Pro-surfer Sam Bleakley has surfed in nearly 60 countries, from the crystal waters of Gwenver in Cornwall to the powerful point breaks in Sierra Leone. Here, he talks about his favourite surfing moments, competing in international events, and how he will be offering longboard workshops at Soul & Surf’s retreats in India and Sri Lanka
Was it always your dream to be a pro-surfer?
When I was young, I never imagined it would be possible to be a professional surfer. I grew up with a beach family in Cornwall, so I was usually with my sisters and parents at Gwenver or Sennen in the summer, and Perranuthnoe in the winter. I started surfing aged five, thanks to my dad who also grew up in Cornwall. An important step for surfing was spending 1987/88 in the USA because my dad did a university lecturing work exchange. We were based in Virginia on the East Coast, but spent the summer visiting friends in California. I was eight years old and normally surfed with my dad pushing me into the waves. At San Onofre, I went solo, paddling out beyond the whitewater.
Fellow Cornishman and close family friend, Paul Holmes, had loaned me a 6’ 0” channel-bottomed five-finned board shaped by Hawaiian Brian Bulkley. To me, a gangly kid, it was perfectly crafted and totally magic. Paul was the then editor of Surfer magazine (thus a big hero). He had an injured shoulder from a trip to Bali, so I stroked into a set wave alone as he watched from the beach. It turned green, peaked, and as it broke I took off, angled and found trim. I rode its entire length, locked in the pocket. That wave was a defining moment. Paul gave me the board and I took it home to Cornwall in ’88. It set me up for life. After that I real felt comfortable surfing, and from aged nine onwards became a fanatic.
I shortboarded full-time until aged 15 when the longboard renaissance was taking off in Europe in the early 1990s. But I had always considered surfing a holistic sport that involved riding all boards. Ever since I can remember we had bigger boards in the house for smaller days in the summer. From watching Billy Hamilton surfing as Matt Johnson in the film Big Wednesday and Hal Jepson films of the Malibu stars, such as Lance Carson, I had learnt how to cross stop and hang five on small summer days from ages 12 to 15. But on anything over knee high I rode shortboards.
Then French boardsports brand, Oxbow, ran a European tour with Joel Tudor and Nat Young in the early 1990s. They visited Cornwall and I was so inspired by their style and ability that Dad and I got hold of some of the new longboarding videos coming out of California (On Safari To Stay, with Joel Tudor and Robert ‘Wingnut’ Weaver). When I realised that there were now young surfers involved in the longboard renaissance I felt like it would be an important movement for the future of surfing. Bigger boards suited my height, style and technique, and although I kept shortboarding, it was longboarding that I really felt at home with. I loved the flow and footwork that turned longboarding into a graceful and poetic dance act, from take off to kick out.
Competitive success and sponsorship in followed. However, at that point I was equally passionate about geography and culture, and was hoping to either become a travel writer or a geography academic, always aware that I would keep surfing central to my life as it was both an obsession and an essential element to both my physical and mental wellbeing and creativity. During my A levels I had secured fairly solid product-based surfing sponsorship, but was super ambitious to study Geography at Cambridge University. I got a place, had a fantastic gap year surfing, teaching surfing, travelling, snowboarding, teaching snowboarding and more surfing…and arrived at Cambridge. I missed the ocean like crazy, and weekend trips back to the coast in Cornwall only served to heighten my passion for waves.
The best surfer is the one having the most fun. To have fun you have to be safe
Time away from the sea inspired me to really become more of a scholar of surfing, from studying the best in magazines and videos (back in the VHS days) to hinging everything I wanted to learn studying geography about oceans, meteorology, coastlines, cultures, history and travel around surfing. In my summer break between the first and second year I was competing on the British, European and some World Tour events in longboarding and became a Cornish, English, British and European Champion in a the space of a few months. That competitive success attracted a salaried sponsorship from Oxbow (long-time supporters of longboarding) and so began my official professional surfing career while still studying.
I knew I could combine my passion for travel and writing with surfing, not only competing but working within the surf media, both appearing in photo and film shoots and also writing for surf magazines and writing surf based books. The combination of skills increased my longterm value for the surfing brands as I was able to work for them at many levels, both as an athlete, ambassador and a creative writer/ reporter/content editor. The juggle was tough, but I graduated the same month that I defended a European title. I soon had a fairly good balance set up of contests, surf writing work and travel trips with photographers and filmmakers. So I was able to launch straight into a surf career. I really found my niche when I started working with photographer John Callahan as he specialised in exploring and documenting remote and unsurfed areas. I could also write a lot of the features to accompany the images published. That immediately fuelled my love of geography, travel, surfing and writing.
What makes a great surfer?
