Pro Chat: Easkey Britton

"It's behind you…" Credit: Roo McCrudden for Mullaghmore shot

The Irish big wave surfer and Billabong XXL 2011 Award Nominee on ‘kissing the reef’, the problems of pollution and her surf heroes

Interview by Sam Haddad

Hey Easkey, so it’s a crazy, rare date day today [11/11/11, and we obviously had to publish this at 11.11…] How should we celebrate?
Go hug and kiss a loved one and go surf!

Talk us through the last few months, what have you been up to?
The last few months have been quite a whirlwind…I won my 5th national title, started free diving for the first time this summer which was amazing, such a beautiful experience – I love being in the big blue, just me and one breath! And it’s also great for big wave surfing, as well as the obvious benefits of lung expansion and breath holding it really trains your mind, very calming. The water was very cold down there though!
At the end of the summer I wrote a paper on my research on the social impacts of marine resource decline. And I was training hard for the European Surfing Champions which were held at my home break at the end of September. That was an amazing buzz. We scored really good surf on the reefs for a few days and the home crowd support was great! I definitely put in my PB and almost made the grand final but unfortunately got pipped from the podium by a 0.4. That’s contests. It was great for really pushing my surfing performance though, and top 5 in Europe is ok too!
The ocean really got going after the Eurosurf with swell after swell in October. Nothing too massive yet but we’ve had a couple of really sweet days to practice towing on some of the local reefs around here…it’s also good to have a chance to ease back in and build the muscle memory and confidence again so you’re ready for it…
I’m actually planning a trip down the west coast to catch up with the Clare crew and Aileens locals and catch some waves with them next week. I paddled the Cliffs for the first time at the start of the year, which was pretty mind-blowing. And I’ve been itching to get back ever since. Aileens is a beautiful but very humbling place. You need to have your ‘armor’ on so to speak when you surf there.

How is your PhD going? Is it easy to manage full time study with being a pro surfer and are you ever tempted to sack off the study and surf full time!
It’s tough, especially now I’m in my final year. I don’t know how anyone survives their PhD without being able to jump in the sea and catch some waves. It clears my mind, renews my energy – the best ‘study breaks’ you can get. And I appreciate the sessions I have a lot more. I work best in intense bursts, I surf hard when the surf’s pumping but I also work hard when I’m not surfing. It’s a juggling act but I wouldn’t have it any other way. Of course I would like more time, freedom (& money) to go sack off surfing for a while after all this but then I’m also so exited by all this other amazing stuff I have a chance to be involved with – it really expands my mind, relationship and understanding of the sea and the people who depend on her for their wellbeing (see: www.wellcoast.orgfor more on that!)

Do you plan to enter the Billabong XXL Big Wave Awards next year and did you enjoy the experience this year?
I’d love to be a part of it again but it all depends on what the ocean gives you, being in the right place at the right time. I haven’t been able to drop and go chase warm water swells in the Southern Hemisphere earlier in the year but I am lucky to call Ireland home, and so far the winter is shaping up nicely. If it’s on I plan to be on it too! The experience earlier this year will stay with me forever, those waves at Mullaghmore, meeting all the other big wave chargers at the XXL awards, especially the other women was really inspiring and motivating.

How did you feel when you saw Keala’s injury in Tahiti [DON’T CLICK THROUGH IF YOU’RE SQUEAMISH OR EATING? Have you ever had a really bad reef slam?
Keala’s a good friend and I know how hard she charges. Her accident was such a shock especially because, for her, it was a relatively ‘small’ day, she not only survived the Red Alert day at Teahupoo a few days before but charged some serious bombs! Her injury gave us all a fright, I was pretty upset but then she is such a warrior and has handled it all with such grace and grit.
I got reef-slammed, or as Poto (Vitea David) calls it ‘kissed-the-reef’ at Teahupoo when I was 16! I took off too late, Liam mcNamara was calling me into a set wave so I had to go. That wave moves so fast one minute you’re up, the next you’re hitting the reef. I totally starfished on the bottom. I was afraid to move in case I couldn’t but in the end I only had some reef cuts and reef rash on my back.

Credit: Laurence J Photography

Are wipeouts more gnarly in cold water?
If you’re surfing somewhere shallow it’s nice to have a wetsuit when you bounce off the bottom! But I think colder is gnarlier. Last time I was in Hawaii some of the crew took me out to tow the outer reefs, Phantoms and Revelations. The sun was shining, it was about 30 degrees and the water was so clear I could see the reef in hi-def! It felt so different, a lot less threatening, the wipeout was definitley not as heavy. I surfed all day and my body didn’t feel like a train-wreck after it. When it’s cold it takes so much of your energy just to keep warm, it’s the biggest challenge to surfing in Ireland, especially when you’re putting in a full day out on the water and there’s snow on the beach, you’re breaking ice off your wetsuit, and then the hailstones start driven by gale-force winds, like last winter. Your body stiffens up and you’re more likely to get injured. The water somehow feels heavier too.

