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29 Nov

A conversation on diversity in surfing with Nick Donawa

by Sam Bleakley

Nick Donawa surfing at The Wave in Bristol

The importance of diversity, inclusion and awareness of cultural, social and racial disparities in our surfing spaces is something for us all to recognise, discuss and positively address. The unjust death of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests in particular have brought into sharp focus the extent of structural racial disparity across all walks of society, and introduced awareness of white privilege, neo-colonialism and the overwhelming extent of how the slave trade generated so much of the financial wealth of colonial Europe.  

Where Greater London today represents one of the most multi-cultural regions of the world, why do British beaches remain largely white-dominated? Why is British surfing overwhelmingly white, and particularly amongst female surfers? Over the last year, Caribbean surfer Nick Donawa has been a positive presence at The Wave in Bristol (a city which is an epicentre of UK black culture), both freesurfing with British Caribbean friends and coaching some of his junior squad. 

Nick surfs with style and flair, reflecting his infectious personality. We caught up with Nick to talk about how he got involved in surfing and then the burning issue of diversity in waveriding.  

We’d love to hear about the role The Wave has played in your surfing lately? 

I was born and raised in Barbados, but I’ve been based in the UK during Covid, and surfing at The Wave has been really special for me over the last couple of years. I’m currently in West Sussex in the South Downs, so East Wittering is my local break, and I go up to The Wave with my son when I can. A lot of my friends from Caribbean backgrounds who live over here have been seeing me going there and I’ve inspired many of them to come along, surf and hang out. Recently I had a crew of friends who’d grown up in Barbados and we were having such a good time. The only thing that was missing was a bottle of rum and a breadfruit! And wow, what a facility. I have always worked a lot as a surf coach and surf judge and it is just such an excellent site for training.  

It would be good to hear about your background in Barbados and some of the barriers you witnessed with access to surfing over there that perhaps we can learn from here in the UK. 

When I grew up in Barbados in the 1970s there was no surfing organisation, and no contests, so freesurfing was the thing. Then after some time studying in Canada, when I returned in the 1990s, the Barbados Surfing Association had been formed (in 1983). Mark Holder, Zed Layson and Alan Burke were some of the standouts from that time. And that’s when I got really involved in judging, doing the ISA courses and working as a head judge at many of the ASP and WSL events that came to the spots Soup Bowl and Brandons until recently.  

After working in the surfing governing bodies on the island as a vice president and president, and taking the team to the ISA World Championships, I found that the thing that Barbados was missing was coaching. We didn't have any real resident coaches, so I worked up to become a Level 2 ISA coach and train the Barbados teams, specifically the juniors. That developed into working with other teams, including the Russian junior team before things slowed down from the pandemic.  

In the 1970s access to surfing was about access to surfboards. They are very expensive pieces of equipment, and there were none that were made on the island. So it was often about who could access them from travelling surfers, and who might have the money to do that. But in the 1980s and ‘90s as surfing was getting real hot, there was a real boom in sponsorships, particularly with brands from the East Coast of the USA. And that helped level the playing field, allowing more surfers to get equipment and get recognised. Then we started getting some locals shaping and black representation really grew in Bajan surfing, with Mark Holder leading the charge.  

But then it all dipped off again in the 2000s because of the economics of the surf industry. The cost of a surfboard could feed a family for easily two weeks, so the reality of it was that most families saw no future in surfing. The competitions that paid were aboard, and that cost money, with no guarantee of winning money back. So many parents saw surfing as a hobby, and education was a better route to get a better career path. But before Covid things really felt on the rise again with more opportunities in surfing, and more access for boards again. I’ve been really supportive with helping more kids access boards around the island. And we’re seeing that better access to surf equipment having an impact all over the world. But just because you get a board and a surf lesson it doesn’t mean you need to be a professional surfer. It's more a part of a culture that I don't think kids should miss out on. The water is good for all of us no matter what level of surfer we are or how often we do it. 

So access to surfing in Barbados has been more economic than cultural?  

Yes. You have to appreciate the history of Barbados, which was a place where so many slave codes, that then heavily influenced America, were developed and written. Of course we’re not fully over that, but we feel a divisive black versus white argument is not constructive in Barbados anymore. So the feeling is, just because somebody has a different skin tone than you, it doesn't mean we have to be on the defence, or have to be suspect of everything that they do. So in Barbados I don’t think we would talk about a ‘black surfing association’ because we've gone past that and it feels too divisive. We just want to support a ‘good surfing association’ that is inclusive for everybody.  

So I think surfing in my part of the world is a place where you don't see anything other than another human being. There's no colour, there's no country, it’s nothing other than, ‘Come let's get into the water, roast some breadfruits, have a drink, be outdoors.’ And you know there's no divide between what you ride – surf, bodyboard, longboard, we all share the coast together, so we’ve got to look after the environments, and one another because we’re in this together. Yes it’s more of a healing, sharing attitude, but it’s how we are in Barbados, and I think that’s a good thing. And I’ve met a lot of British Caribbeans closely connected to that way of thinking over here.  

