A man in swimwear rides a surfboard on a large blue wave

Photo by Wyatt McSpadden

Surfing has been a lifelong obsession for me. Back when the Beach Boys ruled the airwaves and the California surfer lifestyle became something to emulate, two junior high friends and I pooled our money and bought a surfboard by mail order—but never put it to the test. I rented longboards on South Padre Island family vacations, but try as I might to paddle out past the third sandbar to catch a wave, the few times I did manage to stand up, the wave disappeared. Unless a hurricane or tropical storm was in the Gulf, I would later learn, those choppy waves were as good as it got.

But today is the day. I’m going to surf. All it takes is a two-and-a-half-hour drive to the woods east of Waco, a couple hundred dollars, and the desire to finally stand up on a surfboard at age 72.

I’m at Waco Surf, the new epicenter of Texas surfing, to experience how technology is impacting surfing in much the same way ski lifts, snow-making machines, and manicured trails transformed snow skiing. In 2021, new owners bought Waco Surf’s lagoon and upgraded it into a surf and water park with slides, a lazy river, cabanas, and a hotel.

After checking in at the Surf Center, the spacious headquarters with a floor-to-ceiling view of the 2.5-acre lagoon, I head for the open-air palapa for the park’s Beginner Academy. I’m joined by three fellow novices from across the state, as well as a broad-shouldered California native named Stephen Shipman who is a lifelong bodysurfer. “They won’t let me bodysurf here, so I guess I’m going to have to learn to stand up,” the 68-year-old says. His confidence suggests that won’t be a problem.

We’re given generic 6-foot longboards with soft padding while instructor Reef Ellison, a surfer from Houston, gives us the 101. This includes pointing out the features of the board, how to paddle, and, ultimately, how to stand up.

After running us through a series of yoga stretches, we enter the shallows of the chlorinated lagoon. Across from us, surfers work intermediate swells in front of the wall lining the entire bank of the lagoon. Somewhere near the No. 7 marker, a machine engine cranks with a soft rumble akin to a washing machine. Seemingly out of nowhere, waves start to appear.

Manufactured in various sizes, our waves are set to the most forgiving level: The Coaster. These progress all the way to The Wedge, a wave that reaches up to 5 feet. In this controlled environment, there’s no need to worry about paddling out to the swells, as there are Surf Team members waiting to launch and catch you at the end.

Our assigned team member, treading water, urges me forward, and in a flash, I begin to slide down the wave. The sensation of pushing the board down the slope feels like I’m trying to steady myself on an icy pond. Standing on the board with knees bent, arms extended for balance, I aim toward the wall and ride the wave until it peters out five seconds later.

One of the most frustrating aspects of trying to surf in the Gulf or the Pacific is getting knocked back by waves while paddling out. Waco Surf has eliminated that early obstacle in its design. After that first attempt, a waiting surfer was quick to congratulate me: “You popped right up! There are some people who’ve been going for a while who can’t do that.”

Following the first half of the session, the swells grow slightly larger. With each attempt, my energy begins to flag, and on the final wave, I have my first honest wipeout. Shipman, the seasoned bodysurfer, overcomes a frustrating start to master standing up. He quickly signs up for an second session later that afternoon.

Since that weekend, I’ve looked at myself cresting waves—captured for posterity in photos on wacosurf.com. Even all these months later, I can feel and relive the adrenaline-filled thrill of every ride. Although cautious at first, I gave myself over to the moment and risked it all in a culminating wipeout—not bad for an old guy. No matter that it took place far from any sandy shore. Surfing lesson: $139.

Get more Texas in your inbox

Sign up for our newsletters and never miss a moment of what’s happening around the state.