North Shore Oahu surfer, ER nurse Britt Harris on Chasing a Life of Giant Stoke Among Small Islands
So you've been training pretty hard out there on the North Shore of Oahu, Britt?? Tell us a little about what you're training for and what your fitness, health regimen entails?
Honestly, I train and workout for a lot of reasons, but primarily to keep myself in shape for surfing. Over the years I’ve realized that to be ready when the waves get a little bigger it takes a lot more (for me at least) than just surfing a lot. We only have good waves about half the year on the North Shore, and I used to get really out of surfing shape in the off-season and it was just miserable trying to get back into it every fall. A couple years ago I started developing more of a routine that keeps me in shape year-round, and now when I feel like going on a crazy hike or surfing on a bigger day, I don’t have to worry about my physical fitness hindering me. Now it’s just my mind I have to convince ;)
I try to workout 5-6 days a week, and what I do varies a lot. I mostly do high-intensity circuits. I can get a mean workout in in out thirty minutes, but some of the more challenging workouts I do can take me up to an hour and a half. I do a little weight lifting, but nothing heavy or too technical, mainly because I don’t want to get hurt…I have to work and surf! In the past year I’ve started to trail run a lot too.
How does your dry land training help support surfing? (Or vice versa?)
I’ve always gotten winded super easily… I have asthma and I’ve always had a high resting heart rate, even though I played sports and have been active my whole life. The training I’ve been doing the past couple of years has improved my cardio a ton. My resting heart rate has dropped about 20-30 beats per minute. My breathing is much more controlled when I’m surfing, which makes me feel much more calm and confident, and so much of surfing is mental. I also started doing some apnea training a year ago or two ago and that has helped me feel way more comfortable being held underwater.
What kind of foods, diet, do you supplement with? Do you have any great recommendations for clean eating, balancing high protein & energy with lean fats?
Honestly, not really. I always hesitate to give dietary advice, since I’m not a nutritionist and there are so many different theories out there… I just do what works for me. I work three jobs and am super busy. My husband and I basically try to shop healthy, because whatever is in our house is what I’m going to end up eating. I eat a lot of protein and try to avoid excessive carbs. I eat a ton of salad and meat. I work 12 hour shifts in an ER with very little time to eat so I keep nuts, fresh fruit, and protein bars on me at all times (Rise Bars are my favorite protein bars and have only a few ingredients). But to be honest, if I’m out on a date with my husband, we usually get dessert. I treat myself to yummy treats a lot, I just try not to buy them or make it a daily thing.
Ok so then what's your biggest post-surf or workout vice? Do you have a favorite sinful snack when you let your guard down?
Haha… that’s easy. There’s so many! I used to love salty, crunchy stuff like chips, but I don’t really crave them anymore. Now I usually crave sweets if anything. I love salted caramel anything. I also usually don’t drink anything with sugar in it, but every once in a great while I will treat myself to a ginger beer cocktail of some kind… yum.
Tell us about surfing..how long have you been doing it? How did you get into it and why are you so passionate about it?
I started surfing when I was like 17 or 18 years old. I had been mesmerized by it since I was young. I grew up in inland Southern California and would visit family on Maui in the summers. I took a lesson when I was a kid, but I didn’t own a board until I was 17. When I moved to Hawaii a month after I graduated high school, I started surfing almost every day. Shortly after that I met my husband, and all we did was surf. He was a lot better than me, so it was a steep learning curve. He’s a good teacher and he doesn’t baby me. I knew from the beginning that I wanted to keep up with him and didn’t want to have to sit on the beach and watch him.
I have never loved any sport the way I love surfing, there’s not even a close second. It’s so incredible to be out in the ocean, experiencing something so beautiful and dynamic that it demands your attention at every moment. There are so many variables, its never predictable.
You've got a bit of a fire in your belly for big wave surfing out there...what's that like and how do you prepare yourself for riding big waves both mentally and physically?
