Surfing with Purpose: Phil Williams' Odyssey of Faith, Waves, and Community
Welcome to a story that weaves the currents of faith, passion, and the ocean.
Today, we sit down with Phil Williams, a man whose life has been a symphony of saltwater and service. Hailing from Nailsea near Bristol, Phil's journey spans continents and decades, from the hills of Weston-Super-Mare to the waves of Jeffreys Bay. His narrative is more than just the tale of a surfer; it's a chronicle of community, commitment, and a deep-seated desire to make a difference.
Can you kindly introduce yourself?
Phil Williams, living in Nailsea near Bristol, where I have been for the last 35 years, married to my wife Annie and two grown-up children Jo and Abi.
I was actually born in Nigeria (not many people know that) as my dad was a missionary and often wonder if I could represent Nigeria in the Masters Surf team!
I am full-time volunteer running the charity Christian Surfers UK and also coordinate the activities for Christian Surfers throughout Europe (nine countries) Middle East and Africa.
As well as surfing I still skateboard at the young age of 62, and am passionate about nature and a keen photographer, although know nothing about it, but the more you take the luckier you get!
I have also been a volunteer director for Surfing England for over 15 years as well as other trustees’ roles such as Tubestation in Polzeath, and other local not-for-profit organisations. I think within us all is the desire to give something back.
When did you start surfing and how did you get started?
In the mid-70s, myself and my brother and a few of our friends in Weston-Super-Mare started getting into the first generation skateboarding and at that time built our own skateboards which we used racing down hills in town and generally lived life to the full, as a young teenage boy loving the outdoor life.
As skateboarding progressed we used to visit skate parks around the region and further afield including some amazing parks in Bristol but also an amazing bowl in the West Midlands Safari Park near Kidderminster, and one day when skating there, we was some graffiti saying ‘Go ride a wave’ with a little wave motif, and that was when I first decided I was going to start surfing.
At the age of around 13 two or three of us used to hitchhike from Weston-super-Mare down to North Devon, hire surfboards at Woolacombe, skate the skate park in Barnstable, and sleep in the sand dunes over night before heading back the next day (amazing times but you would never get away with it now) and that was the start of my surfing career although pretty infrequent.
Fast forward to my A-levels and a decision to go to further education which was very much influenced by locations close to the ocean, hence ending up at Plymouth Polytechnic where surfing began to really take off for me and began to be more a way of life rather than just a sport.
That was in 1980 so as you can imagine a mere 43 years ago when things were very very different, Steve Daniels marine sports was my local surf shop in Plymouth and my first board was a Nigel Semmens ocean magic twin fin (see picture)
I ended up being chairman of Plymouth Poly surf club and in those days, whoever won the National student championships organised it the next year, so back in 1981 82 these were the years I first ran my first ever Surf Comp, way before sponsors were involved, a pretty big undertaking at the age of 21 years old.
What is your most memorable moment surfing?
There are obviously so many, but one sticks in my mind, surfing super tubes at Jeffreys Bay, in the space of no more than three minutes, early one morning sitting waiting for a set to come through, a huge pod of dolphins swam right next to me, I then saw a big Whale with its mouth open coming towards me about hundred metres away, and no more than one minute later, a set approached I turned and took a solid 6 foot wave all the way to the keyhole, got out and, reflected on an insane three minutes I will never forget.
Along with these memories obviously come an incredible community of surfers throughout the world, who I am lucky enough to call friends, having shared thousands and thousands of waves, in the sea, the mud (Severn bore), fresh water, and in the Wave pools in Bristol and Switzerland.
Who are Christian surfers?
Christian surfers are an organisation present in about 35+ countries who are passionate about their surfing and about their Christian faith. They believe that our playground the waves, were created by God and that our surfing as well the rest of our lives, is in God’s hands and keen to share our faith with those interested in listening, in a relevant way rather than trying to ram down peoples throats.
If you go online you will see that vision of Christian Surfers is ‘To give every surfer and every surfing community the opportunity to know and follow Christ’ and that is at the heart of what I do. Making the most of these opportunities to share my faith quite simply on a one-to-one basis with people are interested as opposed to me preaching from the pulpit.
In the UK there are around 400 members throughout the length and breadth of this amazing land, and adjoining islands, and our activities include running the very popular Jesus’ surf series, of which in 2024 will be holding our 32nd Jesus Surf classic, and our 15th Jesus longboard classic at its traditional venue of Polzeath in April.
We never really have any money, but we have an amazing team of volunteers happy to serve and help support and develop surfing, around the coasts, at high profile events such as Boardmasters Welsh and Scottish Championships or at our local surf clubs it doesn’t really matter.
We are passionate about the environment as we believe that we have been given this planet, but not doing a great job of looking after it, therefore each one of us can make small steps to improve that, even though as a surfer that can be quite a challenging conflict.
How long have you been involved?
I have been involved with Christian surfers 30 years, quite a landmark anniversary this year, running CSUK all that time, of which the last 21 years as a full-time volunteer, and have been looking after the European activities since 2002.
What are your plans for 2024?
