For years, the team of Tom Butler and Sebastian Steudtner have been standouts at XXL Nazare. In fact, Mr Steudtner's expert whip of Tom into a behemoth wave earned the Newquay-based charger a nomination for biggest wave surfed last season at the XL Awards, and having that accolade under your belt is no joke.
Don't just take our word for it though. The myriad filmers, photographers, hell, anyone who stands witness when Nazare goes into overdrive will tell you just the same thing. The commitment from this duo is next level and their experience is second to none, given they're two of the original pioneers of Portugal's hyper wave.
Anyway, it's been a few months since the awards went down, and we're slowly drifting into the opening of the northern hemi season, so we decided to check in with Tom and see what he's been up to during the down time. Turns out, he's set up a company focussing on getting disadvantaged youngsters into the water as a form of relaxation and therapy. It's called Coastal Crusaders, and if this isn't a worthy cause, we're not sure what is.
That doesn't mean Tom's given up on big waves though, quite the opposite. We checked in with the eloquent Mr Butler to talk surfing one of the biggest waves in the world, starting up a new company, life in Cornwall and his ambitions in pushing forward.
You were at the XL Awards a few months back, how did it feel to be nominated for biggest wave?
TB: A childhood dream of mine would have been to be close to world level in a sport. So to make the top five globally, for the biggest wave surfed, is unreal.
Seems you gotta be at Nazare or Jaws to even be in with a chance of a nomination. How’s the vibe been at Nazare?
For me the Nazare vibe is always positive. The surfers and local people of the town interact really well and the place is amazing. As a big wave bolt hole, it has lots to offer.
I’ve been coming here since I was 21, so have made some lasting friendships with the local people and travelling surfers. I first pulled up on a Yamaha 125cc jet ski, nine years ago now, frozen to the handlebars watching waves explode 20 metres into the air from out back, surreal, scary and way out of my comfort zone and that’s why I now have grey hairs, [laughs].
There is of course healthy competition between the travelling and local surfers and bodyboarders. What’s great is the space at Nazare, when small swells are running anyway. You have at least three different peaks working most days even more peaks on some days. So it’s never over the top crowded when paddling. However a large space can become crowded very quick when the wave size starts to increase and you drop ten plus jet skis into the line up... on some days we have counted 30 plus skis out there.
The water is heaving in comparison to when we first arrived all them years ago.
Tow partner Sebastian Steudtner was up for an award too, still going to be towing again this/next season?
Yes, Seb’s wave was a bomb this year. I’d say he’s one of the best tow-in surfers in the world for riding giant waves season after season. He’s definitely one of the most prepared and organised surfers and a role model and a mentor for me tow-in surfing.
I’m currently working towards this up coming northern hemisphere big wave season (October - April) and of course speaking with Seb, setting out some goals and objectives. Without Seb, I probably wouldn't have made top five this year. He whipped me in, using his board on all of his kit, using all of his infrastructure that’s in place in Nazare.
So I owe him a whip into a giant one. Hopefully I’ll repay the favour and drop Seb under a Nazy teepee or two in a few months' time...
I’m excited for the season and I believe, teamed up together with him, I’m safest and working hardest. We’re both hungry for success and have spent years training together on the water and understand each other really well as people, so that combination is very unique and something we have both invested lots into. It seems whenever we partner together we are always on some of the days biggest waves.
XL waves are a roller-coaster, one year, it’s all about paddle, the next, tow is back in. What do you think is the future for big waves?
I think every surfer has their own agenda and goal. I personally don’t pay to much attention to who’s labelling it a tow session or paddle session. Both sports, tow-in surfing and paddle in are on par for me, personally, and both feel considerably different during the performance moment.
Yes, both sports, you're stood on top of a board but they really are two different sports and approaches.
I think the future for big waves will see more tow-in events, more riskier tricks and lines being pulled and higher aerial tricks on bigger waves when towing. Paddle in is going to be about sitting deeper under the already known spots, pulling in harder, and doing more turns and combos.
I also hope in years to come the WSL could raise the finances or just divide up the prize money they secure for the year and award future generations of big wave surfers the same prize money as the surfers competing on their shortboard tour.
As an organisation, it’s a correct and quite a ground breaking move to have equal pay for the male and female competitors. If WSL could now bring equality to the different disciplines they promote, that would be epic and fair for the next generation, let's see!
And you’re back home in Cornwall now – heard you’re starting a fresh venture? What is it, can you tell us a bit about it?
Yeah, back in February, I registered a community Interest Company called Coastal Crusaders. We have three directors at the helm, Pablo Sisca, my friend and personal trainer and my other good friend and professional legend and long boarder in his own right, Adam Griffiths.
Inspiring lives through sports, friendships and the ocean is what we set out to do. Together we set up this organisation to help youngsters from Cornwall who might never access to the ocean for whatever reason. Guiding and giving them a chance to dive in and try five water sports and two land-based surf specific sports over an 8 week period during school time.
Surf2Success is the name of the schools' course we teach. We also offer surf coaching for all levels. I’ll stand and film and give video analysis or surf alongside you and push you into waves. I’ve been surf coaching since I was 16 and get so much satisfaction seeing other people do well, so love coaching and seeing people I teach progress.
That's a super positive way of giving back to the community. How did you come up with idea for Coastal Crusaders?
