Waves of Change

The eldest is flying the nest and youngest refuses to leave the coop. Change is a comin’ so I cling to the nostalgia of beach days………

We’ve been expecting the eldest to fly the nest for some time now. However, the USA borders have been closed for months, so our expectation was that she would leave in January. As is of our time, things change, and they change fast. The borders are now open to international students and the USA Embassy has re-opened. We have suddenly been flung into a mad panic of appointments, interviews, flight booking, insurance investigations and packing. The youngest, who has felt the C19 changes the most, has lost his school structure, friendships and soon to be his elder sister. His wing man and his confidant. So he and I are heading for the Island.

I do lots of things with Libby, my eldest daughter. She is easy going and easy company. We have things we like doing together. I don’t do much with Archie, the youngest. I can’t kick a football for toffee. I fall over just looking at a skateboard. I hate the Xbox vehemently, and in particular the child he becomes when he’s been left to play on it for hours. But he is soon to become an only child, my only child at home. As if our world hadn’t changed enough over the last few months, the biggest change of all is yet to come.

Although I don’t spend much time with Archie, he and I are very alike. Highly strung, overtly and overly sensitive. At our worst we clash and at our best we understand each other intrinsically. Lockdown has been hard on everyone and our household is no different from the next. But Archie and I have felt the changes most intensely. We both need time alone to process and re-charge our batteries. Hard to find in a crowded house. After a particular trying day of friendship fallouts (him) and family frustrations (me) we met in the kitchen before bed. Our trip to the Isle of Wight hung in the balance as the eldest now had an emergency visa appointment. Archie could see this was upsetting me greatly. He understands my need for the beach, the sea and nostalgic family tradition. So he said “let’s still go mum, just you and me, because it will make you happy.” Never has a greater gift been bestowed upon a mother than a teenage child willing and wanting to spend time with her. I reacted as any mother would. I gave him a hug so long and hard he squirmed and almost suffocated.

Archie is tricky character, but then so was I at 15. He feels hard and reacts ardently. Over the last few months he’s had the rug pulled from under his feet. He finds managing relationships difficult, has a black and white view of the world and I pity the person who dares go against his moral compass. So when you are prevented from seeing your peers, had your daily structure removed and your body decides now is the time to go through puberty, your world kinda falls apart. Small disagreements on the Xbox or group chat are magnified by the circumstances of meeting only one mate, having mates that are shielding and having concentrated long on-line battles. He has been ghosted by his lifelong friends -he will be by no means blameless – but it’s a pretty piss poor place to be in. So although she said “let’s go to the Island” to make me happy, I think he knew the break would make him happy too.

Getting ready to leave started subtly a few days before. You have to warm Archie up before leaving the house. Lots of gentle reminders of our plans. On the day of departure you have to ramp up the reminders but not so much that he shuts down. You are teetering on a cliff edge. I was reassured all mornings that he would be ready to leave at 3pm. I say all morning when in reality he didn’t stir until midday. At 2pm he finally got in the shower. Like a hawk, I swooped into his bedroom, curtains pulled, bed made, rucksack found, clean undies located, swim trunks packed and out again before he returned to drop a sodden towel on the floor. It was inevitably after 3pm when, despite his reassurances, we were still looking for his headphones and chargers, Rushing him would be counter-productive and cause more delays and door slamming but we had a ferry to catch. A ferry on a reduced service and a car with no fuel. Finally a few hours later we were sat on the sun deck crossing the Solent. Him without any type of jumper on his body or in his bag. “You told me it would be hot mum”. At least there was no turning back now.

As we disembarked the boat grandma was there to greet us. Archie accepted the obligatory embarrassing hug and kiss. He does this sort of sideways smile when he is clearly doing things out of duty. The smile is preferable to the sullen sulk I’d be treated to for the whole car and ferry crossing. And frankly any type of smile is way better than the alternative. We headed straight to the beach for a dinner of beer and chips (coke for him). He indulged my parents with whole sentence answers and we watched the sunset over the bay. We were off to a good start.

The next morning he surfaced before noon and set about cooking us all breakfast in the garden on the BBQ. We packed a swim bag and headed to the beach hut for the day. The forecast was for glorious sunshine all day. We set up camp and he then came with me on a walk along the foreshore looking for sea glass and shells. It was everything I hoped it would be. Me and him, together, relaxing by the sea. He then took a nap on the shingle while I explored a bit more, then back to the beach hut for a lunch fit for kings, cheesy chips and ice cream. With the ice cream first. But by teatime it had all gone to pot. The swim shorts I’d packed were the wrong ones. He didn’t want me to buy a new pair from the shop. He was hot and uncomfortable with no means to cool down. We bumped into old friends with their two teenage girls, yes that’s girls, cue hiding behind fringe and back to monosyllabic answers. And the cherry on the top was he’d got sunburn. I hadn’t nagged him to reapply cream because I didn’t want to take off my rose tinted glasses. The result was burnt feet, shins and nose. The salt in the wound was we still had to walk, in ‘rubbing on sunburn’ sliders, round to the next bay where we had a table booked for dinner before departure. The walk is along the sea wall, the water is an incredible turquoise colour and the bay is full of beautiful bobbing sailing ships. Yet this was the most arduous and unpleasant walk ever. He sighed and huffed the whole way, sweat dripping off him, while my mum tried to placate him. I love my mum but she is shit at reading when people need to be left alone but she eventually looked up to see me frantically making cut throat signs. Finally seated at our table, in searing heat but at least shade he began to come back to us. Food for a growing 15 year old can work wonders. Dad and I walked back to collect the car so we would not have to suffer another sunburn on sliders walk home, and when we returned he was smiling, sort of.

We got the last ferry home. I hadn’t refuelled the car in the rush to get there the previous day. My dream day shattered. It would be midnight before I saw my front door. This was not the mum and son wistful trip over the water I had wanted. On the way home, Archie navigated us to a service station to refuel, mars bar for him, diesel for the car. And when the A27 was shut at Arundel, because it couldn’t get any worse could it, he stepped up and became navigator once more. Finally home he had a cold shower and went to bed with flannels on his feet.

