Sierra Leone. For many, the country’s name still evokes images of blood diamonds, a desperate civil war, and enslaved child soldiers. Though the diamond-fueled violence ended well over a decade ago, deep scars remain. Sierra Leone is one of the poorest countries on earth, unemployment is rampant, and the majority of its population lives on less than a buck-fifty a day. Big parts of the country aren’t served by electricity, and clean water isn’t always available. But things are improving. The government is stable, the violence has subsided, and international investors are beginning to pour money into the resource-rich nation.
One of those resources is a beautiful and consistent left-hander that wraps into Bureh Beach, at the tip of Freetown Peninsula, a 90-minute drive from the capital city, Freetown. Bureh is a picturesque tropical village that now proudly boasts Sierra Leone’s first surf club. The club was founded a couple years back by Shane O’Connor, an expat Irishman who works in financial services who’d been living and surfing in Sierra Leone since 2009. He’d befriended a few of the Bureh locals over the years, and with their help, he convinced village elders that a surf club would be a positive economic benefit to the community.
Once the village elders set aside some land for the club, O’Connor immediately began a small fundraising campaign and started looking for equipment donations. Friends in Ireland sent used boards, a German NGO helped build the clubhouse, and the UK-based surf forecasting service Magic Seaweed sent over a handful of soft-top beginner boards. One of O’Connor’s buddies had ties to Pioneer Surf Shop in New Hampshire, and convinced the shop to ship out much needed supplies. Freshly stocked with boards, and styled out with a new clubhouse, the Bureh Beach Surf Club launched in 2012.
Sierra Leone has very, very few native surfers—O’Connor estimated that there were fewer than ten surfers in the entire country when he first visited in 2006—all of whom are concentrated in Bureh. The number of local surfers grows with each new member to the club; once there they get surf lessons, first aid and lifeguard training, and home cooked meals. There are even funds available to help the younger members pay for school and transportation. Though O’Connor got the surf club up and running, the local members of the community have since taken on the lion’s share of work. Any money generated by the surf club goes right back into the local economy.
Despite the Bureh Beach Surf Club, the surf potential in Sierra Leone remains mostly untapped. O’Connor and his students have occasionally tackled big pointbreak surf at Bureh, and he maintains that there are a handful of great, but unsurfed, waves nearby. Malaria, oppressive humidity, and inaccessibility are likely to keep it that way. Sierra Leone’s surf possibilities have been known, but largely ignored, since American surfer John Ford first sent word home in the early ’80s that the Freetown area was littered with good breaks. Expats and the international business community in Freetown are starting to take notice, however, and the surf club is primed for a growing role in Sierra Leone’s rebuilding tourist economy.
More photos from the Bureh Beach Surf Club.