Encounter Tom Butler, the visionary behind Coastal Crusaders and big wave surfer.
Main image. Mullaghmore 2016. This photos went into the last 5 in the WSL XXL award Barrel of the year. Photo : Ian Mitchinson
Cornwall born-and-bred Tom Butler is a big wave surfer and the founder of Coastal Crusaders, a CIC inspiring people from disadvantaged backgrounds to feel the benefits of surfing and getting in the ocean. In this interview Tom chats with 10 Over Surf Co-Owner Chris about setting up and running the company, how he got into surfing 60 foot waves at Nazaré, the power of mindset and other lessons he’s learned along the way.
Hey Tom. So what does a typical day look like for you these days?
Well, my life has changed quite a lot over the last few years since I had a little boy, Ziggy. He’s three now and anyone who's a parent will know that’ll spice up your day!
Aside from being a dad I spend a lot of my time working on my business and social enterprise, Coastal Crusaders. It’s going really well. We've worked with over 180 people now who’ve come from disadvantaged backgrounds, have disabilities or have been faced with other challenges that life has thrown at them. We're there to support people – but we're trying to branch into more high performance work as well.
We also do a lot of work with different funding partners to realise projects. At the moment we’re just finishing up something called the Seated Surfing Project, funded by Sport England and the McPZ Foundation. That went really well too, and I’m in the process of evaluating it all right now, looking into how we can improve it and continue running it into the future.
And I’m still doing a lot of my big wave surfing! That's what keeps me hungry and motivated for life, so it’s definitely something I want to continue with.
Being a pro sports person and owning a business and having the same commitments and calendars as a lot of people and families out there…it's a balancing act and I’m doing my best to stay as grounded as possible. But I’m busy, for sure!
Nazare 2014. Paddling into some inside wedges on a 10’6, early days Nazare. Sebastian on the corner of the image spotting me on the ski fro shuttles back out. Tractor on the beach ready for jet ski recovery. Photo : Jorge Leal
No such thing as a typical day then. Let's dive into Coastal Crusaders. When did you set that up and what was the inspiration behind it?
It was founded in 2019 and the inspiration started when I was driving back and forth from North Cornwall to South Cornwall to visit my now wife. Even with two really beautiful coastlines and some of the best waves in the world just 20 minutes away, I saw kids hanging out on the streets, probably hadn’t ever got in the sea. If someone had just given them a surfboard and taken them in the water, their minds would have been blown. So that was the catalyst, really. It stuck with me and I just wanted to get more Cornish people involved and confident in the ocean, helping them to enjoy something that’s free and right on their doorstep.
Back in 2019 I'd done ten years or so of chasing my own big wave surfing dreams. It does get a bit empty, eventually, when you're just doing something solely for yourself. And I found that as I progressed and widened my knowledge of the world I wanted to be able to pass it on to other people.
Now there are a lot of surf therapy organisations popping up in Cornwall, the UK and the rest of the world and I just think that you can never have enough of them, really.
Seeing people who never thought they’d get on a surfboard, in the Seated Surfing Project for example, riding a wave with the spray and the wind in their hair…it sounds cheesy but it’s amazing.
Back hand snap in Mentawais with the Matungou crew. Photo Emily Butler
How do you think that surfing impacts people's mental health?
Before mental health was ever talked about we’d surf because it made us feel good. It’s what we’ve always done. But now there’s all kinds of research and understanding that shows blue and green spaces and doing things outside in nature helps with anxiety, depression and other mental health challenges. Outdoor education and training for mental health is a massive movement at the moment and it’s a cool thing to be a part of, especially for people who wouldn’t otherwise have the chance to spend time in the coastal environments.
I think a lot of people worry that the sea is too dangerous and they’re going to get swept out if they go in, just because they’ve never had any guidance from a family member or peer. But with a little bit of training, their confidence grows. And then their mum or dad might feel confident to get the kids in the car and take them to the beach too. That’s why we’ve been running projects like Train The Family – we’re trying to teach and integrate the whole family into surfing, with the hope that one day they’ll be able to rock up to one of our centres and take their child surfing, which is a win for everyone’s mental health.
What are your plans for the future of Coastal Crusaders?
It’s going well as it is but, like any business, I want it to grow and evolve. We’ve got big ambitions to work with around 800 people a year, if we can get the next phase off the ground (I’m writing the bigger funding pitches at the moment).
I’d like to be able to have a load of kit stashed at centres in various locations too, so people can hire the stuff out for free. Some people have nothing, so that little bit of kit could go a long way in improving their lives.
It’s hard work to make it all happen but there are a lot of people out there to help, so I’m pretty fired up for it.
Coastal Crusaders Stroke Survivors day in partnership with the Stoked Stroke Survivor Danny Teare, surfing here prone and steering with a chap called Garreth, his first time back in the sea post stroke. Photo Jamie Elliot.
Have you found any parallels between surfing and running your business, or any lessons that you could apply?
