Sam Bleakley has led a life blessed by the sea. From competing around the world, to commentating for the WSL and exploring emerging surf cultures, he has built a career and life which is intrinsically entwined with the ocean.
Musing on this connection, Sam kindly penned the words below for us. Capturing the joy he experiences when waveriding, the way it has shaped his life and the duty he feels to pass this stoke on to his children.
The sea to me is surfing. And surfing to me is freedom, identity and the priceless gifts of the sea. Wrapped in a transparent cloak, surfing is one of the few activities that takes you out of your comfort zone by immersion in a liquid environment. Sitting between sea and sky you become one with many creatures who call this home - dolphins, whales, seals and seabrids - and, as a temporary visitor, must blend in. This moving feast is a world of beauty and brilliance. And the contour-fitting act of surfing is one of the purest thrills anyone can enjoy; and one of the closest embraces too of the natural world.
When I was a teenager, surfing was my tonic. For anyone, anywhere in the world, an awkward transition in life is negotiating the teenage years. At that time of mood swings, bad skin, hard-to-handle hair and an ‘imperfect’ body, I was, like many adolescents, lacking in confidence and self-esteem. Surfing was my sanctuary. I wanted to be a fish so I could spend all day soaked in what I called the ‘vitamin sea’. Such an identity fracture sounds trivial compared with depression, schizophrenia, autism, cerebral palsy and post-traumatic stress disorder - all conditions, by the way, where surfing-as-therapy has provided life-changing positives. But at the time this identity crisis got me down, terribly. Yet, in saltwater, riding waves on a board I loved and cherished, I felt alive, present, confident and creative. Above all, I found some spiritual identification with surfing - something beyond the mundane.
In the school holidays I would stay in the sea long after the Atlantic swallowed the sun and phosphorescence lit up the shorebreak, where waves collapsed on the sand, exhausted after their long journeys. I was infected by stoke. Every breaking wave that I surfed seemed to not only shape my sense of character, but also my morality (care for all of nature) and my imagination, as I ‘wrote’ across each a ‘thank you’ note to the source of the swell, born far away in a deepwater low pressure weather system. And surfing became more than riding the wave, but immersion in nature: the aching silence of calm punctuated by a cluster of blue lines; rumbling thunder, the sudden flash of lightning, the immense charcoal black cloud pregnant with rain; riding a set-wave until it collapsed in a white heap on the beach and I inhaled like the big tide’s lungs pulled by the moon’s gravity.
Lanky and spotty-faced, I soon realised that saltwater was the best thing for my skin, rinsed by the negative ions generated by turbulent water. Surfing was also good for my heart, as both a love-like passion and heartbeat raiser exercising the big fist of muscle and its many connecting vessels, elevating adrenalin, tuning reflexes, and toning the mind to create calm and acceptance. This feeling of stoke stayed with me long after every surf and, to my amazement, spilled out to infect others. And gifts of waves - sent first class from long distances and often delivered with some impact and imperfect geometries at my local beachbreaks - somehow harnessed my over-sized limbs to find seabird-like poise on a variety of surf craft, but particularly on longboards to compete for, and win, local, national and international contests, and work with photographers as a surf travel writer to explore over-looked stretches of coastline, particularly in Africa and Asia.
As the creative links between surf travel and writing grew, I got interested in the strange synergy of longboarding and jazz music, forming a whole new dimension to why I surf. I’ve always loved the zap of shortboards, but longboards take their time, and I find the trim and footwork they afford irresistible. The aim has always been maximum speed with what looks like minimum effort. I soon figured out that learning to noseride was about learning to integrate light footwork into the repertoire. Heavy stepping will only tip the board. Just as good jazz musicians lift off the beat rather than playing down on the beat, to syncopate*, so good noseriders walk with a light touch of lifting off the feet as they step. A hang five or ten then comes with an eerie silence and an expansion of time, similar to the tuberide. So, you could say, if the wave is the horn or piano playing an improvised solo, body and board are the drummer’s beat playing just behind the beat of the soloist. This lag is heard as syncopation of the beat, bending it just enough to create mystery. The drummer will appear as if he or she is doing nothing. But, as with the tuberide and the noseride, this laconic ‘doing nothing’ is performative - it hides a huge amount of practice, timing and knowledge. Like the drummer who appears to be doing nothing, the surfer is right on the tail of the beat of the folding wave, intently relaxing, thinking no-thoughts, engaging as if walking away.
But the sea is already filled with music. Nature offers a rich soundscape - the sucking of waves, the whistling of winds, the rattle of rain against the drumhead of the water, the smack of a diving bird as it pierces the sea’s skin and slips its body through the crack to an underwater feast. Surfing adds to this - the bottom turn sends a salt spray and produces an audible skidding sound; slipping into a tube creates a cavernous echo as the lip plunges; wiping out smacks the surface. One of waveriding’s most delicious moments is the realisation that you not only have a front seat at this natural concert, but that you are part of the orchestra.
