Employee of the Month: Reef Ellison at Waco Surf

Reef Ellison started his work life at Waco Surf during the somewhat wild days before the new owners took stewardship and cleaned things up. In his time here he’s seen the good, the bad and the ugly as the Waco drama unfolded. He started as a lifeguard and worked his way up to the surf operations position. A highly sought-after job title, there are only a handful of surf ops positions globally. Reef’s position is even more impressive when you realize that the guy is only 19 years old. But some people just land in the right role at the right time.

How long have you worked at this wave pool?
This is my third season. Almost three years. Almost three years? Yep.

And what do you do here?
I am a manager of surf operations on the surf side. I manage our guys who run the wave. And in the rental pro shop, whenever you rent a board, I manage those guys as well.

You started pretty young to be working at a pool. How did that come about?
I’ve been coming here ever since, like the foundation was built, and there wasn’t even water in the pool. Just checking stuff out. I went to NLand in Austin to surf a bunch, but it’s not as cool as this place for sure. But I finished high school early and then decided to come start working up here. I was a lifeguard at the start of it and then worked my way up to surf operations.

Reef got his first taste of surfing in the Gulf of Mexico at the beaches of Galveston, Texas.

Were you surfing before?
I grew up in Galveston, Texas, surfing on the Gulf Coast. But yeah, I started whenever I was, like three years old.

So you lived in Galveston, and when did you move here, or did you commute for a while?
While I was finishing high school, actually, I was in a school where you could kind of do it at your own pace. And so I was hustling through that. And then I would come drive up from Galveston and work here on the weekends, and then I would drive back Sunday night and then go back to school on Monday. And then, yeah, just keep doing that until I graduated.

And how did your positions evolve here in Waco?
Lifeguarding, but I actually applied for the surf operations, but then whenever I got here I had to be a lifeguard because that was the only position open. And then I was able to move my way up by working hard.

So what do your job duties include now? What are you responsible for at just 19 years of age?
Making sure that the surf pool is running. We’re sending waves, making sure our guys are out there in the water, helping people learn how to catch the wave, keeping our beach nice and pretty, keeping our rental equipment in good shape, and also managing that part of the hospitality side and, yeah, just stoking out guests mainly. It’s the best job ever.

Reef competes in Texas Gulf Surf Association events in Galveston and at Waco. And, yes, he has a home-field advantage at both locations. Photo Rob Henson

I saw you dragging the rake across the beach. That looks pretty tedious. Is it?
I mean, we like to make it look pretty, but it can be when the Texas weather is gnarly. If we don’t rake the beach a couple times each week, then the sand is going to get all like soggy and green and that’s not that good. It’s not very not pretty.

You’ve been here for a while, so I’m sure you have some stories. What is one of the coolest things that’s happened to you here.
The High Fives group was pretty sick. It’s a group of disabled athletes and they all came out here and we helped them learn how to surf. I got them on some waves. That was really fun. But just all the pro surfers that come out here and just have a great time.

You have a front row seat to some of the best wave pool surfing in the world.
Yeah, you get to learn a lot from them too, and they’re all pretty much very down to earth people. Very nice.

While many celebrate high school graduation day with awkward cards from relatives and stale Baskin Robbins ice cream cakes, Reef jumped in to make it a pool day celebration. Photo Rob Henson

Can you share a story like one of the pros who you got to hang with.
Mason Ho’s pretty sick. Very nice guy. Nathan Florence is really cool. Really happy, dude. He’s stoked to be around everybody and he’ll hype up anybody and yeah, they’re all very fun. Kolohe Andino and Taj Lindblad, came out here and they just had so much fun. It was just like three of them and they had a bunch of private sessions and they were just having a blast. It’s fun to see that. But instead of just like having the hard core people practicing to get better and better, it’s nice to see some people just having fun surfing, not even surfing, just goofing off, really having fun on the waves instead of trying to stomp crazy airs and stuff.

You have your high school diploma and you’ve got a solid position in the surf park space. Are you going to go back to university?
University is not the plan right now. I’m trying to stay here, get into this industry. But if I do, I mean, I’ve thought about doing like, welding or stuff like that. I like art and I like to build stuff.

You’re in a really good position because there are not many people who know how to run surf parks.
I think Waco Surf is a really good spot for me right now because I think we are the best wave pool. We give the best vibe, I think, out of everybody else. And I think that’s a really big part of it. It’s more than just paying to surf. It’s a fun experience that you’ll remember for a long time. And yeah, I think Waco Surf is doing it right.

Sometimes the confluence of passion and profession intersect. Reef Ellison in his happy place. Photo Rob Henson

Tell us about the wave pool culture here. I met Naradah who drives three hours from Houston to surf here.
Yeah, Naradah’s sick. He’s totally obsessed with the wave. It’s a cool culture here. There’s always been Texas surf culture even before the wave pool scene, like, down at the coast. It’s probably just like in California.

In South Korea they use the term Min Mool which means tap water, to describe surfers who only session in the pool. Do you have that here?
Yeah. The dude that you just saw riding around on the bike, he’s one of our water patrol, Michael. He learned how to surf here and he can’t really surf in the ocean. Then there’s Patti Zhou. She’s a professional snowboarder. She’s like 12. But she learned how to surf here. And one of our other good coworkers, Zach, helearned how to surf here too.

I’ve heard a few people use the term the Wild West to describe the old version of this place.
Uh, in the summertime, everything that surrounded the surf side got pretty wild like in the Lazy River.
It’s a whole lot better now than what it used to be. It was pretty gnarly back in the day. Yeah, like there were fights or some sort of ordeal going down. But now it’s a lot more chill even in the summertime.

You can follow Reef’s adventures here on his Instagram account.