I’ve blended all the sports I really enjoy and that have helped me prepare for big waves. Throughout my life, I've practiced all of these sports, some more than others. For the schools course we teach, swimming, surfing, surf life saving, stand up paddle boarding, yoga and mindfulness and surf specific exercises in the gym.
I understand how sports can hold the bow nice and straight and enhance your sail through life. When these sports are practiced deep within nature they offer a restorative satisfaction that’s hard to find anywhere else. Cornwall is brimming with some of the world's finest natural playgrounds.
It’s on these youngsters' doorsteps they just can’t always access it, for whatever reason. With Coastal Crusaders, I can apply for different funding that’s available to not-for-profit organisations and deliver some meaningful, engaging, unique experiences for young people in Cornwall and beyond, I hope we positively change participants over the duration of our projects. I know we already are making positive change as we evidence the course through pre-and post-course questionnaires and basic fitness testing.
So, how's it going to be run?
We can only deliver our work in Cornwall with our legal structure. I have a home office, and mainly deliver the sports for school students from Great Western Beach in Newquay and on location at the participating school. For intermediate and advanced surfers we can deliver sessions from spots across Cornwall that offer bigger and more challenging waves.
Currently my weeks are spent delivering surf sessions for some regular clients and working on the computer evaluating the course we just delivered, fund raising and preparing for next year whilst making sure I enjoy summer and catch a wave or two when it’s up!
There’s been a huge movement recently, especially in the mainstream media, about the benefits of the calming nature of the ocean and surfing can have on people. Has there been much support for this new venture?
I’ve put a lot in for a few years at the start before launching the company and feel blessed the hard work has been rewarded. Of course you don’t get anywhere alone and people have helped the company so much already. My wife Emily has to be shouted first as she’s there daily. We had our website designed for free by Town design which saved a disaster of mine going up from either wix or the kind. Trewithen Dairy covered the costs for Bodmin college to take part in Surf2Success this summer. Fourth surfboards are providing their demo range for clients to use during lessons, if they wish.
And I attended some free European funded workshops delivered by Oxford Innovation, off the back of these workshops I received some one to one mentorship from a really nice experienced local guy called Chris, who was key at certain moments.
We have also been successful with our first funding bids from, Cornwall Community Foundation and more recently The National Lottery Community Fund. We can now start to line up our work with schools for the 2019 to 2020 school year.
The set up process and bringing this dream to life has been very enjoyable and I’d be lying if I said I made it through the first school's sports session without shedding a little tear. To take five out of seven students into the water who had never tried a water sport before and have them standing up riding waves for the first time within the first half hour of the session was a very special moment.
And does this mean a departure from surfing big waves? Or will it be a more ad hoc basis – let's say, there’s this stellar forecast for Nazare with award-winning potential, are you going to have to be super picky over when you go?
Setting up a company does not mean a departure from big waves, not a chance. The company enhances my big wave career. And my big wave surfing drives the company and our credibility, both revolve around performance and being committed to the cause.
Setting up a company does not mean a departure from big waves, not a chance
As I age, choke... maybe I’ll direct a higher volume of my energy towards the company. That being said, as any new director knows, the start up phase requires an enormous push behind the desk so my life for quite some time has been away from surfing.
Our organisation will mainly deliver sporting sessions April through to September when the weather’s kinder for our outdoor world. The rest of the work needed to keep the company moving forward, except some meetings could be completed on the move. Big wave season luckily doesn't clash with the companies busier delivery season.
We keep talking about Jaws and Nazare, but there’s also Ireland – do you think there’s potential for the world’s largest paddle barrel to be surfed there?
Let's not even go there [laughs]. Of course it can. For me, the biggest paddle in pits currently being threaded and made are Jaws and Mullaghmore.
I guess this CIC is more about spreading the love of the water. In Cornwall, amidst all the beauty and rugged, gorgeous coastline, there’s actually a hard reality of it being one of the most deprived places in the UK. To give young people a chance to experience the restorative power of the ocean must be a great feeling?
It’s time really well spent and i’m stoked my life has taken this path.
Some data shows Cornwall is the second poorest region in the whole of northern Europe and among the 50 poorest on the entire continent. Those figures were produced by Eurostat, a European Union data agency.
So with this all happening, you’ve spoken about the future of big waves, what’s the future for Tom Butler?
Immediately, well Boardmasters is on this week and I've recently partnered with a new alcohol brand (everything in moderation of course, and if you're going to drink do it responsibly!)
The brand's called Aloha’65 and is a spirit infused with natural ingredients. They will have a presence at the music site as Watergate Bay so be sure to try some up there. I’m also spreading the word of the RNLI presence during Boardmasters and will be enjoying the music with my friends and family.
After Boardmasters, there’s not that many weeks left until we should start to see some big autumn swells approaching so I’ll take my preparation up to six days a week and smash the next six weeks before the start of the season.
And of course sustain and grow Coastal Crusaders and deliver more sessions for anyone who signs up or gets referred. It’s a creative process, envisioning a project, designing it, applying for the funding, organising and then running the course.
I envision encouraging participants to get out into there communities and volunteer or give back some of their time to others less fortunate. This is a way participants could secure a spot on some of our courses.
So getting the kids to work towards an end reward is very important and should make them realise when you put the hard work in and be a decent person towards others you can at times get rewarded, so i’m keen to design a course that gets the youngsters giving back to there community. Watch this space this is just the start.