The best surfer is the one having the most fun. To have fun you have to be safe. Being safe means choosing sensible equipment for your level and waves that suit your level, recognizing your limits, but also fuelling your ambitions to ride in new places and breaks that allow you to both enjoy and improve, but not get intimidated. Once all those ingredients are there, waves and surfing will carve an unforgettable smile on your face until the sun tips whole into plum coloured sea, and you are the only one left out, already planning the dawn patrol. The ‘feeling’ of surfing is always compelling, and addictive, no matter what level you are at. We are all sharing the same priceless experiences of adrenaline, fear and fulfilment.
We are all sharing the same priceless experiences of adrenaline, fear and fulfilment
My father has surfed since 1965. He’s not the highest skilled surfer I know, but he has heartfelt wisdom from surfing and he knows that he loves small clean right handers with minimal crowds. Therefore he knows how to enjoy himself in the waves.
Currently, a highlight in surfing for me is sharing waves with my eight-year-old daughter, Lola. I first put her on a board in warmwater waves (in Barbados) at four months, and aged three she stood alone in trim (in China) for the first time. She then started surfing summers in Cornwall, and aged five began to join me even in the winter with a warm wetsuit. Seeing her learn to read the waves and the ocean currents and swells is really special. Learning about the coastal environment is essential to have fun in surfing and be a ‘great’ surfer. My two-year-old son, Ruben, has not travelled away from Cornwall yet, so has not enjoyed the hotwater initiation to waveriding that Lola had. However, in the Cornish summer he loves getting in the water and I hope this summer he’ll be up-and-riding.
Where are the best places you’ve surfed in the world?
My home break at Gwenver is gold dust to me – the gorse-clad cliffs, the bright granite, the quartz sand, the clear water. I love to travel, but coming home and getting into the rhythm of writing work and a sequence of sessions at Gwenver is priceless. Gwenver is just north of Sennen Cove near Land’s End. Due to the granite and quartz white sand, the water is like crystal, and one of those warm snaps between May and October can deliver colours and experiences in the waves that I’ve had nowhere else – rainbow spray combed off the back of waves on offshore days, seals, dolphins, basking sharks, and a local landscape that inspires me. But the UK can also be challenging when winter depressions set in and summer drizzle takes over. I can handle that and embrace it, but clearly also love the kiss of warm sun and hot water.
I have been to nearly 60 countries now, and while the highest quality waves are undeniably in Indonesia. I have developed a particular interest with West African culture, and the upbeat polyrhythmic music reflecting the ingenuity and charisma of the people in the face of hardships that would crush the pampered Westerner. I particularly like the long powerful pointbreaks in Ghana, Liberia and Sierra Leone. A single off-the-beaten path trip to West Africa might pack more bone-shaking and head-spinning moments into a few weeks than many will experience in a lifetime. But Haïti, in the Caribbean, is the most exhilarating and vibrant place I have ever been. Despite the hardships and disasters, there is no poverty of spirit in Haïti.
Travelling both with our surfEXPLORE group and via a part-time PhD I am researching, I have meticulously explored the entire coast of Haïti for surf and mapped countless beautiful empty waves. I am hoping to collaborate with Soul & Surf to offer some fantastic adventure trips for all levels of surfers to some thrilling places in the Caribbean, Africa and Asia.
You’ve competed in numerous international events over the years. Are there any that stand out?
There have been some beauties, from Wales to the Netherlands to Spain, France and Portugal, to California and Australia. But highlights have been Jeffery’s Bay in South Africa, Cabo San Lucas in Mexico, Raglan in New Zealand and Pasta Point in the Maldives. It was incredible to be involved in the augural international events in Riyue Wan, Hainan China, and those early grassroots contests have been priceless.
Recently Soul & Surf India ran the first local surf comp for the Varkala Pirates Surf Club in Kerala. Other surfers from the region attended, and it was a pleasure to both judge and be involved in. Emerging surf cultures fascinate, motivate and inspire me, so seeing the new scene in Kerala come together for a surf carnival was incredible.
You also dabble in writing and film-making. Can you explain a little about these ventures?
Writing has always gone hand-in-hand with my work in surfing. It started with penning reports on contests, to writing travel articles, to editing annual longboard specials of magazines, to having surf and travel columns. That led to editing books and writing books, including Surfing Brilliant Corners and Surfing Tropical Beats (which also has a limited print run in simplified Mandarin Chinese), The Longboard Travel Guide: a guide to the world’s best longboard waves, and Mindfulness & Surfing: reflections for saltwater souls (out in May 2016). I’ve edited a surf history book called The Surfing Tribe: a history of British surfing, and Looking for Something to Find (a surfer’s biography) and contributed to many chapters in surf books and surf guide books. I also do a lot of online writing work and am currently a creative writer for The Wave UK who are building a surfing lake in Bristol.