The next day, when asked how it had been, he told his dad “Really good apart from the obvious”. We still don’t know what the obvious is. Was it spending time away from the Xbox? Getting sunburnt? Seeing teenage girls? And then I realised I need to the focus on the ‘REALLY GOOD’ and not the ‘obvious’. He tells me he no longer likes the beach and that he is not like me and doesn’t want to go in the sea. But that is just not true. He, like me, truly relaxes there, was happy foraging in the foreshore, snoozing on the shingle and yes he was pissed off that I’d packed the wrong shorts, but that is because he wanted to get in the sea. A lot is changing but a lot stays the same. Buried beneath teenage sullen sulks that kid is still there. The one that would dig trenches in the sand, be the first on the SUP or foamie, draws on pebbles and jump off cliffs into the water with the dog. And as long as I can still drag him to the beach I’ll get glimpses of my boy back. The really good! And that’s as timeless as the tides.

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Come gather ’round, people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you is worth savin’
And you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’

Bob Dylan

Seasoned With Salt

It is not only in the sea the women of a ‘certain age’ are swimming against the current. But it is in the sea that we gain the confidence and increased self-esteem so we can continue to be strong, significant and visible on dry land no matter what age and gender we are.

Over the last couple of years I have watched the Salty Seabird flock grow in number and more importantly in strength. Changes, subtle over time, can go unnoticed. As autumn turns to winter, the days grow shorter and the sea temperature drops, transformations take place. Women are finding a new place in the world, a place where they are strong. We draw our strength from the sea and each other.

When we set up the Salty Seabird’s Swimming community group we had no idea what we were doing or indeed, what it would become. We just knew that we loved swimming in the sea, all year round, and that it made us feel happy. People, mainly women, began to gravitate towards our group and find solidarity as well as solace, What I have come to realise is that swimming in the sea also makes me feel strong, significant and visible. All words that are not usually associated with women of a certain age. And my fellow female swimmers feel the same.

As a woman enters her forties and fifties her body changes considerably. This has a significant impact of how she views herself and how others view her. This is unique to females. It can be a very difficult time, for a number of years, plagued by low self-esteem, and dwindling confidence. No longer seen as sirens of the sea luring sailors to their death by the sweetness of our songs.  How are others supposed to recognise our worth when we struggle to recognise it ourselves. So we take to the sea where we remain our real selves. Youthful, relevant and defiant.

People’s perception of you changes when you say you swim in the sea all year round.  Too many women don’t swim at all, at any age, let alone in a big mass of salty water in the depths of winter. By doing something out of the ordinary, that some would say is brave and bold, blasts stereotypes out of the water. Quite literally. And as these positive affirmations continue the perception others have of you becomes yours. You are what they see. You find the real you. You become the person you were before you were defined by your role as a mother, a carer, a worker, etc.

Over the last few weeks, our company Seabirds have been running Introduction to Sea Swimming Taster sessions. They are not aimed specially at women, but 100% of the participants have been female. We have commissioned two new swimming coaches, Emma and Christine, to keep up with demand. At the beginning of each session we ask the women to introduce themselves and their swimming experience and ability. Without fail they all claim not to be swimmers even though they refer to time spent in the water.. Phrases like “I only dip really” and “ I used to swim all the time when I was young” are all too common. We reassure them that they are swimmers regardless of how far, or long or deep they swim and that the person that used to swim “all the time” is still there and we will help to find her.

It is not by accident, that all of our coaches, including myself, are women ‘of a certain age’. Our youngest is 48 and our oldest is 60 but you would be hard pushed to guess which one of us is which, as the sea keeps us young. We’ve been that woman that claims not to be a swimmer, I still am sometimes. We can relate to their anxieties but are proof that you can overcome them. It is incredible to see, how, with the right encouragement, these swimmers morph in a matter of minutes into smiling and laughing women proud of their achievements. It is an absolute privilege to be a part of their journey of rediscovering their self-worth.

We recently had a group of women from Girls Alive in Surrey, visiting our shores to experience the sea as part of their channel swim relay preparations. Girls Alive is a collective of encouraging, all-female, non-competitive activity groups for women of all ages and abilities. As we knew we would, we had a wonderful morning with them talking all things tides, waves and weather conditions before a social swim. During the talk a couple of fishermen set up close by and struck up a very loud conversation. It was so loud many of the participants were unable to hear and so I asked our 17 year old lifeguard to ask them to keep it down as but as we were running a session. Their initial reaction was slightly aggressive, possibly because a young female was asking them to move away from the session. It then turned to complete surprise that our group was even there, as even although they had walked passed us we were clearly invisible to them. The result of that session was that a bunch of women, some significantly nervous of the sea, smashed out a swim against the current, and a young woman had the confidence to ask members of the public to pipe down.

That 17 year old lifeguard happens to be my daughter. I swim with her when she will let me although she leaves me for dust. I regularly coach at a Surf Life Saving Club with her. And she is often my lifeguard at Seabird sessions. I feel strongly that she should never be judged by her gender or age or lose any of her self-worth as she grows older. My aim is to demonstrate that I am not ready to be put out to pasture, that I can skin swim throughout the bitterness of winter, that I am strong, I am significant and I am relevant. And she can be too, now, and as she inevitably ages. Charlotte Runcie put it perfectly in her book Salt on your Tongue.  ” The call of the sea is the call to the absolute strength of women telling their stories and making music of beauty and imagination, and eternal mothers and grandmothers making eternal daughters and rocking them in the night as they sing while the tide comes and goes. And the power of women is to do all of this, to follow art and the moon, and to absorb it all and go on. ”

We are still swimming against the current but one day the tide will turn. Until then we will continue to encourage others to feel strong, significant and relevant by providing them with the confidence needed to swim in the sea. A confidence they can take with them in dry land.

Beachcombing

Searching in the strandline for heart shaped pebbles, pretty shells and sea glass is more than just a pastime. Finds symbolise happy times spent by the sea

Most people assume that when I see the sea, I get in it. But actually that is not always the case. Sometimes I stay dry and can be found just as happy scouring the strandline for pretty pebbles, shells and sea glass.

Every pot and shelf in my home is full of my finds. Moulted crab shells, wishing stones, hag stones, shells, drift wood, coral and my most prized possessions, sea glass. Each one reminds me of a beach I visited and happy times. Some people display photographs, I display my beach bounty.

