Reading the Ocean & Riding Titans

An interview with Tony Butt, Patagonia Surf Ambassador & Oceanographer
photo. Hubi Schulz // artwork. VOX POPULI

photo. Hubi Schulz // artwork. VOX POPULI

Tony Butt is a big wave surfer and an ocean scholar. With a PhD in Physical Oceanography, Tony has published over 16 papers in peer-reviewed scientific journals. His books have included "Surf Science: an Introduction to Waves for Surfing" and "The Surfers Guide to Waves, Coasts and Climates". His stories have appeared in the Surfers Path, The Cleanest Line and the Inertia. Although he hates competitions he has been invited to several international big-wave events including the Eddie Aikau at Waimea and the Big Wave Africa at Dungeons. 

"although it sounds paradoxical, paddling out in big waves with nobody around is a good way to relax." - TONY BUTT

Erik Sumarkho: What made you want to surf big waves?

Tony Butt: I wanted to do something different.  Around the late 80s when I got interested in big waves, very few people in Europe were doing it. I am not a competitive person but I like personal challenges, so being out in big waves is a good way to test my own limits in a natural environment, without having to compete with other people.
I get easily stressed in cities and places with a lot of people, so, although it sounds paradoxical, paddling out in big waves with nobody around is a good way to relax. Also, the intense concentration that you need in big waves, just like many other close-to-nature activities such as climbing, makes you forget about everything else anyway, which is great therapy.

Tony Butt // photo. Juan Fernandez

Tony Butt // photo. Juan Fernandez

Tony charges on a beast  // photo. Jeff Flindt

Tony charges on a beast  // photo. Jeff Flindt

ES: I really enjoyed the book Surf Science, it combines your expertise in oceanography and passion for surfing. It opened my mind to how I look at waves, how did you begin studying the oceans?

TB: It was a slow process. The first time I started thinking about oceanography was pretty much the same time I started surfing, around 1974. My father bought me a book called The Science of Surfing by Rick Abbott, which I must have read a hundred times. I didn't study oceanography straight away after leaving school. I then spent over a decade living in a van travelling and doing all sorts of jobs from window cleaning to fixing dings. It wasn't until 1999 that I finally got my PhD in Physical Oceanography, and it wasn't until 2002, twenty eight years after reading Abbott's book that I wrote my own book on oceanography, Surf Science.

TB in his elements, gliding across the face of a giant // photo. Alan van Gysen

TB in his elements, gliding across the face of a giant // photo. Alan van Gysen

"Around that time I had a bizarre dream, in which the entire coastline of the world consisted of sea walls and other concrete structures, with artificial reefs to replace the surf spots that had been destroyed by those structures." - TONY BUTT

ES: What projects promoting sustainability are you involved in at the moment?

TB: Recently I've been working with a group in Portugal to campaign against a program to build a series of huge dams, which is basically an environmental and social crime, and will exacerbate the already grave problem of coastal erosion along the coast. I've written about it and make a short video on the Patagonia Blog.

Thankfully, artificial surfing reefs have fallen in popularity lately. A few years ago, when they were still flavour of the month, Yvon Chouinard pointed out that you have to be careful: If you can prove that you can build an artificial surf spot as good as a real one, coastal engineers and politicians will have a reason to justify building something that will destroy a natural surf spot, because they can just mitigate it with an artificial reef.

Last minute decisions with Tony // photo. Jakue Andikoetxea

Last minute decisions with Tony // photo. Jakue Andikoetxea

Around that time I had a bizarre dream, in which the entire coastline of the world consisted of sea walls and other concrete structures, with artificial reefs to replace the surf spots that had been destroyed by those structures. There was no natural coastline left, except on a small tropical island where the guy who invented artificial reefs lived and surfed on his own.

ES: Can these lost waves be revived?

TB: I’m just starting to investigate the possibility of recuperating some of the world-class breaks on Madeira Island that got destroyed or seriously degraded about 13 years ago, thanks to some large but useless coastal structures. You might have heard of Jardim do Mar, for example, which was named by Surfer Magazine as the best big-wave point break on the planet, but is now seriously degraded.

I’m also closely involved with various wave protection groups around the world, such as Save the Waves, Surfers against Sewage, Salvem o Surf, World Surfing Reserves and a few others. I’m lucky to be a surfing Ambassador at Patagonia, which frees me up to do my environmental work and still be able to surf every day.

"I didn’t know anything about sustainability or ‘slow is fast’ or anything like that – it was just the cheapest option." - TONY BUTT

Tony with his quiver in South Africa

Tony with his quiver in South Africa

ES: I personally dislike flying, what is your favourite form of travelling?

TB: Walking is my favourite, but obviously that’s not practical on a surf trip.  My least favourite is flying – not just because of the high carbon footprint, but also because of the stress of airports, security checks, baggage, timetables and all the rest. Some of the most fun trips I used to do were from England to Spain on a ferry with two or three mates. Sometimes we would take the van on the ferry and sometimes we would just go as foot passengers. I didn’t know anything about sustainability or ‘slow is fast’ or anything like that – it was just the cheapest option.

Cold drops // photo. Miguel Arribazalaga

Cold drops // photo. Miguel Arribazalaga

ES: In all your years studying the ocean is there a climatic event that absolutely fascinates you, a hurricane, say, above others?

TB: Very large mid-latitude depressions, such as the ‘Hercules’ storm of 6th January 2014. Even though the surf was totally impractical almost everywhere in Europe, it was fascinating to see how the coastline behaved in conditions that had never been seen before (swells of over 12 metres high with periods of well over 20 secs).  

'Hercules' storm of 2014 creating titans // photo. StormSurfing.com

'Hercules' storm of 2014 creating titans // photo. StormSurfing.com

Hercules sending monster waves to the Azores // photo. Antonio Araujo

Hercules sending monster waves to the Azores // photo. Antonio Araujo

"look at the wind and swell charts and the isobar charts, understand where the swell is coming from and what might be affecting it before it hits the coast." - TONY BUTT

ES: If you were to hand in advice to someone hoping to improve their surf forecasting, what would you say?

TB: Don’t just rely on the typical information that surfing websites feed you.  Sometimes you need to go back and look at the wind and swell charts and the isobar charts, understand where the swell is coming from and what might be affecting it before it hits the coast. You also need local knowledge to make a proper forecast for a specific spot.

 "For me, keeping healthy and feeling alive is more important than having a large car or a lot of money" - TONY BUTT

ES: Well I hope your messages keeps getting out there – I think its crucial

TB: I think so too - many people, including me, think that there is ‘something wrong’ with modern society and it needs fixing. Technology is advancing exponentially, we are extracting and consuming resources and altering our environment at an ever-increasing rate, but there is no evidence that any of it is making us any happier. For me, keeping healthy and feeling alive is more important than having a large car or a lot of money. Perhaps we would all be better off if the small percentage of people who control the resources that belong to all of us could realize that having a million times more money doesn’t make them a million times happier.  I know, some of them are psychopaths, so it might be difficult.


ERIK SUMARKHO

The Venezuelan guy next to you in the line up.

He is a qualified Environmental Manager, with a curiosity for the intricate systems behind sustainability, particularly ecotourism and the surf industry.