Surfers of UC San Diego: Chad Butler ’97

SWITCHFOOT drummer Chad Butler ’97 on stage behind the drumset. Photo by Erick Frost.

Before you could find Chad Butler ’97 on stage behind the drumset of the Grammy-winning band, SWITCHFOOT, you could find him and other members of the group surfing in between classes down at Black’s Beach. The band is so addicted to surfing their name is a reference to standing in the opposite position on a board. The group still lives in San Diego and surfs regularly–here, Butler relives his days in the waves. 

Chad Butler ’97
▪ College: Marshall
▪ Major: History
▪ Hometown: Carlsbad, CA
▪ Currently Lives: Encinitas, CA
▪ Career: Drummer & Co-Founder – Switchfoot

What inspired you to join the UC San Diego surf team?

The summer before my freshman year I started going to Black’s with a friend of mine from high school. I was excited that I was going to be living down there and wanted to get familiar with that beach. Freshman year I tried out for the team thinking I wasn’t good enough to make it. But somehow I made the B team and I was so excited. I mean, I’d tried out for the surf team in high school and didn’t make it. So the fact that I made the surf team when I got into college, was it a big confidence boost for me. I was also on during the years we won the national championships, making us the most successful team on campus. So, you know, we didn’t have a football team, but we had a great surf team—that was our bragging rights.

When did you first start surfing?

In junior high I started surfing in the dark every morning before school, and it just became a real commitment for me. I really wanted to learn how to surf. I didn’t have a coach, just learned the hard way, by trial and error.

Then when I was in high school I started teaching surfing in the summers to junior high and high school kids. Eventually after I got to UC San Diego, I got a job in the rec department and after a while became the rec surf instructor—I taught for three or four years. That was a great job. I realized that seeing the joy of somebody else experience what I’ve grown to love is more fulfilling actually than doing it myself. I especially enjoyed how there were so many international students from all over the world that would come to San Diego and want to learn to surf. So to be a kind of ambassador for the sport really gave me a lot of fulfillment.

You were also captain of the surf team—what was that like?

When I was on the B Team I had this old Toyota minivan that had seven or eight seats in it, so we would just throw all the boards on the roof, throw eight dudes in there and cruise up the coast. For that reason, I kind of became the organizer of trips, or at least helping our captain, Brian Sanders, do it. I guess he just saw a natural handoff to have me take it over my junior year. I remember standing up in front at the first meeting that year—an informational meeting for maybe 30 or 40 people interested in trying out—and I remember suddenly getting nervous that I was the guy taking it over. Like, this is a big deal. I was up there with a lump in my throat—“Hi, I’m Chad, I’m the captain.” But after that, it just became really natural and fun and we just loved planning all the events and making great memories.

UC San Diego surf team, circa mid-90’s.

What did you gain the most from your experience on the team?

If I hadn’t been a part of the surf team, I think my social friend group would certainly have been a lot smaller. When I started as a freshman, it was such an amazing thing to suddenly be hanging out with all these older, cooler, better surfers. And they were looking out for me, too. Then when we began to travel and surf against these other schools, there was this amazing camaraderie and bonding that happened by driving around the coast to new surf spots, meeting other surfers on other teams. That time you spend together on the beach or surfing and cheering each other on—it was a wonderful time of my life. Some incredible friendships came out of that surf team; guys that I still stay in touch with even all over the world. Occasionally when I’m traveling, I’ll look them up and get to surf with them like old times.

Do you have a moment that sticks in your mind from Black’s?

Yeah, it was the fall of my freshman year and it was the first proper Northwest swell of the winter. It’s probably in October, November, maybe. And I had surfed Blacks for just a couple months at that point. I’d gotten used to the waves and stuff, but never seen it really do its thing. And I remember it was a foggy day, you know, where you couldn’t really see the waves from the beach. We paddled out and and realized it was much bigger than anything I’d surfed before, probably double overhead. And it was really barreling, really low tide hollow. And I somehow got to where I stood up and the wave just pitched out—it was the first time I can remember standing in a real tube. I was probably 18 and it just changed my life. It’s like time slows down. Such a very short moment, but if you do it right, it’s truly like a magical natural cave that you’re standing in for a second or so.

I probably surfed that beach twice, three times a day for the next four years. Just trying to get that feeling back. It’s a real addicting feeling—once you’ve experienced it, you’ll do anything to paddle back out and get another one. And suddenly you end up surfing three times a day for the rest of your college career. My grades probably suffered—had I not experienced that, I’d probably have had a better GPA.

SWITCHFOOT’s Chad Butler ’97 still lives and surfs regularly in San Diego. Photo by Erick Frost

What would you like to share with someone thinking about joining the UC San Diego Surf Team?

I couldn’t recommend it more. It’s one of the most amazing memories I have of my college experience. Looking back, it’s probably one of the healthiest, most fun organizations on campus. You’re hanging out all day with people at the beach, traveling around, meeting other college students from all over California—it’s a great way to meet people and to see other beaches around the area. So yeah, if you’re thinking about joining the surf team, I highly recommend you do.

Read more Q&A’s with UC San Diego surfers here.

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