The North Shore is such a crazy place. There are so many people who surf at such a high level and so many people that absolutely charge. There are a lot of women out there who surf bigger and a lot better than me, but I just try to push my own limits. I try to go a little bigger each year. It’s just part of my personality to always want to push the limits, I hate routines and comfort zones… maybe that’s why I work in the ER. My husband tow-in surfs with some friends so I just recently started dabbling in that a little bit, but I have a long way to go.
My work-out routine helps me to be ready when the surf picks up (plus my husband won’t even consider towing me into anything unless I’m in good shape haha). I also started doing some apnea training the last year or two, which has made me feel way more comfortable underwater. I took a breath-holding class from free-diver Kurt Chambers that changed whole perspective on being underwater. It’s so mental. I never imagined I could hold my breath for over three minutes, but it’s possible for almost anyone with the right knowledge and mindset.
That's intense and quite an achievement. Britt, you work in a busy island hospital ER with crazy hours and schedule, in a super intense environment—in addition to surfing big waves in an area mostly dominated by men...do you think these experiences helped make you a more assertive or strong woman?
I am so blessed to have the career I’m in. I know it sounds blunt, but I see people die all the time, and that just changes the way you look at and live life. I am under no illusion that nothing bad will ever happen to me. I don’t have rose-colored glasses on now, if I ever did. It helps me to keep first things first…. My relationship with God, my husband, etc… and helps me not to take things for granted or put things off. It’s now or never. Tomorrow may never come. We are not guaranteed anything. We have very little control over what happens in this life, and we have to take advantage of the time that we are here. I think a lot of people don’t think about that stuff. I am thankful to have sobering reminders of reality always before me.
Would you like to elaborate on how may you have been shaped with positive life energy after having gone through these life experiences?
I naturally have kind of an assertive personality, but I think that with experience you learn to trust your instincts and your ability more. The ER has definitely taught me that. There’s been times at work that I’ve thought, “I can’t do this! I am so overwhelmed I don’t even know where to start.” But you pull it together, you get through it, and the next time you have an awful shift, you think, “I remember this feeling. I’ve been here before, and I got through it.” The more I push myself to surf waves that are out of my comfort zone, the more I can coach myself next time around… The more ok I get with feeling uncomfortable and doing it anyway. The mental strength that develops from doing really hard workouts helps with that too… There are a lot of hard things in life that we don’t feel like doing, but we can choose to listen to our feelings when we get overwhelmed, scared, stressed and just shut down, or we can choose to act on what we have set our minds to and continue on.
That's a great perspective. You recently had a magical surf adventure on the other side of the world, hey? So share a little bit about where you went, how long, what the trip entailed:
We recently went on a boat trip to the Maldives with a group of friends from Oahu who like to travel together. We were there two weeks and traveled around the South and Central atolls and stayed at each spot for about 2-3 days. We basically surfed all day every day, and would get out to eat at mealtimes. We absolutely scored there, and got a lot of good, un-crowded surf. I've done a bit of surf travel and this was truly unlike any place I've ever been. The water is crystal clear, marine life is incredible, and the waves are insane. We were also there for the swell of the season so…. It was just epic.
How was this experience different than other places which you've traveled??
The crowds... I love Indo and Nicaragua, but I've never scored incredible waves without a crowd on a surf trip before. Plus just being out at these spots with a bunch of amazing people from Hawaii, everyone cheering each other on and goofing off in the lineup... watching your friends pull into barrels... It was a dream. And the fish... It's like surfing in an aquarium.
Amazing. What was the highlight of the trip?
The last few days we were there it was absolutely pumping. Expecting an incoming swell, our incredible surf guide Iboo took us back to a wave we had surfed at the beginning of the trip. We arrived in the afternoon but the weather was terrible and the surf torn apart. When we woke up the next morning it was pumping and no one was out. We had such an incredible session... I have images burned into my mind of some of our friends just charging these big double ups. We were all just screaming and cheering... Everyone was taking turns. Such good energy… It was the best.
