SIERRA Leone now has a surf club. The Bureh Beach Surf Club is located close to Bureh Town, a small subsistance fishing village of about 200 people situated on a long stretch of beautiful beach sticking out on the south west tip of the Freetown Peninsula. Led by an Irish man in Africa, Shane O’Connor, the club is a 100 percent community based not-for-profit operation.
We set up the BBSC as a Community Based Organisation with a mandate to put 100% of revenue back into the local community in the form of wages, grants and renewed investment in the Club itself. The aim is to keep any gains from surfing within the community and give the local guys and girls a sense of pride while trying to help develop some skills that maybe benefit them beyond surfingShane O’Connor
Surf clubs are key to professional development in the Western World, just ask Joel Parko or Mick Fanning about the role these structures played in their progression. However in Sierra Leone a club plays a different role, it’s a marker in the sand against unregulated private development of this public resource. However it is also not guaranteed to achieve this ambition and seeing as it only laid its foundations a few months back and is still testing its newborn legs, heck it could go anywhere. At MSW when Shane got in contact and asked for our help in setting up the country’s first surf club we thought why not? We didn’t do much, just sent over a few boards and tee-shirts and hoped they would get through the notoriously corrupt customs. Following the club’s official opening we caught up with Shane to find out a little more.
Describe to me what it is like surfing in Sierra Leone Shane? And the area where the club is located - what’s that like?
Sierra Leone is about a 6 hour flight south from London and has a typical tropical climate. When you’re surfing in Sierra Leone its board shorts in 27deg water. Even during the May to October rainy season, it could never be considered even remotely “cold”, especially for someone who is hardened to surfing in the higher latitudes. Bureh Beach Surf Club is located at Bureh Town, a small subsistance fishing village of about 200 people, on a long stretch of beautiful beach sticking out on the South West tip of the Freetown Peninsula. Its about a hour 1/2 drive in a 4x4 from the capital city and is enclosed by some of West Africa’s only costal mountains. Sierra Leone gets it name from that range, which early Portuguese explorers skirting along the coast thought to look like Lion’s teeth. Sitting on your board looking back towards the beach you see those peaks, still covered by rainforest.
The people of Sierra Leone, how would you describe them and their perception of surfing?
The guys that I surf with at Bureh are really great. I am very lucky to have had surfing as a route to making friends. Sierra Leone is still a very poor country with a lot of problems to overcome. As an expat living there, if you are not careful, you can find yourself living almost removed from the reality of life for most Sierra Leonians. Of course, its a well used cliche, but surfing has a way of levelling and connecting people so that helps those differences dissolve away. Anyone who has spent anytime travelling for surf, with the right attitude, will have had a similar experience.
The surfers in Bureh have been mostly isolated from surf “culture” as we might know it in Europe, Australia or the USA. A lot of the guys will ride switch-foot with no effort. To me, thats a skill that might considered difficult to try back in the UK and Ireland, but the Bureh boys just do it because it feels like the right thing to do. Nothing has much influenced the way they surf a wave other than their friends and their own approach. So I guess their perception of surfing is different and uniquely Sierra Leonian, but they still enjoy the same things as surfers around the world. If I arrive down late for best of the pushing tide, as I paddle out I am sure to hear that I should have been here earlier! All the surfers of Bureh live there in the village where they grew up and none of them have ever surfed anywhere else except at their home wave. We are hoping to get them down to meet up with their Liberian brothers and have a crack at some of the waves down there. I think that would be a great experience for them.
So can you tell me how the surf club came about? Why did you decide to do it?
Sierra Leone’s economy is booming for the last 2 or 3 years, driven by natural resource mining and the tourism potential. Demand for what Sierra Leone has is increasing and a lot of money is flowing in. The country and its economy are coming back from a very low ebb, having been torn apart by a vicious civil war. It seems that the society is changing fast and its unlikely that the benefits will be shared out in a fair and equitable way. I saw what was happening around me and wanted to do my bit to try and ensure that any development of Bureh’s natural resource, the waves, would not be allowed to pass into the hands of someone for private gain. We set up the BBSC as a Community Based Organisation with a mandate to put 100% of revenue back into the local community in the form of wages, grants and renewed investment in the Club itself. The aim is to keep any gains from surfing within the community and give the local guys and girls a sense of pride while trying to help develop some skills that maybe benefit them beyond surfing.
Far too often worthwhile projects in Sierra Leone get bogged down by bureaucracy and corruption and either end up with weakened structures that wont be sustainable or just dont start at all.Shane O’Connor
What is your role in it?