Beachcombing is similar to sea swimming in lots of ways. It is another way I can relax, unwind and rest. I struggle to switch off and have had very little success at relaxation exercises and meditation. But by the sea, I am instantly soothed into a calm state and if you throw in a repetitive process that holds my attention without mental effort and there you have it. Mindfulness.

I started searching the shoreline when I was very young. I often collected huge quantities of shells from Selsey’s East Beach. Large scallop and oyster shells discarded by the large fishing fleet that was once there. And smaller spiral shells in the patches where the sand meets the shingle. The dull dark periwinkles thrown back into the sea but the pretty pink top shells hoarded.  I would then create pictures and patterns on large pebbles using clear nail varnish to attach the shells and show off their shine.  When my daughter was young, I bought her a shell collecting net bag and books to help her identify them all, only for her to show little interest and hurl herself into the water. They didn’t go unused as I assumed my shoreline position to keep a watchful eye on her and have snatched searches. She has now become the world’s best sea glass spotter so something must have rubbed off. My son has always been my magpie. Always finding shiny treasure, lost earrings and feathers, proudly bestowing them to me as boons.

As I’ve aged, my love for looking for beach booty hasn’t abated. Shingle beaches are often ignored in favour of sandy beach breaks or dramatic cliffs by the many. But I love a pebble. I look for unusual shapes and colours. My husband used to search for black round pebbles that would fit perfectly into my belly button. If he finds one now he still calls them belly button stones.  I am yet to find a piddock in a piddock hole but I certainly have enough large soft pebbles with evidence that they have been there. They are bi-valve shellfish that  seem to particularly like the local soft chalk to burrow into and there they stay, hiding away their bioluminescence. Once they are gone, they leave smooth large holes in their wake making the most attractive hag stones. They are abundant in clay and sandstone too. I also search for wishing stones. These are pebbles that have stripes of quartz through them or round them. The idea is for you to make a wish and throw or skim them back into the sea. The reason none of my wishes have come true is because they end up on a shelf, a surface or in a jar! I also love a grey basalt pebbles, flat round pieces of slate and banded metamorphic stones all made by hot lava.

You can also find sea gems, some of which are semi-precious stones like amethyst. Milky quartz is another preferred pebble. There is the famous Whitby Jet, Amber to be found in Suffolk and Red Garnets on the aptly names Ruby Bay in Scotland. Regardless of its status I treasure the pieces of shingle that evoke a reaction in me, that fascinate me and provide a lasting memory of happy times spent on a beach.

The best time to go beachcombing is after storms when the sea has spat out more of her contents. My preference is for shingle beaches, as like finds like and smooth pebble shaped and sized sea glass can be found by the most observant. I follow the spring tide strandline on a receding tide walking from west to east on the south coast. This is the direction of the prevailing wind and the tidal flow at home, so I feel as  if I am following in the footsteps of the treasures I find.

Different beaches provide different finds depending on the direction they face, their geography, sea currents, the local sea bed and also the local industries. When I am away I always search and love that I find things in other places that I wouldn’t come across at home. The North Cornish coast is home to many a ship wreck due to its rugged coast line. Wrecking, an opportunist activity of coastal communities, regularly takes place there when a ship has the misfortune of failing to avoid the granite outcrops. The cargo becomes fair game. This part of the country also has visitors from afar washing up on the shore. The gulf stream regularly provides beach treasures, from cowrie shells to coconuts,  all up and down the west of the UK that have travelled all the way from the Caribbean.

Local industry, either past or current, can also play a big part in what you find on the beach. Mudlarking on Tower Beach on the River Thames is now illegal but the river has been used as a dumping ground from Neolithic times to the modern day. The finds there range from Roman coins to children’s toys. Sea pottery, also known as beach pottery, sea porcelain or sea china, sources are usually local to where they are found. And likely to have been thrown into the sea as waste. Much of the sea pottery found in Ireland and the UK dates back to the 19th and even 18th centuries. Seaham beach, in the North East,  is famous for sea glass. Londonderry Bottleworks was based there, which operated from the 1850s to 1921. Waste from the glass making process was regularly dumped into the water and has spent over 100 years be worn smooth by the North Sea.

My best ever sea glass haul was along the shores of the river Fal. I like to think of the merchant navy  and pirates in tall ships flinging bottles of rum into the sea or shanty singing fishermen swigging beer and discarding their empties over the side. I found a undamaged black glass bottle stopper there. The best spot to find it in Brighton is along the stretch from Shoreham Port to Hove. Again in close proximity to a harbour. Much of our local Sea glass is not as smooth as that of Seaham. It takes at least 40 years to create the milky smooth surface and sadly much of our glass comes from recent litter louts.

Wombling the West Pier has been a popular pastime for locals. Particularly after big storms. The shelf in my bathroom is a pier floorboard and I have other remnants of drift wood dotted around the house. We also get a considerable amount of fishing waste washing up on our shores.  Both from commercial fishermen and anglers. Lots of thin fishing line tangled in the strandline seaweed is all too common along with cast off and cut off pieces of plastic coated rope and net. Finds like this can be repurposed. A fishing tray I rescued from Shoreham is now home to beetroot, lettuce and tomatoes in my back garden. I love the colours of the fishing rope and hang it like bunting. Local artist and ocean activist, Kitty Kipper weaves and sculpts using ghost nets and marine plastic. Establishing an emotional connection with a place, like the beach, makes you passionate about its protection. Beachcombers inevitably become beach guardians.

Whatever the type of beach you find yourself on to forage through the flotsam, you will find joy. Walking slowly, taking in the sea air, being curious is a respite from the real world for a few minutes. Or in my case hours. When I recently threatened to take my sons Xbox away from him, he retaliated by threatening to take the beach away from me. Even he appreciates  the emotional connection I have to the shore. Spending time beachcombing in a salty outdoor setting is a wonderful way to reduce stress.It doesn’t matter if you don’t find what you have come to the beach to search for, the actual practice of beachcombing is restorative and relaxing enough to be its own reward.

 

Beachcombing DOs and DON’Ts

The strandline is in fact a place of food and shelter for small creatures. Collect things sparingly and try not to disturb the lines of seaweed too much.

Make sure you know what the tide is doing. While your eyes are looking down you may not notice how much the tide is racing in. You can’t take your treasures home if you are stuck at the bottom of a cliff.

