A leisurely chat with New Zealand Maori Kehu Butler

Surfers are inherently connected to the ocean because of the joy and stoke it provides us. Most of us have a vivid memory of our first wave and where it was ridden. Wherever you dig your feet into the wax and get your sea legs is where the foundation is set. 

Some of us are lucky enough to grow up along wave-rich coastlines, others aren't. Regardless, where you're raised as a surfer plays into the perspective you bring into wave-riding wherever you go. We're fond of peeling the layers back with some of our crew and getting to know what molds them into the surfers they are today, especially when they're from epic places.

Enter 18 year old Kehu Butler, a WQS grinding, rugby-loving Maori from Mount Maunganui, a small town on New Zealand's north island. For a country as beautiful and vast as New Zealand, a population of only 4 million works in Kehu's favor when it comes to hunting waves. Get to know Kehu, what it's like to grow up in New Zealand and what it means to be Maori in the fourth edition of A Leisurely Chat.

Post-surf rinse at Keramas

How did you first get introduced to surfing?

I got into surfing through my family. My great grandparents all the way down to me. My dad and my grand-dad took me to the beach when I was around 5 years old and chucked me on a surfboard. I've had the bug since then.

Kehu's Grandfather, also a proud Maori and a surfer

Any early memories of riding waves or being on a surfboard?

One of my first memories surfing is being tossed around in white wash on the foamy. Dad pushed me off on my stomach and I was just gliding and cruising then he yelled “stand up, stand up” so I jumped up. Since then I've loved everything about surfing and being in the ocean.

Where did you grow up surfing?

I grew up surfing at a place called Mount Maunganui on the east coast of New Zealand. There aren’t many waves so it was a good place to learn. As I got older and a bit better we started surfing the west coast, places like Raglan and surrounding areas. From there I just started to travel and adventure the coast a bit more for waves. 

How has growing up there shaped who you are today?

Being from the Mount, the waves are so small so whenever we got waves I was always frothing to surf. When it was one foot I would be out there surfing all day. I think that shaped me into the type of surfer I am now and made me grateful whenever I was surfing decent waves. I think to myself to maximise every surf session I get which is a product of the environment I grew up in as a surfer.

Kehu, readying for a surf near home

What's New Zealand like for those who have never been? 

New Zealand is a beautiful place. It’s full of greenery, the people are nice, the food is great. I love it here. The waves can get really good with hardly anyone out because of how cold it gets. You just have to rug up, throw your wetty and booties on and get after it. That's the beauty of living in New Zealand as a surfer though. 

Any surfing idols or heroes growing up? 

I always looked up to Kelly Slater and Tom Curren. I loved watching their surfing and their flow on waves. Also, a few guys around home I really looked up to - Matt Hewitt, Alex Dive, Tim O'Connell helped me heaps and took me under their wing to help shape the surfer I am today.

Where do you currently live? Any favourite aspects of living there?

I still live in the town I grew up in, Mount Maunginui, which is nice. My favourite thing about living here is the people. The people are so genuine and nice. Coming back from traveling and the QS’ life, home feels so comfortable. I’m surrounded by great people, friends, family and a community that is always supporting me.

You're a proud Maori - tell us about the culture and what it means to you..

The Maori culture is amazing. I’m so proud to be Maori and have it in my blood. All the local Maori are super nice and humble. It means a lot being a Maori while I’m traveling out in the world. I can express it through my surfing and my travels which is fun.

What does a typical day at home look like for you? 

On a normal day, I’ll wake up early and then call my mates and tell em to get out of bed and get down to the beach. We’ll go for a dawny then come in, go for a coffee, grab a feed and then check the waves again. If there’s waves we’ll surf again and then usually head back home and watch the footage of the session. Maybe a third surf if we’re keen, if not we’ll usually go play some rugby down at the fields to mix it up. Beyond that just cruise for the rest of the day.

Kehu scoring at home

What about when it’s flat?

I do a lot of training and stretching as well as playing footy/rugby with my mates. Outside of that catching up and hanging out with friends and staying active.

After surfing good waves for a few hours, what is your favourite post surf food?

After surfing for a few hours I love to eat an indigenous traditional New Zealand dish called a ‘hangi’ . You chuck a bunch of meat and veggies under the ground to cook and then you pull it out and just go ham on it. Not the healthiest but after a long surf it makes me full and happy.

