Friday 20 September 2019

Easkey: surf's new role model

The five-time Irish surf champion Easkey Britton seems to have been born for the sport, writes Sophie White, and now she's busy coaching a new generation of enthusiasts, especially girls, in a sport that remains male-dominated

'Somehow your body stays in one piece, but it's like being in a bomb explosion. You hear this roar behind you and then it all starts to get dark ... If you stay conscious, you're OK."

Easkey Britton is the five-time Irish national surf champion, a PhD student, big-wave rider, journalist, artist and marine conservationist. She knows a little something about balance. Easkey is the daughter of Ireland's 'first family' of surfing. Together with her sister Becky-Finn, she grew up balanced on a surf board, more often than not riding the very wave that she is named after.

For the Brittons, surfing is very much a family affair. Becky-Finn recalls with a laugh that growing up in their house, everything from mealtimes to bedtime was arranged to accommodate the surf. Dad, the surfer and artist Barry Britton, would bring the girls surfing before and after school. "We'd get out of the uniform and into the wetsuit in the time it took to get from school to the beach or I'd arrive into school and my hair would still be wet and I'd be a bit late with a note saying I had been at the dentist!"

Even at this young age, however, Easkey appreciated the need for balance in her life. She credits her parents for keeping her focused and encouraging her academic interests as well as her surfing.

"I did well in school, I think because I had my passion and energy focused in something else that was healthy and that gave me a good grounding."

At the age of 16, Easkey had the opportunity to travel to Tahiti and ride the fearsome Teahupoo wave.

There was much debate in the family about whether she could go, which is unsurprising as Teahupoo translates as 'place of skulls' and has claimed the lives of five surfers. In the end, she did go and credits the trip as a real turning point in her career. It was the first time Easkey had surfed with other girls her age who shared her drive and enthusiasm.

It also gave her her first taste of big-wave riding.

The surf scene in Ireland is growing more focused on riding the awesome giants found at places like Mullaghmore and the Cliffs of Moher. In order to surf these waves, the surfers team up with jet-ski drivers who can tow the surfer on to the wave.

This allows surfers to surf waves that were previously inaccessible or impossible to catch with just paddle power. It has also made surfing these spots safer (Easkey is active in the Irish Tow Surf Rescue Club).

Tow-in surfing is a team sport and with the expertise of her cousin Neil on the jet-ski, Easkey became the first woman to tow-surf the famous Aileen's Wave at the Cliffs of Moher at just 21 years of age.

In videos of her surfing, Easkey looks incredibly vulnerable as she speeds down the faces of these giants.

"When you're on the wave I don't think you breathe, you're just thinking let me make it," as indeed her family are probably thinking back on shore.

Becky-Finn, a keen photographer and film student, is always there recording the action. "I focus on looking at it on the screen rather than looking at what is actually happening out there... And mum's just there I don't think she breathes or talks."

Interestingly, dad Barry tends not to watch, as he knows it would be too difficult, though there will always be a phone call very soon afterwards. "I always would have followed him out to these spots and other big wave-breaks. From when I was really young it was always go where dad goes, but now this is a step beyond that. He thinks I'm a bit nuts," says Easkey.

It does sound like being "a bit nuts" may be a requirement for this way of life. The build-up to a big wave sounds excruciating. There are sleepless nights before the big day. Usually launching the jet-skis can take quite a while and once the teams are out past the surf they will sit and observe conditions for quite a while before any attempt is made to catch a wave.

The wait can be nerve-wracking and then making the decision to go for it even harder – "it's really tough because, of course, every fibre of your being is usually screaming 'what are you doing?' So you have to have that thing in your mind that you can just switch off and focus," she says.

Focus is definitely not something Easkey Britton is lacking. This year, her surfing provided therapy during the stressful final year of her PhD in marine science, and although she took a step back from competition she found time to focus more on coaching. The surf world is still very male-dominated – "you only have to look at the world surf tour and see what the guys get as prize money and see the girls getting about half that. The woman's world number one, Melanie Redman, couldn't get any sponsorship because of her age," she says.

Easkey enjoys having more time to mentor the new generation of surfers, especially the younger girls entering a male- dominated sport.

After her enormous success in the last few years on both the national and international surf scene, Easkey was not wary of stepping back.

"Surfing is just a way of being ... competition for me has always been about testing yourself and meeting other people. I've never been one to have a game plan ... I'll just wait for the next big swell and take it from there."

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