If one thinks of a multipotentialite or a Renaissance woman, one might picture Dr Easkey Britton. The Donegal native is a surfer, an academic with a PhD in Environment and Society, an artist, a filmmaker and a writer.
In the world of surfing, she is up there with the very best, winning multiple Irish national surfing championships. She was one of the standouts in the surfing documentary, Waveriders. The pandemic gave her more time to write and her latest book, Saltwater in the Blood, comes at a time when many of us have realised the healing power of swimming and the open sea through lockdown after lockdown.
It is a powerful memoir which sits somewhere in a space between the worlds of the surfer and the academic, the artist and the competitor, the big wave surfer and the environmentalist, the female body and the male-dominated practice of surfing.
The book has an overtly feminine, and, at times, meditative sense brought about by the flow of Britton’s writing and her evocative line drawings. She writes of thresholds throughout the book — between who we are and what we could become, the mind and body, land and sea,
decision and action, success and failure.
It is this space between that opens this book up to every reader, not just those interested in the world of surfing or competitive sport. As Britton herself says: “Surfing is the medium in which I best express and communicate... but the book is about the bigger stuff really…”
In the days prior to this interview, Easkey, 34, has suffered the loss of her maternal grandmother, 93, a “remarkable woman and the matriarch of the family”. The female influence on Britton’s life is strong: that of her mother, her relationship with artist Pauline Bewick and older female surfers such as Linda Cuy.
Britton credits her mother for years spent chaperoning her to events and competitions and it’s clear that her mother has been a constant guide helping her navigate the wins and disappointments of the competition circuit. “I think it was a reciprocal thing too,” she says. “There were people willing to encourage and support me to do what I love, so it was about what I was giving back, putting my all into it.”
She talks about the importance of female surfers gaining positions of leadership and authority in the world of competitive surfing. “The World Surfing League has a female CEO who brought in pay parity for female athletes. Jessi Myley-Dyer (who I surfed within the pro tour as a teenager) is the head of competition for the whole professional surfing tour. That is brilliant to see and will have a ripple effect,” she says.
“Looking back now I can see the power of telling your story in a way that can help and inspire others, regardless of what sector or sport you are in. Aside from my own mother, Pauline Bewick has probably been the greatest female influence on my life,” she says.
In Saltwater in the Blood, Britton explores the taboo subject of menstruation in competitive surfing and how she made peace with her body’s natural rhythms.
“There was always a sense that I had to overcome my female body, that it was in some way inadequate. It was literally something that I had to control and suppress... taking the pill constantly so that you wouldn’t have a period when competing, having no one to talk to or having to try to access sanitary products when you’re travelling to, for the most part, third world countries.”
She says that she has learned not to silence her inner critic, but to engage with it in a way that can be enlightening. “It comes back to cultivating a practice of self-connection when the going is good and when there is no inner critic. The inner critic will always be there, and has a role to play, but it can be hard to deal with it when you’re exhausted or run down. Rest, take a break and be kind to yourself. Then step back into the arena.”
Is there a danger in a world in which everyone’s a winner, in which every child gets a medal on sports day regardless of their place in a race, that we are failing to teach our children resilience?
“It’s an interesting question. Even on social media it’s all about celebrating the success and the wins and a lot less about sharing the things we’ve messed up or failed at. It would be much healthier, in a way, celebrating ‘everyone being a loser’,” she laughs.
“By that I mean that it is important to celebrate the wins that come from a lot of hard work, but also not to make the loss about being ‘not good enough’. It’s important not to have an aversion to so-called ‘negative’ emotions: they’re actually not negative. In time you can look at the story of what happened and that’s where you can glean the learnings.”
She writes about “creating a life that serves your passion” but agrees that it can be a burden to feel like you’re supposed to have that passion all figured out. “I would love to find a way of taking the pressure off, that we have to have everything figured out... The ‘not-knowing’ is a good place to be because that fuels imagination and curiosity even more,” she says. “You do not have to have it all figured out, ever.”
Self-reflective practice and journalling help her to avoid overwhelm but she says mindfulness doesn’t have to be about sitting still.
“I am always on the move and very active, even now I find it hard to sit still. ‘Body mindfulness’ is the realisation that this thing I am already doing (surfing) could be a form of mindfulness — being present and ‘in the now’.”
She talks about the “blue mind effect” — the science behind how being in or near water enhances our wellbeing and “calms a frayed nervous system” — something that will resonate with many sea swimmers.
Britton has long engaged with global projects including her work with women in the remote, Iranian coastal region of Baluchistan (documented in the award-winning documentary Into the Sea) and the Be Like Water swim/ surf programme she co-developed to enable women and girls to discover a greater “body-self-nature” connection.
There are echoes of her father’s cross-border ‘surfaris’ in which surfers from north and south of the border surfed together in the 1970s and 1980s. “Surfing is something that is border-crossing if we use the sea as a kind of a metaphor in terms of its boundlessness, but in a real sense, my experience is that surfing is an experience that, when shared, can transcend social or language barriers,” says Britton.
Such experiences have also helped her to realise her own privilege: “Realising that access to these experiences is limited depending on things such as gender, identity, culture. My privilege of having been born into surfing and how much harder my life would be personally without it. [These programmes] were about asking how I could open this up to more people so that they can experience this connection with nature.”
She describes the shared experience of seeing women immerse their bodies in water for the first time. “It is then that the universal truths come out...that transformation when we can feel all of who we are, be confident in our body, overcome a fear with the support of others. That is the essence of it.”
Having spent much of her younger years travelling across the globe, how has she found the past 18 months being rooted in one place? She has reflected on the influence of her upbringing and her travels and how her experiences have allowed her to unravel biases and assumptions too — useful for an academic.
“It’s about developing a ‘beginner’s mindset’ - no matter how long you’re surfing, every session is new and I am always learning.”
As a marine and social scientist and a surfer with “saltwater in the blood” Britton says that issues around pollution, global warming and species collapse are “really hard for her. She believes the issues can seem overwhelming and that science needs to find a new way of communicating so that such global issues can be distilled down to the local lived experience of people.
“My concern is that there is one narrative of how we need to address the challenge of say, global warming, but there will be no one-size-fits-all solution and we lose the knowledge around local places and local ecologies,” she says.
“There is a real advantage here in Ireland if we look at what we already have. Manchán Magan writes about the wisdom already locked up in our language or our connection to place. That’s an important starting point - even if you just have a windowsill or a backyard.”
- Saltwater in the Blood by Easkey Britton, Watkins Publishing, is available in bookshops now.