Easkey Britton, making waves for social change

Big wave cold water surfer, scientist, researcher, inspirational keynote speaker, impact maker… Easkey Britton is all this but, above all, she’s a wonderful woman with a fearless soul. Being named after one of Ireland’s most popular waves, it’s not a surprise that the water is where she feels more at home. And it’s been in this journey of sharing her passion, that Easkey has found in surfing and the sea a powerful medium for creating positive social impact.

In 2010, while you were searching for waves in remote places, you arrived to the province of Baluchistan in Iran and what started as a surf trip became a journey to engage with the local community and empower women through surfing. What inspired you to start using surfing and the sea as a tool for positive social impact?
The first thing to say about that journey in 2010 was that there was no mission attached to it and I didn’t really consciously have that perception of surfing as this powerful tool to create connection across cultures. At the same time, my relationship with surfing was all about travelling to experience the world and to meet new people, so I already understood the connective properties of sharing a passion. But there is also something about the sea as well that has the potential to bring new people together, and its powerful healing force. When I reflect back on that trip, I realize the seeds were already planted even though I didn’t go there with this grand vision. From childhood, I had this relationship with the sea. I felt in love with it on such an early age, I don’t ever remember not feeling at home in the water. Where I grew up in the north-west of Donegal, there was this organization called The Chernobyl Children’s project that was bringing kids who had suffered from the fallout of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986. This charity brought kids born with different illnesses over for a summer exchange to boost their immune system using the restorative benefit of being in a clean environment with fresh air. These were kids the same age as me. I was around 10 years old the first time I met them. I brought them to where I lived by the sea in Rossnowlagh, Donegal, and their reaction to seeing the sea for the first time kind of blew my little mind away. I had the sea on my doorstep every day, it was my playground, and I couldn’t imagine growing up not knowing the sea so I brought them surfing. With Iran, it happened again, but this time through the courage of other Iranian women just being so open to trying something new and adventurous. In this way, it was maybe something that was planted since I brought those kids into the sea.

Surfing workshops in Iran. Photo by Jelle Mul.

The experience that you gained through Waves of Freedom, the project in Iran, it has been the inspiration for Like Water, a concept of using surfing and the sea for personal and social transformation. What’s your vision on what you want to create with it?
Waves of Freedom was a concept Marion Poizeau (director of  ‘Into the Sea’) and I came up with. Surfing was completely new in Iran and raising funds and equipment to bring surf kit over there was almost naïve, but there was a big impact with it. Like Water came as a way for me to bring back home those lessons learnt. Funny enough, I had to go to Iran to learn them. I realized we actually share a lot of problems in the world: conflict, health, lack of confidence with women… these are issues that are not exclusive to that part of the world but also in my own doorsteps. Like Water is a way to reconnect more with where I’m from, but also to be more creative and playful with experimenting how the sea can influence our lives here.

Who inspires you the most to do the work that you do?
The moments when I feel in any way overwhelmed or that I feel totally inadequate to be doing what I’m doing, then I look to another woman who I have a very close connection with and who I met through the whole surfing in Iran thing. Shirin Gerami, Iran’s first female triathlete and a pioneer in the world of sports and Middle Eastern women sports. She has such an open-hearted approach to what she does and even though she faces so many obstacles constantly, she is never deterred. Shirin came along in 2015 to this remote part of Iran where there’s surfing workshops happening every summer. But because she wasn’t a surfer and she had this water connection as a swimmer, she brought a fresh perspective. Being able to see it in a different way, it was like taking a step back from it and seeing that it wasn’t just about learning how to surf. That was not really the point. As an Iranian woman, Shirin had the deeper understanding of what the particular barriers and needs might be for that group. And it was with her that we came up with the Be Like Water program as this new approach to creating a safe space for women to come together and experience themselves and their bodies in water.

Surfing Mullaghmore. Photo by John Carter.

