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Sam Bleakley | In His Element

When you find yourself in an empty lineup in Cornwall’s deep southwest with a man like Sam Bleakley, you can’t help but smile. Clambering down the rocky coastal path from his book-lined and longboard littered abode, Sam’s excitement builds the nearer he gets to the water. It’s small and clean, and Bleakley’s elegant style is offset by his child-like eagerness as he bounds in and out of the surf, looking up at us and checking it’s still alright to catch just one more. And another. And another.  

Finding space between the waves is something Sam is good at. Practising what he preaches, his approach to mindfulness and surfing - also the title of his most recent book - informs not only his graceful style, but his entire life. Amongst the flurry of travelling from corner to corner of the globe, writing, mentoring, being a father, a husband, a teacher, Sam is ever present, ever patient and forever learning. 

Three generations of Bleakleys stare through the barrel of Jack Johns’ lens. Little Reuben, just two and a half, has the same vim and vigour of his father, and his father’s father, who - wetsuit clad - is just as feverish at the prospect of a daily surf at his local break. 

We caught up with the Finisterre ambassador at his house, with family, dogs, chickens and boards in tow. 

A day at the Bleakley's - scroll right for more images. 

What you do involves a lot of travel. What’s your day to day life when you’re at home with the family?
 
I get my writing work tasks done early in the morning. My regular output is writing content for The Wave, which has become more of a creative brand to celebrate the power of surfing culturally, so I run their Instagram and their Facebook and write little small features for them, and I’m always ongoing with a book having just finished a PhD.
 
I’ve discovered since having kids – Lola is nine, my son is two and a half and I’ve got two step girls – that if I get up at five, or sometimes even four, I can get two hours of really good work done in the front room before everyone wakes up and we all have breakfast together. Once we’ve done the school run, I can do more writing work, have a surf in the day and then make sure that everything is engaged around the rhythms of what the family are doing. 

And you’ve been getting the kids in the water?

Yeah - I suppose teaching is not necessarily the right phrase, it’s more about making it accessible for them for the love of it, the same way my Dad got me into surfing. He didn’t force surfing upon me but he made it available if I was motivated and that’s what my wife Sandy and I have tried to do with Lola. 

It’s about going in when it’s small and clean so it’s safe, so you feel empowered to control everything yourself and you’re not going to get battered around, but at the same time if they do get motivated about it you have to try to introduce the power of the sea.
 
I used to do sneaky things with Lola when she was younger, like giving the tail of her board a little flick to almost engineer an awkward wipe out just to remind her that the wipeout is part of surfing, and you’ve got to learn to love that as much as the ride. 

Surfing with your kids on the same beach you learnt, does it remind you of early surf memories of you and your Dad when you were younger? 

I wanted the kids to have Gwenver beach right on their doorstep. I think that if you’ve grown up in Cornwall, you want your children to have access to the same inspiration you got in the outdoors. Who knows where they’ll go in the future, but I do often see parallels with my upbringing. At the same time I’ve discovered that I can’t do what my parents did; that was a different generation and a different time, and I’m a different person to them. 

Your life is very much based around not just surfing but the academia that surrounds it. What drove you to pursue both of these paths and bring them together?

Well I think that I was quite inspired by some good teachers at school. Geography was the subject that allowed me to understand the waves, the weather, the tides; the way waves are formed and how cultures are part of the environment; the relationship between the environment and humankind. That whole overview really gripped me, so I got really interested in studying Geography at university and managed to get a place to study at Cambridge. Once I was there, I realised it was a golden opportunity to really represent surfing’s intellectual side as well as its embodied performative side. I was passionate about longboarding and competing, but at the same time I wanted to use surfing to tell stories about places.
 
I’m always looking for that sort of motivation through learning and visiting and engaging with things that might be shocking to others. I think it would be great if we could share those ideas and meet in the middle – it’s a cultural exchange you get when you cross borders.


 
When you’re travelling to these more remote parts of the world where surf culture might not be as prevalent, what is the reaction?

I think you have to be prepared to not be too imperialist about your style and your approach because things have to be put into context of the local area. Like how a surf break can be managed between a fishing community and surf community; a fishing community might want to build a harbour because it’s easier to fish, but that harbour might destroy the surf break.

