Surfing has been a constant through most of my adult life. I’ve marked important occasions by paddling out to sit in the swell however small, cradled in the ocean, connecting with the natural world. Looking out to sea you learn to understand the weather patterns that generate swell and the underwater topography that creates waves. Watching the surf for hours, following the peaks and take off points as they move with the tides. Identifying the channels that create the rips that trouble swimmers but give you an assisted pull out to the line up. Rich in poetry and metaphor, surfing demands its own pace and dynamic. From the battle through the surf to the back line, the calm of the deceptive swell as you wait for your wave, the exhilaration of the drop into the wave and the joy of riding across a glassy face. Then you return – out the back. Finding your place in the line up, drawing breath, waiting.
Waiting to walk on water.
In 1984 with Ian Smith I created a religion based on surfing. It was inspired by a trip I took with a friend Phil Hall to surf the Severn Bore – a tidal wave than runs occasionally up the River Severn. It is a legendary phenomenon talked about by surfers around the world. It was an extraordinary experience, wading into the river waiting for the wave. As it approached the flow of the river slackened. First came came the crashing sound from around a bend in the river. Then the first sight, a mass of froth with the detritus of the river, tree stumps and oil barrels and goodness knows what else, bundled up and charging towards us. We turned our boards and startled paddling – there was only one wave and one chance. We caught it and positioned ourselves close to the bank where the wave was highest and strongest. We had the ride of our lives. Under railway bridges and past astonished sheep and cows and irritated fishermen bringing in their lines before we fouled them. Over a mile later the river widened, the wave lost its power and we were left dragging our boards up a muddy bank to hitch a ride across the fields on a tractor trailer. Resplendent astride a pile of manure.
The image of surfing through the countryside inspired the religion whose acolytes dreamt of the impossible and then went out to do it. We created a catechism “when two people gather together to share a myth – that myth becomes realty” and a history. Ian created a museum of performance surfing.
We created performances when we surfed in the wrong direction – out to sea with motorised surf boards. There were surf bands “Screaming Sirens in Search of Utopia” and “”UUGH” and films of religious events and impossible feats. Desperate Men created street surfing and it seemed everyone had got religion.
Performers and artists and surfers and friends from across the country came to Brighton to join in the 2nd International Performance Surfing Convention (there was no 1st). The police were bemused.
Surfing is magical and can be incredibly addictive. But the sea demands respect. Lying in the same room on Boxing Day 2004 the hotel was engulfed by the Indian Ocean tsunami. We had many friends staying and guests out surfing. We all survived but many didn’t. 36,594 died in Sri Lanka and nearly 3000 within 3 kilometres of the hotel. With our friends we set up a relief fund to help restart local businesses and rebuild the fishing fleet. http://www.neilbutler.org/platforms/9/
And slowly the town and country recovered and the surf brought back tourists and travellers.
And now we spend much of the year in Sri Lanka and I haven’t been surfing in cold water for maybe a decade. Which doesn’t seem right. So for my 67thbirthday I bought myself a new O’Neill wetsuit. I took my old Skip Frye surf board that I got for my 40thbirthday to Jamie at Clan Skates in Glasgow to have the many dings repaired. And every morning I log on to https://magicseaweed.com to check the surf.