Dr Easkey Britton is not only a multiple championship-winning big wave surfer (and the first female big wave surfer in Ireland), she’s also a marine social scientist, a writer, an artist, an advocate for social change and a blue health expert. Her life-long fascination with our connections to nature and water began at just four-years-old, when she learned to surf at at home. Since then, her skills, passions and infinite wisdom have taken her all over the world, exploring the way that us humans view and interact with the sea.
Easkey is a pioneer and powerful voice in the industry, so when she dropped a new book earlier this year, Saltwater in the Blood, we had to get the skinny.
Hey Easkey! So for those that haven’t read it yet, can you summarise what your new book is about?
Sure - it’s partly a story of my own personal experience and evolving relationship with the sea and surfing, but really the core of the book draws on surfing as a metaphor for life for all of us. It touches on themes around identity, belonging, connection to place, connection to nature, how that awakens that sense of aliveness in us - and how water has the power to heal. It explores how we can reconnect or restore many of those connections that have been lost in modern society too.
Was there a particular moment or happening that inspired you to write the book?
Well I’ve always loved writing and I’ve done a lot of solo travel, where I’d often journal and write about my experiences. But I decided to start turning some of my writings into a book after I made the short film ‘A Lunar Cycle’ in 2018.
It was the first time I’d worked on this sort of surf edit from a much more feminine perspective - the motivation behind that was that there was almost total invisibility when it came to women in surf films, in front of or behind the camera.
I really felt that overall, capturing the diversity of experiences of surfing and what it means to different people, was missing. There’s usually a lot of glorification of epic waves or the perfect ride but surfing - and life in general - is so much more messy than that! I wanted to write the book as my own creative way to put that out there.
That makes sense. You also mention in the book that big wave surfing ‘came about through a combination of being at the right place at the right time, a life-long sea obsession, growing up around heavy water, following my father into the sea, knowing the right people and luck’. How do you think that growing up in Ireland shaped your path as a surfer?
Growing up and learning to surf in Ireland meant that I feel very comfortable in reef breaks, heavy waves and cold water - I’ve always felt a little out of place when I’m surfing somewhere warm with no wetsuit!
With big wave surfing, there were so many factors that needed to come together to allow it to happen. It all fitted well with where I was at in my own life cycle at the time - and it’s definitely changed and evolved since. Different crews, different jobs and responsibilities… they all affect big wave surfing because it’s one of those things that requires you to be in a position to be able to drop everything and go.
This is especially the case in Ireland, where there’s only a handful of times a year that it’s on. You also have to be continuously preparing so it’s a massive investment. Huge kudos to people who are able to stick at it.
I found it so interesting to read about the psychological preparation that you do before surfing big waves too. Can you tell us about your mindfulness practices and how that impacts your surfing?
Yes, it was actually through big wave surfing that I got more into mindfulness and meditation. I used to struggle with it before because I find it hard to keep still! But the training that I did for big wave surfing was amazing because it has impacted so many other areas of my life too. That’s one of the most beneficial things about it. Part of the training was being able to catch negative thoughts or patterns in mind, where my inner critic starts raging. Now I’m more able to notice this and make the shift to a better mental state. Those skills have got me through the last 18 months as well, surfing aside!
Let’s talk about being a woman in a male dominated line up. It’s something many of us experience on an average day, let alone in big waves...have you been noticing any changes to this over the years?
Yes and no - in my experience I’m still typically the only woman in most line ups, or one of very few. I’ve recently spent some time in Portugal and I was pretty blown away by how testosterone-fuelled the line ups were there too.
When you look at the bigger picture though, the performance of women in big wave surfing is flying against all the stereotypes that we’re used to. Women’s best performances are often surpassing men in terms of the size of the waves - and when you think about the journey they’ve been on to get that recognition, like being excluded for so long from competitive big wave surfing, it’s quite remarkable.
That being said, there’s still a very small core group and it’s still harder for a woman to get the mentorship and crew because of the gender dynamics. It still feels like there’s a simpler pathway into it for men.
The work you’ve done (and are still doing) to bring more diversity into surfing is inspiring though. Like your journey and adventure in Iran, which is a huge story in itself! Could you tell us a little about that?
The first time I went was 2010 and I had quite different motivations! I had this naive ‘let’s go explore unsurfed territories’ attitude - but actually that lent itself well to the beginner’s mindset and helped open up a whole other experience for me, in this massively misunderstood corner of the world.
With our work we helped to establish surfing there, coming in at a grassroots level with things like water safety training and surfboard repair, so that it could be sustained. It’s paid off and it’s become established as a mixed gender sport there over the past decade.
I’ve been back five times since then and I keep in touch with the community there on a weekly basis, which I love. The challenge we’re still coming up against is clothing - but Finisterre have been working on functional performance surfwear that’s modest. It’s due to come out next year.
The whole experience with Iran was a big turning point in my life, and was the catalyst for my professional research into blue health and connections to the ocean actually.
You write about the healing power of immersion in water, particularly from a feminine perspective, throughout. How has your experience of that evolved as you’ve gotten older?
Yes, another thread in the book is about my relationship with my body and learning to trust in it and awaken it in different ways. In my teenage years I stayed physically active and in love with surfing - but even still, it was a hyper-masculine environment where I was suppressing a lot of my what my body was really feeling and how it wanted to move.
I didn’t really see this until later on in life, but it still felt like it was a bit of a hindrance to be in a female body in that world of sport and performance. So it was liberating in my thirties to develop a new connection with the ocean with sea swimming, where I wasn’t going to be judged and there wasn’t a performative aspect to it. I think that’s why so many other people have been drawn to the sea and cold water swimming in the last 18 months too - that sense of immersion and being able to feel our bodies and not be stuck in our heads.
You talk about ‘Disconnect’ being a major issue when it comes to acting on climate change. Can you explain more about what you mean by this?
For lots of people around the world the ocean is ‘out of sight, out of mind’. Even for surfers, I’d wager that our knowledge and understanding of marine ecosystems is probably quite limited.
Ancestrally water would have been considered sacred. The notion that ‘water is life’ was at the core of all indigenous cultures, and not just for survival, but for its spiritual value as well. That’s been lost and water has been turned into another commodity - a resource to be controlled and extracted from and fought over.
That’s problematic! It’s important for us to find ways to restore our connection with water again so that we can understand how vital the health of the ocean is.
And how can people reconnect again?
It can start quite simply with education. For example, you could learn more about the body of water that’s closest to your home, and about where the water comes from that you drink.
Another important step comes back to diversity again. The more diversity we have in our ocean space, the more that will spill over into things like marine science and ocean policy, which will make a big difference. We need to create greater access for people to experience and get joy and wonder from the sea and surfing.
Saltwater in the Blood is published by Watkins and available from all good booksellers.