Where does competition fit in with surfing? For close to a hundred years, the point where sport and art collide in surfing has riled up some of the best-known surfers around the globe.
The beauty and freedom of surfing, longboarding, in particular, is at a right angle to the rigidity of the principles of conventional athletic competition. Alex Knost summed it up:
“There’s a difference between people who are surfing for the wave and those who are surfing for the judge. The contest side pushes certain aspects, and surfing ‘against’ someone and being ‘judged’ can compromise the art… Losing can make someone feel like they’re wrong, when it’s really just an opinion of a panel. Behind the ultimate door, surfing is really a private discussion between a person and nature. It’s improv. It’s poetic.”
That logic is very convincing. But that’s not to say that Knost, like many other top-level surfers, hasn’t stopped competing after criticising it.
I may not share a great deal with Alex Knost, but I do have something in common with him there: I’ve competed in many longboard competitions; when I haven’t won (100% of the time) I’ve said to myself that competition and surfing simply do not fit together. And yet, when there’s a contest down the road, I’ll be there, shakily cross-stepping in the onshore breeze and stretching my legs to the nose until I’m red in the face. Why?
My enduring memory of competitive surfing is arriving at Saunton at 6 am, milling around and waiting for things to happen, whilst trying to keep warm in the frigid early winter air. After an age, the handwritten notes go up on the board and say that my heat is the first in the water. Suit on, nerves jangling, I walk from the car park down to the sand. As I do, Minnow Green claps me on the back, and I turn to him expectantly, hoping to receive some profound, helpful bit of advice for the 20 minutes that lie ahead:
“…don’t, worry about winning, mate. You’ve got Sam (Bleakley) and Elliott (Dudley) in your heat, and they’ve…. Well, they’ve been doing it for a while”.
With a grimaced smile, I thanked him for the encouragement. I trotted down to the water’s edge. Brilliant.
What I think he meant was something along the lines of winning isn’t everything, which is lucky because you haven’t got a snowball’s chance in hell. Opaquely supportive, yet cautionary in a very practical sort of way.
A few years passed by, and I didn’t show much sign of progression, which was dispiriting. Finishing at the wrong end of first-round heats, convincingly and continuously. My ego became like a gorse bush on the side of a cliff; often battered and prickly to the touch.
Needless to say, despite doing event after event on the local longboard circuit, I was going nowhere fast. I was losing hope. Social media didn’t help, showing me pictures and clips of people that were roughly my ability a few years ago, but now showing off with apparent ease. Their better results brought me down a further peg or two. But, maybe, that was a good thing. As surfers, we are prone to taking ourselves and our beloved pastime too seriously, which risks sucking the fun out of it. What was it Gerry Lopez said on the subject?… “Go surfing!”
But doing all of these competitions, I can’t recall any of the top surfers reacting badly or being visibly downhearted after a loss. The more well known surfers, who you would expect to crave good results more, seemed to take losing like… well, champions, finding something else in the competition. Maybe I had been looking at it from the wrong end of the telescope.
I can’t think of any other sport where you get to practice and compete with your heroes, at the top of their game. Ben Skinner. Elliot Dudley. Mike Lay. Sam Bleakley. Milling around, surfing in a heat, having a beer, shooting the breeze. Maybe there is more to competition than I had realised.
My fragile epiphany gained strength when I saw Sam locked out of his van at the English longboard Championships last year at Watergate Bay.
“Aha”, I thought. “I’ll see what he thinks about it”.
Something of a surfing renaissance man, he would be able to shed some light on the subject.
Sam was gracious enough to share his thoughts with me. We chatted while he waited for the AA to arrive to help him break into his van, and we talked about competition, Sam’s books on surfing and mindfulness, and anything else that came to mind.
JM: How did you find your heat?
SB: Really good, loved it. I’m borrowing a few boards from Ben Skinner, this is the Wrangler, 9’2” single fin – as you know because you’ve got one! – and I like riding single fins, but in bigger surf I like a smaller tale, less volume in the back. I’ve been riding the Cherrypicker in smaller waves. It’s a great board but in big waves I like a bit less board, a bit more rocker. My board went great out here, got some nice smooth waves.
JM: What would you say that you get out of competing?
SB: I think it’s a wonderful way of staying sharp and focused, keeps you fit, enjoying and exploring equipment, and I think it’s part of the community of surfing. I’ve been involved in surfing for a long time, so I’ve seen different generations come and go, and I’ve had different phases in my own life where competitions have been more or less important. But I’ve always enjoyed how it keeps me fit and allows me to get interested in board design, and meeting and being with the surf community. That for me is healthy.
JM: And any results are just a plus I guess!?
