Sam Bleakley is a multiple British and European surfing champion, has a Masters in Geography from Cambridge and competed on the Oxbow WLT for ten years. He is a regular contributor to magazines and publications all over the world and has recently published his first book, ‘Surfing Brilliant Corners’ – a jazz-inspired account of a decade of extreme global surf travel. He loves hanging out at home in Sennen, West Cornwall with his family and has created a lifestyle that allows him to combine his passion for surfing remote coastlines with freelance writing. He was kind enough to share some insights into what keeps him stoked…
When and where did you start surfing?
I started surfing aged 5 at Gwenver thanks to my Dad – Alan ‘Fuz’ Bleakley. He also grew up in Cornwall. There’s a classic story behind his first board – In the early ‘60s there was just a small crew of visiting lifeguards (from Australia) and local surfers. My granddad (Jock) was a fisherman and ran a hotel with a popular bar where the visiting lifeguards used to drink late into the night and play poker. ‘Phantom,’ one of the more colourful Australian lifeguards, was losing heavily to Jock. Phantom did not have the money to pay the debt. Instead, he offered Jock a 9’ 8” surfboard recently shaped by Bob Head (later forming Bilbo with Bill Bailey). Jock knew that his son (my dad) was keen to get into surfing, which had just established itself amongst a young crew locally. Jock hid the surfboard, and gave it to his son for his 15th birthday. My dad pooled resources with his schoolmate, who had a sleeveless diver’s wetsuit top with a beaver tail. They took turns surfing in frigid February conditions.
Dad eventually moved to west Penwith, and as I grew up many years later our family we were always close to the beach. So it was only natural that I started surfing with my sisters in the very early 1980s, mostly at Gwenver in the summer and Perranuthnoe in the wintertime.
Can you remember your first green wave?
Yeah, I remember it clearly. It was actually in San Onofre, California. We spent 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 had only ever surfed with my dad pushing me into the waves. At San O, 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. He had an injured shoulder from a trip to Bali, and watched from the beach. Outback I remember the pungent smell of kelp and the local pelicans. I stroked into the first set wave alone. 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.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
I never expected to be able to become a professional surfer or writer, and have had to work extremely hard to make it happen. I devoted all my youth to surfing for fun, and when I started a Geography degree at Cambridge I figured academia would be my route in life – but my real ambition had always been to be an ‘explorer’, however far-fetched that sounds.
Like most top longboarders you’re no slouch on shortboards either, but what initially drew you to the longboard?
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 Big Wednesday and Hal Jepson films of the Malibu stars, such as Lance Carson, I had learned 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 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. Dad and I scored a series of 6 to 7 feet eggs from Chris ‘CJ’ Jones. Then he built a modern, lightweight full 9 feet longboard. We switched from the riding Momentum-generation inspired 6’ 0” toothpicks to smooth flowing eggs and radical performance longboards that you could nose ride and turn. 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.
What keeps you paddling out?
I simply love being wrapped in saline, not just because surfing is a huge part of my working job (and I have to keep up my fitness and timing), but because I am addicted to being in the ocean. Having a toasty, flexy ‘suit helps a great deal in the winter. I’ve always felt that December, January and February (if the easterlies kick-in) are the best months for Gwenver – the banks can be classic at this time. But the fact that the winter is usually broken by one or two foreign projects makes it more bearable, and I usually work really hard with writing during the winter – which I enjoy. A good longboard will work in anything, but I love to experiment with all kinds of board designs in the winter.
What are you currently riding?
I’ve just discovered this awesome new brand called HydroFlex from Germany. The boards have a pressure valve to pump air, or deflate, meaning the flex is adjustable. But the epoxy technology weaves the shell into the foam core, so they are very strong. It’s a really high performance, but light and strong with flex. The move beautifully – on the nose and throughout the turns.
You are mostly known for riding a prog mal (very smoothly it has to be said). Do you ever ride more trad-style boards (noseriders, pigs etc)?
Yes – I like to ride everything, but I don’t like to pigeon hole board types or approaches – the boundaries are so blurred now that its easier to think it terms of flow and style. Funny enough, in Cornwall I’m known for turning my longboards all-over-place. But on the international scene, I’ve always been regarded as more in the traditional camp for my noseriding, footwork and flow. Throughout my whole surfing life I’ve been interested in so many board types, and have explored everything from logs to bonzers to quads to eggs way before these boards became part of the ‘retro revival’. I love them all, but have recently become really passionate about all-rounder boards that work in anything and everything. I’m most at home riding refined shapes that are well suited to the local beachbreaks and to the type of travel exploration work I do, where I need a strong, but lightweight versatile longboard.
I’m really interested in flow and timing. I like to ride boards that smooth out edges and angles with interconnected moves, weaved together with footwork, so the whole ride forms an elegant whole, from take-off to kick-out, not a set of isolated, disconnected moves. The beauty of style is not about standard or ability, it’s about aesthetics – crisp, cool styles always look stunning, in either a beginner, Kelly Slater or Miki Dora.
I know you studied at Cambridge, how did you deal with being away from the sea?
Starting at University was the first time I’d ever really been away from the coast for a long period (other than doing a snowboard season in Canada the winter before during a GAP year). I missed the sea like crazy, so started getting back to west Penwith every weekend. The short breaks seemed to make me more passionate about surfing. With refined boards, better fitness, flexibility and focus, I started improving rapidly. In the summer contest season between my first and second degree year I had real success competing nationally and internationally. That was when Oxbow UK (at the time) offered me a professional contract, embracing my commitment to University. So for my last two years studying I had the funds to travel, train, compete, do photo projects and work with Oxbow.
How did you get involved in surf journalism?