It’s about working out the economic empowerment of the community with the potential surf break adding both cultural value to the locals and economic value.

What drives me with the Brilliant Corners films is to take surfing away from its White, Caucasian, American, Australian and Western cultures. I’m motivated about engaging the likes of West Africa and parts of Asia and parts of the Caribbean where surfing is so fresh and dynamic; it’s nice to see it doing its own thing.

For example, in Ghana one of the surfers is a great dancer, so for me the way he’s moving his arms whilst shortboarding is much more exciting than him wanting to model himself on John John Florence and look like an elite Hawaiian world champion. It’s empowering, reminding people that they can surf the way they want.

How do you decide where you’re going to be going? Do you have a list of places where you know you want to break barriers with surf culture?

What definitely motivates me is the relationship between surfing and dance, I think that’s so interesting. I’m not a dancer but I think it would be better to have surf-dance retreats than surf-yoga retreats because I’d love to learn how to do some different forms of dance where I was surfing. Longboarding facilitates that quite easily because you’re moving up and down the board; when you see good longboarding with the likes of Kassia Meador or Belinda Baggs, it is very dance-like so that’s something that is on my mind at the moment. Culturally I’m really motivated to cover the entire west coast of Africa in some of these films because some of those places are often so misrepresented as politically unstable or dangerous but yet they’re some of the richest places I’ve travelled to.


On the subject of travel, surfers are known for travelling around the globe to hunt for world class waves – what do you think surfers can do to make sure they’re being socially inclusive and environmentally aware?

It is important to support locally run businesses. I think if surfers are travelling they need to be going for the right reasons and need to research how they’re supporting local communities by staying in locally run businesses and eating in locally run restaurants. Learning from the place, not taking your own values, going there as a sponge, to absorb the inspiration of the food, music and culture. That’s the way forward.

What drew you to longboarding in the first place?

Being tall, wanting to be different because no one around here did it when I switched on to longboards; having access to surf history through a Dad that surfed; through a shaper in Newquay called Chris Jones who was into making bigger boards again; through an awareness that there was a resurgence of longboarding happening in California, Australia and France.

In the early nineties everybody was inspired by the Momentum video by Taylor Steele that featured Kelly Slater, Shane Dorian, Rob Machado and lots of good Californian punk music – that’s when I really fell in love with longboarding and I was proud of that as an identity.  

I used to like the feeling of longboarding on small days anyway, but the appeal was in the footwork, the movement and the dance of it.

 

In your book ‘Mindfulness & Surfing’, you speak a lot about your relationship with the water and being in that kind of environment. How has that informed your surfing?

One of the terrible things about surf competitions is that it throws out this sort of formulaic ‘a’ to ‘b’ in the pocket; but what about the whole movement from paddling out to sitting and waiting to communicating with your mate to letting a set go past to let that go or have it.

Engagement with the bigger picture culturally and environmentally is key and very important for younger generations to understand because without it we just cripple the playground that we love, polluting it with plastics and lots of terrible chemical products that we don’t really need. I just hope that surfers get more politicalised and more environmentally active because it’s very easy to just step back from that and just enjoy your own little microcosm.
 
I’m interested in these messages of cultural exchange. Don’t look at Haiti as a poor, needy place; Haitians are powerful, culturally rich people who can stand on their own two feet and defend themselves with style. So don’t go to Haiti to save Haiti because Haiti can save itself. Go to take in the culture and support a local business because that family will then be empowered by your visit and do their own thing – that’s the message I’m interested in.

Sam's Kit List Essentials

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True North - Solatium XGS Jacket

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Nieuwland 5 Hooded Wetsuit
Nieuwland 5 Hooded Wetsuit

Based on your feedback, we've updated our suits for this winter with an easier entry system, refined hood seal and improved fit around the c

Waterproof Duffle - Dune
Waterproof Duffle - Dune

We've teamed up with expert bag-makers Ortlieb to create the perfect waterproof expedition and travel bag. The 40L capacity duffle makes the


Words by Cat Sarsfield | Photography by Jack Johns

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