SB: Absolutely – I’ve had competitive success in my early days that I’m proud of, so further results beyond that arent so important. It’s more about the surfing and the grace of it, trying to sustain a graceful element to longboarding even in the heat of competition, trying new boards, seeing friends and seeing new people. Because I’m a commentator [on the World Surf League pro-tour], it’s nice to remind myself of what it’s like to be in heats, and although I don’t do international events anymore, British events keep me close to that psychology of what it’s like to be out there.
JM: Were the results more important when you were younger?
SB: No not really, my biggest results came when I didn’t really know they were relevant – and they led me to opportunities to get sponsorships. My focus was primarily free surfing, working with photographers, publishing in magazines, travel writing, and getting coverage that way that was fuelling my ability to get surf sponsorships. The world tour events – I enjoyed getting to know the international longboard culture. But I actually felt more at home commentating in my later career on world tour events than competing at them. As far as European and British events, I’ve had success (European, British and English titles), but it’s never been the results that have driven me – it’s more been flying the flag for a type of longboarding that’s still in the stylistic camp, even if you ride more minimalist equipment when the waves are big, maintaining the footwork, the flow, the finesse – that’s always meant a lot to me.
JM: You could approach competing in surfing in a similar way as to more conventional “sports” – how does that fit in with mindfulness and the body-mind? The concepts could be contradictory, or complimentary.
SB: I think surfing is more performative, and I’m probably talking more from a longboarding perspective, but I think that longboarding competition is very much dictated by the conditions, and the most dance-like conditions for longboard competition are small wave point breaks – whereas a lot of European contests will take place at more changeable beach breaks, where you get a lot of different conditions and you have to be very adaptable.
A lot of people feel that under pressure they can’t express themselves like they can when they’re free surfing and I completely celebrate that. But then there is a community of surfers who have done some of their best performing under pressure and in the competition format. And I still think that some of the most exciting things that happen on a surfboard often happen in a competition environment. I’ve seen longboarders do some incredible surfing (in the right conditions) in world tour events which are as good as anything I’ve seen in free surfing.
I suppose relative to a lot of other activities there is a bigger divide between the kind of people interested in the expressive elements away from competitions, and the competition element, they don’t mix as well as some as the other things, but that’s quite common in all action sports (BMX, skateboarding, mountain biking).
There is a big cultural element about engagement with the environment, and that’s where I talk about the body-mind stuff. It’s not necessarily an inner experience of mindfulness in the traditional sense of going into your head with surfing, its more about connecting with the mind and the bigger body of the planet and the environment, which is often about sharing that space, a) with the nature that we need to sustain and care for; and b) the community that use it – and that was the kind of concept I wanted to write about in that book. It’s about taking surfing and mindfulness out of the inside of our heads and into the head of the world. We’re all in this together, and how we share this space is key because we’re going to be using it more and more for decades, so we need to manage it and be stewards of it and protect it, and put ourselves in its mind rather than just our own heads because if we spend too much time in our own heads that can be detrimental to the care we need to have for the coastline.
The body-mind is also about how surfing is performative and it’s a nice metaphor for the dance-like elements of surfing which for me are really beautiful and that’s what I love about longboarding – the expressive side of it.
JM: You’ve done everything in surfing – you’ve competed, written, made films, commentated on competitions, travelled… Is there any one part you’ve enjoyed most?
SB: Well I’ve really enjoyed developing the role of a documentary filmmaker in the last 10 years or so. I’ve gone in phases where it’s been really intense, and then other phases where they’ve been more spread out and combined with other work, and that’s been a really nice platform to celebrate grassroots surf communities and their voice.
We get so much content of the elite part of surfing and the mainstream surf communities in the established surf cultures, but with some of the emerging surf communities in Asia and Africa in particular, giving them a voice is really refreshing and there is a lot we can learn from them and that has been an exciting thread in my work. I’d love to be doing more of that, going and telling stories of small emerging surf communities. Especially in Africa, because they’re often in countries that don’t get a massive amount of positive media coverage, and the surf industry isn’t massively focused on their surfing communities. It’s not to make places popular and busy, it’s to learn, give a voice, and celebrate.
JM: I really enjoyed the Algerian Brilliant Corners episode, and the west African ones as well. In your book, you write about Sierra Leone and tie surfing in with music, which really hit me.
SB: Thanks! The idea of brilliant corners comes from the Theolonius Monk album that he mixed, remixed and spliced together in the mid-50s, which hadn’t been done before. It was a nice metaphor for experimentation, so in that book (Surfing Brilliant Corners) I used the jazz metaphor from the beginning to the end of the book – if you’re not into music it’s relentless!
JM: Are there any places in the world you haven’t surfed? I feel like from all of your writing and travelling and surfing over the years, there can’t be that many places you haven’t been to.
SB: Aah loads of places I haven’t been to! You know where I really want to go, it’s mad, but I really want to go to Mogadishu. There have been some surf therapy projects there. Angola, Benin, Cameroon. Parts of Asia. I’m not as magnetised to South America just because I’ve got this real passion for both Asia and Africa. And the med as well, there are places that I’m interested in that are a little… hostile [he says with a glint in his eye], like Libya, that would be really interesting.
