Sam Bleakley: Surfing through world culture

Posted - News Posted for World Surfing News.

A UK based surfing geographer, Sam Bleakley has made a life of exploring and celebrating the grassroots surfing communities in misrepresented countries across the globe.

Sam Bleakley has carved out a unique niche in the world of surfing. 

Instead of chasing the world’s best waves and best athletes, he’s gone the polar opposite route – seeking out the nascent, vibrant surfing communities in non-traditional surfing nations around the world. 

Sam’s life journey from being a professional longboarder, to geographer, to TV host / producer, to ISA and WSL announcer has taken him all over the world and provided him with a globally encompassing insight into surfing that is matched by few, if any.

The ISA caught up with Sam to unravel his experiences and perspective on the growth and development of surfing around the globe.

Meet Britain’s surfer, geographer, producer, author, father, husband, traveler and announcer, Sam Bleakley.

Sam Bleakley surfs a wave on a longboard in Madagascar.

Sam hanging five in Madagascar.

1) Surfing has become a vehicle for you to travel and experience the world. What is unique about surfing, in particular, that allows you to transcend cultures and connect with people?

Wrapped in a transparent cloak of seawater and spray, surfing is one of the few activities that takes you out of your comfort zone by immersion in a liquid environment. So I think the deepest connection surfing allows is one with the environment. But while travel and exploration is a big part of surfing for me, I’ve always wanted to take surfing beyond the wave, to a wider sense of place – to people in concert with landscape, and to cultural exchange.

Surfing can be such a powerful way for a local community to develop confidence, resilience, pride and stewardship of their local environment. This is really apparent in the likes of post war and post Ebola Liberia and Sierra Leone. Both countries have developed vibrant local surf cultures in front of the left points at Robertsport and Bureh Beach respectively. I first visited Liberia in 2006. Monrovia had just turned the streetlights on for the first time in 15 years.

2) How did you fall into your current line of work — which most would consider a dream job — filming your travel to foreign surf cultures in the series Brilliant Corners? 

A number of years ago I set out to produce and present a series of documentaries exploring emerging surf cultures, and capturing the power of surfing for social good. With a Spartan budget (first raised via University research grants while I was doing my PhD) I shot the first three episodes in Haiti, Jamaica and Barbados to cut my teeth (with no prior training as a filmmaker or presenter). Aiming to have five shows per series, the project came together with Liberia and China episodes and a distribution agreement from XTreme Video.

I upped the ante in the next season documenting Sierra Leone, Oman, Ghana, The Philippines and Mauritania. The template was fairly experimental: not the best surfers in the best waves (which the surf filmmaking world does very well indeed), but narrative based journeys to celebrate (what I believe to be) misrepresented places, and empower local surfers as ambassadors within their communities. I wanted to showcase surfing as dance, the lyricism of travel, and document often overlooked art, landscape, music and carnival, with no rules to play by.

When the WSL launched WSL Studios, Erik Logan got in touch to see if I’d be keen to start doing the show with them. He’d spotted it on other platforms. It was a golden opportunity. I could tell he had a real passion to support content that celebrated all those powerful stories in surfing that were not getting shared – such as emerging surf cultures, adventure and discovery that engaged more with the place than the waves, and the increasing participation of multi-ethnic and multi-ability backgrounds in waveriding. The current season features Madagascar, Papua New Guinea, India, Senegal and Algeria — and I have a new season in the pipeline.

Sam Bleakley reads a map in a car in Madagascar.

Scoping out the next destination in Madagascar.

3) What is the most interesting/unique location that surfing has taken you? What about it was so special?

Two big commitments I made – to research a PhD and start making the Brilliant Corners travel series – both started through a deep fascination with Haiti. My PhD researched Haiti through the lens of travel writing and mapping of surf breaks. And while I was doing that I applied for a research grant for creative storytelling, and I thought it would be really exciting to explore making a presenter led surf travel film on Haiti alongside my ongoing PhD. That was the start of Brilliant Corners. Regularly portrayed as one of the economically poorest countries in the Americas – with a history shaped by vodou and political and environmental disasters – I was driven to showcase the thriving art, music, carnival and coastline of Haiti. Of course, like everywhere, it has its challenges, but at the time (back then there were only a handful of surfers, now the scene has grown), the local crew were delighted with the way their culture was celebrated in the film. And if the locals are stoked with what I produce, I’m stoked. 