OK Right on, lucky you!! So when you take a surf trip, what type of gear do you pack? Do you plan in advance what you're going to wear when you're not surfing and what type of style, clothing do you bring with you?
I really try to only pack a carry-on (in addition to my board bag) when I travel. On a trip like this I bring like 800 suits and a few rash guards because my skin can only handle so many 6-hour surf days. I pack a few pairs of shorts/skirts and a few shirts and just re-wear stuff a lot. I basically live in a bikini and just throw some cute, comfortable clothes over it. As far as time out of the water I never pre-plan my outfits... I should!
Do you have any heroes, personal inspiration to attribute your surfing passions?
I am pretty blown away by the likes of Emi Erickson and Paige Alms and the huge waves they are charging. I love following Amy Kotch and can only dream of being that good at riding the barrel. On the championship tour, I think my favorite surfers to watch are Carissa Moore and Courtney Conlogue. They are both absolute powerhouses and incredible athletes. Bianca Buitendag is probably my favorite all-around woman on tour: I admire her maturity, her faith, and her wisdom, especially in the spotlight of pro surfing.
But to be honest, I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about any of those people…. The people who inspire me in my surfing are the people I surf with. My husband is the person I look up to most. He is a really hard worker. He is such a nice, mellow guy, but he’s really driven. He puts 100% into whatever he decides to do, is super disciplined, and doesn’t complain. He’s insanely fit and mentally tough. He charges way bigger waves than me. Besides Dustin, our good friend Danny just blows my mind. He is so fearless. The only thing that excites him more than big waves are big barrels. He is the one who got my husband into towing. Our friend John is another guy I love to surf with…he’ll pull into just about anything. And the thing I love about these men is that that aren’t doing it for any glory or attention. They aren’t trying to get sponsors. No one is giving them free boards (which is unfortunate because they both break boards like crazy), no one is watching, no one is shooting photos. They just have a pure love for surfing. Our good friend Tyler Morris is another guy I love to surf with. He always lies to me and tells me its smaller than it is… then when we get out there he calls me into waves that I otherwise wouldn’t even consider going on. He is an incredible surfer and gives me tips here and there.
That's such a great attitude and it's great that you have that kind of support from those guys! How about women...do you surf with other women in Hawaii or are you mostly among the guys??
I'm mostly among the guys. The two spots I surf the most, it's usually like 95% men. At the spot closest to our house I often paddle out alone knowing that if anyone is out, I'll likely know them... And all the regulars look out for each other. I like to surf with other women, but my few girlfriends who really surf a lot also work a lot and we often have conflicting schedules, so we meet up to surf when we can, but it doesn't always happen as much as we'd like it to. I have no complaints though... I love being with the boys. They push me but I also know they have their eye on me and are always looking out for me. If I'm having an insecure moment and feeling nervous... They're like "you've surfed way bigger... You're fine." Danny and Tyler have taught me a lot, they both have helped me (try) to get better at barrel riding and make me surf waves that are a little bit heavier. I also love surfing with my dear friend Taylor Nelson, she’s an insane longboarder and is just so fun to be in the water with, but she recently relocated back to Southern California.
Yeah, Taylor rips! Do you feel like you generally have a good deal of support, comraderie from both guys AND gals out in the water when you surf?
I feel like being a woman in the lineup on north shore is mostly just awesome. Most of the time the guys are super cool and encouraging. We know almost everyone who surfs our home break regularly, and they all show so much aloha to me and to each other. At other spots we frequent, I will occasionally experience some random guy paddling inside of me or dropping in on me because they assume a girl will pull back or won't go (I can’t blame them, sometimes its true)... But I just try to put my head down and go and usually they won't do it twice.
To be honest, there are some waves on the North Shore that are known for having a heavy vibe in the lineup, and it's just super frustrating and takes the fun out of surfing when everyone is hustling and aggro and snapping at each other. In those situations I don't think it really matters whether you're a guy or a girl, it just makes everyone uncomfortable. I basically avoid those spots or just surf them when I see a window of time when its not crowded. There are so many other good waves on the North Shore... I don't need that kind of drama in my life.