Chris Power at Carve magazine employed me as the editor of the annual Longboard Special from 1999, and I really enjoyed writing, working with designers, editors and photographers. But studying Geography it was the travel that interested me most, and I really wanted to find a way to explore remote places as a surfer and writer. Meeting photographer John Callahan opened huge doors because he was driven to explore alternative and uncharted surfing areas. That was right up my street because I wanted to learn about the culture, landscape, people and waves in these places and share this through writing. Once I finished University I started to travel with John as a surfer and writer as regularly as possible, and work hard recouping the money in between. This fuelled my professional career with surfing and my development as a freelance travel writer. The exploration trips with the surfEXPLORE team (John Callahan, Emi Cataldi and Erwan Simon) remain my number one passion and we contribute to over 50 publications around the world.
You’ve recently published a book – did you enjoy that process and how long did it take?
Yep, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Being my first book, Surfing Brilliant Corners sets ups the cultural context of growing up in Cornwall and studying Geography, then details a decade of extreme global surf travel, illustrated by the photographs of John Callahan. It took two years to write, but tracks years of travel, from the living vodou of Haiti, through vibrant African highlife, to a serene Buddhist oasis in communist China.
Any plans for another one?
Yep. Hopefully many more books over the decades. I am now using my surf travel writing work pattern to also research a part time PhD in surf travel writing with the Performance Centre at University College Falmouth. My supervisor is Dr Larry Lynch, and I’m exploring how surf travel can better capture the character of coastscapes (coastal landscape) through the syntax of surfing performance and tropes of modern jazz. It’s an exciting project, and can lead to better quality writing and more travel books. It’s also a wonderful opportunity to further study great writing. I think that surf travel writing has good potential as a genre of writing, but needs to find more colourful ways to bring the literature alive. Hopefully this will help.
Do you have a favourite book or author?
My favourite writer is the late Ryszard Kapuscinski – a sensational Polish travel writer and journalist who spent most of his career in Africa. The way he articulated his encounters with ‘otherness’ through his working travel (for journalism) is a deep passion and source of inspiration for me. I am equally inspired by encounters with the ‘unknown’ or ‘otherness’. Another Day of Life and The Soccer Wars are my Kapuscinski favourites. I’m also a huge fan of travel writing anthropologists Alfonso Lingis and Michael Taussig. As far as mainstream writers, my favourites are Joseph Conrad, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Haruki Murakami. I love fecund poets like St John Perse and Pablo Neruda.
At this stage I would normally ask if music is important, I’m guessing it probably is…?
Yes, for sure, particularly jazz music from the ‘40s to ‘70s and African music from the ‘70s, such as Highlife, JuJu, SoukSouk (Zouk)and TownShip. Framing surfing through metaphors of jazz, my book celebrates genius bop pianist Thelonious Monk’s 1956 album Brilliant Corners. Monk’s album was famed for its outrageous, groundbreaking compositional originality, and I explore how talented surfers think like great jazz musicians (such as Hank Mobley, Horace Silver, Art Blakey and Freddie Hubbard), using invention, complex rhythm, timing and spontaneity to turn impossible wave scenarios into beautiful but challenging music.
Do you do any other sport or activity?
Snowboarding – I did a season in Canada in a GAP year in 1998.
I know you travel far & wide and often quite a way off the beaten track too. Of all the places you have travelled to, what place in particular stands out? And why?
We have a great system with surfEXPLORE (John Callahan, Erwan Simon, Emi Cataldi and regular guest surfers such as Randy Rarick, Holly Beck, Tristan Jenkin, Phil Goodrich and many others) specialising 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. The team speaks English, French, Italian and Spanish, and we maintain contributor relationships with publications all over the world, so we have an economic incentive to do the travel work. I have been to 50 countries now, and 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. 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. You will witness a wonderful celebration of carnival, colour, resourcefulness and style in the face of great adversity in Haïti. Despite the hardships and disasters, there is no poverty of spirit in Haïti
Anywhere else you’d like to visit?
Yes, many places. I would like to explore much more of Africa and Asia.
When I first got into logging I read your basic rules of longboarding which really stuck in my mind. As surfing becomes ever more popular do you have any more thoughts on how to cope with the crowds?
There are so many places that at some part of the year have rideable, totally un-surfed waves. The Mediterranean coast alone embraces 22 countries, and every winter undiscovered breaks will light up in this region. It is right on our doorstep – and often merely a cheap flight away. Africa is another hotspot, but far more challenging and expensive, with visa hassles, medical issues and political unrest to deal with. This can be both scary and exciting, but the places are always way safer than the media portray, and people really welcoming. There are 195 countries in the world, and 151 with coastline. But if travel isn’t possible, and your surfing is based in Cornwall, Yes, on the clean days it can be very crowded. But on the more marginal days when the conditions appear worse, it’s still often uncrowded, and the rewards of the session can be just as high. Enjoy the variation – the lonely days when no body is around and the conditions are wild, and the busy days when there is a great atmosphere in the lineup and you see people you haven’t seen for months.
Your father (Alan ‘Fuz’ Bleakley) is also a regular out in the lineup at Sennen, do you ever just drop in on the old man for a bit of fun, or vice versa?
It’s such a pleasure to surf with my father, and we love to share waves together. There is a little video on my website that really captures that relationship…
I have a really interesting new sponsorship with a company called Salvox & Biomimetics Health. They make a groundbreaking product that has insane application in health, medicine, disease, water cleaning, sanitation, agriculture, aid and development. We have some thrilling projects in the pipeline, combing the surf, travel, writing and exploration and applying their aid work to the developing world. There is also lots happening with surfEXPLORE. We’ve just been on a really interesting couple of projects to Hainan Island in China funded by the regional government in their development of surf tourism there. The accompanying images are taken by John Callahan from the China trips. A feature will be in the next The Surfers Path.