Diesmal gibt’s ein Interview mit Sam Bleakley, britischer Longboarder (mehrmaliger British & European Longboard Champion) und Autor von “Surfing Brilliant Corners” und “Surfing Tropical Beats“. Im Herbst dieses Jahres erscheint sein drittes Surfbuch, ein Travel Guide für Longboarder…
Sam kommt aus Cornwall in England und ist Fulltime-Surf-Autor der vom Schreiben über seine Reisen und das Surfen lebt. Klingt wie ein Traumjob. Grund genug für uns um nachzufragen wie sein Alltag aussieht und wie er dazu kam ein “Surf-Autor” zu werden…
Bilder in diesem Interview sind von Surf Photograf John Callahan von surfEXPLORE.
Hi Sam, I recently got one of your books “Surfing Brilliant Corners“. I haven’t read it completely yet, but so far it’s a great book with interesting travel stories and a lot of very nice pictures by John Callahan of you surfing beautiful places around the world.
Please shortly introduce yourself to our readers, where are you from, how old are you, when did you start to surf, what are you doing to earn a living?
I am a professional surfer and travel writer from Cornwall UK, where I live above Gwenver beach with my wife Sandy and daughter Lola. I am 34 and have been surfing since age five (…wow, 29 years, that’s a while…getting old!). My dad has been a keen surfer since the 1960s, so as a beach-going family it was inevitable that I became passionate about surfing. I rode shortboards exclusively until the early 1990s when the longboard renaissance arrived in Europe. I discovered a much deeper surfing talent and passion in longboarding, namely the footwork, noseriding and style, and using my tall, lanky frame to lever big direction-change turns on a big board. I began competing nationally, won some titles, then when I was studying a Geography degree at the University of Cambridge I became the British and European Longboard Champion in my summerbreak. Following this I signed a longterm sponsorship with Oxbow.
I also started to write travel stories and contest reports for surf magazines alongside my role as an ambassador for Oxbow. After graduating from Cambridge I sustained my surfing sponsorship through competing, contributing as a freelance writer and working with photo-explorer John Callahan. As a passionate geographer and travel writer, the work with John Callahan both developed my career and became the focal point of my work. By about 2006 I was able to fully move away from international competition and focus on hardcore off-the-beaten track exploration work with John Callahan and the surfexplore team. My two surf travel books, Surfing Brilliant Corners and Surfing Tropical Beats, are both illustrated by John Callahan’s incredible surf and travel photography. The books chart our explorations with surfexplore from about 2001 to 2012.
In 2010 I was able to move away from a youth-driven sponsorship with Oxbow and form a more exciting sponsorship with British life sciences and environmental company Biomimetics Health UK. They do a lot of amazing stuff in medicine and water sanitation work, and support my current part time PhD in Travel Writing, my ongoing work with surfexplore, and an emerging new role I am developing as a travel presenter. I am currently working on two new books.
I have always been interested in Geography, which literally means “to write about the earth” from its Greek definition. So travel writing is a natural extension from being a Geographer. The former editor of British surf magazine Carve employed me to guest edit an annual longboard special, which was a wonderful confidence booster to get work published and explore writing in great detail. Later, I edited a surf history book for Carve (Orca Publications) called The Surfing Tribe: A History of Surfing in Britain.
Once I had started working with John Callahan, Alex Dick-Read (editor of the international magazine The Surfers Path) really let me cut loose of the travel writing, allowing the work to become rich and challenging – I enjoyed that, and this style of writing became the model for my two books.
I am currently researching a part-time PhD to further explore new modes of writing, particularly in relationship to Haiti, a place that has inspired me tremendously. It has also been exciting to get my newest book Surfing Tropical Beats translated into simplified Mandarin Chinese, and published in Hainan. It’s only a minimal print run, but the first surf book translated into Chinese.
Travel Writer sounds like a dream job to a lot of people. Can you give us an insight in your business, how does your “everyday life” look like? How can one become a travel writer and make a living out of it?
I have always fused my surfing with writing, and the exposure from images provided by John Callahan has undoubtedly sustained that, to the point where I can now explore working in the medium of film as a presenter, alongside the writing and photo work we do with surfexplore. So my working life is a constant juggle of many projects, and the secret is knowing where to place the most energy and time. Throughout the year I will travel on a number of two-week long projects, usually to challenging destinations. These trips require a tremendous amount of research – reading, studying, logistics, maps, visas. Once on the trip they are both exciting and intense experiences, maximising every opportunity, and treating the time professionally. Then when I return home I work full-time on the travel writing, which is many hours at the desk, on the computer, further research, editing, and eventually trying to get published in magazines. Woven into all that is ongoing book and PhD work, and general writing projects for magazines. There is usually a lot of re-writing of previous travel projects when requests from magazines pop up to publish something. I have an office in my house, and I am a massive fan of books and music, both huge sources of inspiration in my life and writing. We live above Gwenver and Sennen beaches, so I can usually run down the cliff for a surf most days. I also have a family, which is obviously chaotic at times, but extremely fun and rewarding, outweighing everything else in life.