So writing is clearly flagged up as a profession for me. Filmmaking, however is new. I have regularly worked with film crews either starring in action sports movies or documentaries (in fact our surfEXPLORE group are currently doing a documentary series with a French production company called Puzzlemedia and French TV, having shot the first two episodes in Madagascar and the Philippines). I became interested in exploring presenter led surf travel films on emerging surf cultures and locations that could be celebrated positively (or re-represented by using surfing to get under the skin of the places).
Framing longboarding as dance, beautifully shot surf sequences had to be elemental, but these needed to be interspersed with a presenter led adventure both exploring the places, getting to know the people, meeting the emerging local surf cultures and capturing them in a positive way, as I believe they are ambassadors for their local communities (sometimes through sustainable tourism, cultural exchange and environmental awareness). It was a fairly creative idea, so rather than being disappointed with pitching it to funders and getting no for an answer (often the case with more avant garde experimental projects), I raised the money via grants and sponsorships, chose a small team, and made a series of presenter led surf travel films myself. The series is called Brilliant Corners, and I have episodes on China, Haiti, Liberia, Jamaica and Barbados. An action sports distribution company called XTreme Video agreed to distribute the shows (all 52 minutes long) and I have been showing them at Soul & Surf screenings, followed by Q & As. Brilliant Corners will become a processionals series and I plan to shoot new episodes this summer.
How are you involved with the travel collective surfEXPLORE?
surfEXPLORE is an international team led by John Callahan (Hawaiian, lives in Singapore), Erwan Simon (French), Emiliano Cataldi (Italian, lives in Australia) and I. We specialise in researching and producing groundbreaking exploration projects to create the highest level of surf travel photography, writing and film, and convey important environmental and social messages. Our group has a wonderful alchemy – and that’s why the projects are so interesting and successful. We are good friends, but have a professional approach to the projects – a motivation to surf hard, but also, an educated eye for the context of the trip and a commitment to explore and better understand the culture, landscape and history. We also accept the challenges of exploratory travel: no matter how much planning you do, sometimes everything goes wrong and you have to adapt, improvise and stay positive. Everyone has certain skill sets that they can spring into action whenever necessary. The group dynamic is outstanding.
We think our multicultural background is one of our key strengths, as most groups of this kind are all one nationality or common language. We are all well educated and with our different cultural backgrounds we can come up with a range of ideas to solve problems. The straightforward American or more subtle English way doesn’t always work, so we can try a more refined French or Italian approach until we find a solution that works, which we have done, many times. Having native French, English and Italian speakers is a major asset as we can communicate well in nearly any part of the world we may find ourselves, looking for new waves. Emi is especially valuable, as he speaks good Italian, English, French and Bahasa Indonesian.
We are a multi-skilled team, and that is one of the many advantages of surfEXPLORE. But we also work hard to stay ahead of the game with our special skills: John is a startlingly skilled photographer, and continually studying and exploring emerging technologies in the field. Erwan is an incredible researcher. He often spends hours in newsagents looking through all different types of magazines (from climbing to sailing) to find inspiring travel locations. Emi is a engineer, which makes him a brilliant asset with all things technological. He works as a hot-air-ballooning pilot in Byron Bay and is also a fantastic meteorologist, essential for surf forecasting. I’m really focused on writing, which often means an obsessive amount of research, studying and reading either side of the project to pen a quality article. The whole team are excellent writers.
Throughout February, you will be joining Soul & Surf at their retreats in India and Sri Lanka. Tell us more…
Yes, I’m currently in India and soon to join the Soul & Surf Sri Lanka team. I’ve been offering longboard workshops for any and every level of surfer (bespoke to their level) on beautiful paulownia wood Firewire longboards (currently the greenest most ecologically friendly surfboards available), either as one-to-one or two-to-one, the special feature being the chance to ride these boards and have a very personalized lesson. One session involves both a morning and afternoon surf, with an overview about surf history, longboarding and surfboard design. It’s been going really well in Kerala. I’ve also been helping with the surf guiding, doing ‘learning through surfing talks’ about my own work in surfing, writing and travel. Plus, I have been introducing and showing my five Brilliant Corners films followed by a
It’ll be a similar schedule for Soul & Surf Sri Lanka. The films raise some great conversations over breakfasts during the following days, and people have been really enjoying riding the Firewire boards. It’s rare that surf workshops offer the opportunity to ride such high-end, refined and green equipment, and the learning curve has been phenomenal with some of the more entry level surfers. Regular long-boarders can work at more expert techniques such as cross stepping and noseriding, but beginners can fast track to trimming and turning. It’s a real buzz to witness the progress. I only wish my daughter Lola was here to share every session. Watch this space for some groundbreaking Soul & Surf travel adventures.
Sam Bleakley will be based at Soul and Surf Sri Lanka from 1 February 2016 for one month. For more information, visit Soul and Surf