For three seasons now, Sam Bleakley – champion longboarder, writer, journalist and documentary maker – has done a month-long residency at Soul & Surf in Varkala, offering longboard workshops to both locals, guests and non-guests, giving them the chance to dance on waves.
Sam spent some time with us in Sri Lanka before jetting off to Taiwan where he was commentating for the WSL Longboarding Championships, and shed some light on localism, surf tourism and his plans for returning to Soul & Surf Sri Lanka next year.
What brought you to Sri Lanka?
I’ve been a friend of S&S from doing an annual residency in India for one month every year. I didn’t have much insight into the surf culture of Sri Lanka, but I know that what S&S have achieved in India by building a platform for sustainable surf tourism is quite groundbreaking.
Surfing is much bigger in Sri Lanka, therefore it has a lot more issues – I wanted to spend a few days here to get a little bit of a subtle insight into how things are operating, with the idea to come back later in the season and come back to do a set of workshops aimed at some of the local surf community – to open their eyes to the way surf tourism resources can be managed and sustained.
You can only develop these concepts if you start to get an understanding of places – I by no means can be a Sri Lanka expert, however, I sense that Soul & Surf would like to share some of these ideas to the local surf culture without being too politicized. It’s hard to make change from the top down, but sometimes education is the fundamental way of inspiring local people to pick up new ideas.
What are the differences you see between here and Varkala?
There’s a massive difference between the two because surfing is much older in Sri Lanka. It’s also much better suited for surfing because the coast line is convoluted, it’s got reef breaks, it’s got clear water, white sand beaches, turtles popping up; it’s got an amazing concentration of surf breaks in a small area. Whereas in India, the surfing is much more spread out; the surf breaks are not as good, and there are a lot less local surfers.
Surf tourism plays a massive part in the Sri Lankan economy on the coast – and therefore it should be recognized and celebrated by the local community because obviously they benefit, but at the same time more and more foreigners come and have fun in the resources that are owned by the local communities and there can be more and more friction caused.
India is such a big place, that you can’t ever fathom to deal with the whole country, but in the little microcosm of Varkala there’s a lot of positivity that Soul & Surf have created there through employment of locals and by developing a passionate local surf scene.
Sri Lanka is exciting because it’s somewhere that has a vibrant expat community, but it’s also got an emerging surf culture that’s old in Hikuduwa and Arugam Bay, but in this area, it’s still quite new.
What do you think can be done to integrate the local community into the growing surf culture here, and making sure that it’s not political – that its purpose is to bring people together in the ocean?
I think the main thing is for it to be done safely. I think if any provider in Sri Lanka wants to teach surfing, it needs to be regulated so that it’s done safely. There needs to be a level of training to safely take people in the sea. The Sri Lankan surf association could be the organization who regulates that. But they need to make it affordable; there should be a way for local communities to get the training and the resources to do that. But at the same time there needs to be a possibility for foreign owned surf schools to continue to have operations – I think at the moment, it’s potentially a free for all for some spots on the coast because it’s not very well regulated.
Bridge building is fundamental. It’s great to have expats collaborating because they come with fresh ideas, fresh energy and an impetus to attract income. Tourism is a powerful source of income for emerging economies – it’s one of the quickest ways for these economies to spread their income. It takes management, and we always have to accept that a lot of things are beyond our control. And that’s challenging – it can make you want to quit. But at the same time it’s the tenacity of people who do things over a ten year period that sometimes makes change. Soul & Surf have done quite an incredible thing in India, and they’ve worked hard to achieve that and they can be very proud of that – and the surf culture can celebrate that. But Sri Lanka is actually very different; there are things we can learn, but Sri Lanka is its own entity, and it has to be a very case specific project.
You’re going to Taiwan to commentate at the WSL Longboarding Championships. Tell us a bit more about that…
The World Longboard Tour has two events this year – the first was in Papua New Guinea in March, the last one is in Taiwan in November. I’ll be working as a commentator – so that’s exciting because it allows you to celebrate longboarding, which I love. I’m particularly excited by women’s longboarding these days; I think it’s a beautiful art form where they surf so dancelike – it’s beautiful to watch. It’s very exciting to share that energy and to talk about it. As a longtime long boarder and traveler and competitor myself, I have a good appreciation of the surfers, their roots, their approach. It’s very nice to work with the WSL, because as much as they are a big global organization, it’s also very hard to go into places and run events successfully and make profit, but they’re hugely important for local communities.
Taiwan is an emerging surf culture itself, so the Taiwanese are proud to have a big national events – it allows them to showcase their identity through the culture and surf. It’s also a platform for the Taiwanese wildcard surfers to be mixing with the best in the world.
I really like to learn about the places – that’s a big part of my interests in love. I’m not proud of my carbon footprint, but I’m very interested in the nuances of different places – and being someone who can share different approaches. In order to find that out, you need to go there.
Words: Catherine Sarsfield
Back to Journal