It’s true I have been to lots of places, but it’s difficult now to present the narrative (of Brilliant Corners) with the demonisation we quite rightly have for travel, and also being a white middle-aged guy travelling to these places can be a difficult narrative. It’s important anyway, and I’ve always been into exploring imperialism and colonialism and not being a kind of white colonizer, so we need to be sensitive to all of that, we as a society should always have been and now even more than ever, which can make pitching for work that involves travel much more fragile, along with the environmental impact – so you have got to have a real need for the work.
But supporting sustainable ventures in places is really healthy, as long as its responsible and its balanced, travel and cultural exchange is a big part of the world and there is a need for that, but it needs to be thought about carefully, much more so than, say, 10 years ago.
You know when I’m at home I really won’t venture far at all – unless I’m doing something with Falmouth uni, I usually surf on my doorstep and try to make up for some of the carbon footprint I have when travelling and make sure that when we do travel it has some integrity. My stuff is very small, grassroots stuff – small budgets, low impact, small group stuff, a pretty niche part of longboarding, which is a niche part of surfing, which itself is a niche.
JM: Taking it back to the beginning, what made you venture into competition in the first place?
SB: it was switching onto longboards, and seeing the joy I was seeing in longboard surfing and being told I was good and developing that confidence, the beauty of it. It made me a better surfer, its facilitated opportunities to get sponsorship and funding and to get equipment which helped me to develop. The competitive drive in the early days helped me get into that position. I’m 42 but have always believed that if you’re happy and healthy you’ll continue to be engaged in things the way you always were. If you told me when I was 20 that I would still be coming to the English Championships when I’m 42 I wouldn’t have believed you! But I’m so happy to be here and I can’t wait to get out into the next heat.
Also, my daughter and niece are surfing and my son, and to be around them and help them feel comfortable, I love it.
JM: What advice would you give to someone starting out, competing for the first time?
SB: I’d would say it’s important to respect the standard of the contest – be realistic about where you sit in that and ask yourself why you want to do it. If you’ve laid out a couple of questions (do I want to do this for me? or for pride? or for confidence?) and you feel as though it might be a positive experience, then everyone should be supported to get into it. For a young surfer who is feeling like they’ll get some inspiration from the level, that’s great because you get a feel for how people of your age or in your division are doing, and you go back to your home break much more inspired, and see a young person do a turn in a competition that you want to learn, you’ve seen it and take it back with you, and you feel closer to that community of surfing and that brings everyone’s level up to progress and learn new things.
At the same time if it’s intimidating after a few contests, don’t give up straight away, but maybe competing isn’t for you, and that’s fine because we’re all different.
By this point Sam was getting visibly colder, the grey skies and cross-shore breeze not helping. We parted ways (I had been knocked out of my heat, and Sam was unsurprisingly progressing to the next) so I left Sam as he took delivery of a hot chocolate from a member of his surfing family. I thanked him for his time and his candour, and I said that I’d see him at the next event.
And I did, and a few more after that, rounding off with The British Longboard Union classic at St.Ives. I did poorly, and let myself go back into a bit of a slump. As much as I tried to recall Sam’s infectious spirit and approach to the competition, after a while my judgement would become clouded by defeats and less than brilliant surfs… Sure, you can say you don’t need to win when you’re winning a lot of the time…
My perception was that poor results were basically the same as being told by surfing experts that I was not doing it right, and I got back into a negative mindset. I found I would go for surfs and that I wasn’t always having fun, a worrying proposition.
After a lot of thought, I decided to give it another go and do another event, which turned out to be the St.Ives classic again, in July this year. I did my best to adjust my expectations and focused on going into it with the no-other goal than catching up with some mates and celebrating surfing. Channelling Sam’s off-the-cuff wisdom, any results would just be a bonus.
Somehow, it went surprisingly well (surprisingly VERY well in fact) with an overall 5th place finish in the open category for me. Something I did not expect, and won’t dwell on publicly anymore lest anyone point out the probable explanation for getting so far was that I fluked it over more talented surfers, in terrible small waves that were barely contestable.
In between heats, I spotted a familiar face, Beth Leighfield. She had her leg in a Forrest Gump-esq brace that looked like it was holding her leg together, she was hobbling around but a big smile nonetheless.
“What time is your heat, Beth?” I asked.
“Haha!” she laughed, and knocked on the brace, resulting in the sound of a submarine being tapped from the outside. “I can’t surf with this… I’m just here for the social side”.
That sums it up.
Is it a coincidence that the surfers who consistently perform well in contests appear to have the healthiest and therefore happiest mindset?
My conclusion is: no. If enjoyment and fun are the goals, then anything that comes alongside those is just an added extra, just as Sam told me. If the fun and enjoyment are conditional on good results, then you’re in for a bumpy ride.