Boards of investigation: on surfing and learning

The academic who says riding the waves can boost cross-cultural communication and sustainable tourism

March 27, 2014

Source: John Seaton Callahan

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.”

I learned more about Ecuador through a two-week surf exploration trip than I would have spending 10 times more money and going a number of times

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.”

Sam Bleakley in Haiti

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.”

Desert surfers

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. These are things you are almost forced to engage with as a surfer.”

Keen on both action and team sports, Bleakley went snowboarding in Canada and competed in surfboard events across Europe, and so arrived at the University of Cambridge to study geography in 1998 “fired up with a real geographical imagination”. But it was only during a university Easter holiday that he first got a chance to visit the Tropics and began to understand that sports travel can also promote engagement with far more distant cultures.

Surfboards transported on the top of a bus

When the BBC funded a group of international surfers to make a film in Ecuador, he recalls, “I learned more about the country through a two-week surf exploration trip than I would have spending 10 times more money and going a number of times. I was forced to tread light-footedly and we explored to the real edges of the north and the south and got to witness the destruction caused by El Niño in 1998 and to see the potential of well-managed tourism activities.”

After university, Bleakley secured sponsorship deals with clothing brands such as Oxbow, which allowed him to continue to travel with photographers and film-makers on surfing-related projects. He did consultancy work for a number of tourist boards and advised the Chinese government on the development of coastal tourism in Wanning. Yet he also retained his links with the academy through visiting lectureships, particularly on Plymouth University’s emerging foundation in science degree in surf science and technology.

In 2010, Bleakley began a PhD about travel writing in Haiti, looking at how the country has been misrepresented (most obviously through an emphasis on voodoo, violence and other forms of “primitivism”) and celebrating its history, music and tourist potential. Since the doctorate is practice-based, he is also trying to develop an experimental and “performative” prose style that actually captures his experience of surfing, rather like the American Beat writers of the 1950s who produced writing inspired by jazz.

Sam Bleakley in doorway

Cultural tourism” could easily be taken to mean group trips to the Salzburg Festival or the castles of Bavaria but the focus of Falmouth’s new BA will be on tourism that engages with local cultures in three areas: action sport, heritage and landscape, and the creative arts. There will be a special focus on projects that are creative, sustainable and digitally connected.

One of Bleakley’s central claims is that “action sports have become a great lens to explore bigger issues in geography and cultural tourism, since participants have a real understanding of the places they are going to – their carrying capacity, what happens when they become too populated, the economic value of being welcoming and doing things sustainably, so the next guests will also be welcomed because of the way you have behaved.”

Although he is not personally interested in setting up tourist businesses, Bleakley is keen to “open up a dialogue and inspire local communities to do what is best for them. They are then at the helm of developing their mountain-biking offer, the eco-resort, their tree houses or something even more grand. I’m heavily involved in dialogue with local communities who end up doing just that, from Algeria to South Korea.”

Sam Bleakley surfing alongside palm trees

And that brings us back to Liberia. In 2006, Bleakley recalls, the new president wanted people to come to her country, although media reports exaggerated how dangerous it was. “Liberia had become safe to travel to. We were completely welcomed.”

Before the civil wars, he continues, the town of Robertsport was already “the place to holiday for Liberians, so it has a historical legacy which was disrupted”. A combination of locally owned and foreign interests had brought it back to life, with guest houses created by two Californians “at the heart of the emerging coastal tourism”, Bleakley explains.

Man with hunting rifle

Along with these came an annual competition for Liberian surfers, a surf club and “a cooperative to make equipment to sell to visitors – a great example of a nascent surf culture. They have also sorted out the issues of lifeguard services and keeping the beach clean. We now get Liberians from Monrovia holidaying at Robertsport on the weekend as well as aid workers from the UN, locals and foreign visitors. It’s small scale and that’s important to manage, because carrying capacity is a key issue. The fact that the new wave of tourism has surfing involved is a positive thing because of its relationship with sustainability and management of resources.”

Although Bleakley’s research has taken him to places where many people would be wary of setting foot, he believes he has brought back from them insights into cross-cultural communication and sustainable tourism that can be applied far more widely.

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Reader's comments (1)

Wonderful article. Bleakley's focus on the cross-cultural communication opportunities for surfing and tourism represents a quadruple bottom-line for humanity. His work combines social justice, environmental and economic sustainability, and spiritual fulfillment. Such a focus in business, government, and educational institutions will become increasingly important. Kudos. Paul Scheele, Ph.D.

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