Likewise the sky- incoming weather fronts likes squalls and fog can appear suddenly.

Go in the winter, early in the morning, when the beaches are empty.

Always take an extra bag or two to pick up the litter you will inevitably find.

Many of our shingle beaches are man-made and are actually there as part of our coastal defence. If you are going to take, doing it sparingly and pay the price by collecting some litter.

Make sure you stretch afterwards, walking with your eyes down, neck bent an back stooped can result in aches and pains.

Make something with your finds or at least display them. But don’t try and drill through sea glass unless you have specialist tools. This was an experiment that went badly wrong in my house and I now have a hag stone hole in my desk!

Best find – gold shell bracelet. Worst find – false teeth

Leave No Trace

A Seabird response to the scenes of devastation on the beaches of Brighton and Hove

We watched the Blue Planet series, in shock, pledged to do better and listed David Attenborough as one of our dream dinner guests. We applauded Greta Thunberg when she addressed world leaders at the UN Climate Action Summit and roared  “How dare you look away… and come here saying that you’re doing enough”. We supported our young when they marched as part of their school Climate Strikes hopeful that they would make a difference. Fast forward to the global pandemic and scenes of litter strewn beaches at popular coastal resorts. It has left those that cherish the beach, those that watched, applauded and marched, devastated. Unless your head is firmly stuck in the sand the destruction of ocean habitats and wildlife cannot be news to you. We are quite literally choking the lungs of the earth and cutting off the supply chain of our own existence.

I regularly visit my local beach and get in the sea. It’s where I find head-space like no other. When I swim in the sea, I feel part of it, connected to it at a fundamental level. It is very different to the other ways humans connect with nature. When you walk in the countryside you are not really in it, just an observer. When you cycle across mountains or climb to the summit you are aided or propelled by your equipment. But when you are swimming, you are in it. Not on it, or around it, but immersed in it. And you need no equipment other than yourself. When you enter the water you do just that, you enter it become part of it , connect with it. You connect with the sea in a way like no other. It is a place I can collect my thoughts, but sadly of late, not until I have collected other peoples rubbish. And it breaks my heart.

When I arrive at the beach, you can taste the salt on your tongue and hear the shingle on the shore.  The wind down has commenced and every part of my being knows it won’t be long until I am weightless yet buoyed up in a big briny embrace. But recently this has been replaced with despair as I make my way across the lawns, the prom, the pebbles through swathes of litter. Disgusting, dirty rubbish everywhere. As a regular beach user in a popular coastal city I am used to seeing litter on the beaches, particularly in the summer months but not on this scale. The COVID effect has seen huge numbers of tourists flock to the beach, teens escape the confines of the home and locals make the most of what is on their doorstep. And why shouldn’t they. It’s a wonderful place to spend time. But it has been at a huge cost to the environment and the wellbeing of those who feel passionately about protecting our patch. My social media feed shows me it is the same all over the UK as beauty spots are dangerously over-packed with people and the next day by their discarded rubbish. But we are shouting into an echo chamber of like-minded conscious folk. Our message is not reaching those that need to hear it.

On an individual level I’ve made a lot of changes over the years. I am no better than my neighbour but as I swim in the sea most days, and see first hand the impact waste can have on my happy place, I make my consumer choices accordingly. But this is not enough. I am one person. Despair needs to turn into anger to be the fuel and force behind action. Action that will provide a sense of purpose and stop me from feeling useless. Litter on the beach is a massive issue and on an individual level, overwhelming to tackle. But if it broken down into smaller pieces, shared across a community, or focusing on one area of the seafront, it begins to feel a whole lot more achievable. Could the answer be a community led campaign with a collective consciousness at its centre?

Local photographer, visual creative and community collaborator Coral Evans thinks so. She is using her  anger to demonstrate how much she wants to make a change. She has channelled her anger to work with others on solutions and has kicked off the local ‘Leave No Trace’ campaign. Every aspect of this campaign, from design to implementation has been created voluntarily by members of the community, born from a real worry about the impact both visitor and resident rubbish is having on our immediate environment. Using social media and images to promote the message to visitors and residents of Brighton and Hove to be more responsible and dispose of rubbish of our beaches. Whilst talks with the city council are in their infancy the clicktivism campaign has commenced, bringing people  together to focus on the campaign cause.

And the Salty Seabirds and Seabirds Ltd are joining them. Bringing people together is what Salty Seabirds does and this one focuses specifically on our community space.  As a Social Enterprise,  Seabirds Ltd, champions communities and campaigns that match our values of protecting our planet. We are answering the call to arms from the Leave No Trace campaign.

So what can we do?

It’s time to bin the bin debate: All too often the full bins, not enough bins, no recycling bins are used as a justification for litter to be left. If you had the means to get it to the beach you have the means to take it home. Stop relying on bins and take your litter home. Support and share the good work done to promote public awareness by the abundance of incredible volunteer community groups we have across the UK. Posters and signage promoting responsible disposal of litter is an easy, relatively cheap and effective way of getting the message across. Just look at these designs by creative Seabirds Coral, Jess and Rachel.

Protect your patch: There is a beach, in Hove, we affectionately refer to as D5 which is the home of the Seabirds. It’s where our big (pre-covid) weekly swims take place. It is our community hub and we are fiercely protective of it. We need to collectively find a way to promote a cleaner beach environment in this small piece or shingle and encourage other local swimming groups, beach users and outdoor enthusiasts to do the same. This can be done with posters and personal/group beach cleans in the short term. In the long term there are many ways we can make a difference from the installation of a beach clean station with a deposit scheme for litter pickers, running awareness sessions for local children, to commissioning a litter swallowing seabird sculpture on the prom! (My favourite idea!)

Promote getting outdoors (and in the sea) responsibly: We all know that dropping litter is not acceptable. Those doing it, know it. But they just don’t feel the same way about the beach as year round sea swimmers do. When the place you go to seek refuge from the world, to relax and unwind and enjoy the beauty of nature is reduced to a huge dustbin you are quite rightly outraged. But there are people in the community less fortunate than us, less privileged than us and there fore less connected to sea and don’t understand the need to protect our environment. Encouraging others to get outdoors and get in the sea is a critical first step. Promote your outdoor community, really be inclusive, reach out to those who most need to get some wellbeing in the wild. Reach out to diversify your group. This is a time when many are isolated, society is fractured, yet we have a real opportunity bring people together, and inspire them to get involved.

