Monday 9 December 2019

'I start to feel unwell if I haven't surfed in a few days' says surfer Easkey Britton

Donegal's champion surfer Easkey Britton says the sport has taught her how to be present in the moment. She tells our reporter that, as with life, you cannot control the sea, so you've got to roll with the changes

Easkey Britton. Photo: Naoise Culhane.
Easkey Britton. Photo: Naoise Culhane.
Easkey Britton: Surfing is a powerful 'mindfulness-in-action' experience. Photo: Naoise Culhane.
Kalina Suter
Serena Williams
Shirin Gerami

Joanna Kiernan

Easkey Britton (29) is an internationally renowned, pioneering big-wave surfer from Rossnowlagh, Co Donegal, with surfing in her blood.

Easkey's father Barry Britton and his brothers were some of the first pioneers of Irish surfing. The Britton family's affinity with the sport began in the 1960s, when Easkey's grandmother returned from California with two Malibu boards for her Donegal hotel. Her sons, however, had other ideas for the boards.

Easkey was just four years old when her parents taught her how to surf and over a quarter of a century later, she continues to live up to her namesake wave, the famous West Coast break which translates into 'fish.'

"I have pretty much been in the sea my whole life," Easkey explains. "I guess you could say that I was pretty much born into it as my dad and his brothers were the first surf pioneers here in the North West. Rossnowlagh is one of the best beaches for learning how to surf and that became my playground at a time before surfing was really the cool thing to do. There was no one else at school doing it, there was no surf school. It was just something that was a part of my family's everyday life."

"Surfing is a lot more than just a sport, it becomes an addiction and it tends to influence most other aspects of your life," Easkey adds. "It definitely is a really great indicator for how aligned you are across all of those layers or dimensions of mind, body, spirit; it's really powerful for that. This year in particular, that is something that I have been hyper aware of as I have been struggling with the physical side of it with injuries and just constantly travelling and not having the same rhythm.

"When you are that connected to something like surfing, you really notice the difference. You can really feel it when things are not aligned."

Easkey got her first taste for travel when she journeyed to Tahiti at the tender age of 16 and became the first Irish person to surf the infamous 'hell-wave' Teahupoo. She then went on to become a five-time national champion and is now leading the charge for the next generation of Ireland's surfers who are taking on the international surf scene.

However, she still calls Donegal home.

"That's the other thing about surfing, it can lead to a really nomadic life," Easkey smiles. "I move around a lot, but that said, Donegal is still my home base; it's where I grew up and where I still love to surf the most, it's where I come to recover and recharge."

"Surfing is an everyday thing for me. If I don't surf for a few days then I actually start to not feel well in myself," Easkey explains. "The competitive aspect of surfing is what got me into travel, I saw it as an opportunity to do something that you love, which could also take you out into the world. So the best way to do that was to do the contests and get on a team and travel that way, but really, the goal for me was always to get out and experience and explore the world."

"I don't compete in the conventional sense now," Easkey adds. "I competed from when I was eight years old all the way until just a few years ago when I was finishing my PhD and I figured I better focus on that, but it was also a natural sort of progression because it wasn't the route I was going to take. I think if that's for you, then you need to go all in and, for me, there was so much other stuff starting at that point."

Easkey completed her PhD in Environment and Society specialising in human well-being and coastal resilience. In 2013, she co-founded Waves of Freedom, an initiative which uses surfing as a medium to creating positive social impact and empowerment, particularly for more vulnerable groups, such as youth and women, in areas of the world where this is not always the norm.

"Once you get in the water, the rules and norms of society dissolve and the power of the ocean to connect and spread happiness is huge," Easkey says.

"Before, I was travelling around to all of these great places surfing and it was wonderful, but I wasn't sure what impact that was having in the world at large. So now, going to a place like Iran and taking it a step further than just to find surf - using surfing to understand a place better, a culture, using it as a way to connect with other women across different sports - that is really quite exciting."

"When I first went to Iran, there was no one surfing at all for various reasons and the main one was accessibility. In terms of women doing it, what we wear and the equipment was all really important to figure out," she adds. "I went back for the third time in September and that was the first time I felt that it has really taken a hold and has roots of its own now, which are very much being driven by women."

Easkey is not a gym lover. Her approach to exercise is more organic.

"I am into anything outdoors and stuff that is a bit more creative as well, I do aerial dance too and I get a lot out of it because surfing for me is very much like water dancing; I have enjoyed that aspect a lot more since I stopped competing because when you compete, you are surfing to a format, which is sometimes strange," she explains. "I have always done loads of yoga my whole life too and the other thing that I find really great is free-diving, which is now starting to get popular in Ireland as a sport.

"There are a lot of great training methods in it for breath holding, but what it really does is it trains your mind rather than your body for big wave situations."

"I think one of the greatest things surfing teaches you is to be really present because you don't have any control over the environment and it is constantly changing, so you have to be aware of how you are feeling in that moment and how you are responding to things; the ability to check in with yourself becomes so important."

"Fear is actually a pretty useful tool," Easkey adds. "It's not something to be ruled by, but it is a pretty good indicator for me usually raising the questions like 'Where is that coming from? What's holding me back?' or it can be a genuine gut thing and that is what will keep you safe that day. That is how I use fear; it is almost like a mindfulness practice."

The 5 major benefits of surfing according to Easkey:

1. Surfing is a powerful 'mindfulness-in-action' experience; it requires you to be fully present in the moment.

2. Surfing opens our awareness to the ocean and improves our understanding of how we impact it and how we are impacted by it, through direct experience.

3. Surfing is a playful but dynamic, intense and challenging total-body workout.

4. Surfing boosts our mental well-being, releasing a high dose of endorphins and leaving us with that post-surf 'glow' or 'stoke' that only the ocean can give.

5. I call surfing, the 'good addiction' - it will radically alter your physical, mental and emotional make-up for the better, but it will always leave you wanting more!

Easkey's food philosphy:

"I'm mostly vegetarian, but some people call me a 'flexitarian or pescatarian' as I also eat seafood, but it has to be sustainable. My main philosophy has nothing to do with dos and don'ts or following any kind of strict regime; it's all about being conscious when it comes to food. Everyone is different, and you need to listen to what your body really needs.

"Awareness of where the food comes from, its story - who grew it, produced it, caught it, made it - the process that went into bringing it to my plate all really matters to me, so I can make a food choice based on my values: healthy, fresh, local, organic, ethical, low impact."

Easkey's five most inspirational women in sport:

Shirin Gerami

1 Shirin Gerami: Iran's first female triathlete, a young woman who believes in the power of sport to connect and heal, who follows a path of gratitude as she breaks new ground and overcomes challenges.

Kalina Suter

2 Kalina Suter: an aerial dance and circus arts performer - one of the most creative, expressive and resilient women I know, and so dedicated to her craft. She inspired me to explore body movement, to find beauty in strength and grace in grit.

3 Sarah Gehrhardt: a mum, a scientist and pioneering big-wave cold-water surfer from California. The woman who inspired me to charge harder and surf bigger waves.

Serena Williams

4 Serena Williams: for her strength, courage, endurance and commitment. She consistently breaks boundaries. There is perhaps no greater or more determined female athlete.

5 Hanli Prinsloo: a champion free-diver from South Africa, a passionate ocean warrior and the founder of I Am Water, a charity which focuses on ocean conservation through human experience. She embodies her values and the values of the ocean.

From top: Triathlete Shirin Gerami, dancer Kalina Suter and tennis star Serena Williams

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