“Live in the present. Launch yourself on every wave; find eternity in each moment.”
This quote by author Henry David Thoreau defines how Easkey Britton, Ireland’s top female surfer and Woman You Should Know, lives her life, each and every day. This past September, Easkey, 26, traveled to Iran to become the first woman to surf Iranian waves, bringing hope and inspiration to women and girls a world away.
With a name that means ‘fish’ in Irish, it’s no surprise that Easkey spends most of her time in the water, first as a champion surfer and second as a PhD candidate in marine conservation. But it’s more than just the name… Easkey has surfing in her blood. As the legendary story goes, in the 1960’s, Easkey’s grandmother, Mary Britton, a hotel owner, returned to Ireland from a trip to California with two classic Malibu surfboards. Her intention was offer them to hotel guests, but instead her five sons, including Easkey’s father Barry, took the boards to the waves, making the Britton boys the first pioneers of Irish surfing. By the time Easkey was born, surfing was a regular part of her family’s life.
Easkey’s surfing has taken her around the world – at 16, she became the first Irish person to surf Tahiti’s “hell-wave” Teahupoo, and has since been racking up a number of achievements; she is a 5x National Champion, past UK Tour Champion and was nominated for the 2011 Billabong XXL Global Big Wave Awards (the Oscars of big wave surfing).
So how did this surfer girl end up in the waters of Iran? Well, that’s exactly what we asked her when we recently caught up.
10 Questions With Easkey Britton
WYSK: You are a world-class surfing champion and PhD candidate on marine conservation, where did your desire to go surf in Iran come from?
EB: It came from that desire to explore and adventure unknown places. It also came from the awareness that I knew so little about the place and the people, that I was ignorant about so much there and yet had all these preconceptions so I thought I shouldn’t judge until I’ve experienced it for myself.
WYSK: You refer to the expedition as a “surfing mission” what did you hope to accomplish with the mission? Did the experience meet your expectations?
EB: I tried to leave expectations behind. I had no idea what to expect and tried to keep as much of an open a mind as possible, and remain open to new experiences. With surfing you never really know what you are going to get, it’s so unpredictable. Of course, with a place like Iran, where so little is known about its own surfing potential, this was really heightened – I didn’t even know if we would have waves. Nothing was guaranteed. This also meant nothing was taken for granted and that finding surf was the icing on the cake – but not the whole story.
WYSK: What is it about surfing that you want to share with other women in this part of the world?
EB: I think surfing can be a great equalizer, the ocean doesn’t discriminate. It also offers, in a way, a form of escapism and hope from troubles on land. It can certainly help expand your horizons and test yourself. It’s also about reclaiming what once was very much a woman’s pursuit. If you look at the old engravings made during Captain Cook’s expedition to Hawaii, many of the first surfers were women. It was a sport for ordinary people as well as the Kings and Queens.
WYSK: What about the women of Iran did you connect with? What did you learn from them and what were you able to teach them?
EB: It was unfortunate that there was a language barrier, especially in the more isolated coastal areas – filmmaker Marion Poizeau, who came with me on the trip to document the mission – and I didn’t speak any Farsi so if we wanted to talk to women we needed an interpreter, our guide, who was male, which sometimes created issues with women not being able to speak so freely. With that said, we met some great women and girls, especially in the city of Shiraz. I hung out with a lovely bunch of girls for the evening in this stunning park where everyone gathered after school and work at sunset at the tomb of this famous Persian poet Hafez. A lot of his poems are about love. One of the girls had a crush on our guide and gave him a rose from the garden. The youngest girl, who is also in the documentary, had just finished football practice and was a big fan of the local team, Vesal. Within a few hours I had begun to pick up loads of Farsi. They have great spirit. So I would love to go back and interact with women more.
WYSK: We read that you want to bring your love of surfing across the world, to cultures where women do not normally get the opportunity to enjoy the sport, how do you hope to do this?
EB: Marion and I especially want to go back with surf equipment – now we know more about the place – and be able to teach people how to surf and at least provide the opportunity that might not be possible otherwise. We are in the early stages of planning for that and hoping we can get some support to do it this time. I have been trying to do it in my own small way everywhere I go by bringing extra boards and equipment and passing them on to others who are trying to develop the sport and opportunities for people locally, like the Havana Surf in Cuba. If we could all make small change happen, then it would make a big difference.
Surfing has become such a popular sport now, which is great, but the opportunity for local people to experience it might not be there in a lot of places we go. I was so fortunate with being born and raised on Ireland’s Donegal coast; my father and mother both surfed so I had a great opportunity that I’ve tried to make the most of. There is so much talent in the world, people have great skills, ability and potential, but not always the opportunity, and this is especially the case for girls and women, which is unfortunate. So, basically I hope to do this by connecting with people already doing good work out there on the ground, meeting people who are perhaps surfing against the odds, learning about how their surf culture has developed, surfing with them and telling them my surf story and by donating equipment and surfboards. The hard part is transporting the surf equipment, it’s very costly and surfboards are not airplane friendly. So we need to raise more support and awareness for these initiatives and how surfing can promote positive change.
WYSK: What was the greatest surprise you experienced on your mission?
EB: It was all so surprising, in a good way. The most beautiful part was seeing how ordinary people live and how important family is and creating time for each other. In the evenings everyone is out walking in the parks, picnicking, going to the beach, Mums and Dads playing with their kids. That and the cultural richness of the place.
WYSK: What are some of the challenges you faced?
EB: The heat and wearing the hijab all the time, even in the warm water. In the beginning I’d forget and walk out of the room and get all these stares and wonder why? It’s also pretty hot and sticky having to wear it all the time, no wind blowing through your hair to cool you down, not to mention the challenge in the surf. But, I got used to it and it didn’t matter if you had a bad hair day!
WYSK: Did your family support your mission? Any naysayers?
EB: My family was very apprehensive about me going, to put it mildly, but they also support me no matter what. We didn’t have much contact when I was in Iran as there was no Internet access out in the desert on the coast and the only image of Iran they had was what was on the news, so they were worried. But when I came back and shared my experiences with them it really opened their eyes too. Tolerance is so important, being able to accept others for who they are, is the real challenge of our world today.
WYSK: Is there a woman that has inspired you?
EB: Burmese pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi has been a huge inspiration in my life. Ever since my Mum told me about her when I was a little girl, and Suu Kyi was first put under house arrest, I have been following her story. My Mum and I got to meet her when she came to visit Dublin to accept Amnesty International’s Ambassador of Conscience award. That was amazing.
WYSK: What’s next?
EB: I take another deep breath and get to work on an exciting pilot project funded by the Rockefeller Foundation with the Wildlife Conservation Society. The project explores the relationship between gender, fisheries livelihoods and marine conservation in 12 countries across the developing world.
I’m also looking forward to the big-wave winter season in Ireland and am already beginning to plan a follow-up adventure to Iran, and possibly Bangladesh with an NGO there.
Easkey traveled to Iran with filmmaker Marion Poizeau, who covered the surfing mission and created a one hour documentary, which is scheduled to air in France on October 30. Here’s a sneak peek.