‘Surfing during pregnancy... you just know when it starts to feel off’

Former champion surfer and marine social scientist Easkey Britton on moving back to her childhood homeplace with her twin babies, what surfing means to her family and how we can help stop environmental damage to our waterways

Driving down the narrow windy road to Rossnowlagh beach, the turreted Sandhouse Hotel comes into view before the wide expanse of sand of one of the best beaches in Donegal reveals itself.

I’m here to meet former champion surfer and marine social scientist Easkey Britton, who has recently returned to her childhood homeplace with her partner and their twin babies. “We moved into the house – the former art studio of her father – the day before the babies were born,” she explains.

Easkey grew up the older of two daughters of artist/illustrator Barry Britton and NC in Rossnowlagh close to the Sandhouse Hotel, which her grandmother Mary Britton ran at the time. Surfing quickly became an obsession of Barry and his brothers when Mary brought back surfboards for guests at the hotel. Easkey is named after a nearby favourite surfing spot.

Following a degree in environmental sciences at the University of Coleraine, Easkey Britton did a PhD and post-doctorate studies in St John’s Memorial University in Newfoundland and later in the Amsterdam Maritime Studies Centre before researching blue health (the physical and psychological benefits of spending time near/in water) at the University of Galway for several years.


The contract for that research finished around the start of the pandemic and since then, Britton has written three books – Saltwater in the Blood, 50 Things to do by the Sea, and, most recently, Ebb & Flow (Watkins Publishing).

She seems content to be back in her childhood locality. “As well as my parents and my sister, I’ve uncles and aunts and cousins here. I was so nomadic for most of my life. I was really happy living in Mayo. I never imagined I’d come back – it certainly wasn’t planned – but it’s surprising how right it feels. It’s really special at this stage – almost the traditional sense of clachan or clan,” she says.

Her new book is a plea to us all to respect water in seas, rivers and lakes, while enjoying the gifts of interacting with it. While she cites research projects – Nature and Environment to Attain and Restore (NEAR) health and the Seas, Oceans & Public Health in Europe (SOPHIE) – she has worked on, she questions the sole emphasis on “what water can do for us”.

“Do we run the risk of water being another commodity for our use rather than the exchange that’s there?” she asks.

In Ebb & Flow, Easkey – who will speak at the Dalkey Book Festival on June 17th – highlights the shocking environmental damage (through pollution, damming up rivers, etc), we have caused to waterways around the world. She also shares stories of water champions and the wisdom of indigenous peoples who have for centuries looked after this precious resource.

Having worked previously teaching Iranian girls to surf, Easkey now works as a consultant for Liquid Therapy, a not-for-profit surf therapy programme based in Rossnowlagh that teaches surfing alongside mindfulness based practices and ocean awareness (including beach clean-ups).

“The aim is to develop an adapted surf therapy centre with beach buggies and adapted surfboards for young people who can’t access mainstream programmes. And to train instructors and volunteers to do it in other locations,” she explains. A Blue Surf festival on the impacts and benefits of surf therapy, and adapted surfing is planned for September.

Reflecting on how her relationship with the water has changed since surfing as a child, through her years of competitive surfing to now as a new mother, she says, “before, it was all about chasing the waves with a hunger for finding big waves and pushing myself to the limits of my comfort zone. We would spend days tracking swells, pouring over weather charts. The amount of time spent looking for waves is far greater than the time spent surfing. Now, I’m waiting for that feeling to come back but maybe it won’t.”

During her pregnancy, Easkey experienced a big psychological shift. “I continued to surf until the start of the second trimester. There isn’t much understanding about surfing during pregnancy but you know when it starts to feel off. I sometimes felt seasick on the surfboard, and it was hard enough to get in and out of a wetsuit.

“I started to pick smaller waves and places with less people and when I fell off the board, I allowed my body to go soft. I remember feeling I’m being carried by this wave and I’m carrying these two other beings on the wave too.”

When surfing became too much, she turned to sea-swimming instead. “It became my go-to fix. I really leaned on sea swimming during my pregnancy. I’m a new person when I come out of the water,” she explains. During the early stages of her labour, she used visualisation, a practice she had honed when surfing a difficult wave. She ended up having an emergency Caesarean section. “I had to let go of not being present for the birth. The last memory I have before they were born is of swimming with them and two seals appearing,” she says.

Ebb & Flow is dedicated to her twins with the words “may water hold, heal and protect you always”. So, it’s impossible not to ask if water has held, healed and protected her thus far in life? “Yes, completely,” she replies. “It has been a steadying force in my life and the bond with my family is a shared connection with the ocean.”

After we meet, she heads to the UK to promote her book in London, Bristol and Cornwall. But, even as she continues to be part of the global surfing community (she finished surfing competitively around 2011), she is conscious that as surfing becomes more and more popular, the industry must work harder to become sustainable. “Surfing leans heavily on an environmental image and as surfers, we are very connected to the ocean and have a capacity for heightening environmental awareness. But wetsuit manufacturing produces toxic chemicals. Patagonia has open-sourced a plant-based rubber it has developed as an alternative to neoprene, and Finisterre has a repair service and is looking at the supply chain and circular economy,” she explains.

Just as her partner returns – and I get to see the smiling faces of their two gorgeous babies – Easkey says both of them still need time out on the ocean. “It’s the one thing we can’t do without. It’s been a flat spell for a while now, and we’re getting edgy and irritable. But when I do surf now, there is less emphasis on performance. I let the waves come to me and there are some moments of greater flow as a result.”

This summer, Easkey is looking forward to setting up an informal surf club where new parents can share the responsibilities of looking after their young children while taking turns heading out to crest the waves.

Sylvia Thompson

Sylvia Thompson

Sylvia Thompson, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about health, heritage and the environment