Have you ever surfed Mavericks and if not would you like to in the future?
No I haven’t. I used to have a picture on my bedroom wall when I was about 12 of Sarah Gerhardt taking off on a beast at Mavs, the biggest wave I’d ever seen a woman on. I’ve been inclined to drift somewhere warmer if I do leave Ireland but I met Savannah Shaughnessy at the XXL and Big Wave World Tour Awards in California this year – she charges out there, taking off deeper than the guys on the main peak. And there’s sharks…I’ve only ever seen seals here… but yeah some day it would be a cool experience to paddle out there with Savannah showing me the ropes…

Billabong are running a big wave contest in your backyard soon, do you hope to compete?
The initiative for the event came from the Irish Tow Surf Rescue Club, who I’m a member off. The idea is that everyone who tow surfs in Ireland, becomes a member and gets trained up and gets the qualifications – I completed my PWC Surf Rescue Operator course in the summer. It really helps your confidence and then everyone is on the same wavelength and knows what to do if something goes wrong. We work together as a team really well. The event was an opportunity to show-case that. They held the first tow surf event there in February and some of the Billabong lads, Sancho, Eric and Francois came over and joined the madness. The conditions were unreal. Huge, clean, light winds, sunshine. A very rare combo. It was our first ever experience of something like that. The crowds covering the headlland were massive, it felt like an amphitheater, or being a gladiator in the arena! It was a huge success with Billabong backing it for a second year it’s grown into much a bigger beast with some big names competing. I got my invite for this years event which is exciting and scary. I’m training with my tow partner, Neil Britton as much as I can, hitting the pool and when there’s no surf blowing off steam at the boxing club!

You’ve often said your dad was a big inspiration, how does he feel about your surfing now?
He’s 57 and I swear charging harder and surfing better than ever. Dad’s much more patient than I am, sits and waits and the bombs just seem to come to him. He’s still such an inspiration and a big grommet. I’ve moved to a new place on the coast with some of the best reefs in the country in my backyard so he rings me every morning for a surf report and we love surfing with each other, and my sister too.

Who else inspires your surfing?
There’s a really cool group of serious chargers in Ireland now, most of them pretty underground but doing mindblowing surfing; I love surfing with the likes of Cain Kilcullen, the most powerful and explosive surfer in Ireland, Ollie O’Flaherty and Peter Conroy, wild Clare men  who charge crazy places like Rileys, Conor Maguire from Bundoran who’s only 17 but so keen and a great barrel rider and of course Fergal Smith never ceases to amaze. Paul O’Kane, the tow surf club’s founder, he’s 50 and he’s got Mullaghmore wired, he charges and he’s the most prepared guy for every eventuality – great to surf with and super giving with all his knowledge and expertise. I could go on…there’s so many guys who you don’t hear about putting in the hard work, surfing hard and all for the sheer passion of it…
And the girls; Keala Kennelly, Mercedes Maidana, Savannah Shaughnessy, Maya Gabeira meeting them was so amazing, especially after hanging out with the boys all the time my whole life…to meet these like-minded women breaking these so-called boundaries and barriers, it felt like a sisterhood!

Your grandmother went to California in the 1960s, how cool is that!? Did she have any good stories?
Well I think Gidget impressed her so much she lugged back a big 1960s surfboard to put in her hotel. It probably wasn’t her intention but she inadvertently converted her sons and started a surfing revolution in Donegal!

What good young Irish girl surfers should we watch out for?
There’s a great bunch of younger girls coming up now. It’s nice there’s a good bunch of them all surfing together, pushing each other. I’ve been really impressed by Eva Martin’s surfing this year, from Sligo, and the Donegal girls, Maeve McCloskey, Ayesha Garvey and my little cousin Una Britton!

You’re quite into painting, what do you like most about it?
I can feel that creative urge tugging at me, it’s in me until I’m ready to burst and then I’ve got to let it all out. I guess it’s like a form of therapy, meditative. I get totally immersed and don’t think of anything else until my painting’s finished!

If we could each do one thing to protect the oceans from further damage what should that be?
There’s so much more we could be doing, the ocean gives us so much we need to give back, not keep taking. I think it all comes down to this – be mindful of your actions and get involved!

Are there any other big issues in surfing you’d like to raise?
Yeah, despite Ireland having such a beautiful coastline there’s serious issues with water and sewage treatment in a lot of areas. Not so pretty and people, myself included have gotten sick or ill from pollution. Check Irish Surfer Against Pollution and join the campaign!

To read more about Easkey hit up her web site you can also check out her art there, she is sponsored by Xcel, DanielSurf, JP surfboards & Surfplugs


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