Wednesday 19 June 2019

On the right wave length... surfer scientist Easkey Britton on the extraordinary effects of water

Ahead of World Oceans Day, Emily Hourican talks to Easkey Britton, scientist and five-time Irish surfing champion, about her connection to the sea, being a meteorologist at age eight, getting a tiny house and the positivity of setting up a surf club in Iran

Surfer scientist Easkey Britton pictured at The Model, Sligo. Photo: James Connolly
Surfer scientist Easkey Britton pictured at The Model, Sligo. Photo: James Connolly

'I started surfing when I was about four," Easkey Britton, now in her early 30s and named for a famous surf-break off the coast of Sligo, tells me. "When I started, you were in the smallest adult-size wetsuit you could get, rolled up infinitely, and they would just fill up with water immediately. They probably weren't the safest!" she laughs. Or the warmest. "The water temperature hasn't changed," she adds. "It was freezing but when you're a kid, it's a great time to do something like that."

Since then, Easkey has been five times Irish National Surf Champion, nominated for a Global WSL Big-Wave award, and Cold-Water Surf Ambassador for Finisterre. But her relationship with the sea is many-sided: she is also a scientist, academic (you can call her Dr Britton) and social activist, always working with and through the medium of the ocean.

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Roll with it .... Easkey is most at home in the ocean and competing
Roll with it .... Easkey is most at home in the ocean and competing

She is a post-doctoral research fellow at NUI Galway, a contributor to the EU-Horizon 2020 project on Seas, Oceans and Public Health (SOPHIE), a teacher, filmmaker and an inspirational public speaker, including a TEDx Talk, at last year's Inspirefest, and this week's Fixing The Future in Barcelona on World Oceans Day.

She is also a social entrepreneur, with the Wavermaker Collective; every aspect of her career inspired and driven by her love of the sea. And she is delighted to see that this passion of hers is catching fire; this year, for World Oceans Day, many of Ireland's prominent buildings will be lit up in blue, to celebrate our connection with the Atlantic ocean.

Easkey grew up in a surfing family, one of the few in Ireland at the time. Her grandmother, Mary, owner of the Sandhouse Hotel on Rossnowlagh beach in Donegal, came home from a trip to California in the 1960s, with two Malibu surfboards. "She was a pioneer," Easkey recalls.

"She worked for Failte Ireland as well as running the hotel and, ended up in California in the 1960s. If I could go back in time, that's one conversation I'd love to have with her - for her to first see surfing, in Malibu, The Beach Boys, Gidget [Frederick Kohner's 1957 novel about a teenage girl and her surfing friends]. What lodged in her head when she made the connection with the beach at home?"

Roll with it .... Easkey is most at home in the ocean and competing
Roll with it .... Easkey is most at home in the ocean and competing

The surfboards were originally brought home for hotel guests to use, but it was Mary's five sons who made best use of them. "My dad and his younger brother, they were obsessed. They still are to this day," Easkey says. "They surf non-stop."

And her mother? "Super into it!" Easkey laughs. "She was from Donegal town, not far away, and spent a lot of her time holidaying down at the coast, at Rossnowlagh. Her parents had this little caravan on the beach so herself and her sister used to hang out there. We found some old photos of her with this little belly board thing they would have surfed on, a plank of wood essentially, which I've liberated since - it was always just sitting there, this piece of surf history or memorabilia.

"Then a friend of mine sent me a photo not long ago of himself taking off on this wave and getting completely tubed inside the wave. I'd only seen photos of these belly boards with really small white-water waves, where you just lie down. Then I saw what he was doing and I thought, 'I've got to try out my mum's board'. So I've just started to surf her board, which is a totally different experience, so that's been a really nice connection, to know that's come from her."

Surfing and the ocean were so much a part of Easkey's own childhood, and that of her sister, that "it's hard to have any precise memories because it's just such a constant in my life".

"I think some of the earliest are memories of going off on family trips, surf trips, along the coast. We had this van, and myself and my sister would curl up between my parents at night and we'd camp up on one of the surf breaks along the west coast. The excitement of falling asleep but trying to stay awake to listen for the sound of the waves, which would signal the arrival of a new swell.

