Called after their favourite wave near their home on Ireland’s west coast, Easkey Britton inherited her parents love of surfing and their respect for the sea — one of Ireland’s first surfing families, they taught her to surf when she was just four years of age. She was the first Irish person to surf Tahiti’s Teahupoo, or ‘hell-wave’ as it’s more descriptively known when she was just 16 and became one of Ireland’s most successful professional surfers.
The Easkey wave breaks over rocks not sand, in Co Sligo so it barrels long and fast; Easkey Britton continues her namesake’s relentless energetic course. Not content with her lengthy string of competitive surfing accolades, she became the first woman to surf in Iran (while finishing her PhD. in Environment and Society), and founded ‘Waves of Freedom’, a project teaching women in an isolated and impoverished region of Iran to surf.
This month the 28-year-old is going back to Iran to establish the country’s first surf club that will be open to both girls and boys. Then, on returning to Ireland for a winter of big wave surfing on the west coast, she will push work forward in her new NGO. She wants it to reach beyond Ireland and Iran to explore how surfing and creative expression can empower vulnerable people everywhere.
“Surfing in Iran began as a crazy idea born from a sense of adventure; we wanted to explore somewhere off the beaten track, we didn’t even know if we’d find waves. A group of us were on board initially for our trip in 2010, but it’s logistically so difficult to get there that only Marion Poizeau, a French filmmaker and I arrived. We met for the first time in the airport — our mutual friend missed his flight but we were committed to continue.
“I expected a lot more resistance to two women travelling on their own, one with a surfboard the other with a camera, but it intrigued people — they were curious rather than resistant. Our destination, Baluchistan in south-eastern Iran near the Pakistani border, is very traditional, with a pronounced societal gender divide, but once you get over initial barriers you can really connect with people. Iranians are genuinely extremely welcoming, people want you to have a good experience in their country. We were mutually excited about having this insight into a world that we normally never hear about. The information we are fed both in Iran and the West is generally very one-sided.”
Poizeau made a film about their experiences in Iran which went viral online and drew international media attention. It also sparked interest from Iranian girls, and some pioneering Iranian sportswomen keen to try surfing in their home country, which inspired Britton and Poizeau to return to Iran to build a project that shared their passion for surfing and was accessible to everyone, especially women and girls.
“Mona Seraji, an Iranian snowboarder, and Shahla Yasini, an Iranian swimmer joined us for the second trip; they’re pioneering sportswomen in Iran who shared our belief in the power of surfing as a tool to build connection and self-empowerment. Marion documented the story in her new feature documentary Into The Sea which is currently being entered to international film festivals. The story is told by the three of us about introducing the sport to Iran and our experience of surfing there, with challenges like staying covered in 40 degree heat in the sea at the edge of the desert. It’s visually quite impactful, seeing a woman covered at her sport. It’s a challenge but it can certainly be overcome and should not be used as an excuse to stop women doing it. It was fun exploring how to get around the rules and still show respect for customs, even if you don’t agree with them,” says Britton.
“The Iranian women had really pushed for this project and were instrumental to it. It’s important to have local female role models. There was no surfing culture there at all, so everyone experienced it through women initially, which proved inspiring for the young boys and men too, because everyone started surfing.”
What started as a trip to search for surf grew into something much bigger, from a short film to a feature film and now a global NGO. “We just followed opportunities,” says Britton. “The evolution surprised me but it’s been really positive. The experience also prompted a shift in my perspective of surfing, how I value it and how something like surfing creates the space to connect. Even where there are obvious social, cultural and gender divides bringing surfing into the mix can change the energy; it changed how people related to each other. People enjoyed this shared experience regardless of social status, it created a common ground. And from there you could explore the deeper issues in terms of how it impacts women and men, the sense of empowerment and the opportunities it can give to a place that’s underdeveloped but has a resource like surfing. It was exciting to experience how your passion could have a positive social impact.”
Britton squeezed this last trip to Iran and the filming schedule into the middle of her postdoctoral research. “I’ve finished the postdoc and I plan to use that experience to fill knowledge gaps in women’s participation in surfing and how NGOs can engage with gender issues. I’m trying to pull it all together.”
Britton returns to Iran this month to establish Iran’s first surf club, open to girls and boys, and is busy fundraising for this venture. “Everything in Iran is quite challenging. We have to get all the equipment there, we’ve been raising funds and we’re looking for support running Waves of Freedom, found online at wavesoffreedom.org, which is already expanding rapidly; it began as a project to empower women in Iran but now we aim to create a global platform.”
Britton miraculously fits all this in around her training schedule. “I try to get in the water every day whether it’s for a swim, a paddle or a surf. Nothing beats surfing but the waves aren’t always there.
“I’m on the move a lot so I’ve developed a portable routine. I combine exercises to keep it interesting — a mix of yoga, core and balance. Yoga is a daily must for me. On top of all that I do breathing exercises, especially those for freediving, in preparation for big-wave winter surfing.
“My all-time favourite cross-training is acro- and aerial dance, basically circus-style training. My favourite is the dance trapeze. But it can be harder to find training spaces for it.”
Britton feels that she has learnt more from her failures than her myriad successes. “Celebrating the victories along the way is essential to keep your energy up and I’m not romanticising failure but it does cleanse; it fine hones who you are and can be a great motivator and teacher.
“Creating routine is difficult because my days often depend on the unpredictable mood of the sea. I’m working on creating little rituals and creative habits that can help me focus on what’s essential, rather than feeling overwhelmed. I find it really important to create space, even small pockets of space where I can reflect or explore before jumping too quickly into the next thing. It’s a challenge,” says Britton.
Rell Sunn, the pioneering Hawaiian surf champion and philanthropist said that “when you get in the water and catch a wave, you own your life again”. This sentiment informs Waves of Freedom and Britton’s other work and the parallels between the two women are striking. Rell Sunn’s middle name means ‘Heart of The Sea’. Like Easkey Britton her name predicted her life; Sunn (whose mother was half Irish) broke gender barriers in pro-surfing and established annual surf contests for children to engender self-esteem, recognising surfing’s ability to empower a community riddled with social and economic problems. She worked tirelessly to improve the world for those around her through her affinity for the sea. Rell Sunn is one of Hawaii’s national heroes, Easkey Britton should most definitely be one of ours.