I am also a huge fan of African culture, and the vast and varied African continent. I love arriving in apocalyptic African cities and experiencing the music and energy of these places. I’ve cut my teeth exploring surf on this continent (long before doing the films travelling on photo and writing projects to publish in magazines with photographer John Callahan), starting in sweltering cities with an irresistible buzz, then surfing point breaks through the likes of Liberia, Sierra Leone, Ghana, Gabon, Mauritania, Western Sahara, Algeria, Kenya, Madagascar and beyond. Outside of the more established surf communities in Morocco and South Africa, the rewards are the charisma of the people, their resilience in the face of adversity, and the grassroots surf scenes that steward long and lonely waves with an infectious joie de vivre. These underground scenes excite me far more than the established surfing coastlines that have produced our world champions. Going down to the basement places and the cinder-glow they exert there are untold riches. But existence here can be challenging and confusing, nights hot and pungent like sulphur. The music follows the same tracks, right in your face, up close, hammering on the chest and ringing in the ears. But I always come back for more because the beat of these places is infectious. 

4) What is the most valuable lesson that you have learned in your travels? 

Lately I’ve really enjoyed learning about one of the most progressive models of surf tourism management on the planet in Papua New Guinea. Of course the lifestyles of people across this vast country vary enormously, but over 85% of the population of 8 million live across the diverse rural landscape in villages or hamlets. The clan forms the major unit of social organisation. Depending on the area, descent and land rights are claimed either through the mother or the father in matrilineal or patrilineal systems. Complex traditional laws govern the use of coastal land and fringing reefs where family clans are the custodians of surfing resources. The Surfing Association of Papua New Guinea have translated this into a surf resource management plan that puts the local community at the heart of the development, so revenue goes directly into the area. Instead of a foreign led, top-down approach, they have a bottom-up, community-centered approach that keeps the local community as key decision makers in the management of their own resources. They have done some powerful work in tackling gender inequalities through the so-called ‘pink nose revolution’. Basically, as the surf clubs were getting boards donated, in order to stop the boys from taking ownership of all them in the more patrilineal areas, painting the noses of half of them pink, female surfers are given exclusive ownership and their equal status is made visible. This is a simple but powerful tool to promote women’s participation in surfing.

Sam Bleakley speaks with locals in Madagascar.

Sam taking time to get to know the locals.

5) What person has left the longest, lasting impression on you? 

My late great college geography teacher Barry Blamey. He gave me a lot of confidence and belief to use my love of geography in everything I do. A love of geography drew me to surf adventure. Barry Blamey helped me gain a place to study geography at the University of Cambridge, and that gave me a particular approach to researching places that fed into my work as a surfer, writer and editor.

6) Where is the next frontier for surfing, in your opinion?

Probably an unexpected answer, but I believe that our relationship with our home breaks and local coastlines is such a key frontier for the sustainable future of surfing. As waveriding continues to rise in popularity, the way we manage our local spots with regards to carrying capacity and the role surfing plays in the local economy and community is vital. Overcrowding and coastal pollution are two huge issues we need to actively engage with in a future facing way, and I think national governing surfing bodies have exciting opportunities to focus on this beyond the current focus on competition and national surf teams.

As far as emerging surf cultures, India excites me tremendously. There is over 7,500 km (4,700 miles) of coastline of this vast sub-continent, and both the east and west coasts receive consistent swell from the Indian Ocean, as do two well-placed archipelagos: the Andaman and Lakshadweep Islands. Although still small, the local surf culture is vibrant, and growing fast, with clubs, grassroots surf-brands, young rippers and the Surfing Federation of India (SFI) organising surf instructor courses through the ISA. 

Sam Bleakley makes a shaka with his hand with children in Papua New Guinea.

The future shredders of Papua New Guinea.

7) What is a typical day in your life like when you are back home in Cornwall? 

The summer and winter routines are so different. In mid-summer you can surf before 5 am and up until 10 pm here in Cornwall in the UK. In mid-winter it’s dark by 5 pm. And the tides are a huge part of surfing in the UK, with shifting sand bars that will work at different tides on different swells. So I do my best to adapt to the conditions to surf at my local beach most days of the week. But my general routine is up at 5 am to get a couple of hours work in either preparing for Brilliant Corners editing, or other tasks, before the kids wake up at 7 am. During school terms the pattern until 9 am is getting the kids to school. Then if we’re on Brilliant Corners editing (which has been almost full-time for the past few years), I work in an office a short drive from the house with an editor and friend called Robin Simpson until 3 pm or 5 pm depending on work load, from Monday to Friday. I squeeze in surfs around that, and surf more on the weekends when I also do stuff with the kids.

