Women of the waves: There’s a power in the ocean. You are at its will. It’s addictive

Six women share their stories of exposure to heights and depths most of us can’t imagine

What draws a woman to the sea? What compels her to craft a life from something untameable, fluid, always in flux? What call does she hear from the depths that marries her to it, an eternal sea-wife?

These six women have chosen to control the uncontrollable, with an intimate knowledge built over a lifetime of exposure to heights and depths most of us can’t imagine, allowing them to surf, sail, dive and swim – achieving a quiet greatness.

They spend their days scanning the horizon, gauging the wind, testing the waves, plumbing the depths, waiting for breaks, measuring the tides, calculating the weight of the clouds.

Every time they are in or on the sea, their weaknesses are exposed; the sea extracts absolute honesty, and their survival in its extreme conditions is their medal and trophy.

READ MORE

LIEUT GRACE FANNING, NAVAL CAPTAIN

Lieut Grace Fanning. Photograph: Defence Forces

The only female captain of an Irish ship, Lieut Grace Fanning, is in charge of 44 people on board the LÉ Róisín. The west coast, where her ship does most of its patrols, has the roughest sea in the world. “The navy’s job ashore and at sea is to protect Irish people and protect Ireland’s resources. We do pollution control, search and rescues, drug interdictions – if I can go out there and stop someone bringing drugs in, I feel like I’m helping society, helping my kids grow up in a better place. That’s what gets me up every morning.”

Good days involve good weather. “At sea, my best memories are working with my crew. There’s excellent camaraderie. The relationships are different – we have been checking for bad actors, getting through bad weather, doing search and rescue together – it’s dangerous, life-threatening stuff and it forges a bond that wouldn’t happen anywhere else.

“It is beautiful out here, the wildlife we see, the noise at night when we are steaming, the waves lapping at the ship, looking up at the stars, the sunsets are incredible.”

Her scariest time at sea happened just before Christmas: “A fishing vessel had lost all its comms off Loop Head; all we had was a mayday, so we had to react. It was a force-11 storm. The swells were eight metres. As we headed west past the Bull, the weather was getting worse. It was scary.”

Luckily another vessel got the fishing boat under tow but Fanning still had to get her ship home. “We were going directly west and into swell, so you have to watch for the break, see the ebb of the waves and then turn. You try and go with the waves, you try and work with the sea, what she wants to do, and you just try your best to stay the right side of her!”

JOAN MULLOY, SAILOR

Sailor Joan Mulloy at Westport Quay. Photograph: Conor McKeown

Every night, solo sailor Joan Mulloy dreams of being at sea under a canopy of stars, but for now she is tethered to land by a new baby and a toddler. Motherhood has done nothing to quash her dreams, which include taking part in the Vendée Globe, the world’s single-handed solo race. Her hands may be doing laundry and picking babies up for feeds but they long to hoist jibs and spinnakers, to let the wheel fly through her capable fingers.

“My passion and calling for the sea is still very much there, even with two kids – what is comforting to me is I haven’t lost it. I started sailing as a kid, as a teenager got into yacht racing.”

She was offered a spot as professional crew when working as an engineer in the UK. “It really opened my eyes to what I could do with my life if I put my mind to it. I was searching for the next step and realising if I wanted to do the Vendée Globe I’d have to get experience as a solo sailor, so I found investors, I got sponsorship, got a boat, did the Solitaire du Figaro.”

She was the first Irish woman to compete in the solo race, which is seen as an entry path to the Vendée.

“As a solo sailor, you are always sleep deprived. You end up digging into real depths of yourself you didn’t know existed, and I credit the sea for bringing me down to those depths. Your lowest points are always the points of biggest growth.”

She misses sailing under the stars. “By yourself, the moon rises and you feel like you’re the only person who can see it. You might be below deck, asleep, and the clicking and the squeaking through the hull of the dolphins following you will wake you up.”

Mulloy, a descendant of pirate queen Grace O’Malley, named her baby Océane, signalling her intention that there will be no divorce between her lives on land and on sea.

EASKEY BRITTON, SURFER

Surfer Easkey Britton. Photograph: Alice Ward

Everything is a duality with Easkey Britton. She is named for a surf break in Sligo, but it’s also an echo of Iascaigh, the Irish word for fish. A marine scientist and surfer, she has an intimacy with the sea but also knows she will never uncover it.

“There’s a mystery that’s an important part of our connection to it; we can’t fully know it or understand it all. It’s to be with the unknown. We don’t really like that as humans. It is such a place of paradox. There can be real fear, danger and risk, and for others it feels like coming home – that’s the beauty of it.” She is expecting twins this June, and hopes someone will open a beach creche.

She first stood on a surfboard aged four. “I was born into it. I was this lone ranger in the sea, waiting for the autumn and the winter to come. We were thrown into it; it was our playground and the ocean was our teacher, as much as our parents or school.

“There is something very primordial about the barrels, like you are entering the womb, this tunnel of water. If you get caught by the wave, you become part of it. The ocean is such a good teacher – you’re putting yourself in an environment that most humans can’t survive in for very long; it really reveals the truth of what you are feeling.

