine, and now that he's graduated high school and can focus more on surfing, veteran surfers in the Texas Gulf Surfers Association say Faulkner could be the one to fill that spot.
"Getting respect for Texas surfers is one of the hardest things that any of us has ever experienced," says Cliff Schlabach, who just stepped down after 16 years of heading the TGSA. "I would say we get a lot more respect now. People like Morgan Faulkner certainly make it happen. Morgan goes to the West Coast and just whips the hell out of those West Coasters, and it just tickles me good. They may not like him, but they have to respect his abilities."
Faulkner's father, Ron, says he hasn't experienced hostility competing outside Texas, just befuddlement.
"The only strange thing that I've seen is just their incredulity that somebody from Texas would actually try to compete, and that's only because nobody's ever really heard of surf in Texas," the elder Faulkner says. The younger Faulkner says, oftentimes, competitors outside Texas will ask if he rides his horse to the beach. Many ask without sarcasm.
But there are a few Texans in the World Qualifying Series, the Association of Surfing Professionals' feeder for the World Championship Tour. The WCT features the association's top 44 surfers -- the best of the best, and the pinnacle of profit. The WCT is the closest surfers can get to the astronomical salaries in the NBA or NFL. Championship surfers like Kelly Slater or Andy Irons are the gods of the waves, raking in as much as $1 million from their sponsors and thousands more from individual competitions.
But that's a rarefied level, and it's hard to imagine most surfers thinking seriously about reaching it. Surfingmagazine editor Evan Slater (no relation to Kelly) is one surfing expert who's not so quick to elevate Faulkner to exalted status.
"I don't think he's going to turn into a top pro, but I think he's a good surfer," Slater says. But he says Faulkner's doing the right thing by moving out of Texas in order to turn pro. You can't stay in Port A and expect the world.
Surfers must earn enough points in international competitions to make the WQS, and then must do the same to make the WCT. Before he moves to Hawaii, Faulkner will shoot for points in Portugal and South Africa. The better he does at these events, the happier his sponsors.
"As long as he stays focused and doesn't get distracted he can definitely make a name for himself," says Chad Wells, Quiksilver's surf team manager, from California. Wells, who competed with Faulkner on the 2002 U.S. Amateur Surfing Team, says Faulkner is a perfect fit for Quiksilver.
"He's as good on his longboard as he is on a shortboard, so he's kind of a double threat type of guy," Wells says. Plus, "he's obviously a big good-looking kid, so that always helps."
Mike Lamm, Faulkner's surf coach in Southern California, and a championship surfer, says simply: "He's produced results that nobody's produced from Texas in decades. Maybe ever."
Sunday's sunrise finds morning glass; smooth waves, no fierce gusts like Saturday.
A bulldozer scoops seaweed along the shoreline while cleaning crews empty the trash cans. It's about 90 minutes before the finals start, but Faulkner, his shortboard under his arm, is already walking into the water. He's the only one on the beach except for the trash collectors. His mother and girlfriend wait in the truck.
Last night, after surfing about ten hours, Faulkner devoured a large pizza with his mother and girlfriend and then just crashed. He was exhausted, but he also wanted to get to the beach early, like yesterday, to see what kind of waves he'd be dealing with.
When the water is waist-high, Faulkner drops the board in front of him and hops over the waves. Blink. He vanishes. Blink. He's gliding the crest of a wave. Surf, disappear, repeat.
After a while, TGSA volunteers roll into the parking lot and carry chairs, scaffolding and other equipment from their trucks to the beach like worker ants. Today's finalists, male and female, will compete in various air, longboard and shortboard heats. Faulkner placed in four of five categories. The heats today are five minutes longer and surfers get ten waves instead of eight.
As they erect the scaffolding, Faulkner trudges in from the surf with two clean-cut pieces of surfboard. His last wave broke heavy, and he just fell into it, cleaving the board.
"Kinda sucks," he says, and makes way to his mother's truck to get a replacement. Once there, his girlfriend refers him to the blood on his ankle. One of the pieces of the board must've scratched him. Faulkner just shrugs.
Faulkner and Tupaj are two years into a relationship built as much upon surfing as anything else. Tupaj, a sophomore at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, has surfed for nine years, but it wasn't until she met Faulkner that she decided to compete. Now, they surf a few hours every day off Bob Hall Pier in Port Aransas. It's a surfer-friendly spot now, thanks in large part to Faulkner's mother, Mary Goldsmith. Six years ago, Goldsmith joined the Port Aransas City Council and fought to remove an ordinance prohibiting surfing within 250 feet of the pier.
As long as anyone could remember, fishermen ruled Bob Hall Pier. Surfers flouting the ordinance were subject to arrest or a barrage of fishhooks and whatever else anglers felt like throwing at them. But the city council unanimously revoked the ordinance, freeing the pier for surfers -- and for Faulkner's parents as well. A few years after Goldsmith left the council, she and her husband, Ron Faulkner, won the lease for the concession stands on the county-owned pier. They pay a percentage to the county and keep the rest.
The sun and the judges' scaffolding are now up, and a TGSA rep takes the mike to announce the first heat: longboard.
Faulkner is up against eight other surfers, include the Booty Brothers, who are named not so much for a fraternal bond as for their predilection for neoprene surf slippers.
The longboard is Goldsmith's favorite. She of course watches all her son's heats, but there's something about watching Faulkner cross-stepping to the nose and hanging ten that makes up for years of scrubbing surf wax out of carpets, clothing and cars.
