I chatted to Boardmasters for ‘Beyond The Break’ - a lifestyle series focusing on surfers who shape the surf scene and beyond; diving into their lives and getting to know them beyond the break.
I really enjoyed the interview and found the questions quite refreshing compared to the normal "What would you take to a desert island?" questions i get asked, so thought i'd share it here also. [side note: i'd take a snorkel and mask, obviously]
Hi Sophie, thanks for chatting to us – where are we reaching you from?
I’m currently sat in my garden in the west of Ireland enjoying some rare spring sunshine. It’s a beautiful day here, the ocean is flat and calm, there’s a very gentle breeze and the birds have been singing all day.
Sounds idyllic... In the earlier part of your surfing journey, you led the “dream life”, sponsored by large surf brands and travelling the world for over 10 years. Tell us about your decision to slow things down and immerse yourself in the cold waters of Ireland…
I guess in a way my move to Ireland was a conscious step away from the industry I had subscribed to for such a long time. I feel I was sort of (unfairly) placed on a pedestal because I fitted into this cultural beauty ideal the surfing industry too often sells us of female surfers. Embarrassingly a lot of my success in surfing came down to my appearance, not my sporting ability. Stepping away from the bikini monoculture kind of ripped me from the false comfort of my delusions, and I had to reframe every aspect of my life. The last four years of my life have been quite different to those that came before, learning to grow my own food, the true meaning of community, a 5mm wetsuit and boots all year, slow travel around the Irish coast and Scottish isles, and learning to grow myself at all times too.
You’ve made inspiring changes to positively alter the shape of an industry that you care deeply about, be it in regards to feminism, environmental and ethical issues - has this been met with resistance or well received?
A lot of what I say is met with resistance. I think often people are intimidated by anything that resembles feminism, it’s very misunderstood. When I talk about the patriarchal culture we live in, I’m talking about a system of society in which males hold primary power, a system which men suffer under too, not individual men, nor am I putting men and women into monolithic groups. The relationship of gender and sport is very complex and definitely contributes to male dominance in general, not just the perpetuation of surfing’s own unequal structure. I try to articulate it in a way that’s clear but I’m often still faced with trolls comments and challenges. With regards to environmental messages, it’s definitely easier to talk about but it also makes it very easy for people to lash out and judge. With sustainability, I don’t believe its all or nothing. We do everything as best we can at that time. I’m far from perfect, I still fly, I still buy organic veg in the winter that comes in plastic. I am not separate from the issues I’m critiquing; I am just trying to do what I feel I can right now to leave less damage in the world around me. If we have to be absolutely perfect to have admission into these discussions then there would be a very small attendance.
The objectification of women in surfing is a subject you feel particularly strongly about - and you’re an advocate for giving a voice to women often ignored in the surf media. Can you tell us why this is so important?
For me, role models are so important. I really believe what we see we can be. A current example for me would be Jacinda Ardern, the 37 year old pregnant female prime minster of New Zealand. As a 30-year-old woman, politics has always been some far off distant conversation that I couldn’t see access into, but seeing Jacinda take on the role so well at such a young age really makes the idea of politics more accessible to me. Role models aren’t to be underestimated.
SURFING TOTALLY TRANSFORMED MY LIFE IN SO MANY WAYS...
...it's become a place of unselfconscious expression, a tool to heal depression and anxiety, a way to keep me connected and grounded, its given me community and friendships, to some extent even a career. I’d love it if everyone was able to participate in sport in this life transforming way, regardless of what background they come from, what size swimwear they wear, the colour of their skin, where they fall on the gender spectrum, or their physical or mental disabilities.
I think the lack of diverse role models and the perpetuation of the monoculture we see in surfing makes the sport less accessible to many groups of people. I’d love to see a more diverse and inclusive representation of female surfers in the media.
When you moved to Ireland you became involved with Moy Hill Farm (a community-funded sustainable project) Can you tell us a little about the farm and what it means to you?
Moy Farm is a great project. The lads also stepped away from professional surfing, flying all over the world and endorsing big brands, to grow their own food and do what they thought was right and needed to improve themselves and our community. I guess when I met them I saw what was possible, and it all felt right, being here, shovelling shit, eating straight out of the raised beds and polytunnels. If you haven’t heard of them definitely check out The Growing series with Fergal Smith or their crowd funder at growing.ie
How different do you think your life would be had you not taken up surfing?
I have no idea where I would be today without surfing. My parents separated when I was young, and me learning to surf was a way to connect with and spend time with my dad. That’s where it began, a little girl wanting her dad's time and love. Now at thirty I can see how the ocean has shaped every decision I’ve ever made; from the university I attended, to why I avoided drugs and nights out in favour of a dawny, to boyfriends, flexible jobs and friendships. I hope that if I didn’t surf I would have found another sport or creative outlet, but I can’t imagine one that would have so greatly impacted my life and kept on challenging me to grow in so many different ways.
These days, what does a typical day-in-the-life of Sophie Hellyer entail?
I’m the definition of a morning person. When I’m in Ireland I wake up at 6.30am, cycle or skate to the beach depending on the weather, and have a no-wetsuits-allowed sea swim with my friends as the sun rises, followed by a quick sauna and back home. I like to have a smoothie and porridge or homemade bread for breakfast, breakfast is my favourite meal of the day and I like to know I’ve charged up my body for the day. I eat a mostly plant-based diet so like to know in the morning I’ve already had a good variety of fruit, nuts and seeds. Monday to Friday I do rocket yoga for an hour and a half, it's a powerful flowing practice with lots of challenging balances and inversions. So after that my day is slightly dictated to by the masterless ocean, if theres no surf I should be getting to work on my computer. I work as a freelance producer, have some writing projects on and do a bit of sustainability consulting. If there’s waves the emails all get flagged or ignored until I’m out the ocean!
You consciously choose to work with like-minded creative, ethical, sustainable people and publications – what have you got coming up next?
I definitely have become a lot more conscious about which brands I choose to partner with and endorse. Not just with regard to how they represent women in their marketing campaigns, but how they operate at every level, from the treatment of their factory workers in developing countries to their environmental policies. I know I am privileged to be able to make these decisions, but if I’m able to, I’d rather not take the money now than promote something that doesn’t sit well with me. Last week I was working on collaboration with a designer, their new range is made out of recycled and renewable materials, it was a really fun project and their creative team were amazing. I don’t know if I really have plans or ambitions so to speak. My career relies on me to show up with integrity. I won’t always get everything right but I’m not afraid to admit it, I’m not afraid to learn, to grow and show up. I’m not really hung up on the outcome of my career, success for me is more about being in accordance with my inner knowing, aligning my work and my beliefs so that they don’t conflict.
You’ve used your platforms to create an inspiring community, both online and in real life and by default becoming a positive role-model to many. Are there any people that you yourself look up to?
I have so many role models, from my big sisters to Jacinda Ardern, Emma Watson to Keala Kennedy. At the moment I’m mad into podcasts and the presenters of these shows are in turn becoming new role models for me, I love the Guilty Feminist, the High Low, BBC Radio 4 Womens hour and a whole host of others.
And lastly, please can we join your #risefierce morning swim club? It looks cold and absolutely awesome.
Haha, yes. Embracing the cold doesn’t become any easier, I think we just get stronger. I’m going to be in London for a couple of months this summer so #risefierce will be taking on the ponds and lidos of the big city, come join me!