You are travelling a lot throughout the year. How often are you back at home with your family and friends, and do you miss Cornwall while you’re “on the road”?
My travel schedule varies a great deal, sometimes evenly spread throughout the year, other times condensed into long periods at home, then back-to-back trips abroad. For example between October and February this winter I was away almost non-stop, developing an awesome new longboard model (the XYZ) with Thomas Meyerhoffer and Zed Layson in Barbados, working in Hainan and China, back in Barbados filming, then on a surfexplore project in Haiti. Now I am currently at home for an extended run with a stack of bookwork and PhD work.
My working trips are usually short – two weeks – so that allows me to easily slip back into home rhythms. But yes, I do miss my family and Cornwall when I am away, however I am also deeply inspired by travel, and miss travelling sometimes when I am at home. The best secret is being able to stay busy and motivated at home, and enjoy Cornwall, and also have the chance to occasionally travel with the family so we can share some of the adventures.
In one of your books you keep comparing surfing to jazz music. This is – according to the surf-books I have read so far – a unique kind of writing style. What is the idea behind this and what does music mean to you?
I really wanted my first main book to have a literary edge (not just surf and photos), so the work I did in Surfing Brilliant Corners has an over all metaphor of jazz music applied to the surfing and travel. The theme of improvisation in jazz is perfect for longboarding and exploratory travel. Framing surfing in this way, the 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 Stan Getz, Art Blakey, John Coltrane, Art Pepper, Don Cherry and Freddie Hubbard), using invention, complex rhythm, timing and spontaneity to turn impossible wave scenarios into beautiful but challenging music. This also extends to my passion to stay with the sea-drummer’s beat and play melodies against the grinding bass of deep ocean swells, which takes me from my birthplace in West Cornwall to discover a spectrum of surfing and cultural challenges. I embrace these with a geographical imagination educated by the classroom of Cambridge University and polished by global field trips, often to politically difficult and culturally complex brilliant corners of the world. For me, while exploration is the essence of surfing, I take surfing beyond the wave, to a wider sense of place – to people in concert with landscape, and often to varieties of culture shock. I want to travel to extreme places in the sense of unusual, or out of the way, corners of coastline to engage with the essence of the place and its inhabitants. The journey is as important as the goal. But I do not want to conquer the dark spots on the map. I prefer to think that the sea and travel shape me, rather than imagining that I stamp my identity on anything.
I’ve always been a massive music fan, namely world music and jazz. Telling a history of jazz music was a wonderful leaning curve during the writing process, in which I read so much interesting material on the jazz greats and discovered all their incredible music.
What is your favourite country you have been to during your surf travel? Which is your favourite surf-spot?
I have been to nearly 60 countries now (I think), 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 Haiti, in the Caribbean, is the most exhilarating and vibrant place I have ever been (now five trips). You will witness a wonderful celebration of carnival, colour, resourcefulness and style in the face of great adversity in Haiti. Despite the hardships and disasters, there is no poverty of spirit in Haiti.
What was your scariest / worst experience while travelling? Did you ever have any serious trouble?
We travelled to Liberia in 2006 just as the capital Monrovia had turned on its streetlights for the first time in fifteen years (after a butter civil war). President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf announced that this symbolized the country’s journey from darkness to illumination. The kids we met had, for years, either been toting guns or fleeing from their homes in fear of their lives. They had grown up knowing only civil war, and now have to adjust to a civil life. The psychological hurt was etched deep in the country’s psyche. We met up with a former UN employee called Dominic Johns who was keen to develop surf tourism at Roberstport, three hours away. There are five remarkable left pointbreaks here. The moment we arrived this was clearly a place that will benefit from sensitive surf tourism, to aid a country rising from the ashes. Those priceless waves offer a wonderful, renewable resource, in the development of eco-sensitive surf tourism. Dominic and others have since started to achieve that. Surfing here looks like a beautiful, singular alternative to war.
