Sam Bleakley | Brilliant Corners

Sam in India. Image: Rochelle Lincoln

Over the last ten years, Sam Bleakley has been making the adventure activist documentary series Brilliant Corners, which celebrates grassroots emerging surf communities around the world in the Caribbean, Africa and Asia.

The British surfer is a former European longboard Champion, lecturer in sustainable tourism (having researched a PhD on Haiti), travel writer and filmmaker.

While the first two seasons of the show are distributed to television, the most recent seasons are free to view on the World Surf League website for everyone to enjoy.

Sam in Madagascar. Image: James Parry

Sam on surf communities

The driving motivation to make the films is bridge-building between emerging surf communities (usually overlooked in the surfing media) through showcasing new narratives about society, environment, sustainability, responsible tourism and action sports. I’m particularly interested in celebrating diversity and inclusivity in surfing, and love to be educated about the cultural geography of places by the local communities. Travelling with my longboard in tow, surfing is a wonderful way into these coastlines, and really allows me to immerse myself (and hopefully the viewers) into these places.

Sam in Madagascar. Image: James Parry

Madagascar

I kicked off the newest series in Madagascar, an Indian Ocean island so large and complex that it’s often called ‘the eighth continent’. Most travellers opt to jump straight onto a domestic flight to avoid the capital, but I think Antananarivo is worth a visit. In the city centre ghostly 1970s Citroen 2 CVs, Renault 4s and Peugeot taxis prowl the cobbled streets like tin animals. It’s as if the sulphur-coloured taxis are ferrying passengers to another world. And the creaking suspensions and whining engines add to the mystery. I’ve experienced some pretty sinister-feeling capitals, like Port au Prince in Haiti, where the vodou vibe brings your skeleton out to dance, but there’s a special feeling of otherworldliness in Antananarivo. Even the drivers operate in another automotive world, running their taxis by bypassing the fuel tank to run straight from a jerry can in the footwell!

Rainforests, baobabs and Mada Surf Tours

From Antananarivo we kicked off the 900 km trip to the south coast of Tulear, via the rainforest at Ranomafana, the limestone landscape in Isalo and the giant baobabs of Ifaty. I think carrying the burden of our carbon footprint, it’s essential that all travel has some kind of local benefit. It’s crucial to really try to get under the skin of these issues if you want to help make a positive impact and spread money into communities through supporting local initiatives. Working with Mada Surf Tours, who do a lot of educational and environmental work in the area of Anakao (just south of Tulear), was a great start.

Sam in Algeria. Image: Greg Dennis

Descended from mermaids

This is the region of the Veso. The world Veso simply means ‘the one who paddles’ – or ‘the paddler’ – and these are the last nomads of Madagascar, working the coastline in their pirogues and lakanas – or dugout canoes. They migrate with families chasing the fish stocks. But these days many live in permanent settlements like Tulear, where the fish market remains the beating heart of the town. The Veso believe they are descended from mermaids. And waveriding on broken pieces of wood has been a long established part of this way of life. Some of the Anakao boat builders also make alaia surfboards from balsa, and getting one of these shaped up was a highlight of the trip.

In Papua New Guinea. Image: Sam Bleakley

Papua New Guinea

After a gruelling run of editing work back home in Cornwall on the Madagascar footage, the next film was in Papua New Guinea, where I really got inspired seeing one of the most progressive models of surf tourism management on the planet. Here complex traditional laws govern the use of coastal land and fringing reefs where family clans are the custodians of surfing resources. The Surfing Association of Papua New Guinea have translated this into a surf resource management plan that puts the local community at the heart of the development, so revenue goes directly into the area. Instead of a foreign led, top-down approach, they have a bottom-up, community-centred approach that keeps the local community as key decision makers in the management of their own resources.

Young surfers in Papua New Guinea. Image: Misha Robb Maas

Pink Nose Revolution

Alongside this, they have done some powerful work in tackling gender inequalities through the so-called ‘pink nose revolution’. Basically, as the surf clubs were getting boards donated, in order to stop the boys from taking ownership of all them in the more patrilineal, patriarchal areas, painting the noses of half of them pink, female surfers are given exclusive ownership and their equal status is made visible. This is a simple but powerful tool to promote women’s participation in surfing. Like much of Melanesia, Papua New Guinea has a long history of waveriding on wooden boards known as palangs. And I think it’s fantastic that as we develop sustainable and responsible surf tourism management at surf lakes and increasingly crowded coastlines, we can look to Papua New Guinea for cutting edge ideas.

Sam in Senegal. Image by Jack Johns

India

As far as emerging surf cultures, India excites me tremendously. There are over 7,500 km of coastline of this vast sub-continent, and both the east and west coasts receive consistent swell from the Indian Ocean, as do two well-placed archipelagos: the Andaman and Lakshadweep Islands. Although still small, the local surf culture is vibrant, and growing fast, with clubs, grassroots surf-brands, and the Surfing Federation of India organising surf instructor courses through the International Surfing Association (ISA).

The Soul & Surf crew, India. Image: Soul & Surf

Soul & Surf

Soul & Surf is a surf and yoga camp in Kerala where the local surf instructors are fantastic characters who give you such a warm welcome. Listening to one of the pioneers, Rakhul Shyamraj, tell me about his first ever green wave was both hilarious and heart-warming. “I was pumping my hands,” said Rakhul, “and saying to random people, ‘I got a such a nice wave today.’ And the people replied, ‘Who did you wave at today?’ ‘No, I mean I got such a nice green wave today.’ I was laughing the whole day because I was so happy.” This is the intoxicating power of surfing: once you experience your first green wave, it takes over. Rakhul is now a fantastic surf instructor, sharing the stoke with a new generation of young Indian waveriders.