Yeah, a lot! There’s no schedule and little support in being a pro athlete in freestyle and big wave surfing. So I’d done the hustle…building presentations, pitching and selling myself in meetings, editing videos, creating content and so on. That’s meant I haven’t felt completely out of my depth with the Coastal Crusaders projects.
For both surfing and the business I’ve just got to have a vision and deliver. And then when I do deliver, it’s a euphoric feeling that keeps me motivated and helps me build the mindset that I can do anything.
I think a lot of it comes down to backing yourself, reacting in the right way to whatever pops up and having good human morals and respect for whoever you’re working with.
What was your path to big wave surfing? And what motivated you to keep going bigger?
I was just hungry for it. I’ve always wanted to push myself, I’m quite competitive and I love the feeling of riding bigger waves. I love that I can look down a wave and all these good natural chemicals mix in my body…something in me goes, fuck yeah, I’m doing it! It just gripped me.
I started tow surfing with Sebastian Steudtner when I was 21. He’d won an XXL Award for going left at Jaws and he taught me so much. We helped each other, actually, because his background was in windsurfing so he didn’t really have any experience in paddle surfing. I helped him with his small wave technique.
Surfing with Seb gave me the confidence that took me to Ireland, where I started surfing 15-20 foot waves, at Mullaghmore Head.
Then onto Nazaré in Portugal with the pioneering tow team Andrew Cotton and Garrett McNamara, leading the charge Seb and I followed suit and started surfing more shifty 40 foot waves, then 60 foot a few seasons later.
I spent ten solid years chasing it and achieving some highlights in my career – getting top five in the XXL Awards in 2016 was a pretty cool one. The picture by Ian Mitchinson made it onto the front cover of the Irish Times, from my paddle in wave at Mullaghmore. Also riding the two biggest waves of the year at Nazaré with Seb in 2018.
I had quite a break when Ziggy was born during COVID and I set up the company. But last year I had a couple of trips to Mullaghmore and this year I went back to Portugal. It wasn’t massive but it was a good chance to check in with myself, figure out how much I want it and mitigate the risk now that I’m a dad and I have other things to juggle.
Nowadays I’m less driven by my ego like I was when I was a hyped up kid, so I could quit now and be proud of myself for what I’ve done – but I’m still pretty keen to serve some big ones and push myself for a few more years.
How do you mitigate the risks and prepare between big surf sessions?
I think the biggest thing is to surf consistently.
There’s also a lot of safety preparation like checking all the machines and kit are in working order. Seb has one of the most pro-level set ups I know in this sport; he employs doctors to be on the beach with stretchers and evacuation vehicles. Not everyone does that. You can be the best surfer in the world but stuff still goes wrong in big wave surfing, so you need a plan to be able to get out of there quickly and get to hospital. It happened to me – I had a collapsed lung and got washed through six or eight waves, then my board hit me in the head and nearly knocked my ear off.
In Nazaré I’ve seen some dangerous situations where there are 60 or more jet skis in the water on a big day. And you know, some of them shouldn’t be out there because they’re just there for the glory or the content for social media. It’s like Seb says, that’s like driving onto a Formula One track when you aren’t a Formula One driver. You could be injured or killed.
As well as the safety prep there’s also cardiovascular fitness, breathing to train your CO2 tolerance, strength and conditioning work, and mobility and flexibility. And another big one is meditation and breathwork to help with remaining calm in high pressure situations. This is something I’ve done a lot of training for with a performance specialist called Dave Wood from Integrated Training, a company based in New Zealand. I’ve learned loads about nose breathing and box breathing with him. I’d recommend researching Dave’s work because there are so many benefits, especially for nasal breathing, whether you’re a pro athlete or not. Paul Croker has been an exceptional help with his physiotherapy . Paul also recently helped Lukas Skinner on his journey to 2nd in the Worlds recently at the ISA World Championships.
Aside from all this stuff though, I think that to do this, ultimately your desire needs to outweigh any fear you have. It’s what I keep asking myself as I’ve gotten older and my life has started to change…how much do I really want this? I know I have to want it from the depths of my stomach to carry on doing it.
Lastly, do you see new big wave spots being conquered in Europe in the next five years?
I think so, yeah! There are so many exposed spots in the Atlantic Ocean, I’d say there are definitely more bombies out there.
Last year I did a show with the BBC where we went and checked out Stones Reef a few miles off Hayle. When we did the research for that, even just around the UK there were so many different spots that could have potential on the right days.
Ireland is probably absolutely littered with different waves. It's just that the main ones are so good and no one really has the option of going out and finding new waves correctly and safely.
I imagine there’s more around Iceland, Norway and different places like that too…some that are scary and dangerous.
And going to find new waves is way cooler than just doing the same thing year in, year out. It keeps it fresh and interesting, as long as you have the budget and the infrastructure to do it. It's what everyone loves to do, right? I think that’s the root of surfing, really. Having a poke around on a map with some of your friends, coming up with stories and theories and feeling the excitement of going there, sacrificing known-spots on the correct swell to see if that new wave is working. It might be, or it might not be.
That’s what’s so cool about a sport that relies on nature like this. There’s just so much possibility out there and it keeps you coming back for more.