There are things we can do in both the long and short term. Things we can do as part of the beach community. Things we can do get the message out there to Leave No Trace.

It’s time to turn the tide on litter!

Links to Leave No Trace Brighton:

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/leavenotracebrighton/

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/leavenotracebrighton/

litter cover

Anxiety, the Sea and Me

How an ever worrying, anxious, brain can be soothed by the sea.

Anxiety and the sea have been two constants in my life. Always there. Not always at the forefront consuming me and dictating my daily activities. Sometimes simmering in the background. But ever present. They are intertwined as one balances out the other. The pull of anxiety is heavy but fortunately the pull of the sea is stronger.

Lots of people are aware of depression but it’s close ally anxiety, is lesser known. Much like depression, anxiety can occur during certain phases of life or as a response to a situation/experience. It can also be a life long companion. It can be a very valid response to a given situation. Everyone, at times will feel anxious, uneasy, worry or nervous, as a response to the new or uncertain. But, when these feelings are disproportionate to the situation and/or dictate your everyday life you are suffering with anxiety rather than feeling anxious.

Like many, my first experience of anxiety was as a teenager. The teenage brain is particularly vulnerable to anxiety. During puberty and adolescence, it isn’t just the body that grows rapidly. The brain does too. As the brain function moves from one structure to another, as it transitions from childhood to adulthood, it has to recreate all the connections it had made previously and relearn responses to the external environment. This makes teens especially vulnerable to stress and anxiety. Being female you get to experience times in your life when anxiety can come to visit. Perinatal anxiety is anxiety experienced any time from becoming pregnant to around a year after giving birth. And my current state due jour, the peri-Menopause. When you are totally unable to string a sentence together, remember what you were going to say and not be able to concentrate on the flow of a conversation you are naturally going to be anxious about going out and seeing people.

Then there is the global pandemic. If you have managed to navigate your way through life without experiencing anxiety, a worldwide virus has decided it’s time you had a taster. Lock down anxiety is a proportionate and very real response to having your choices taken away.  Rational worries about family and friends, jobs, food, home life are at the forefront of your mind. Usual coping mechanisms of physical activity, coffees with friends, for me, swimming in the sea became inaccessible overnight. Losing sleep, stewing over the future, chipping away at your resilience. The ever changing guidelines, public shaming and blaming, choice comparisons took no prisoners over the last 13 weeks. And now, anxiety about the loosening of lock-down just as we’ve got used to isolating. We don’t know what the new normal is going to be and anxiety comes with that.

As a life long anxiety sufferer I felt better equipped than most to deal with the last few months. I have a number of go to coping strategies and in all honesty, not having to come up with excuses from bailing on social arrangements at the last minute or spending the day before meeting friends in the pub with my stomach in knots was welcome respite. I’ve also had a pretty easy ride of it, no shielding, no ill family or friend, no jobs losses and kids that can home school themselves. As soon as you were allowed to the beach and to swim in the sea I was back on my even keel. My boats still heels from time to time but it is most definitely sea worthy and buoyant.

I first discovered the sea soothed my anxious brain when I walked out of my corporate job after 15 years of service. I’d worked full-time, part-time, condensed weeks, home flexi-working. I even took a sabbatical. I finally realised that no matter what adaptations I made to my working arrangements, my poor mental health followed me. Once I realised it wasn’t the hours of work, but rather it was that I was unable to balance the content and pressure of my work, I made the decision to leave that very day. I remember it so vividly. It was day one of a two day workshop and I was sat in a conference room in the Hotel Seattle looking out onto the pontoons of Brighton Marina. I was being told how some new reporting software would allow me to manage customer satisfaction levels even though it was not compatible with the product platform and we had no way of actually implementing it. I voiced my concerns.  It wouldn’t work. I was not heard. I was not in control. I was staring out to sea wishing I was anywhere else instead.

That evening I called my boss, a super bloke, and told him I wouldn’t be in the next day. He asked when I would be back and I said never. I then, through tears, explained to him about my mental health and that any resilience I’d had in this role had been worn away. He was surprised, I have a very confident outward persona, but he was incredibly supportive and orchestrated my exit.

The first thing I did was to scoop up my young family, load up the car and headed for the South West. For a week I slept a lot. Every time a picnic blanket was placed on the sand, I’d be curled up asleep on it within minutes. My husband would care for and play with the kids in the day and work in the evenings so I could begin my recovery. I’d been so busy running from the internal conversations, too afraid to let them in but actually that is exactly what I needed to do. So I let the loop of anxious narrative and internal chatter have a voice. In the sea swimming and on the beaches in the still of morning I took the time to listen, challenging the thoughts when I needed to and accepting them at other times. A week by the sea allowed me to be honest with myself for the first time probably in forever. I was tuning into my gut feelings, not always liking what they told me but facing them none the less.

I often wonder, if I had listened earlier would I have made this life changing decision to leave work and take steps to manage my mental health sooner. But I think it wasn’t just the right time, I was in the right place. I was with the people that I loved in a place that I loved, by the sea. I would while away the hours walking on clifftops, snoozing on the shore and swimming in the sea. This allowed my broken brain the subconscious space to figure stuff out and fit stuff together. I realised I was working hard for all the wrong reasons. By keeping busy I was trying to keep the mental monkeys at bay. I was also afraid of failing in the workplace and I wanted to equally contribute to the household income, but this was all at the expense of my happiness and wellbeing. My ‘aha’ moment happened where all my ‘aha’ moments have happened since, within he sight, sound and smell of the sea. I need to take some time away from the workplace to rest.

Since then my choice of work has been mainly voluntary and pretty much all third sector. I do appreciate how fortunate I am that my family circumstances allow me this choice (read exceptionally kind and compassionate husband and self-sufficient kids). I have never returned to full-time work and most of what I do is local, focuses on improving community wellbeing and takes place on the beach or in the sea. I resemble a leather handbag have briny bleached hair and have the most amazing network of supportive and encouraging beach bums you are every likely to meet.

It’s not all been plain sailing. There have been significant challenges and set backs along the way. But the introduction of regular me time, in other words sea time has allowed me to make quick and significant decisions to maintain my mental health equilibrium rather than wait until it’s sometimes too late.

