This article is from Edition 14: Emergence
Sam Bleakley
Written by Sam Bleakley
Sam Firman
Written by Sam Firman
Published on 20th March 2022
6 min read

As a professional longboarder, geographer, writer and filmmaker, Sam Bleakley is a passionate seeker and champion of emerging surf culture. How can the surf community empower people doing things differently?

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When thinking about the state of surf storytelling, Sam says, it’s important to place dominant Western narratives in the context of a rich, ancient history of global waveriding that emerged long before American surf culture took root in the early twentieth century and boomed in the 1960s.  

People have been surfing in the South Pacific since pre-modern times, and in Hawaii for at least 1500 years. There is evidence of wooden river-board riding on China’s Hangzhou bore around 1000 years ago, and a long culture of waveriding in East and West Africa. “There was huge suppression in the European colonial period of aquatic narratives, particularly in West Africa,” Sam explains. “Early accounts speak very positively about West Africans’ ocean coastal skills, swimming, riding canoes, riding wooden boards. But obviously the whole history of slavery completely changed the power base of the coastline: as a place of danger, as an outpost of the slave trade, as a place of slave kidnappings. The impact white Europeans have had on coastal cultures around the world has been really derogatory and damaging for waveriding.”

'The impact white Europeans have had on coastal cultures around the world has been really derogatory and damaging for waveriding.'

These histories have been largely displaced in today’s surf-media landscape, which generally champions elite shortboard riding. Much more needs to be done, Sam thinks, to reconnect with these narratives. But surf storytelling today is rich in other ways. Although print media has suffered, there is more content than ever thanks to the internet. There is fantastic work to be found among the whitewater. He references Tim Winton’s Breath, William Finnegan’s Barbarian Days and Easkey Britton’s Saltwater in the Blood and Mami Wata’s Afro Surf.

There is also more diversity and criticality. Women are much better represented (She Surf by Lauren Hill), as are academic perspectives connecting surfing to ‘blue health’, mental health (he cites Jamie Marshall), mindfulness, conflict resolution and sustainable tourism (Jess Ponting) and the long history of aquatic culture in Africa (Kevin Dawson). Nick Ford’s sociology work, meanwhile, has provided a “template which many writers have now followed up with.”

Photo courtesy of Sam Bleakley/Brilliant Corners

Sam’s storytelling - magazine pieces, books and the film series Brilliant Corners - sits in this landscape. Its undercurrent is his desire to broaden our understanding of what surf culture is. Throughout our conversation Sam champions people surfing and being surfers in new ways: adaptive surfers, longboarders taking surfing in more dance-like directions, Lucy Small demanding (and winning) equal prize money for men and women. 

Far from a homogenous culture focused on elite athleticism, he envisions a culture of local difference. “Why not reframe grassroots surf culture as putting on carnivals and exhibitions at your local beach environment, knowing that you're developing lifeguard culture, beach tourism, beach safety and you could put on your own exhibitions at your own level?” he asks rhetorically. ‘There’s more to surfing than performance shortboards!’ his work shouts.

'Why not reframe grassroots surf culture as putting on carnivals and exhibitions at your local beach environment, knowing that you're developing lifeguard culture, beach tourism, beach safety and you could put on your own exhibitions at your own level?'

Sam’s main interest in the emergent, though, is geography, and specifically the intersection of landscape, surf culture and sustainable development in developing and often overlooked places. This is the subject of Brilliant Corners, through which Sam has travelled to Madagascar, Haiti, Jamaica, Barbados, Liberia, China, Sierra Leone, Oman, Ghana, the Philippines, Mauritania, Papua New Guinea, India, Senegal, Algeria and Zanzibar.

Cultural exchange is a fantastic and natural process, Sam says, “but it's about a balance of empowering indigenous wisdom.” Surfing must avoid the dynamic of “the outsider - the well-educated white saviour - going into a community with what they believe to be superior ideas and technology.” The starting point must always be curiosity and humility.

Sam cites Papua New Guinea’s Surf Management Plan as a fantastic example of this balance. Under the plan, surf areas in Papua New Guinea are subject to visitor quotas and visitor fees, determined and managed by traditional clans. Income is channelled into community and environmental initiatives, and the rights and expertise of indigenous clans is respected. The model was spearheaded by Andrew Abel, who ​​remains the President and Co-Founder at Surfing Association of Papua New Guinea.

There are many aspects to creating sustainable, resilient, locally led surf cultures, says Sam, who lectures in sustainable tourism at Falmouth University. Local business ownership and employment, a thriving domestic tourist market (Covid has exposed how international travel isn’t a given), good infrastructure and a clear sense of an area’s carrying capacity are all crucial.

The key, though, is local stakeholders leading as much of this as possible. “Locally led initiatives have massive local benefits around education, health care and sustainability,” he says, “and empower communities to be stewards of their coastline as the people who, over time, are going to be most precious and passionate about it.”

Photo courtesy of Sam Bleakley/Brilliant Corners

Photo courtesy of Sam Bleakley/Brilliant Corners

But what about in a storytelling context? Given the colonial history of surfing, there is a danger that Western storytellers perpetuate that domination when telling stories about developing communities. What are the risks here, and how does Sam avoid them?

The uncomfortable truth, he says, is that his privilege as a professional surfer and educated storyteller specifically puts him in position to secure the funding required to tell these stories. Ironically, given Brilliant Corners explicitly places surfing in broader cultural contexts, its budgets are low; the market for culturally minded surf stories simply isn’t as large as that for big-wave surfing or shortboard competition (although the WSL worked with Sam producing the most recent season of Brilliant Corners). This means the team is small and light. Although Sam says would love to see, for example, a West African surfer fronting their own travel series, it’s not that simple given the resource constraints as waveriding continues to grow.

Photo courtesy of Sam Bleakley/Brilliant Corners

As well as making sure the budget is spent within the communities he travels to, and not on excessive production, Sam places great importance on portraying surf communities in a positive light, and exploring how surfing connects to different aspects of local cultures. In a nutshell, he sees this work as re-addressing Western misrepresentations. 

He is the first to admit that he doesn’t always get it right. He references his first Brilliant Corners film, about Haiti - a country he did his PhD on. Because the episode was made just before surf culture there really started blossoming, “the film lacks integrity, because it needed that local surf community to really balance my role as an outsider. So I look back on that with a little bit of embarrassment.”

This kind of self-reflection, and Sam’s drive to diversify the stories told about surfing, is welcome. His work is a model for adventure journalism that connects adventure sports to wider cultural issues and contexts, stepping outside usual, performance-focused narratives. “A lot of my stuff is kind of the antithesis to war correspondents,” Sam says. “It's places that are so used to being shared in times of need through environmental, social or political crises, but it's about finding and celebrating positives in those places that don't normally get in the news stories.”

Photo courtesy of Sam Bleakley/Brilliant Corners