Just add surf: the sea as ‘liquid therapy’

Beach clean-ups and surfing help us connect with nature, says surfer Easkey Britton

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Easkey Britton, a champion surfer, environmentalist and ambassador for women’s surfing, combines her passion for the ocean with her day job as a marine social scientist. In her role as a postdoctorate research fellow at the National University of Ireland, Galway (NUIG), Britton coleads the Nature and Environment to Attain and Restore Health (Near-Health) project.

Speaking at a recent Health and Environment conference in Dublin, Donegal-based Britton personified that healthy outdoor look of a lifelong surfer. She joking that she was able to be there only because the waves were flat, and then invited the audience to imagine themselves in their favourite healthy space and to notice the feelings that arise from being there.

She shared how her love of the sea came from childhood camping holidays near the ocean. “I remember staying up late to listen for a rise in the sound of the waves, signalling a shift in the tide or the arrival of a new swell. I learned about the reef, the swell and tides from time spent in rock pools, observing what the sea left behind when the tide ebbed and watching them fill in as my dad timed his surf for the flooding tide.”

International profile

For those who know Britton’s international profile as an advocate for environmental and women’s rights through surfing, it will be no surprise to hear she believes that much of human suffering comes from an unnatural disconnect between land and sea, nature and culture and people and the environment.

“This artificial divide feeds a dualistic vision of the world that separates us from the environment and people from each other and even each of us from our true selves,” she says.

So, as part of the Near-Health project, Britton and other researchers at NUIG are looking at what enables and what prevents people from engaging with the outdoors.

“We know that nature is good for us, but we don’t yet know how our relationship with nature impacts on our health and wellbeing over time. We don’t fully understand the mechanisms – how much nature, for how long, what type of environment or activity does what for who?” she says.

Fear of water

She also says we need to understand better how fear of water and views of water as a place of loss must be overcome in order for people to benefit more from spending time in and near the ocean.

The Near-Health project is exploring how social events, peer support and a sense of community can foster better engagement with blue spaces. The researchers at NUIG have teamed up with Clean Coasts to investigate how beach cleans can turn a poor-quality environment into a positive benefit of a restorative environment enhanced by a community activity.

One UK study has already asked whether beach cleans can do more than clean up litter. The same study found that, compared with other coastal activities such as walking or rock pooling, beach cleans had a unique “meaningfulness” benefit.

The Near-Health team has carried out a pilot study with 30 people who partook in the Big Beach Clean in September 2017. Initial results show that people felt refreshed and revitalised after being involved in the beach clean-up.

“The activity acted as an energiser, perhaps because of the combination of doing something worthwhile, interacting socially and being active outdoors in fresh air,” says Britton.

Another study is looking at the restorative benefits of nature connection through surf therapy for young people with autism. “With volunteers, coaches, parents and children, we have co-created and piloted this liquid therapy study in 2017 and will continue into the summer of 2018 as part of a longitudinal study,” she says.

While researchers still can’t prove whether it is the coastal environment or the activity that influences wellbeing, Britton is sure of one thing: that a shared connection with the ocean brings us closer together as humans.

Into the Sea

Easkey Britton’s 2013 TedX talk, Just Add Surf, has been watched more than 37,000 times. In it, Britton explains how surfing has the potential to build community and help humanity.

“When you share the ocean with others, you’re bonded and they become your sea sisters and sea brothers,” she says.

Britton, already a national surfing champion in Ireland, became the first woman to surf in the Iranian province of Baluchistan in 2010. She returned to Iran in 2013 with French film-maker Marion Poizeau and two Iranian sportswomen, Shahla Yasini and Mona Seraji, to make the award-winning documentary Into the Sea.

She was also a cofounder of the nonprofit project Waves of Freedom, which trained female surfers in Iran from 2013-2016.

In 2017 Britton founded Like Water (likewater.blue), a social-change initiative that aims to use surfing to create social change and make connections across cultures.

“Be Like Water is our flagship project, an active physical practice which taps into the more playful, creative and therapeutic qualities of water,” she says.

“Surfing can cross social, gender and cultural barriers and bridge our fear of the unknown to create opportunities for men and women. Surfing is an intense mind/body experience where you have to face your fears. When you’re out on the ocean, you have to keep calm, relax and be in the moment. There is a global community of surfers who can give each other moral and practical support to create change,” she says. easkeybritton.com

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