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Upfront: Surfer and scientist Easkey Britton on the addictive power of the sea

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Easkey Britton in the water near her home in Rossnowlagh, Co Donegal. Picture by James Connolly

Easkey Britton in the water near her home in Rossnowlagh, Co Donegal. Picture by James Connolly

Easkey Britton in the water near her home in Rossnowlagh, Co Donegal. Picture by James Connolly

Easkey Britton (34), a former competitive surfer, is a writer, artist, marine social scientist and filmmaker. Born in Rossnowlagh, she lives between Mayo and Donegal with fellow surfer Neil Thomas and their dog.

What were you like growing up in Rossnowlagh, Co Donegal?

Sea-obsessed from the get-go. Rossnowlagh was my playground. I’ve wonderful memories of being encouraged to run wild and free by the sea. The sea was almost like a surrogate mother. There weren’t other kids about on the beach because surfing wasn’t a thing as it is now.

Choose three words to describe yourself.

Creative, curious and passionate.

What drives you?

The sea. It rules every part of my life but mainly in a good way. I live off its rhythms. I want to restore the lost connection between people and the sea or water in general.

What’s your fascination with the sea?

I’m always learning from it and that’s what led me down the science path. My work is an exploration of our relationship with the sea. Being in the sea, or even beside it, I feel a sense of freedom. It’s a release and my dreamtime.

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First memory of surfing?

I remember my first wipe-out – tumbling and getting tossed off the waves. I was coughing and spluttering. My dad laughed and said it was no big deal. It’s brilliant for kids to experience that element of risk-taking. It’s really healthy.

Best advice given?

Hanli Prinsloo, the South African free-diver, said: “Our strength comes from being soft like water.”

Who are your role models?

My mum brought me to Pauline Bewick’s painting classes when I was 10. We’ve been painting pals ever since. This Irish artist lives her passion and I love her openness. In my teenage years, we had great conversations about relationships, love and sex. While we’d paint, she’d put on the audio book of [Clarissa Pinkola Estés’] Women who Run with the Wolves.

Did Covid-19 change you?

Yes, completely. I’ve always been really nomadic but for the last 18 months I’ve hardly left the west coast of Ireland. The pandemic gave me time and space to write two books and be more grounded. I grew vegetables.

How about the pandemic and your partner?

It benefited my relationship because we were around each other a lot more. He surfs as well. If he didn’t surf we probably wouldn’t see each other.

Tell us about your new book Saltwater in the Blood.

It draws on surfing as a powerful metaphor for life and how so much can be learnt from it and the sea and translated back into how we live – with resilience. It’s about immersion, listening to our body and the ocean.

You used to swim competitively as a teen. Why did you stop?

I ended up hating it – the chlorine, the heat and how artificial it was. It kind of killed the joy of swimming for me.

Did you return to swimming?

In my 30s I started in NUIG but there is no surf there so I took to sea-swimming. Now I’m in love with it. I bob about in the water or float. It’s playtime for me.

What about the cold and the sea?

The cold has incredible health benefits but you have to build yourself up gradually or you could get cold shock. I loved the sea so much the feeling of the cold was overridden by the joy of riding the waves. I remember jumping in the shower too quickly to warm up after and getting chilblains.

You are a ‘menstruality mentor’. What is that?

It’s about an awareness of our bodies and tapping into where the strength lies within our cycle. As an athlete and a scientist, you’re supposed to be productive all the time. But that’s not natural. Understanding your menstrual cycle can be empowering. It was a game changer for me.

What  are you listening to?

Lisa Hannigan’s voice is soothing.

What do you do for laughs?

I can knock great craic out of our dog Woolfie – named after Virginia Woolf. She comes in the car and we pop her in the kayak too.

‘Saltwater in the Blood’ by Easkey Britton is published on Tuesday by Watkins, €11.99.  easkeybritton.com; @easkeysurf 


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