Alright, lets get dig into surfing a bit..

What does good surfing look like in your eyes?

Good surfing to me is just having fun and enjoying the ocean. I don’t care about big airs or big carves, it’s all about having fun. To see people happy out in the water makes everyone else happy.

What are your top 3 surf travel locations and why?

Most memorable trips would be France – the waves were maxing when I was there, the water wasn’t too cold and it was just heaps of fun. Hawaii is always sick. Mentawai’s as well – you get to surf good waves literally every single day. By the last few days you get picky but the waves are always so much fun. Those are probably my three most memorable surf trips at this point.

Your best session ever..

The best surf session I’ve ever had was at home. There’s this island you get to by jet-ski and it’s just perfect a-frame peaks everywhere when it’s on. One day, me and my mates had no school so we went over there and got stand-up barrels for like six hours straight. We were hooting each other on every wave it was insane. We came home almost crying because we were so hungry and dehydrated but it was worth it haha.

A sharp vertical approach from the proud Maori kid (Photo: Bosko)

What kind of music are you listening to pre-heat?

I listen to a lot of Taylor Swift, haha no I am just kidding. That’s definitely not me. I like to listen to a lot of Hawaiian and New Zealand reggae. It keeps me cruisey which is when I perform my best; when I’m carefree and enjoying my time in competitions. I like keeping it kicked back.

What about pre free surf, any favourite surf videos that you amp on?

I like Griffin and Ethan Ewing’s instagram videos. They're free-surfing videos are so fun to watch. Griffin has that raw aggressive style and Ethan is so smooth – it’s a good mix to get amped up on.

What’s your biggest motivating factor before beginning an event?

I just always think about my family and friends back at home and how grateful I am to be living this life. I have so many great people supporting me on this journey so thinking about them gets me through the tougher times traveling and in events.

Kehu showcasing a fierce competitive spirit en route to his win at the Skull Candy Junior Pro in Cronulla  

What are you trying to achieve in surfing?

I’d like to qualify for the WQS primes next year – that’s definitely my top goal alongside building my profile and most importantly enjoying surfing and being a good human being overall.

There’s no NZ representation on the tour right now, and I think Ricardo Christie was the last. Is that on your mind, qualifying and representing NZ?

Oh of course. I’d love to make the tour one day and fly the NZ flag. Ricardo is amazing, he’s another guy that has taken me under his wing and taught me a lot from what he has learned over the years. I would love to be on that tour. Hopefully some day..

What do you love most about the lifestyle you lead?

What I love most is making new friends and enjoying a job that doesn’t feel like a job.

Pre-surf prep

What’s the most challenging part of your job? What is the most rewarding?

The most challenging thing is losing. I don’t like losing or having those off-moments in competition when nothing seems to go your way. That is tough. The most rewarding is obviously winning and enjoying the time in front of you with friends and family. 

What’s your biggest achievement so far – that moment when you hit cloud nine?

My Pro Junior win down at Trigg Beach in Western Australia for sure. (Since then Kehu won the Skull Candy Junior Pro in Lennox Head and placed runner-up at the Hydralyte Sports Pro Junior Cronulla)

Recently crowned Australasia champ Kehu Butler after his runner-up in Cronulla


Lets step outside surfing/competing for a bit…

If you weren’t a surfer, what would you be?

I think I would be playing rugby either in Australia or New Zealand. I always wanted to be a rugby player, looking up to the All Blacks when I was a kid -it's a big thing in New Zealand.

If you were stuck on a remote island and could choose one person and one thing to bring along… 

I’d probably bring my mate Billy so we could laugh to death and of course a surfboard so we could have a surf before we die.

Kehu and friends scouting out what peak to tackle somewhere on the gold coast (Photo: Heywood)

If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be?

Probably the Gold Coast, Australia. The lifestyle on the Goldie is so good and the waves are amazing.  There is a bit of a crowd but there's always back beaches to go to. Oh, and a lot of beautiful woman which is a plus!

What’s next for you – any trips, events, adventures planned?

The rest of the year is pretty busy, chasing the WQS around the globe. I'll just be on the grind, getting work done and then going to Hawaii at the end of the year and back home for Christmas

Liftoff, New Zealand style

Follow Kehu on his WQS grind and around home in New Zealand @kehu_butler.