The UK has a large British Caribbean community and culture which is now well represented across sport, yet why do you think we have so few black surfers here? 

The lack of black surfers in the UK is really something that I notice, but that can change. I think it's a very pertinent question that needs to be asked. At one level it's for many of the same reasons as the economic ones in Barbados that stopped people being attracted to surfing as a job and a worthy career path, or preventing them from accessing expensive equipment. It’s not very aspirational to go into surfing. And that’s where a stronger surf industry can help through creating those career opportunities and attracting people of colour and supporting people of colour to have more success in surfing. So for the Caribbean communities, I think that there needs to be more communication that says, ‘Yes you can pursue this and you can have a professional career’. It doesn’t have to be big sponsorships with the ‘Rip Curls’ or the ‘Quicksilvers’, but small brands in your own towns. And of course it’s the wider industry as well – the coaching, the judging, the organisation, the brands, the equipment.  

But I think this all has to come really from a love of the ocean, and the ocean being a celebrated part of our lifestyle. Now I talked to a lot of people here and they say that you don't really see a lot of black people at the beaches around Britain. I think you have to ask yourself why. And maybe they don't feel comfortable or welcome there because it’s been a white dominated space before. I don't know, but it's worth being open to talking about it. Teaching people to stand up alone on a board is actually teaching a way of life that is the best recipe for mental health that I've ever come across. And then if you love it enough you can go and start doing contests and pursue your dreams, or just have surfing as a part of your lifestyle. It’s about having a big love of water and the ocean. Every time I drive anywhere and I see waves, I'm imagining all the wonders that can happen on those waves. Some of us are born with that love, but others can discover it through a teacher who introduces waves and the ocean safely. Black British communities would benefit from more of that I think. 

So what do you think city based surf lakes and sites can do to support more inclusivity and diversity within surfing?  

I think promotional events are a great way to get recognition from the wider community. These can be family days where transport is arranged, or connecting communities from similar backgrounds, like a Barbados Day, or an India Day, or an Iran Day, that could open the awareness to Caribbean, Indian, Iranian communities, for example, around a city to come and try surfing. It’s getting the word out there, and getting both parents and children involved. It could lead to the next best talent rising up, or it can just lead to happiness and a good day out. And once you have some new and different role models, that really helps accelerate things. I want to see surfers from all over the place. With the colonial history of the UK there should be British born surfers representing so much more of the world’s diversity.  

Are there any surf communities that you're seeing rising up that really excite you? 

There’s a new generation of Russian surfers that are ripping. Nikita Avdeev is from Yakaterinbug, Siberia, and now performing well at WSL events. He learned to surf in Bali and is now part of a really strong Russian team. My stepson Nikita Petrov is also from Russia and he learned to surf in Barbados. Before Covid we started doing training camps with the Barbados and Russian junior teams. And those guys now are friends for life. That to me is what surfing is all about - the sharing, the cultural mix, the internationalism and multi-culturalism. That’s what really excites me about surf communities. It’s about exchanging and working together. Then we are all stronger. Today some of the best young surfers in Barbados are from mixed families, including Belgium. Guyana, Italy and many more places. And the young Russian surfers are very international in their perspective and approach, but also proud of their background. 

I used to run a Caribbean pro tour called the Caribbean Surf Network and we did events in Trinidad and Barbados and Jamaica. The Jamaicans are just ripping now. They are setting the highest levels in the Caribbean. And that’s really come from the local surf families supporting and coaching the juniors. But also the inter island rivalry is really good, and now Guadeloupe and Martinique and Dominica are rising up with their federations supporting the youth. Good surfing governance is so important, and actually rivalry between nations can be healthy for competition and pushing performance.  

We are seeing the competitive surf scenes also becoming really vibrant in West Africa between Morocco, Senegal, Liberia, Ghana, Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast. 

Yes, that’s fantastic. And something we’re working to do as well is develop some surfing exchanges between West Africa and the Caribbean. We have such a cultural and musical bond, and surfing can strengthen that. And British beach culture should embrace it’s African and Caribbean communities more. 

I think Caribbean and African surf communities can really be a strong voice intellectually for surfing and inclusivity. 

Yes, we can use the power of our surf communities to go past the divisive argument of black and white and talk more about opportunities and a new wave of interconnections, and then that can hopefully help naturally generate more chances for wider participation in surfing from all backgrounds in the UK and beyond. And then the good role models with evolve and inspire. But good coaching and surfing governance really helps structure and support all this. And I go back to what I said about Barbados where we don't see anything other than another human being. There's no colour, there's no divide. We’re in this together.