"The excitement of opening the door the next morning and the waves having arrived - that always blew me away. How they could not be there, it could be totally calm, and then a few hours later, these waves arrive!"

All the time, Easkey was learning, not just how to surf, but how to understand and navigate this unpredictable medium.

"It's not just time spent in the water," she points out. "It's all the rest of the time spent noticing changes - reading the direction of the wind, that would determine the quality of the waves, reading low systems and pressure charts… really, being a meteorologist from the age of eight, and thinking that's perfectly normal."

Looking back, she is struck by the inclusivity of the early surfing scene.

"My grandparents also set up the Rossnowlagh Surf Club, and the Rossnowlagh Inter-Counties, an end-of-year event where surfers came from each of the counties to get together.

"One of the nice things is that, back then, a lot of surfers came from the North, and during the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, the height of the Troubles, you had this gathering at Rossnowlagh, not far from the Border, and it was a mix of backgrounds and religions, an All-Ireland thing. Because of the sea, I suppose - it was this kind of connective thing, which I only really appreciate now when I think back on it."

Through school, her priorities stayed the same. "I went to school in Donegal, and did very well in school, but for me, I felt that the actual learning environment, or the application of things I was learning in school, was always the sea. It was almost a way for me to process everything that happened - life on land.

"Growing up, for most of the summer there were lots of people surfing but the rest of the year, there weren't, certainly no kids my age. And yet I never felt any sense of loneliness because the sea was this playground. I was just completely at home, being by myself in the sea.

"I felt this really strong sense of belonging and identity, so I never had that sense of 'where do I fit in?' Or if I ever did - and even today, if there are situations where I think 'I totally don't fit in here' - I can hit reset by getting back into the water. Whatever stuff I'm carrying, if I just jump in the water, I feel 'Phew! Now I feel who I am again.'"

Another aspect to the constant learning process, for Easkey, was noticing changes to the environment. "When you're that immersed, you really notice," she says. "That awareness was there really early."

At first, being able to travel, to surf in exotic locations, was hugely exciting: "Surfing became this way of travelling. If I did the contests and competed and got selected for events with the Irish team, then I got to travel, which was the real draw." Even though, she laughs, she found warmer waters "really hard" at first.

"I was so used to surfing in a wetsuit - I call it my sealskin; that's what it's like. You have that extra layer of protection, like putting armour on.

"But what I also found when I travelled to more tropical destinations was that my Irish skin was exposed; issues of sunburn, getting stung and bitten by everything. Often you surf over coral reefs, because they are the more powerful waves, and if you hit them, it's agony!"

Bit by bit however, there began to be other things, other aspects to the surfing lifestyle that Easkey noticed that troubled her.

"Even surfing can have a really negative influence on a place when it arrives in the form of mass tourism and lack of integration. And with surfing, it felt like there was a bit of a betrayal there - surfing gets portrayed as this environmentally conscious thing to do, that surfers are in tune with nature. In fact, we use these really toxic materials for our surfboards and wet suits.

"We travel a lot to chase waves, burning fossil fuels. As a professional surfer, you're sponsored and go to do photo shoots in these amazing destinations… That was another turning point for me," she says. "That lack of consciousness about how we were contributing to the environmental impact."

And so she began to ask questions, to speak out, when really, that aspect of her career might have been better served by staying quiet. "It wasn't appreciated that I was asking these kinds of questions either," she says. "It's a photo shoot, you're sponsored. Just 'Smile and catch a wave!'"

But Easkey couldn't close her eyes to the negative impact of a life spent chasing waves. Instead, she chose to go deeper into an understanding of the ocean and our relationship with it. First, she studied environmental sciences at Coleraine, University of Ulster.

"The decision to go there was because I could be in Portrush, less than a minute from the sea. I had an apartment where I could change into my wetsuit, run across the road and jump in for a surf, and then it's only a few minutes by train to Coleraine."