Occasionally I feel like women can be kind of stand-offish and critical of each other in the line-up, but a while back I was talking with a friend and decided that regardless of the vibe/situation, I will try to be friendly to other women when I paddle out, especially on days when the surf is of a little more consequence. We need to support each other, not compete. That being said, one of my big pet peeves is when women act like the rules don’t apply to them. We all need to surf with etiquette. Being female doesn’t give us any special privileges out there.
That's a legit statement. So what about women who are curious about learning to surf and/or wanting to progress...do you have any advice for new women who would like to get into surfing?
Yes, you will likely be frustrated for the first year. It's a lot of work to build up paddling strength and muscle memory. If you're serious about surfing, you have to go consistently for a year before it becomes really fun...You just have to stick with it and put the work in. At least that was my experience.
Do you ever feel any sexism within the industry, in general surfing lifestyle, culture??
Yeah, you know it's really hard for me to see how sexualized women's surfing is in major marketing and on social media. On Instagram a lot of young women, who are incredible surfers, have the opportunity to represent the sport well, but most of what they post is what sells… highly sexual images. It’s definitely not always the case; there are a lot of women who represent the sport beautifully, especially the women on tour. I think a lot of girls who are trying to get attention for surfing end up posting that stuff because it’s what gets followers… Women’s surfing is so much more than tan bums and frolicking in the sand. If we want to be respected as women and as surfers, we need to be presenting ourselves as respectable women.
You've got some great sponsors who help outfit you with product and are supportive of your surf & fitness passions. As a woman and having been in the industry, do you feel any certain way strongly about seeing visuals focused on certain areas of our bodies when it comes to the swimwear marketing??
Yes, I am so honored to be a part of the Carve Designs ambassador team. One of the things I love about the company is that they make cute, feminine suits that are functional for surfing and not skimpy. A lot of advertising campaigns seem to focus way too much on women’s bodies in a way that is highly sexual, instead of focusing on the amazing athleticism of female surfers … But they definitely aren’t doing female surfers any favors by doing it. The Reef Girl Calendar is a prime example.
What would you like to see more and/or less of, in social media and/or advertising/marketing in general??
Less sexualization of women’s surfing, more support of women from one another, and more focus on athleticism and the beauty of female surfing right now. It’s truly an amazing time in history, the women out there are just blowing my mind with what they are accomplishing in surfing. I would also love to see companies stepping up and supporting women who are really pushing the envelope and doing cool, progressive, adventurous stuff, even if they aren’t the sexiest, skinniest, and/or don’t have the most Instagram followers.
You're also a fan of vintage clothing..Do you have any wardrobe staples which you wear constantly, just can't live without??
Honestly, good denim is a must. I have a pair of cutoff jean shorts that I’ve worn the daylights out of. I spend so much of my time in swimsuits and workout clothes… those are my essentials.
Favorite item of vintage clothing in your closet and how did make it into your wardrobe?
It’s my mother-in-law’s old denim jacket… I have no idea how old it is, but it’s so soft and amazing. I found it in a box in their old house in Santa Cruz.
Let's pretend you won the lottery—but then told you must spend it wisely and towards achieving whatever would make your (and/or others' lives) life better...how would you spend it?
I love this question. Off the top of my head, I would love to start an organization that helps fund the adoption of orphans. There are so many children that need homes in the world and many families cannot afford the cost of adoption. There are a lot of hindrances for people when they consider taking in a child, but finances should not be one of them.
Another thing is that my husband and I support several friends who do missions work, and I would love to fully fund their endeavors. One of them works with education and vocational training for women in Pakistan. Another friend is in training to work as a midwife in third world countries where pre and perinatal care is awful and infant death rates are high. We also support an incredible orphanage in Haiti called Three Angels and would definitely pour more money into amazing orphanages like that one. We would also put more money into our amazing local church on North Shore and would probably travel even more than we do now J. Experiences…not things.
Mahalo Britt!! Thank you so much for your time