Catching the next big wave still a passion for Donegal's five-time surf champion
She may have given up high level competition, but champion surfer Easkey Britton is still at her best in the sea. She tells Gail Bell how empowering women is still her goal, whether on land or water
SHE may have her feet on dry land – for now – but the water, and the weather, are never far from the surface for five-time Irish surfing champion, Easkey Britton.
The activist, environmental scientist and (somewhat reluctant) poster girl for the sport, is a persistent weather-watcher and never more so now that she is filming for RTE's Weather Watch Live around the coast of Ireland.
Having also just become an ambassador for Pello Hairdressing – whose salon in Letterkenny she credits with keeping her hair from becoming a "complete disaster" due to spending so much time in salt water – the Donegal woman was delighted to support its recent Pinktober fundraiser in support of the Breast Cancer Research Foundation.
"I'm passionate about women, about empowering women, and I'm delighted to be back home and supporting this campaign," says the 30-year-old Rossnowlagh native, who chose to study at Ulster University in Coleraine mainly due to its proximity to the sea – and "some of the biggest waves in Ireland".
Although now working as a post-doctoral researcher at the National University of Ireland Galway on a project that links health and wellbeing and the natural environment, she is still involved in 'big wave' performance surfing and returns to Portrush and the north coast to catch a wave "for fun" when she gets the chance.
"I still have some very close friends there in the surf world; it's a stunning coastline," she enthuses, in between her filming and various campaigns. In addition to her NUI research, crusades have included founding the Wellcoast network in 2010 and Waves of Freedom in 2013, primarily to empower Iranian sportswomen.
A marine social scientist with a PhD in Environment and Society from Ulster University, Britton is passionate about channelling her passion for surfing into social change, having already seen the non-profit Waves of Freedom (set up with French film-maker, Marion Poizeau) lead to increased accessibility to surfing for women in conservative countries and to the world's first Surf for Social Good Summit in Indonesia in 2015.
Credited with being the first woman to bring female surfing to Iran in 2010, she is now working with the country's first female triathlete, Shirin Gerami, in collaboration with design students in the UK, on the blueprint for a modern, but appropriate, full body surf suit.
"When I first visited Iran, it was just to surf and becoming a sort of game-changer in sport there was not something I had in mind at all," she says. "I went for a travel adventure, really, a chance to surf unridden waves, and I didn't think about how unusual it might be and the impact it would have.
"I've always been hungry to explore the unknown; somewhere off the beaten track, but other people who'd come on board for that first trip, fell by the wayside and the person organising it missed his flight. Marion and I were stranded in Tehran, two strangers... but I had my surfboard and my customised surfing hijab and she had her camera."
There were headed for Chabahar, a seaport about a two-hour flight from Tehran in a far-flung corner of Iran near the Indian ocean, a rural, traditional area where no-one had ever before ventured with a surf board.
"We went not knowing what to expect, what the reaction might be to a western woman surfing," Britton recalls. "What we found, though, were plenty of warm-hearted, welcoming people and an excitement about what we were doing."
Overwhelmed by the level of interest and response during that first visit, the pair returned three years later with two female Iranian athletes – professional snowboarder Mona Seraji and diver Shahla Yasini – to shoot Poizeau's documentary Into the Sea, which charts their incredible journey to the shores of Baluchistan, a conflict-riven area straddling Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan which many Iranians fear to visit.
Approval from senior figures in the Iranian government allowed for the film to be screened at the Tehran Film Festival in 2014 and since 2010, the former Coleraine student has since visited the country five times: to surf, train female Iranian athletes and help in the development of the sport which is growing at a phenomenal rate.
"We are obviously respectful of the Muslim religion and culture, so that is why it is important to develop appropriate surf-wear for women so women can pursue the sport with growing confidence," she adds. "Surfing is so synonymous with freedom, with self-expression and a sense of empowerment."
She has travelled the world to surf in high level competitions, often battling the power of 30ft waves, but is keen to dispel the sunshine-and-bikini image of girls on a surf board.
"Northern Ireland and the Republic have some of the best surfing conditions in the world, but you do have to get used to the cold water here," Britton stresses. "But, the seas around Ireland have given me some of my most exhilarating encounters with the elements and nature; I have swum alongside dolphins and seals and you can't get a better day away from the office than that.
"Surfing is a healthy metaphor for life, really, and when you walk into the sea you are entering into an unpredictable environment which is more powerful than you; you never lose that respect, especially when you have had a few 'close calls' with drowning, which is everyone's biggest fear."
She has been surfing since the age of four and comes from a surfing family – her grandmother returned from California in the 60s with two Malibu boards for decorating her family-run hotel, but these were quickly seized by Britton's father and his brothers who used them for their primary purpose in the sea.
"I don't think my grandmother had any intentions of starting a surfing revolution in Donegal, but, in a way, she did," Britton concludes. "I was named 'Easkey' after all, a place on the Atlantic coast in Co Sligo. I still go into the the sea every day; I need surfing as other people need sleep."