In the final instalment of four articles for Soul & Surf, Sam Bleakley explores The Soul of Surfing alongside the stunning photography of Katie Rae.
Words by Emma Brown & Sam Bleakley | Photography by Katie Rae | 2nd September ‘18
You can read part one of the Soul of Surfing, where Sam discusses the cultural context of the term ‘soul surfer’ and the often overlooked role of the wipeout. In part two Sam tracks the roots of surfing, from blessed Hawaiian wood boards to the chemical revolution in California and the emergence of ‘surfing style’ in the 1950s and ‘60s.
In part three Sam celebrates the rise of African American soul music, George Greenough, the shortboard revolution and ‘country soul’ movement in Australia, paving the way for Rell Sunn, surfing as dance and a new wave of emerging surf cultures who might reframe the soul for surfing through their own mythologies and cultural threads.
But, as Sam discusses here, it’s the shared responsibility of our blue planet that really sustains the soul surfing.
But what about the soul of the ocean? No surfer wants to paddle out in polluted waters; or to sit back without protest while a pristine area of coastline is ‘developed’ as a marina. It was surfers who first collectively noticed how much raw sewage floated around Britain’s coastline, and protested. In 1972, Alan ‘Fuz’ Bleakley, Paul Holmes and Simonne Renvoize started the surf paper Surf Insight, giving a full page to ‘Environmental News’, or ecological issues, prompting surfers to get active in cleaning up beaches and the ocean.
In 1990, the environmental action group Surfers Against Sewage (SAS) was formed in Cornwall. Their work spread, to clean coastal waters nationally, making often flamboyant, but well researched, representations - even to the European Parliament.
The ecological awareness of surfers offers a powerful collective for the soul of surfing. Surfing is continuing to attract young people to turn away from technology-driven entertainment to the challenge and fun of the waves. We must insist that the technologies that sustain surfing - board and wetsuit manufacture - continue to explore sustainable futures. Surfers must square their intense hunger for the pristine wave in life-enhancing waters with these ecological challenges. It is no longer simply surfers against sewage, but surfers for sustainability – and for public health, spearheaded by the ‘blue gym’ movement that calls young and isolated people in particular to reconnect with water-based activities rather than slump in front of the computer screen.
One of the most exciting things happening in contemporary waveriding is the rise of adaptive surfing as an emblem for inclusivity, diversity, empowerment and therapy. This is demonstrated by UK charities Surfability and The Wave Project, who specialise in inclusive surfing lessons, using equipment to make surfing more accessible for more people, including Kai Lewis from South Wales who has cerebral palsy, demanding a specially developed surfing seat. Another person who showcases the soul of surfing is the USA’s Alana Nichols who earned her first ever individual Adaptive Women’s Gold Medal at the World Adaptive Surfing Championships last year. “I am in awe of how far we’ve come and I am so proud of the women that were out there. I hope the women adaptive surfing movement grows exponentially from here. Getting women divisions in the World Championship is a huge first step and next hopefully we get into the Paralympics. After that, we will have a foundation to work from to spread the love. We are clearing the jungle and the next generation will pave the path.” Aged 17 Alana over rotated a backflip snowboarding, landed on her back and was paralysed from the waist down. She picked herself back up and focused her insatiable energy on adaptive skiing and basketball, becoming the first American female to win gold medals at both summer and winter Olympic / Paralympic Games. Then in 2013 she took another nasty fall at Mount Hood, Oregon, broke both of her ankles and dislocated her right shoulder. Alana’s rehab was exceptional, and she returned to the slopes in time for the 2014 Paralympic Games in Sochi. But here she had another scare, knocking herself unconscious following a wipeout during the women's super-G sitting event. It was the final straw. “I realized that (my siblings) went through my spinal cord injury with me and that was very traumatic for them. I didn't need to take those risks anymore.” It was time for something new. Alana started surfing at Queen's, Waikiki, Hawaii. “I was hooked. I was just really in a place physically where I just needed to heal, so that's kind of what surfing did for me. I found the water to be much more forgiving when you land on your face. Being paralyzed is a really difficult life to live, so if there is any way that I can bring joy into somebody's life through sport, that's my purpose. I want to challenge myself to surf some of the best waves in the world. The day I get barrelled is gonna be my best day ever.”
If you define soul surfing as gracefully merging with the energy of a wave, making the difficult look effortless, of course the more talented surfers have an edge. It’s clearly more than this. Soul surfing is about being patient, mindful, kind, compassionate, understanding, active, thoughtful, faithful, hopeful, gracious, disciplined. But you have to master the basics - rehearsal, preparation, elastic response to the unexpected, greet the mysteries with an open heart, listen to the locals, never assume, take the surf on offer as a gift, exit with humility. Renaissance alchemists called this process the iteratio - iteration, repetition, rehearsal, getting the basics down. Above all, be grateful, not grumpy.
The soul of surfing should facilitate a deeper understanding of yourself (your limits, desires and passions and abilities), the environment (particularly coastal change and of course ocean and beach pollution, such as marine plastics) and culture (of celebrating difference and cultural exchange). For me, difference and ‘otherness’ are important issues to confront because positive cultural exchange is a way we can all become more tolerant of one another, and live more peacefully by celebrating our rainbow-spectrum of approaches.
But caring for the planet we all share is key, and without that shared responsibility as a priority for all people, we simply destroy the blue and green spaces that future generations have a right to engage with as we have. It is important that we challenge consumerism in surfing that places the planet at risk. When you surf, think about the environmental impact of your board production (and make changes!) Where, how, and by whom is what you are wearing made? Is there an environmentally friendly alternative? The future of soul surfing is surely to stop destroying the soul of nature and start listening more closely. Take that wipeout and listen to the underwater turbine’s soul music, and pop up cleansed.