Into the sea
Dr Easkey Britton, surfer and founder of Like Water, is a marine social scientist at the National University of Ireland Galway. The work of Easkey explores the relationship between people and the sea, using her passion for the ocean to create social change and connection across cultures. Currently resides in Donegal, Ireland.
I can feel the flux – the whole planet and all of humanity in a state of flux. I waver between emotions of overwhelm or numbness, presence and surrender, a deep letting go, a slowing down and listening, a sinking and a stillness. Some times during the day I am struck by the raw beauty of the simplest, fleeting moment of sunlight on water, or observing the gradual unfurling of the buds on the trees day by day from my place of ‘self-isolation’. Other moments I feel the distance between me and my family and the longing for that physical contact like an ache inside. And I also feel and experience again and again a powerful sense of community and collaboration, empathy and understanding, a connection that transcends distance and language, and using what resources we have in new and innovative ways to overcome barriers.
This is what is at the heart of the Seasuit Project, a creative journey that’s all about collaboration, between women, makers, designers, athletes, to take what we love to do – surfing – and make it easier for more women to do.
In Ireland and the UK surfers are used to being fully clad in neoprene, especially in winter. But a decade ago in 2010, on an off-the-beaten-path surf trip to Iran, I found myself clad head-to-toe for very different reasons, where I became the first woman to surf in Baluchestan, a remote region to the south of Iran. Due to the country’s strict dress code imposed after the country’s 1979 Islamic Revolution women must cover up and wear a head covering, or hijab. In the surf I wore leggings, baggy boardshorts, long-sleeved rashvest, a t-shirt and a hijab to ensure my head was covered. It was not ideal surf-wear – it felt extremely restrictive, heavy when wet and incredibly hot, making it difficult to wear in the surf.
On my second visit there in 2013, I was joined by Iranian sports women (the trip is chronicled in the film “Into The Sea” by Marion Poizeau). Since then, surfing has been embraced by the local ethnic Baluch community, with efforts to explore its potential for bringing economic opportunity to an isolated region of Iran. In subsequent years when I returned to continue to support the development of surfing, I was joined by Shirin Gerami, Iran’s first female triathlete, who opened my eyes to a whole new way of understanding the experience of our female bodies in water, overcoming challenges in sport to do what we love, and the particular challenges of appropriate, functional sportswear.
The participation of Iranian women and girls continues to grow, and remains instrumental for the development of surfing. However, the issue of functional clothing to wear in the surf remains a barrier and a potentially dangerous challenge for women and girls to participate. The loose clothing and hijab fabric gets heavy when wet, is impossible to keep fixed to one’s head and can become a tangled mess when wiping out.
If surfing was going to be accessible to the women in Iran – and other Muslim communities around the world – the issue of creating functional yet culturally conforming surfwear would have to be addressed. Some other performance hijabs already existed, but when we tested them they didn’t fully solve the particular challenges that come with surfing in them. When I shared my experiences and the idea of creating functional full-body surf-wear for women with my sponsors Finisterre, they embraced it as the ultimate design challenge.
“Easkey came home telling us what an amazing experience she had in Iran and that there was a growing interest to do this activity, but that there was a barrier,” explains Finisterre’s Product Director, Debbie Luffman. “It was the perfect design problem. Not only was it a functional problem, but the clothing was actually stopping you from doing or enjoying the activity you wanted to do.”
Finisterre took the challenge to students at nearby Falmouth University and Plymouth College of Art. Whilst the design needed to conform to rules surrounding body modesty, a key part of the brief was also that the suit looked good and celebrated individuality, Debbie explained, “We told the students this was a function problem, and a sustainability challenge, but that they also had to consider aesthetics. Because when you are wearing sportswear, you have to feel strong and confident.” Throughout the project it has been supported by female designers, including Rachel Preston who created the first prototype from Synne Knutson’s original design. The final printed pattern was designed by Ayesha King inspired by the movement of water, creating a visual illusion that masks the contours of the body. Makers HQ, a female-owned social enterprise garment factory in Plymouth, made the first tester suits.
The result is the Finisterre Seasuit – with an innovative cross-back strap system, making it easy for the wearer to step into and pull on over a wetsuit or leggings. It also features an adjustable elasticated hood that would stay put when duck diving or during a wipe-out, and is made from quick drying UPF 50+ ECONYL® recycled fabric.
After years of design work on this collaborative passion project myself and Shirin got to test the first Seasuit in the controlled surfscape of The Wave, Bristol proving the perfect test site with its lab like settings.
Although the project was inspired by and born from the needs of women surfing in Iran and to encourage participation and growth of female surfing from different cultures, especially where societal norms surrounding how women should look and act controlled their ability to access the surf – we quickly realised that the Seasuit could also help women who might prefer more modest surfwear for other reasons; from sensitive skin that doesn’t like the sun, to individual body confidence for those who don’t want to wear a skin tight wetsuit or bikini.
It happens across sports in general, girls in their teenage years fall by the wayside in terms of participation. There are a whole load of reasons for that, but one is body image. The portrayal of what a female surfer should look like is pretty limited in the media. There should be lots of options of how to look in the water, and the Seasuit can facilitate that.
“I am a huge believer that there is absolutely no barrier to sports participation. I think it’s medicine in so many ways,” Shirin says. “The suit to me represents inclusion. I think it can have an absolutely huge impact and be a door opener to women, especially girls, to be able to gain the approval, blessing and the personal confidence to be able to go into the ocean and surf, have fun and be a part of this movement.”
Doing this kind of work is what fuels me up in these strange times.
This column appears in ISSUE 12: Coral Gardeners of Oceanographic Magazine
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