Ripping Yarns

Times Higher Education, March 27, 2014 | Go to article overview

Ripping Yarns


Academic, travel writer and former European surfing champion Sam Bleakley talks to Matthew Reisz about his fondness for riding the waves in destinations often viewed as 'no-go' areas

On 26 July 2006, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia - Africa's first female elected head of state - marked Independence Day and the end of 14 years of civil war by turning on the street lights in Monrovia. Shortly afterwards, Sam Bleakley set off for Liberia to go surfing.

"The country had [just] emerged from back-to-back civil wars so horrific that they reduced a flourishing city to a dark heart of terror, raining blood rather than water," he wrote in the January/February 2013 issue of The Surfer's Path magazine. "Amidst the sea of blue UN helmets, the billboards offered a reminder of the horrors of war, preaching 'don't rape', 'don't loot' and 'no mob violence'...life had been stripped back to plain survival, atrocities fresh in people's memories."

Bleakley's decision may sound unusual but the academic, travel writer and former European surfing champion is endlessly intrigued by places that have recently emerged from political conflict or environmental disaster and "which need [visitors] to go and celebrate them, who can tell the world they are safe and fascinating".

Equally striking were Bleakley's surfing trips to Haiti, which he visited both pre- and post-earthquake. On the first occasion, as he describes it in his 2012 book Surfing Tropical Beats, "Port-au-Prince had an apocalyptic atmosphere that set the blood and mind racing too quickly for comfort. Spiralling street violence, kidnappings and indiscriminate headhunts had led the Brazilian [Army-led] UN Stabilization Mission to respond with some ferocity. In the hotbed slum of Cité Soleil, gang leaders were ruling as ghetto kings...Automatic weapons were financed through extortion, kidnapping, robbery and drug-trafficking."

Now a newly appointed senior lecturer and course coordinator of Falmouth University's new BA in cultural tourism management, Bleakley is well aware that "surfing carries the stigma of rich white people having fun" and hopes to "completely reframe that".

He generally travels in small groups, including a photographer, that form part of a non-profit network called surfEXPLORE. Although they obviously avoid suicidally dangerous trips, many require a good deal of care and attention: on a visit to Mauritania, for example, they befriended the local fishermen who helped them avoid landmines. Others require great ingenuity in accessing remote African beaches along flooded or virtually non-existent roads, not to mention the headache of checking in surfboards at airports.

So how has he come to adopt this unusual lifestyle - and how can what he has learned feed into his academic role?

Bleakley grew up and still lives near Gwenver beach, close to Land's End in Cornwall. His paternal grandparents moved to Newquay after the Second World War to work in the tourism business and his father started surfing in the 1960s when a group of Australian lifeguards brought the sport to the town. The younger Bleakley began surfing when he was five and always regarded the beach as "an educational place, not only a place to enjoy ourselves but also a place to learn about the environment, history, geology, the weather, the tides, the animal life. From a very early age I thought that understanding the coastline was a huge advantage in life."

Although surfing obviously offers the sheer physical thrill of "experiencing the salt water moving through you when you stand up and ride the waves to the beach", he sees it also as "a way to understand the environment, since the first thing a surfer engages with is the difference between high and low tide, whether water is polluted, if beach access is well managed, and the need to forecast the wind and swell conditions".

If surfers had been consulted in the lead-up to this winter's horrendous storms in Cornwall, adds Bleakley, "they would have known that the jet stream was extremely low and that we really needed to draw attention to the fact that we were going to get a lot of rain, big tides and surf. …

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