Surfing was something Faulkner got from his father, who grew up in San Diego. Goldsmith didn't know a thing about surfing until she married Ron, who scaled back his surfing as his job demanded more and more travel.
By the time Faulkner was about eight, Ron was down to one board, an old Dewey Webster Pig he kept in the garage. Faulkner saw his father move it one day when Ron was cleaning the garage, and there was a connection.
"It was absolutely immediate," the elder Faulkner says. "There was just a natural desire on his part to try something like that."
All of a sudden, father and son were chasing waves every day, and Goldsmith quickly learned the ins and outs of surfing. She watched as her son would take fleeting interests in basketball and soccer, only to return to surfing with more fervor than before. She and Ron have clapped and cheered and supported Faulkner through sprains, bruises, cuts, losses and sea lice, which are even more disgusting than they sound.
As supportive of his move to Hawaii as Goldsmith is, she's also there to remind him that part of the deal is for him to stay in school. "Don't you want to be an educatedpro surfer?" she always asks.
The beach is hardly as crowded as it was Saturday. A few folks catch rays in folding chairs, but pretty much everyone in the water is part of the championships. A few miles away, the Coast Guard boat and chopper continue their search for the missing teen.
Judges watch the surfers in Faulkner's heat from a raised deck, squinting through the sunlight and making visors out of their hands. To keep things fair, they don't know the names of the competitors in each heat -- they go by only the jersey color, which, in the sun, is no easy task. There's red. No, that's blue. Is that green? Yellow just wiped out. That is yellow, isn't it?
The judges are looking for difficult maneuvers in the most critical part of the wave. It's not enough to just ride the crest, you've got to put something into it, show the judges you own the wave. In surfing, they call a wave's curling lip the glass ax. If you display grace and style under the looming glass ax, you've got something. If not, you're just a kook.
"Surfing wasn't born on a travel brochure. It was born in Hawaii. And like some people say, when man first stood up on a surfboard surfing, [it] was the closest he ever got to walking on water."
So says Curtis Wheeler, third-generation Hawaiian, a 34-year-old state championship bodyboarder who's kind of a big brother to Faulkner. A big tattooed, pierced older brother with a shaved head, that is. He's kind of like the anti-Faulkner, but likable.
Wheeler moved to Texas in 1985 and racked up awards straight through 1999, when he shattered his kneecaps. He's now making a comeback and isn't shy about it. While Faulkner speaks softly and carries a big portfolio, Wheeler does whatever he can to get his name out there.
It's easy to understand Wheeler's need to maintain his standing in the surf world -- his uncle is Hawaiian surfing legend Montgomery "Buttons" Kaluhiokalani, one of the innovators of the 360. Wheeler has a lot to live up to.
He met Faulkner six years ago, but really didn't pay much attention to him until they competed in the 2000 U.S. Surfing Championships. He saw Faulkner make it through round after round, and, what's more, the kid didn't have any attitude. Wheeler found it refreshing. By the end of the event, he and Faulkner were the only two Texans left.
"That's when I knew, man, this kid's got something," Wheeler says. "He's come all the way to Hawaii, he doesn't care about the coral reef, he doesn't care what size the waves are, he's out there having fun, he's competing I started telling everybody, 'That's the future of Texas right there.' "
Wheeler plans to meet Faulkner in Hawaii and help him get adjusted. Not that Faulkner would intentionally tick off Da Hui -- it's just that it doesn't take much to do that at all.
"In Hawaii, they go by 'We grew here, you flew here. Now fly home,' " Wheeler says. Faulkner "has surfed with a lot of those guys, he's made a lot of friends, but still he's going to have to adapt and work his way into it. You just don't move to Hawaii and paddle out at Pipeline and take waves whenever you want."
Faulkner may even have to bite a few boards.
Men's open longboard, an all-ages showdown, is Sunday's last heat.
Faulkner and six others, including the ubiquitous Booty Brothers, paddle out and bob like buoys, awaiting the air horn. Surfing is mostly paddling, which is why surfers have such strong upper bodies. John Olvey, a veteran surfer with the TGSA, theorized the Surfing Formula: 900 hours of paddling for one hour of standing up.
Faulkner rides the first wave almost to the sand, cross-stepping to the nose and hanging ten like the board's not even moving. There are some flashy maneuvers in surfing, that's for sure: 360s, el rollos, S-turns, throwing tail. But watching a skilled longboarder walk back and forth as the wave carries him or her to the shore borders on the mystical. It's a complicated move that, for the most part, is hard to see from a distance. It's like Wheeler says: It's the closest man has come to walking on water.
Faulkner wipes out on the next two waves but hits the third like it was made just for him. Same with the next, and with this one, he speeds things up, quickly cross-stepping back and forth like a toy duck at a carnival shooting gallery.
He'll go on to win the heat, take first in open ams, second in the age-specific longboard division and second in air. He'll also nab the most points for the entire event and win the Iron Man Award for placing in four contests. His local surf team and sponsor, Wind&Wave, will win first place for team.
This will be his final TGSA state championship. The following weekend, he'll become the open longboard regional champ in the prestigious National Scholastic Surfing Association's western region championship in Southern California. A few days after that, he'll graduate high school. Then it's on to South Africa, Portugal, Hawaii.
But at this moment, he's right where he wants to be: 18 years old, standing on the tip of his longboard, his toes curled over the nose, riding the wave.