When you’re surfing big waves or when you’re working on a project, how do you deal with the fear of failure?
In one way, I feel like I never start a project with a really clear end target or outcome. Usually it feels like it’s responding to some kind of inner impulse that I have and I just step into the unknown. I don’t expect to arrive at a destination, so in a way you almost can’t fail. It’s a journey of discovery. On another level, like with the big wave surfing, fear is very psychological. I find those moments when I go out on the water and if I have any kind of expectation on myself to perform or to have to catch a wave, then it absolutely doesn’t work. Specially in the sea, you need to surrender, trust, and let go, but it’s actually really hard. You can’t pretend to let go. That doesn’t work. The moments I feel very connected to the environment, the waves and the energy, that’s when big wave surfing really works. But also when you’re open minded to whatever possibility and you allow yourself the joy of being in each moment.

You co-organize the Wavemaker retreat in Portugal. Can you tell me a bit more about it?
The Wavemaker Collective recognizes the inspiration that comes from the sea and surf and how people are increasingly drawn to either using or engaging with it as a tool for change. But at the same time it also reflects on how we might integrate that idea of social impact into what we do (business, charity, research…). This idea came about through a friendship I have with fellow wavemakers Linzi Hawkin and Carolina Pereira. It’s been a nice collaborative process with the three of us drawing out our experiences and seeing how we may create a learning space for other people as well. There are a lot of people out there doing amazing things but it’s quite isolated. There’s a need for connection and leadership. The Wavemaker retreat is a gathering of people who are like minded and share a passion for the sea, but are not necessarily surfers, to create that support network. What I love about it is using the sea and the surf as the learning medium itself, bringing a lot of these metaphors to life in a playful way, embodied way. I find that works really well for that particular group of people because we tend to be in our heads a lot trying to problem solve.

Wavemaker retreat. Photo courtesy of Wavemaker Collective.

In your opinion, what are the key elements to be a good leader for social impact?
I think one of the most important things is courage. I personally felt uncomfortable with the word leadership or calling myself a leader because I’ve always felt most comfortable stepping out of my comfort zone into the unknown. I actually did this creative leadership program at THNK in Amsterdam. It came at a time in my life when I had just come through doing my PhD and went straight into post-doctoral research. I guess I was really burnt out, but it brought this kind of lovely perspective shift for me. Just reflecting on my own experiences, courage comes from something like big wave surfing. The realization that, why do I commit to go on a wave even though I feel so much fear. I think it is the realization that if you move through it, there’s something on the other side of that fear that is worth so much more. And I think curiosity is also a really important quality. Curiosity along with the willingness to see in new and different ways. There’s nothing like being in nature and get immersed in the water to literally shift your perspective.

There is a lot of activity around you, what do you do during the moments of pause when it’s all about taking care of oneself?
The balancing of energies has really interested me for a long time. Now that I’ve been at home in Ireland for a full year without travelling all around the world, I really feel more grounded and I’ve noticed that my energy shifts with the seasons. As a surfer you’re also very aware of tidal cycles, the lunar cycle… I’ve actually been learning more about the menstrual cycle lately. There are a lot of wise women who’ve been working on that for very long time and for someone like me, that’s the best way to find my own rhythm. As an athlete, sometimes these other ways of resting and recovering didn’t fit my particular flow and I couldn’t understand why, but it’s obviously because we all have our own unique cycles. I’ve been blown away by realizing that my body as a woman, has this inner cycle. Our bodies are already telling us when is the time to be on and go for it and when is the time to go inward and reflect and rest. I haven’t really nailed how to properly find the rest and recovery, but I get it from certainly being outside in nature, in the sea, and this ability to tune more into these natural cycles. I’d love if those moments of stillness and reflection could be celebrated as much as that need to be busy all the time. In surfing I often think about this as well. A lot of the times, what you get to portray is the actual moment of action when you’re riding a wave. You watch a surf edit and it’s all wave after wave after wave, but so much of surfing is just while you’re waiting for the swell to arrive for days, and then while you’re waiting for the wave in the water… There is so much pause and stillness. You probably spend more time waiting than actually surfing.

Photo courtesy of Finisterre
Easkey surfing in Iran. Photo by Jelle Mul

Learn more about Easkey’s projects on Like Water and her research on environmental and human health nature on NEAR Health project