In Sierra Leone it is very important to follow the local customs and so in the beginning I spent a lot of time sitting and talking with village elders and the chief, explaining what I wanted to do and what I thought we could achieve for their community. Once we go the blessing of the village, I concentrated on trying to fund raise and get donations to get us up off the ground so we could deliver on our plans. Far too often worthwhile projects in Sierra Leone get bogged down by bureaucracy and corruption and either end up with weakened structures that wont be sustainable or just dont start at all. We worked very hard to make sure that didn’t happen to BBSC. Now that we are up and running, my role is mostly as an advisor, organiser and an advocate on behalf of the club. We have a Club Constitution and designated Club Officials drawn from the local surfers who are members of the Club and they do all the real work. I believe it is essential for sustainability that the local guys themselves make the key decisions on how they want their club to run and develop.
How is it funded? Has anyone helped you out?
We would not be where we are today without the generosity of others. I initially sent the call out to raise money and equipment from family and friends and was given great hope by the positive response we got. We got donations from all over the world, including the staff and patrons of the Pioneer Surf Shop in NH, USA. As the idea grew, we contacted the German NGO, Welt Hunger Helfe (WHH), who are running some amazing projects in Sierra Leone, including trying to preserve the unique coastal rainforest on the Freetown Peninsula by offering costal communities alternative livelihoods to clearing the trees for fuel. WHH saw that the Surf Club could help in this regard as an “ecotourism” project and they funded the building of our clubhouse as well as providing support and advise to me. At the same time, I contacted you guys at MSW and we were blow away by the immediate and positive response. The boards and equipment that MSW donated have helped BBSC offer a proper Surf School experience for customers and will sustain the club for the near future.
Can you describe the breaks around you, how many there are and the frequency of them breaking.
The main wave at Bureh is a left hand point that is shaped by a small river. On a good day its a long, open, whackable wall with a zippy barrel on the inside. After rainy season, when the river breaks through the sand bank, you get an A-frame know as “Riverside”, with some welcome fast rights. There are other waves nearby on the Freetown Peninsula but none offer the consistency and quality of Bureh. Sierra Leone has some serious surf that doesn’t see a surfer for months or years at a time. I know there are some solid spots that have not yet been ridden at all. Malaria, sweltering humidity and the extreme difficulty in access have kept surf tourist numbers low up to now and should not be underestimated.
Can you surf all year on the south swells? Wind?
Bureh almost always has some sort ridable wave, which makes it perfect for a surf school! It might be knee high in dry season but you can still get out on a mal and enjoy the glide. SSW to SW ground swell gets in nicely and a 1 to 1.4m swell at around 12 seconds, which are regular enough, will give us nice head high walls. Of course it can get better like any spot. I have experienced a 22 second swell grind through from the Gulf of Guinea during the prime rainy season and delivery some serious, world class waves.
And the best forecast looks like?
I have been trying to work out the best of Bureh for a long time and I use the MSW Gulf of Guinea chart to help, though it has changed recently. For the left point, a nice SW swell somewhere between 0.9m and 1.4m with around 12 seconds will result in a nice overhead day. The pushing tide is a big plus factor as well. As I said, earlier in the year when we had a 22 second swell interval. It produced the best surf I have seen here in three years. Double overhead with barrels as wide as the wave height - amazing! But it was carnage in the water that day with only a handful of waves made. We needed some pros in the water that day.
What do you see in the future? Is what you see in the future as an ideal situation the same as what you think the future will in all likelihood entail?
I have great hopes for the future of Sierra Leone in general. The Bureh Beach Surf Club is now up and running in a country that has no real history of surfing before 2000. BBSC is already a place where visitors can have a positive experience of learning how to surf in an area of real natural beauty while helping a poor community and we want that to continue. At the same time, we hope to expand our services to cater for the more adventurous surfer who might be interested in a true surfari to those more remote waves that exist. I would like to see the BBSC grow links with our friends in Liberia, Ghana and the other West African surf spots and help to create a surf tourism hub for the region. We also have designs on setting up a national body for surfing and trying to get Sierra Leone recognised by the ISA.
Will any of this actually come to pass? Really, it is impossible to say for sure either way. BBSC has the potential to do all these things as long as it can be managed by the right people for the right reasons. Thats the way we are trying to run it now and, with help from others, I believe we can achieve a lot. Whatever happens, the effort put in by all involved up to now will certainly have a positive effect on the community and is actively helping people. As they say in Bureh, “Di waves dem go mak u feel fine”.