“My deepest fear is not what the ocean is capable of but what we are capable of, the impact we are having, from surface to seabed. The ocean is an immense body of life that shapes the whole planet, yet now we are shaping the ocean, and that terrifies me.”

NUALA MOORE, SWIMMER

Nuala Moore at Clogher Head, on the Dingle peninsula, Co Kerry. Photograph: Valerie O’Sullivan

Open water swimmer Nuala Moore understands the capriciousness of the sea implicitly. For this fisherman’s daughter, the sea was always there.

“The sea is my life. It wasn’t anything I went to, it came home to me every single night.”

Her father referred to Hurricane Debbie in 1959 as “a bit of an aul’ breeze”.

“My love is the movement, the speed of it, how it makes you feel. It supports you, it gives you that calm. Even if you fight it, you won’t win.”

Moore has certainly taken things to extremes, swimming around Ireland, ice-swimming at zero degrees and taking on Cape Horn and the Bering Strait.

Her deepest fear is being lost, and the impact that would have on her family. Her respect for her environment is razor-sharp: “In a very quick moment a wave can come and separate you from your boat and team – I can look at a set of waves and understand if it’s not for me today.”

Moore has no interest in medals; for her it’s finding a challenge that pushes her into an abyss and holding on long enough to get out of it. “When I started ice swimming it was unheard of. I was swimming in Siberia, in Murmansk, pushing my body into zero degrees, understanding the sea, trusting your team. Life prepares you to train for these events. Rotating your arms is the least of it. The mental preparation, that’s the key.”

She believes people like her who go to extremes need to have a keen self-awareness, because the sea asks everything of you. “You have to know every single weakness that you have – you need to know how you respond to pressure, to stress, you also need to be prepared to sacrifice. You have to be willing to be brought back, to come last, to be humiliated, to truly be one on one with nature. Are you able to be that person?”

CLAIRE WALSH, FREE DIVER

Claire Walsh. Photograph: Niall Meehan

Claire Walsh needs to push past 59. Her personal best is a free dive of 59m, and the longest she has held her breath is five minutes and 59 seconds. Long Covid may have halted these dreams and ambitions temporarily, but she is working towards getting back to Egypt, her land of dreams, to the Blue Hole in the Red Sea.

She was not the sporty kid in school but she swam every weekend and holds eight Irish national records for free diving. “The sea was part of my childhood, my memories are of play, messing, getting knocked over by waves. That’s where my love comes from.”

She encountered free diving while backpacking in Honduras, and did beginner, advanced and instructor courses. “I travelled with it, that led me to Dahab in Sinai in Egypt, and that was my first taste of competition.”

Walsh was quickly achieving 40m-50m, but living in Ireland cut short her depth training. “In 2019 I decided to participate in world championships and that really changed free diving for me. The achievements weren’t the depths – for me the win was putting myself out there and pushing through endless fear barriers.”

She blacked out on her first dive. “My ego was on the floor. There’s a sense of shame, of disappointment. The last thing I remember was being underwater and then the next thing being taken out of the water by a group of safety divers.” She went on to have a successful second dive.

Her plan is to get back to Egypt to train and increase her depths. “The sea is always very clear in its messages, there’s never any ambiguity there. I have the chats with her, breathing up, preparing for a dive, the light is flickering, it’s almost flirtatious. I think, oh yeah, she’s in a good mood today, she’s calling me down, let’s go for it.”

SANDRA FITZGIBBON, SCUBA DIVER

Sandra Fitzgibbon, Padi dive instructor, in Waterworld dive pool. Photograph: Domnick Walsh

Sandra Fitzgibbon’s father took her to Fenit beach in Kerry when she was a week-old baby and gave her a sea-baptism. He was a scuba diver who passed the family business on to her, and she now she runs Waterworld, a dive centre in the Maharees on the Dingle peninsula. Fitzgibbon has devised the only full-time Padi instructor course taught at Kerry College.

“For me, my life has always been around the sea. Very few women were scuba divers when I started. I was the first female instructor in Munster. Most of the dive centres in Ireland would have an instructor trained by me.”

The sea still amazes her after four decades of diving: “When I put my head under the water, something comes over me. When I drift down to the depths, to the ocean bed, when I see the autumnal colours, the russet reds, the vibrant colours of the anemones, the seaweeds, the walls of purple anemones, and all along the west coast, this incredible moulded limestone, overhangs and crevices – it’s so beautiful.

“There’s a power in the ocean. You are at its will. It’s addictive, it’s exhilarating. It’s like when the girls go out with the bad boys: you don’t know what’s going to happen!”

Safety rules her industry as much as the tides and waves do. “In our job, you have to constantly watch for the turn of the tide, the weather. I have the tide tables beside my bed; the first thing I do in the morning is check it.

“Every time I go to the sea, I have to do a risk assessment. I take into account the people I’m taking into the water: are they newbies, are they experienced? There are days you have to say, ‘No, you can’t go.’ ”

“I’ll be 55 this year. With scuba diving, you don’t need to be aged 20 and a size 10 to do this. Anyone can do it – be an adventurer – and women are the best students. I feel privileged to have the gift of the sea in my life.”