Setting The Pace

Text by Sam Bleakley
Photography by Jovian Lim

If the pulse of jazz is the ocean swell, then the surfer is the soloist improvising against that backdrop, not by stating the obvious, but by creating space through style and timing. The surfer is the fifth member of the quintet, together with wind, swell, current and moving bodies of seawater.

For his pioneering album Brilliant Corners, the genius pianist Thelonius Monk wrote music that was so difficult it was practically unplayable by his fellow band members and one track had to be pieced together by the sound engineers from several takes for a cohesive end product. This is the kind of challenge that the wild, unfurling ocean presents to surfers—the music it makes is often impossible to follow as a band member, but surfing is about improvising in brilliant ways that utilise the sea’s surprises.

Most surf sessions go unrecorded, unnoticed, but remain as vivid memories. Nobody hears your silent solos. So why do it if you do not have an audience?

Setting The Pace

In professional contest surfing, I need the audience to spur me on. But in these soul sessions my witness is birdlife, or, on a lucky day, sea-life. I am 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, my board speed-rattling against the slower grind of the sea. And I have rehearsed this art of surfing until it hurts.

I am infected by this so-called ‘sport’ that is so much more. The music of the moment and my relationship to this accompanying band is not simply borne of improvisation, but is based on resolute practice. It has been my job, as a professional surfer, for over 15 years. Those who become professionals in sports have to suffer a paradox: their sports careers usually have a short trajectory, and they may peak in the first quarter of their lives. Hence, they have a sports story to tell, but without the wealth of life experience to inform it. I am in that position. My sport, however, has provided me with a ticket to visit places that studying geography academically had only introduced me to on paper. In a short time, I have accumulated a lot of stories, some profound, some simply comical.

My story is a tale of two identities: fish and ocean-roaming bird, surfer and traveller. These interweave and feed each other. My first love was the ocean, so as a kid I often wished I were a fish, bathed in that plasma, tangled in seaweed, wrapped in that often bitterly cold, thin, green oil. I would watch my dad surfing: he had a minimalist style, instantly recognisable—an all-or-nothing quick paddle, arms like windmills that transformed to a floating glide. Mum, my sisters and I collected bleached cuttle fish bones and purple shells, where the strandline was beaded with violet jelly fish drying out in the midday sun.

Read more in N˚4: Flight.