Latterly (now well into my forties), as the passing years sandpaper smooth the raw desire for competitive success or performative impact, what has emerged is a more balanced surfing life. The sea has inspired me as an academic (most recently completing a PhD in ‘surf exploration of Haiti’), a longboard contest commentator (keen to celebrate the skills of the new generations) and as a filmmaker documenting the emerging surf communities in what I call the ‘brilliant corners’ of the globe, such as Mauritania, India and Oman. Here ‘other’ cultures remind you that you have not ‘discovered’ any new surf break. You are a guest, sometimes uninvited, of the people and sealife that already lives here. You enter a circle of hospitality that must be honoured and not broken. The host invites, the guest reciprocates in the terms that the host sets. ‘Hospitality’ has the same root as ‘hospital’ - you are cared for as guest. But as a guest you can help the host to offer hospitality simply by being trustworthy, tolerant of difference, aware that there is much to be learned through suspending one’s own cultural baggage. The oceans too are the cultures of the Other, massive blocs of water equally pulled by the moon and massaged by weather on which we remain specks, often wiped out by these fast-moving liquid playgrounds. Here a wipeout is a humbling experience and not a mistake, while a well-executed ride is not a victory but rather an identification with the natural flow of sealife. We are not at war with the world but already in its pocket learning how to nest. But nesting in a wave does not invite property ownership, and in the long term, demands that all surfers commit to ecological sustainability.
But despite my lust for adventure travel, I love to be at home on Atlantic shores, witnessing the large tidal range skirting a crescent of ground quartz and mica sand at high and revealing a plane of rivulets and rock pools at low. The smell of coconut and pineapple emanates from gorse-flower, while birds hover above the cliffside, eying prey, a fresh swell running. And it's here where my kids are hooked on the intense moments of pleasure that a ride can bring, even if only seconds long, while my dad (who taught me to surf), is now well into his 70s, and still surfing daily. We’re never too old to surf. Only injury and physical infirmity will stop us, because our mind will be way younger than our body. Part of the continuing lure is that surfing is not easy - it is a challenge, but one that is addictive. Moments of pure glide on a wave are impossible to achieve on land. Surfing is not just keeping your body in some sort of shape, but also continually working on the mind. Telling ‘old salt’ tales is reminiscence therapy. Putting together a half decent takeoff, bottom-turn, trim, kickout combination is in large part muscle memory. As the pattern of neurons fires, so an activity done thousands of times unfolds, but it unfolds differently on every wave. Surfing is living, wide-eyed, in the midst of that surprise.
Listening to my kids talk about surfing is infectious. Perhaps she’ll be embarrassed about this, but a few years ago my daughter Lola wrote in her diary, “I love surfing. If l don't want to go into the sea, l push myself to go in, and when l catch a wave, BOOM, l want to keep going. Every time I catch a new wave my heart gets showered with happiness. If you tune into the source of nature it can take you to another place.” These are pretty good reasons for why we surf. And my five-year-old son Ruben also loves getting into the Atlantic grind. Recently, while hunched over the laptop, he said, “Dad. Be less busy. Let’s go and play in the waves.” We are all too busy, and surfing with kids is a great remedy, showering stress with saltwater. We cannot be children again as adults, but we can recapture the spontaneity, imagination and freshness of childhood through surfing regularly. The cycle of taking off to kicking out can last seconds, or minutes if you are lucky. Rides are relatively short given the amount of time we spend paddling out, duck-diving and waiting for sets. With all this space and time I am always reminded of why I surf. The coast is like a huge outdoor classroom that facilitates such a wonderful understanding of ourselves (our limits, desires and passions and abilities), the environment (particularly coastal change and ocean and beach pollution) and culture (of celebrating difference and cultural exchange). Difference and ‘otherness’ are important issues to confront on the planet because positive cultural exchange is a way we can all become more tolerant of one another, and live more peacefully by celebrating our rainbow-spectrum of approaches. But caring for the planet we all share is key, and without that shared responsibility as a priority for all people, we simply destroy the blue and green spaces that future generations have a right to surf in. And I definitely want my kids, and their kids, to share these worldwide passions for waveriding in clean, clear waters so they can share what the sea means to them with the same amount of passion we can today.
*Syncopation is a temporary displacement of the regular metrical accent in music caused typically by stressing the weak beat
For more from Sam you can watch his 'Brilliant Corners' series, exploring emerging surf cultures around the world:
New episodes from Senegal coming soon...