Sam and Easkey Britton in Senegal. Image: Luke Pilbeam

Senegal

I travelled to Senegal with Irish surfer and scientist Easkey Britton and Lebanese-French professional surfer Adrian Toyon. We stayed at N’Gor Island Surf Camp. The Senegal surf scene is buzzing with a really high standard, and if you look back to the earliest accounts of Europeans describing the West coast of Africa from the 1600s onwards, they often celebrate the remarkable swimming skills of local fishing communities and their waveriding ability on canoes and wooden planks.

Cherif Fall in Senegal. Image: Luke Pilbeam

Small pockets in the region are now fully embracing modern surfing, and Senegal’s first professional surfer, Omar Seye, has worked wonders coaching a new generation led by Cherif Fall. And it’s also great to see Aita Diop breaking boundaries for women’s surfing here. The future is bright for Senegalese surfing. But like all of West Africa, life here can be tough and confusing, the nights hot and pungent like sulphur. The local music follows the same tracks, right in your face and ringing in the ears.

Easkey Britton, Aita Diop, a local surfer, Sam and Adrien Toyon in Senegal. Image: Luke Pilbeam

Drumming and surfing

But I always come back for more because this music is infectious. The popular tunes in Senegal are filled with the frenetic beat of the sabar drum. It’s known as mbalax, and is layered with rhythms and luscious lyrics. But the foundation for this is the djembe drum and the West African djembe drums definition is to ‘bring people together in peace’ which is the main purpose of this kind of music. We spent an epic afternoon listening to local drummers.

Babou Reynolds in Senegal. Image: Luke Pilbeam

In music, I’d say that there is nothing closer to surfing than drumming. Good drummers form patterns and polyrhythms, with rolls and snaps. And good surfers snap and roll in rhythm with the wave. With so much cultural emphasis on dance and movement, I think West African surfers will bring a lot of excitement to the sport over the next decade and beyond.

Aita Diop in Senegal. Image: Luke Pilbeam

Algeria

The Mediterranean coast alone embraces 22 countries, and every winter un-ridden surf breaks will light up in this region, particularly during mistral storms. I travelled to Algeria with Frenchman Erwan Simon and Australian Lucy Small, and met up with local surfers Dihya Nasri and Walid Assef. After a good run of mistral swell around Bejaia and the capital Algiers, we couldn’t resist heading in-land to experience the Sahara Desert and the ancient city of Ghardaïa. But our momentum was broken as we got caught speeding, the police pulled us over, recognised that we were foreigners, and demanded we had a police escort for safety.

Sam and Lucy Small in Algeria. Image: Greg Dennis

Algeria in context

In the years of turmoil during the brutal civil wars here, foreigners were easy targets for extremists, and paranoia lingers, particularly in the desert. At every border of every region we had to pick up a new police escort. This is not surprising given the context: following the successful independence struggle against the French, Algeria enjoyed a great period of cultural and economic prosperity in the 1960s and ‘70s. Then in the late 1980s things fell apart as during the 1990s the civil war tested two contrary visions of a modern Muslim state. Hard line Islamists wanted a nation built on strict religious codes, while the government wanted a more liberal system. The bloodstain was devastating as terrorists and the military clashed, leaving hundreds of thousands dead. Thankfully new leaders in the early 2000s bought amnesty, so that by 2007 this rich country was open again to adventure travel. But there are still many hurdles.

Algerian woman. Image: Greg Dennis

Police hospitality

On the way back from Ghardaïa to Algiers, going at about 150 km per hour in our police escort, we inevitably burst tyres. But thankfully we had about eight Algerian commanders and officers on hand to help change the tyres! In two 12-hour trips in 48 hours we probably met 60 Algerian policemen. But Algeria was an incredible adventure, and I believe that Algiers is one of the most beautiful and exciting cities in Africa.

Skaters in Zanzibar. Image: Greg Dennis

Zanzibar

Most recently, I travelled to Zanzibar to meet local surfer Hussein Yahya Hussein and the crew at Aquaholics Surf and Kite Centre in Paje. For sure the most powerful experience of recent years of travel was going to the remote village of Makunduchi to see a prestigious witch doctor and shaman who is revered throughout the island for his ability to communicate with nature spirits and ancestors to help resolve both social and medical problems. The waiting room was deep in the forest canopy and we met him in a limestone cave where he can feel much closer to the ‘shetani’ or spirits. Zanzibar is such an acclaimed centre of witchcraft that people have come from as far afield as the vodou heart of Haiti to learn the deepest mysteries of this tradition. I just had a humble request of safety for the trip, and the witch doctor lit up incense, smoked out the cave with the intoxicating smell of sandalwood and performed a ceremony that definitely took me to another place. That was something that I will cherish forever.

Sam in the shaman’s cave, Zanzibar. Image: Greg Dennis

More Brilliant Corners to come

Of course the Covid pandemic is dramatically re-shaping surf travel and all these emerging surf communities. But I get so much inspiration from grass roots surf scenes freshly infected by the stoke of waveriding and shaped by the blue planet we all share. And I definitely want to get back out into the field to film and continue to showcase new narratives from all these brilliant corners of the world.

Sam surfing sunset, Madagascar. Image: Greg Dennis

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Sam Bleakley is a British surfer, travel writer, filmmaker, presenter and longboard contest commentator. His published books include Mindfulness and Surfing: reflections for saltwater souls (2016), The Longboard Travel Guide: a guide to the world's best longboarding waves (2015), Surfing Tropical Beats (2011) and Surfing Brilliant Corners (2010). He has been a multiple British and European longboard surfing champion.