“Surfing is my passion. It’s been in my life for as long as I can remember. It’s what I live for and can’t live without. To wake up every morning and to be inspired, to be in love when I see the sea. Surfing is my driving force.”
When Easkey Britton gave her 2013 TEDx talk in Dublin, those were her opening words. In a speech lasting a little over thirteen minutes, Britton outlined how surfing can be a unifying force, a vehicle for changing how the world views women not only in sports but in society as a whole. Growing up riding challenging, huge waves in Donegal on Northern Ireland’s west coast, Britton has seen surfing grow from small, countercultural movement to big business. She’s turned her passion into a career. And now she’s turning it into a teaching movement across the globe.
Britton recently returned from Maui on a promotional trip for the first Surf + Social Good Summit, a project she started alongside volunteer-led initiative Waves of Freedom, that aims to bring the surfing community together to find “meaningful solutions and strategies applying surfing as a tool for sustainable social impact”. She first visited the island, the second biggest in Hawaii, when she was fifteen. Back then, it was all about the next wave. Her competitive drive had taken her across the world to experience an environment that is about as far removed from the driving wind and coastal rain of the town she grew up in. Since then, Britton has ridden some of surfing’s most coveted waves. But it was in a landscape far removed from the waveriding world that ended up reaping the greatest reward.
In 2010, Britton met french filmmaker Marion Poizeau while visiting Iran. “It was just meant to be a surf trip arranged by a mutual colleague,” she says. “I didn’t really give thought to what the impact of being a woman would be.”
The Islamic republic may not be high on surfing’s collective bucket list, but the pair were both drawn there by talk of undiscovered waves. “Marion was the first person I’d met when I arrived in Iran. We forged a really strong relationship and it gave us what we needed to get through all the challenges that have come since,” she explains. “The kind of challenges that come with taking a risk by leaping into the unknown, doing something against all odds, listening to your gut and trusting your heart even when no one else believes you can pull it off. Being up against the ‘can’t, shouldn’t, that’s impossible, don’t be ridiculous’ thinking and breaking through that. Common sense was the attitude that we recognised in each other and we thought, ‘Well, let’s just go for it.’”
On that first trip, Britton was the first woman to ever surf in Iran. But together with Marion, she saw an opportunity to introduce surfing to other women. The country already has an enormous ski scene so surfing, they figured, could also have a place. The pair returned in 2012, and with the help of Iranian snowboarder Mona Seraji and Iranian diver Shalha Yasini, started coaxing other local women and girls into the waves. The results were captured in the film Into The Sea.
“What’s so powerful, when you’re there, is the connection to people,” says Britton. “To have now created this depth of relationship with people because you’ve shared this experience of surfing. It’s a really diverse community within Iran, and people want to come and be a part of this. It isn’t even so much about the surfing; it’s about all of the other things that surfing then creates space for. It may seem strange to some that surfing might play a role in such lofty goals as gender equality and social change. But as a border-crossing, fluid, diverse tribe of ocean-centric beings, perhaps it is not too hard to imagine greater possibilities for surfing – an activity that can become a connecting medium, despite language, geography, sexuality, class and creed.”
One of the defining scenes of Into The Sea comes when Britton sits all the children in a semi-circle and, with the help of Mona, starts to talk them through the basics of surfing; how to approach the wave, how to stand on the board, how to respect the ocean. It breaks down perceived barriers – religion, gender, culture, age – in one simple act as she speaks to every child as an equal. She teaches them to surf, and by the time the film closes, everyone is united in the waves.
But the waves are under threat. The same waves that Britton fell in love with, the same waves that the children learn in and that have the power to unite. With oceanic pollution rising at a completely unsustainable rate, Britton’s wealth of knowledge (she has a PhD in Marine Science) rises to the fore: “Surfing, sustainability and gender are inextricably linked – connecting these dots is at the core of the Surf + Social Good Summit. It comes back to surfing having this incredible potential as an education tool, a new way of learning about our environment through a truly immersive experience, connecting with a force of nature far greater than ourselves. It opens the mind to new possibilities and deepens our understanding and relationship with the sea,” she says. “As Waves of Freedom grows and in my own work as a research scientist, this is something I’m excited to develop further – surfing as a medium for marine education.”
This is what surfing has always been about for Britton. “Surfing became that vehicle to go out and experience new places, and I suppose expand my own horizons and understanding of things and issues. It’s an ideal experience for that. On that edge between land and society, on this totally natural environment where real changes happen.”