After her degree she did a PhD, looking at the social impact on fishing and coastal communities of losing their connection to the sea. "There are economic consequences, loss of industry, but there is also a mental health impact when you lose that sense of identity connected to livelihood." Her research took her to Iran in 2011, something she calls "probably the single biggest turning point of my life."

She went, "almost naively at the start, to this unexplored surf destination. There was no one surfing there, next to the border with Pakistan, but then a very organic, unexpected path opened up, by doing something I love, in an unusual place and in an unusual way."

Through gradual engagement with the local coastal community, as well as a sensitive approach - Easkey wore a hijab to surf "because it's a public place; we thought 'follow the rules if this is going to be the first time someone sees surfing'" - she fostered a whole different view of the ocean.

"Kids learned to not fear the sea, it becomes this space of play. Their whole ocean awareness changed. Now, five-odd years later, surfing is really well-established. I'm in touch with them daily, women are still involved, and the fishing community have started their own surf club. Through this they have learned life skills - life-guard training, First Aid, CPR."

In 2013, she went back with filmmaker Marion Poizeau and made a film, Into The Sea, "that captures the story of the first surfers from Iran, these two Iranian women who came along with us."

Through this experience, "my relationship with surfing changed," Easkey says. "It wasn't about chasing the next perfect wave. It was this powerful medium to connect across cultures, and create a connection with the sea that was really positive."

She has also, through the years, deepened her interest and research into the mental health benefits of the sea. "Research emerging in the last five-10 years on the restorative and therapeutic effect of water, shows it is extremely powerful, especially when it comes to mental health and our psychological wellbeing; in terms of regulating mood."

Some of this is well-known - the role of positive and negative ions for example - but the full extent is still to be discovered. Such is the power of the ocean that you don't even need to be in the water to benefit, apparently; being beside it can be enough.

"You don't even have to like it to benefit," Easkey laughs. "Being exposed to it is still good for you."

There are techniques and approaches she learned as part of her surfing career that sound like they might have practical applications for us all.

"With big wave surfing, we're training in how to stay calm in a high-stress situation," she explains.

"And that leads to a whole different cascade of responses in your body. A lot of it is about learning to regulate your body in terms of consciously being able to lower your heart rate, calm your mind, your ability to consciously control our breath. When you start to train for that, it can be a really positive thing. We're facing sky-rocketing stress and anxiety levels; people aren't facing huge waves, but it's exactly the same response, just a different kind of wave," Easkey says.

"With big wave surfing, it surfaces all the emotions you haven't dealt with," she says. "It does take a lot of work on yourself psychologically to be ready. Sometimes I feel, 'I'm totally in the zone, right where I'm meant to be.' Other times, I have my inner critic going off the hook - you know the voice in your head, questioning everything that you're doing, why you're out there. It's an interesting relationship with fear, but it's not one that I ever think, 'oh, I've nailed this.'"

So what now for Easkey? "I'm getting a Tiny Home made, on wheels. On my mum's parents' site by the beach in Donegal - that'll be my first home. Myself and my dad designed it, he's an architect. I've dialled back on international travel the last few years, relatively speaking. It was taking too much toll on my body, and also on the planet.

"My research at Galway University lends itself to a lot of flexibility, so I move between Galway, Donegal and Clew Bay just outside Westport; a golden triangle of the West Coast!" She has a boyfriend, also a surfer and "a man of the sea; we joke that we'd never see each other if we didn't surf!", and a relationship with the ocean that is rich and deep and continues to evolve.

"When you're surfing," she says, "if the thought pops into your head: 'right, I've got this,' that's the very moment when the ocean comes and swats you in an unexpected way, and you're back in your humble place again; a reminder that you're in a completely uncontrollable environment.

"It's learning to be with the complete unknown, or with an uncomfortable scenario that you can't change; you just have to be in that space."

Ireland will celebrate World Oceans Day, June 8, with the 'Go Atlantic Blue' campaign, which will see famous buildings and landmarks across the country turning blue. #Go Atlantic Blue and @AtlanticAll. www.worldoceansday.org

Sunday Independent

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