How does it work, this relationship between anxiety, the sea and me? Well I’m no neuroscientist and I’m certainly not an academic but I have spent a lot of time, swimming and floating in the sea and snoozing and starring by the sea thinking about how it helps me. So if you want a salty charlatan’s take on it all, here goes;

Anxiety is a human response to potential threat and uncertain outcomes. So in the context of swimming in the sea, which at times can be risky to be in or on, it’s actually a reasonable reaction. Cold winter seas can quite literally take you breath away and your brain becomes occupied with pacifying the flight impulse and staying aware of your environment. This leaves little room for overthinking your day-to-day worries. The more you expose yourself to the freezing sea and a huge deep expanse of water and not only survive but come to enjoy the experience you are encouraging your brain to re-wire the anxiety hard wire. Sort of like CBT in the sea.

You are strengthening and maintaining your resilience by swimming in the sea. The sea is uncertain and it cannot be controlled and is constantly changing. Experiencing the changing seascape, which you are unable to influence encourages the brain to stop worrying about things it cannot sway.

Many treatments for anxiety are easy to practice in the sea. Meditation; part of the cold water acclimatisation process is to float on your back until you have regulated your breathing. Swimming regular strokes and slowing your breathing to match your stroke is necessary as humans have yet to earn how to breath underwater. Mindfulness; repetitive strokes and a focus on the hear and now encourages you to remain in the present. Physical activity; regardless of ability anyone can splash about in the sea and moving your body helps you keep warm. Self-Care; you cannot take your phone into the sea and no one can contact you. Away from screen scrolling total rest and relaxation is possible.

Connection; This for me over the last couple of years has had a profoundly positive impact on my wellbeing. The human experience of belonging increases confidence and self-esteem and can eradicate anxiety. And most certainly feel I belong with the group I swim with. Within this group being vulnerable is your strength. Talking; A nurturing open environment has formed on Brighton and Hove’s beaches where you are able to talk about your worries and concerns. And eat cake.

I will always have anxiety, but I will also always have the sea. And while the two remain as constants in my life, I’ll be OK.

Nothing says summer like a jellyfish sting!

Hers in Brighton and Hove our seasonal swimming friends the jellyfish have arrived in abundance. In this blog you will learn how to identify the common types and what do do if you are stung.

Once the May Bloom begins to die back the jellyfish appear on the south coast of England.  We had a sunfish sighting off Brighton’s beach last week which meant the jellyfish were imminent. It is their staple diet as it is for leatherback turtles. So what visitors can we expect each year from May to October? (Also included are a couple of creatures that are technically not jellyfish but kinda look and act like them so they get a mention.)

I love jellyfish. I think they are mesmerising to watch and I can often while a way a few minutes (read hours) watching the Monterey Bay Aquarium jellyfish dance on their jellycam.  They don’t really swim but instead are carried by tides and currents around the UK waters. They all sting but to varying degrees and are essential in the marine food chain so I feel we can forgive them if they accidentally leave some nematocysts stinging cells on our limbs. For me summer has only truly arrived once I feel a slight skin irritation after a shower and know it’s because I’ve been stung by a jellyfish.

sea goosberry

Sea Gooseberry – The first to appear in the summer are sea gooseberries, which are not actually jellyfish, but they are my favourite. They are so named for obvious reasons but are sometimes called comb jellies or ctenophore. Due to their almost transparent nature they can be hard to see but you feel their cilia, which they use for swimming or their two long trailing tentacles as a soft tickle. Their shadows on your skin are sometimes easier to spot than the actual creature itself.  They vertically migrate throughout the day so are most common near the surface in the mornings or evenings.

moon

Moon – this jelly has an umbrella shaped transparent bell with 4 very distinct purple or white rings in the centre and gets up to around 40cm. These are the jellyfish gonads! It has very short hair like tentacles which release the mildest of stings. So mild you may not even realise you have been stung.

compass

Compass – this is the jellyfish we draw or see in drawings. It has a typical umbrella top and lovely long tentacles and frilled arms and grows to around 30cm. It is identifiable by the markings on it’s bell, which resemble a compass and are reddy brown in colour. If you feel you have been stung by a jellyfish on the south coast this is likely to be the culprit. It is sometimes called a nettle jellyfish as it’s sting feels similar to that of a nettle.

blue

Blue – This jelly fish has a dome shaped bell and lots and lots of stinging tentacles and is around 30cm. Although it is named ‘Blue Jellyfish’ it doesn’t actually turn blue until it is at full maturity. It gradually changes from a pale yellow to a blueish purple. During it’s paler phase it can commonly be mistaken for a Lion’s Mane Jelly. He’s stinger!

Largelionsmanejellyfish

Lion’s Mane Jellyfish – quite obvious how it got it’s name. A very elaborate orange jellyfish which can grow quite large (50cm – 2m) with This is the worst stinger but fortunately for those of us that swim off the south coast they are usually found in northern waters. The problem with these is they sting A LOT because they have such A LOT of tentacles which easily break off. These are worth seeking medical attention for.

barrel

Barrel – sometimes called dustbin lid jellyfish as this is typically their size so you’ll know of you see one. They can get up to 1m. You can often spot them in the deep water of Shoreham port when they get stuck in the locks there. They are incredible to look at. The good news is they do not have tentacles but rather frills and if they sting you they re very mild.

mauve

Mauve Stinger – does what it says on the tin. It’s mauve and it stings. It’s much smaller than the others only getting up to about 10cm and it has a deep bell, pinky purple in colour. It have 8 stinging tentacles that can leave you with skin irritation, blisters, hives and scabs.

Portuguese_Man-O-War_(Physalia_physalis)

Portuguese man-of-war or bluebottles are not actually a jellyfish and don’t just exist in Portugal. It is in fact a siphonophore which in layman’s terms is a whole host of colonies of genetically identical creatures!  It gets its name from the uppermost polyp, a gas-filled bladder, or pneumatophore, which is blue-purple in colour and  sits above the water and somewhat resembles an old warship at full sail. It has incredibly long fishing polyps, up to 10 metres long and although rare in UK waters is has a powerful and dangerous sting. Get to the doctor!

by the wind

By the wind sailor – sometimes confused with the Portuguese man-of-war as it too has a sail like structure that sits above the water line and they are blueish purple in colour. Again it is not a jellyfish but it does have stinging tentacles that are harmless to humans. The tend to appear in huge swarms.

