Sustainable Sophie: Surfing, Cold Water Swimming and Saving the Planet
Growing up in the serene countryside of Devon, Sophie Hellyer has always had a close affinity with the ocean. From becoming a national surf champion in her teens, to her love for cold water swimming, she is the embodiment of a free-spirited eco-warrior, raising awareness for the welfare of the environment, sustainability and ethical fashion. Sophie not only fights the good fight for our planet but also works to empower women, which she does through her Rise Fierce community, a group she founded to bring women together in a space of kinship and wellbeing. Her talents don’t end there; she’s also a qualified instructor of yoga, stand-up paddleboarding, surfing, open-water swimming and often writes articles on feminist and environmental issues, including her TED talk in 2018 in which she discusses the positive impact social media has on raising awareness.
We find her passion for the environment infectious, as she embodies everything we believe in at Mermaid, an ethos of nature, adventure and purpose as a way of freeing our spirits and connecting with our true selves. We spoke to Sophie to discover more about her relationship with the water, sustainability and herself.
What encouraged you to become a surfer?
I was lucky enough to grow up close to the beach, and my sisters and my dad surfed so it was only natural that I followed suit. My sister was British Champion at 15 and was very much my role model. After my mum and dad divorced, it also became a way to spend time with my dad.
Have you always felt connected to the ocean?
I’ve always loved being in the ocean. I still get the same feeling now playing in the waves as I vividly remember having when I was a child, a total sense of freedom and play. I feel lucky to be so confident in the sea and get to swim in it regularly, and one of my biggest passions now is encouraging other women to (safely!) jump in.
Was surfing the catalyst for your interest in protecting the environment?
I was on a surf trip in the Maldives in my mid 20’s and what I thought would be postcard-perfect beaches were actually piled high with plastic. The issue of plastic pollution became impossible to ignore and I felt as I spent so much time in the ocean I had a responsibility to protect it and promote its wellbeing. I think being immersed in nature the way that you are surfing and swimming you become much more aware of the tangible effects we humans are damaging the oceans. Sewage is another huge problem in the UK. When I was 18 I was hospitalised for over a month and nearly died after getting dirty seawater in my lung, so I’ve always been a big supporter of Surfers Against Sewage and the work they do.
What changes did you make to your lifestyle to become more sustainable? And what would you suggest to someone looking to make a difference?
I started off by making some small sustainable swaps, things like reusable coffee cups and plastic-free period products. I think it’s really important to acknowledge that we can’t shop our way out of the climate crisis. There are some products we buy often that we can buy better, slow and second-hand fashion, plastic-free and organic, but I also think the answer lies in generally consuming less. Flying less, driving less, eating less meat, stopping our obsession with fast fashion…
What inspired you to found Rise Fierce?
One cold winter, whilst I was living on the West Coast of Ireland, some friends and I were discussing the health benefits of cold showers, and decided to start jumping in the wild Atlantic for a few minutes each morning together. We thought we would go once a week but very quickly we're going daily. I was sharing our cold-water journey on Instagram with the #RiseFierce (a phrase that’s mentioned in Jeanette Leblanc’s ‘A Circle of Women) and people starting tagging rise fierce and saying we had inspired them to give cold-water a go. So Rise Fierce grew on its own really into a global community of cold-water women. For the last 5 years or so I've run Rise Fierce retreats, which combine women’s circles, cold-water swimming, yoga and delicious organic food.
Is cold water swimming for everyone? How would you encourage someone to take the plunge?
I’m not going to say it’s for everyone, but until you try you won’t know. I do recommend going to your GP before starting for a check-up as cold water can be really stressful on the body, and the water can also be very dangerous so it’s best to find an established group or some experienced people to join if you’re new to it.
What gives you a sense of freedom in everyday life?
Being outdoors in nature, just walking with the dog, feeling the rain on my face or sun on my back.