I arrived home from that Liberia trip deeply affected by what I had seen, and more, what I heard about the suffering, loss and human destruction brought about by the fighting. Child soldiers have grown up never knowing a peaceful existence, where hatred was more prominent than love, and now they are trying to make sense of a ‘normal’ life, rebuilding a culture. For weeks I dwelt upon stories I had been told, such as Robertsport continually changing hands among different warring factions, each one torturing, raping, then forcing kids to join the warlords. The local kids had lost friends in the conflict. Drunk on fermented sugar cane, they were given machine guns and ordered to fight without mercy. Some escaped to Monrovia, walking at night along the coast for weeks to avoid being kidnapped. This scenario would be replicated in other parts of Africa, particularly the Sudan. Some of the Robertsport kids then had to spend six months hiding in Monrovia to avoid the same fate under a different warlord. Here they heard about cannibalism – gunmen eating a victim’s heart in the search for courage; and children wearing wedding dresses into combat because they thought it made them invincible. When they finally returned home to Robertsport, and the war ended, surfing became their sanctuary, their escape. This is the purest example I have come across of how surfing can offer healing and hope. Nothing was certain in an unstable post-war climate, but among the uncertainty, these Robertsport locals had found identities – as surfers. Thanks to the publicity given to the Robertsport area in recent years from a variety of sources, the steady flow of surfing visitors has made it possible for locals like Alfred Lomax and Dominic Johns to make a modest living with accommodation, food and drinks for visiting surfers, something that was not possible before.
What was your best / funniest / most amazing experience while travelling?
After months of careful planning and jumping through the now standard bureaucratic hoops to gain travel visas and permits for a Gabon trip, we landed in Libreville only to hear the disheartening news that our Gabonese contact and planned guide for the gruelling 800 km trip south to Mayumba had written off his four-by-four. He had also broken his arm. To make the best of out time in the capital searching for another vehicle and driver, we decided to visit an old Libreville church and Mission. A Pastor burst upon us, fuming. He demanded that we stop filming and photographing because we had not got his personal permission. Confused but willing, we stopped and apologised, unaware that he wanted us to go to his office and delete the images in front of him. The irate Reverend disappeared, only to arrive minutes later as we were waiting for a taxi. A sleek, dark blue SUV with blacked-out windows roared up behind us mounting the kerbside. The angry Reverend and three minders in ill-fitting suits charged out. Emilliano Cataldi happened to be putting his camera into a bag and the Reverend snatched it violently. John Callahan dived in, adrenaline pumping, challenged by the three minders, and suddenly the Reverend had one of the cameras and was demanding that we all follow him to the church. We had to retrieve the stolen camera, and the strange scene unfolded as if in a film noir, with a drawn-out showdown in the ranting Reverend’s office, interspersed with periods of physical and psychological bullying based on the fact that we did not ask his permission to film at the church! This man was more a blistering politician than an African Christ. We apologised profusely, the camera was returned, and we were released. But the Reverend’s blowtorch behaviour only rekindled our enthusiasm to go south to Mayumba whatever it took. We had to resort to a series of time-gobbling hops – bush taxis, town-by-town, day-by-day, through countless military stops – 800 km south. But once we made it to Mayumba the empty left point breaks were outstanding. That was an awesome trip.
Do you still surf in competitions?
Hardly ever, but did compete in the ASP World Longboard Championships last year in Hainan, China, which was great fun. And I usually try and attend my good-friend James Parry’s annual single fin longboard jamboree in Cornwall.
Are you already working on another book? If yes, what will your next book be about, and can you give us an interesting story as a preview?
The latest book is with Carve magazine (Orca Publications). Its a Longboard Travel Guide, released in winter 2013.
What are your favourite surf-books and favourite surf authors? Which surf-books can you recommend to our readers?
There is a lot of good stuff out there. Paul Holmes and Dave Parmenter are excellent surf writers. So are Allan Weisbecker, Alex Wade and Tom Anderson. Daniel Duane’s Caught Inside is a brilliant book set in northern California. Tim Winton’s Breath is a gripping novel about two surfers growing up in Western Australia with a shocking unexpected twist at the end. A must read. I really like the work of University of Cambridge French lecturer Andy Martin, who compares surfers to philosophers and philosophers to surfers.
As far as travel writing goes, my personal favourite is the late Ryszard Kapuscinski – a sensational Polish 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. He wrote in Polish, but is now widely available in English. I am equally inspired by encounters with the ‘unknown’ or ‘otherness’. I’m also a huge fan of travel writing anthropologists Alfonso Lingis and Michael Taussig.
Thanks a lot for your time Sam, I wish you good luck for the future and hope to read a lot more of your travel stories.
Surfbücher von Sam Bleakley:
Bilder in diesem Interview sind von Surf Photograf John Callahan von surfEXPLORE.
Mehr informationen zu Sam Bleakley findet ihr unter www.sambleakley.com