8) What has been the most challenging obstacle to overcome in your life journey?

Having kids is one of the most wonderful and challenging things you can do. And introducing them to surfing is a real rollercoaster. I worked so carefully to introduce surfing to my kids in a positive and safe way, trying to strike the right balance so they didn’t get intimidated when they were small, but began to enjoy pushing themselves in the challenges of bigger and better conditions. Thankfully today my kids are hooked on the intense moments of pleasure that a surf can bring, and they love the sea, while my dad (who taught me to surf), is now in well into his 70s, and still surfing daily. 

9) At what point did you realize that you could make a career out of surfing, doing what you love?

I studied geography at the University of Cambridge, and that gave me a particular approach to working extremely hard with everything I do. I also became obsessive about researching places that fed into my work as a surf traveler, writer and editor. I had a long period of time with a full-time professional surf contract and salary from the French surf wear brand Oxbow that started whilst at University in 1998 and lasted until 2010. And although I was competing regularly at world longboard tour events, what I really focused on was surf exploration – working mostly with photographer John Callahan (often to politically difficult and complex places) and writing travel pieces for magazines (that fuelled my surf sponsorship through good coverage). It was a sustainable formula, and meant when the Oxbow deal ended I still had other sponsorship deals until 2014. 

When the magazine pay started to decline between 2010 and 2014 I started to focus more on book work, and took on a full-time lecturing job in Cultural Tourism at Falmouth University. But I was unhappy with the academic life, so went back to the (more precarious but more exciting) self-employed freelance role and really pushed the film work and also surf event commentary (which I love doing). These tasks (and ongoing books) continue to be my main source of income.

Sam Bleakley rides the nose of his longboard in Papua New Guinea.

Sam surfs his way through an empty Papua New Guinea lineup.

10) How has the pandemic affected your work for Brilliant Corners, as well as personal life?

Thankfully I had filmed two new Brilliant Corners locations in Senegal and Algeria before the lockdown. It takes three months of editing and post-production work to get each location ready for broadcast (there are three episodes per country), so I have been blessed with a solid six months of editing work. Of course with the kids being home-schooled it’s been a much different routine during the pandemic, but I have really enjoyed helping them with their school work, surfing more often with them at our backyard beach, and seeing them grow in confidence and become more independent over the last five months. In October the Algeria episodes will be finished and ready to broadcast, so I will be aiming to get out into the wider world and film one or two new locations before Christmas. The current planning for this is clearly limited to places in the travel corridors for me and the European crew I’ll most likely work with (where we won’t need to quarantine on arrival). But the territory is changing rapidly, so I have a few possible stories and will be ready to commit at the last moment based on the pandemic situation. Although I do a tremendous amount of planning for a Brilliant Corners shoot, waiting until the last moment to press the green light on a trip is nothing new because a lot of the places I visit are known for their political, social or environmental instability, therefore I always have to keep a close eye on current affairs. It won’t be easy, but I’ll try and embrace the challenge in a positive way that will hopefully be a benefit for the locations visited in the films. Clearly the pandemic has changed the landscape and culture of surf travel, but I am excited to be collaborating with surf communities around the world to develop future-facing and more sustainable ways for surf events and small-scale surf tourism to continue to exist in a positive way.  

11) Any advice for aspiring story tellers like yourself getting their careers started?

I think a trip to surf gives an immediate sense of direction and purpose. I was actually having a surf yesterday with an old friend, and he remarked how he loved the Brilliant Corners Madagascar film where I said… “We could fly direct into the southwest and the heartbeat of a swell, but we’d miss half the adventure and the chance to see the body of Madagascar, so hire a buxis van and trusted driver for the two day road trip leaving early the following morning…” He said it was nice to be reminded about how important that is. I’ve always believed that the journey is the destination. 

I thinking carrying the burden of our carbon footprint, it’s essential that all travel has some kind of local benefit. The obvious things are spreading money into communities through buying local food and supporting locally owned and run accommodation providers. If you’re going to go down the aid work direction, it’s really important to appreciate the context of what you are supporting. Many off-the-beaten track areas that surfers might want to explore may be post conflict or post environmental disaster. There is always a delicate balance between culture and resources, and it’s crucial to really try to get under the skin of these issues if you want to help make a positive impact.