STINGS – what to do!

Jellyfish can sting whether they are dead or alive and if a part of the tentacle is broken off it can still sting you. Stinging cells, normally intended for their food prey,  basically attach themselves to your skin and well sting. How much they hurt and how dangerous the sting can be all depends on the type of jellyfish, how much you have been stung and how you react to stings. For example, if you are the type of person that blows up when bitten by a mosquito because your body produces an excess of histamine, the likelihood is you will react the same way to a jellyfish sting. Certain types of stings will always require medical attention as per the description above. The more mild stings can be treated in the following ways;

  • Remove all traces of the stinging cells from your skin with a bank card by scraping it along the surface.
  • The sting reacts to changes in temperature and PH levels so keeping both of these consistent for as long as possible will reduce pain and redness. So it sounders counterproductive and probably not very inviting but stay in the salty cold water of the sea for as long as possible.
  • Do not clean the area with fresh water as this will do both of the above (change in temperature and PH) and boy will you know it if it is a significant sting. As previously said I sometimes only realise I have been stung when have a shower – a good reason to avoid them and stay salty.
  • Treat with heat not a cold compress
  • Take paracetamol and/or antihistamine
  • A newly discovered favourite is put shaving foam on the affected area as it apparently prevents the spread of toxins. Who knew!

 

The gooseberry, moon, compass and barrel are the most common in the English channel. I have never seen the others in Brighton and Hove but that’s not to say they have never occurred, just that they are rare. If you wish to continue swimming in the sea over the summer months you are going to have to put up with these fascinating residents. Rash vests and swim leggings can be worn to prevent stings but it won’t prevent you from encountering them. Hopefully, learning about how important they are to the marine food chain and knowing that the sting from the most commonly occurring types is harmless won’t stop you from getting in the water.

Lots of organisations are interested in tracking jellyfish populations. The Marine Conservation Society record which jellyfish get washed up and where so please report whatever you see. The Wildlife Trust also asks for public volunteers to record wildlife on our shores.

Favourite jellyfish fact: Groups of jellyfish are called swarms, blooms or my favourite smacks!

NB: All image are taken from Wikipedia – there will be better and beautiful  examples of the jellyfish on the internet but so as not to breach copyright they have not been shared here.

Just keep swimming!

The Buoys are Back in Town

The summer season is here in Brighton and Hove. The Swim Area Buoys and lifeguards have returned to our beaches but there have been a lot of changes to their service. This blog explains the 2020 Lifeguard Service and advice on swimming safely through the summer.

The much anticipated arrival of the iconic yellow ‘SWIM AREA’ buoys is finally here. They are safely anchored off Brighton and Hove’s beaches but they aren’t quite the same………

As a group, we try to encourage all local residents of all swim abilities to join us in the sea. Our aim is to create a community space for people to enjoy the water and provide a way for swimmers to manage their mental health and wellbeing. The summer is great time to start and as we re-opened the group to new members this week we have already seen lots of new Salties joining our flock. So as a warm welcome to warmer seas we’d like to share the story of our swims, the iconic Brighton Buoys and our summer season lifeguard service. Particularly as C19 has meant significant changes to the Seafront service and we want our flock to swim safely.

As the waters warm, our numbers inevitably grow. This year we are unable to share our swims with more than 5 other Salties. The beauty of the bigger regular swims is you will find someone that meets your swim needs. They swim the same stroke as you, the same speed as you, the same distance as you and eats the same cake as you. Some of us will swim out and round the buoys, some won’t. Some will paddle, some will float, some will swim for long distances. Whatever works for you. But in the spirit of inclusivity we swim at the speed and to the distance of our most relaxed swimmer if we meet as a group, and we ask our swimmers to be mindful of this as new Salties join us.

Normally the SWIM AREA buoys would arrive in early May ready for the lifeguard season to start on Brighton and Hove’s beaches over the May Half Term. Due to C19 there has been a delay. Brighton and Hove normally has 14 lifeguarded beaches  and the swim area buoys mark out an area that is safe to swim in if the yellow and red flags are flying and a lifeguard is on duty.  They are not there for swimmers to swim round although many use them as markers to swim too and roughly measure the distance of their swim. If you were to see a bird’s eye view of them you would see they are never parallel and move around quite a bit in bad weather so it is a very rough measurement .

The season normally runs from May to September with the outer posts of Saltdean, Rottingdean, Ovingdean and Hove Lagoon opening from July to September, as the schools break up. There can be between 1-3 lifeguards per post depending on how busy that particular beach is. The more popular touristy beaches by the Palace Pier have more lifeguards. All the beach lifeguards are supported by a lifeguarded boat that patrols daily and the Seafront staff and co-ordinators (the staff on the quad bikes).

This year, the most noticeable change is the late arrival of the SWIM AREA buoys and their position in the water. They are not in sets of 5 in front of lifeguard posts (Pic 1). Instead they are dotted along the shoreline, roughly (and only roughly see pic 2) parallel with each other from the Palace Pier to Hove Lagoon. There are no buoys east of the Palace Pier. Instead of indicating lifeguard posts the buoys are to prevent jet skis and boats from coming to close to shore to protect water users.

 

These buoys are not to be confused with the boat lane buoys. These too are yellow but a different shape. However, from a distance, and now the buoys are in a parallel line alongside the boat buoys, it is hard to see the difference. These buoys look like the picture below and are there to indicate where boats can approach to and from the shore. If you don’t want to get hit by a boat – don’t swim in these lanes. The boat lane buoys line up with yellow posts on the beach as per the picture below. This one to the west of King Alfred is by the boat winches and normally has kayaks locked to it. So if you can’t see the shape of the buoy from the shore – look for a post.

As there are no inner buoys yet this year and a limited lifeguard service the Sea Front Office have requested that swimmers do not swim out to the buoys to reduce the number of rescues they have to perform and the risk to their lives from the sea and C19 infection from swimmers. This is the most common rescue they perform. Swimmers head out for the buoys and when they get there can be too tired to swim back, not realise they made it there on a tidal current or offshore wind and don’t have the ability to get back, or get there and realise how far they are from shore and freeze both in temperature and ability to move.

