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The Wave - A Sense of Place

Sense of Place
Sam Bleakley & The Wave Films

Sense of place is a hugely important element to surfing. Relationships with specific locations not only educate acute sensitivity to the environment and landscape, but also atmosphere and change, in turn influencing character, behaviour and surfing style. 

A wonderful new sense of place will emerge at The Wave Bristol as it becomes a playground for a rainbow spectrum and people, surfing under wide skies and weather patterns. For many it will become a water duvet doubling over, a bed unmade, remade. On the other side of the wave, some might bask in a temporary rainbow as the crest falls in a fragile, but continuous sheet. After the sets pass, big noiseless spaces will open up, and there will be a familiar calm. Someone will paddle into position for the next green-engined, roiling wave, and feel both fish and bird simultaneously, rising on the water’s stretching skin. The first fin will catch, lock in, compress, accelerate and a sweet sound will emerge.


My sense of place is very much informed by my local break at Gwenver in west Cornwall. I have never tired of the vaulting granite cliffs, coloured like toffee, the bright skirt of sand, the changing seasons, and the familiar faces that keep me sane, acting as an anchor. I have grown to love the winter squalls; the pungent coconut, pineapple and vanilla haloes of gorse in early summer; the first cuckoo, the dipping swifts catching insects on the wing, the hovering bird of prey momentarily stitched to the sky. The central gift of travel has not been to shape me as a nomad, but to make sweeter the return home. And when new guests arrive at my home, I have vowed to offer them the same hospitality and friendship that I have experienced from locals in tucked-away brilliant corners of the world.
The sea’s language at Gwenver is rips, eddies and vortices, that every local surfer aspires to learn through work experience, and thus use to help paddle out to the take-off point, striking up a conversation with the swell. In the Cornish language, there is a word for the ever-present grind of the sea – mordros. Set against this background drive is the single feathering wave – mordon – that is a feminine word. The wave rises, heavy and thick at the base, but light and crisp at the lip as it peaks and throws, breaking free from the anchor that is the deep swell, the incessant tidal motion, the undercurrent, the pulse, the bass-line. Waves are a delicate presence weaved into the sea’s force. To meet this graceful presence surfers need poise.


For me, control through style is the goal of surfing. You could model this on a supposed conversation between bird and fish (or strictly, mammal) – the equipoise of the hovering kestrel and the grace and playfulness of the dolphin, with its sudden bursts of power, and the balance between keeping the beat and improvising a solo that is central to a lot of music. For me good surfing is holding the space between sea-life and bird-life, light like the bubble in the wash of waves, pulled by surface tension on that slight oil that is the water’s membrane. The more I lock into that space between sky and water, gravity and levity, with confidence, the better the improvised solos. Control is poise and presence, not force or arrogance; poetics, not persuasion. But this takes putting in the hours, the months, the years, to read the conditions, pick a set wave at its earliest gasp, stay with the motion of the sump, and dialogue with it until its final sigh. I like to think of a session as a round – jump into the water off the sand, and complete the ride on the sand with a clean kick-out – the coda.


Most surf sessions go unrecorded, unnoticed, but remain as vivid memories. The local crew may hoot once in a while or pass a comment, but mostly the band you play with is the temporary, single wave and its trajectory to the final chorus. Nobody hears your silent solos. So why do it if you do not have an audience? In professional contest surfing, surfers might need the audience to spur them on. But in these soul sessions your witness is bird life, or, on a lucky day, sea-life. You are swooping with the kestrel and dropping like a stone to catch a claw on the wave face and edge up to the lip, hooting and howling like the animals, your board speed-rattling against the slower grind of the sea. And I have rehearsed this art of surfing until it hurts, living and breathing this beachbreak at home in Gwenver in particular.


As a kid I loved to get sucked back and then hurled up the beach by the next wave. I can remember how the sound of the sea rang around, bouncing back from the cliff faces. I felt that I needed this drumming on sand, the ozone clouds that it raised, and the rhythm of the tides, to be truly alive. I wanted to be cloaked in the saline, hugged tight by the water. Oddly, this felt like safety, not danger. I loved it when the sea acted like an unguent, a salve. Eventually, the Atlantic tied a leash around me, caught me in that viscous cocoon, that unctuous dream, that other plasma, so that I never wanted to let it out of touch or sight. I was infected, despite my sinuses beginning to fill and the bony growths in my ear kicking in. I gradually worked through a tough apprenticeship not only of knowledge and skill, but also of attitude. I saw a few talents go awry through over-ripe egos. My heroes were the watermen and women, the ones who scanned the ocean carefully for its signs, who listened, and who surfed whatever the conditions, without complaint.


The satisfaction of performing to an audience, like a musician, pushed me to competition surfing. But I could only keep up the professional side of surfing because I had the antidote of travel and adventure, without the hassle of contest heats. I was fired up to study geography by a brilliant teacher, sadly now passed away. He packed more into one moment than many do in a lifetime. When I was at university, and trying to square this with a nascent career as an athlete, I felt at one point that I would have to give up my academic interests to follow surfing full time. But the postmodern world is about fluidity and multiple identities. Why not do both at once and see how they intertwine? Why not let one feed the other, so that both can push the boundaries and shift adaptation into innovation? I am glad that I stuck with this dual choice, because I have been able to inform my surf travels and adventures with geographical knowledge, and develop a career as a ‘surf writer’.

The more I travel and surf, the more I see surfing not as escapism, but as a grounded and positive way to flag up our pressing cultural and environmental concerns. Surely all of us can inhabit the space between responsibility and aspiration and ideals. I do not want my kids to carry the burden of a previous generation’s irresponsible attitudes to the environment and cultural exchange. I want them to have the choice of surfing in clean, unpolluted water, and of sharing that choice with those who live by, and with, the waves across the world. This in turn, of course, develops a sense of place, inspiring respect and care for all life, leaving footprints that others would wish to follow.

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