2024 is going to be a big year in many different ways as I look towards the future. Last year was even for me super busy, so during this next month will be reviewing what I do, and may be what I don’t do, see what opportunities there are.
I very much would love to continue in my role within the adaptive surfing community as volunteer England team manager, obviously numerous CS UK events and beyond, and over the last two years have always loved the Junior Surf series as well which have run on behalf of Surfing England.
Regarding travel I hope very much to finally be able to get to one of two of the destinations on my bucket list including Iceland, but still so many plans and considerations to be thought through.
When you see surfing in 2030?
It’s interesting when I think of where surfing will be in the next seven years, the speed of change for all technologies has been rapid and that includes in the surfing sphere, from those early days when I wore my first Gul 6mm wetsuit that made you feel like a Michelin man, just to see how that technologies improved since then, and then I see all these new innovations which is starting to make our lineups even busier.
I’m sure when I paddle out hopefully at the age of 69 at my local break I will see surfboards, long boards, foils, electric foils and a whole raft technology inspired creations, which will give some people access to the waves which they never had before, but also I’m sure many traditional surfers will begrudge it, as it’s either making life in the waves far more crowded, or very noisy which of course is something that we try to get away from when we go to ride waves.
I would love to see adaptive/para surfing continue to increase with new technologies and innovations giving access to this special group of individuals, to be able to share the sport that we are all lucky enough to sharing.
Wetsuit technology and manufacturing methods and materials I hope will have moved on to be a more sustainable product, and I’m sure even though a surfboard is relatively simple, there will be some tweaks to our machines to make them even more fun to ride.
I often look back at those early years, and realise how fortunate we were to have classic surf breaks that were not that crowded, before the use of web cams, surf prediction sites, where you used to look at the Weather for farmers, study Isobar charts, or listen to the shipping forecast at midnight, and work out for yourself where the waves would be breaking best.
I try not to dwell on that too much, because I sound like a boring old man always looking back when in fact I am also excited for the future as well.
Christian surfers’ vision is to have 100 countries affiliated and a 1000 local groups by the year 2030 and very much hope I can play a role in that challenge as well.
Are there any surfers who inspire or influence you, either professionally or personally?
Right from those early days I have always been a huge Tom Curren fan, his style, and the way he approaches the sport of surfing, a pretty quiet guy who just let his surfing do the talking. I have been privileged to meet up with him in a number of different countries over the years, including France, Ireland, UK and at his home break when I shared a few waves with him at Rincon on a number of occasions.
Closer to home I have always been impressed with the ‘Waves’ Nick Hounsfield, despite all of the hurdles he has had to get over his single focus and passion was to make something that benefits others at the wave in Bristol never dwindled. Seeing that surfing is far more than just riding waves, has always been key to him and me, and the surfing community I think totally respect that. I have been lucky enough to journey with Nick over the last 12 years, through good times, through the tough times, through the times when he had a stroke, and also for the times when we have shared some very special moments at the wave and beyond. He never let that vision and passion fade so total respect for him.
How has surfing influenced your lifestyle or perspective outside of the sport?
While that’s a big question and can be answered in so many ways. I think the first thing for me is it’s given me a real sense of privilege or gratitude about an area of my life that I can spend some time with. At the heart of surfing is a very special community, and I suppose if you cut me open you would see that passion for community written all the way through me, supporting those less fortunate than me, encouraging those going through difficult times, but also the appreciation, that I too have been supported by so many others over this time.
It’s reminded me to live life to the full, and to take every day as an opportunity, I think it is also confirmed my love of planet and nature, and how we need to try to take care of this amazing space we live in, although if I’m honest there is always this massive conflict in my mind regarding saving the planet and travelling as a surfer… But I also believe each one of us can make a small difference, no matter if it’s a two-minute beach clean, or an individual decision to stop using plastics wherever possible, I do think we can make a difference.
I have also seen the benefits first hand of the importance of blue health especially through my volunteering time as a mentor with wave project over the last few years, having seen youngsters’ lives transformed as a result of those six 1.5 hour sessions.
Can you share a challenging moment you faced in surfing and how you overcame it?
The Covid lockdowns were a real tough time for me with regards to surfing, living so far from the coast I knew I had to do the right thing and not travel, and yet that meant at times going over three months without surfing, stuck in landlocked Nailsea, which was not easy especially when many of my friends were fortunate enough to live on the coast and were scoring pumping uncrowded waves. During one particular run of swell I actually turned off my social media because I found it so difficult to watch.
I am a great believer that self-pity stinks, so was fortunate enough to invest myself in our community initiatives running the chemist home deliveries during the pandemic, as well as being heavily involved with the food bank and my local Nailsea community group. I would try to walk into nature with my camera, take some shots, and realise that I was still far more fortunate than so many other people. Those lockdowns I will never forget, and we had some great times even within that, but I remember so clearly the first day I was able to surf again, paddle out at sizeable North Devon, turning round and took off my first wave (thankfully I didn’t wipe out on my first wave) – A special moment.
I love the surfing community and so many things that it stands for I am privileged to have travelled extensively met some amazing people and at the same time being able to live my life of faith alongside so many others I will share that we don’t, but the most important thing to me is to live life to the full, which I try to do on a daily basis.