We’ve had a few ‘hold your breath’ moments within our flock. Last summer, on the first day of the lifeguard seasons a new Salty asked another swimmer if they thought she’d be able to swim out to the buoy. The other swimmer, innocently replied yes and so a group set out on her maiden voyage. When the new swimmer got to the buoy it was clear this wasn’t the right decision, the lifeguard was attracted and a board rescue ensued. The lesson here is you need to take responsibility for your own assessment of the conditions and your capability. If you are asking someone else the question can I swim that far, or for that long etc the answer is no. We’ve also had a new swimmer not only to the group but to Brighton join a group swimming around the West Pier. The swimming group had made it clear on the swim invitation that is wasn’t a usual group dip of handstand performing, cake and a natter afterwards but a long swim around the pier.  The new swimmer still joined and  got into significant difficulty as she wasn’t used to the cold temperatures, the strong currents and also put the lives of the others swimmers in danger as they stayed in the water to help her back to shore.

We understand, that for some swimmers having goals and targets gives you something to strive towards but this must be done safely. If you wish to increase your time in the water, build up to it slowly and stay close to the shore so you can exit quickly.  Another way to measure your swim distance is to move parallel to the shore and count the groynes. These are roughly 100 metres apart and allow you to stay in shallower water and closer to a safe exit point. If you wish to swim to the buoys consider going at slack tide on a spring low with no wind. Don’t forget to wear a tow float and a bright coloured hat, preferably orange or pink.

So as to changes to the Lifeguard Service. They start today! (Saturday 13th June) Hooray. They will operating on the beaches by King Alfred and between the Palace and West Pier only to begin with. If and when this changes we will publish updated information in the group. Opening up additional posts and putting out buoys closer to shore and to mark out swim areas are under discussion. The current lifeguard posts are larger and will have 6 lifeguards per post – 3 operating each half of the post. They will be working a reduced day from 11am-5pm.  We will no longer be able to leave our bags and belongings with them as it would pose a cross contamination risk. However, they are still happy to answer any of your questions of give you advice, just be mindful to stay 2ms or they will have to put on their face masks.   They will have boards close to their posts indicating tide times and sea conditions. There will be increased water patrols on boards and the boat will be joined by volunteer crew on Surf Lifesaving Club boats at the weekends.

To me the buoys mean summer, clear seas and double dip days. Yes I swim to them, round them, under them, photograph them. One of these years I’m going to clean them. But I do it when the conditions are right, I am in the right frame of mind and  I have the energy. Sometimes I don’t know if all the buoys are aligned to mean a swim to them is an option until I get to the beach, see who else is there and see if the sea is playing ball. I’m quite happy to change my plans to perfecting my handstands, searching for crabs on the sea bottom or just floating. The sea is most definitely my mistress and dictates my swim!

However you decide to swim with, however long you stay in, wherever you swim to and from, do it safely and have a wonderful summer of sea swims

Useful Resources

  • How to read sea condition forecasts – this blog written by local Sea swimmer Freja and explains how to read the Magic Seaweed App
  • Other useful apps are windguru, buoyweather and Imray
  • The seafront has a number of webcams to get an idea of the sea conditions before you leave home. They can change quickly though so be prepared to change you plans.
  • How to swim in cold water safely – this blog focuses on mitigating the risks of swimming in cold water. Even in the summer the sea can be cold!
  • Water quality is measured by various organisation around Brighton and Hove. Surfers Against Sewage have a Safer Seas app that provides warnings if the water quality is low.
  • Seafront Office are happy to give advice. They cannot give you individual advice on whether it is safe for you to swim but can provide answers to general queries around water quality, sea temperature events etc. Their contact details are; 01273 292716.
  • Statement from Brighton and Hove City Council regarding the service in the seafront.

Meet the Flockers; Series 1, Rachel

The sixth in our ‘Meet the Flockers’ series of blogs where we bring salted wellbeing away from the beach and into your home. Bringing Series 1 to a close we meet Rachel. Grab yourself a cuppa and get to know the salty seabirds.

Hello, I’m Rachel and I’m in my mid forties. I’m a teacher, nature lover, artist, photographer, wannabe writer, swimmer, outdoor type and gardener (just only get paid for the first one!). Swimming is in my genes as my grandmother was a sea swimmer in the days when ladies weren’t supposed to swim (read Swell to find out more). I’ve lived in Brighton most of my adult life, but only got in the sea here for the first time about 10years ago! Although I’ve always been able to swim, I didn’t really swim in the way I do now until I got osteoarthritis in my foot from a climbing injury a few years ago and so had to start finding other activities to do instead of climbing and mountaineering. In fact, when swimming was suggested as a recovery strategy, I found it boring. But that was mainly because I couldn’t swim properly. So, I had front crawl lessons, went on a wonderful wild swimming workshop in Snowdonia, reminded myself I had always loved water and had lived by the sea since I was 19 and that was it – an otter I became! Instead of going up mountains, I found lakes and rivers. Around the same time, other health issues meant I had to leave full time teaching and re-evaluate the way I lived and swimming became more and more a part of my self care toolkit.

What is the earliest memory you have of swimming?

I learnt to swim underwater first strangely, at my local swimming pool, I think I was about 6. It took me longer to crack swimming with my head above the water! Then the usual school swimming lessons and family trips swimming on a Sunday morning to the pool with the wave machine.

What is the earliest memory you have of swimming in the sea?

Every summer we did big road trips around France and Spain which generally involved a lot of playing in big Atlantic waves. That’s probably why I’m not that concerned about getting washing machined now – had plenty of experience of it as a child! It also sparked my love of big dune backed sandy beaches.

What made you join the Salty Seabird Swimming Community Group?

Around the time the Seabirds started, I had learnt front crawl properly and swimming had become part of my life, seeking water instead of mountains. I’d joined online groups like the Outdoor Swimming Society and was really jealous of the community and comradery found in swim groups and lidos. Apparently I said to my boyfriend that I wanted to find my flock! I had tried another Brighton swim club, but it just wasn’t right for me. Then, one night in Brighton Sailing club, I saw a flyer for the Seabirds and I joined the Facebook group. A couple of weeks later in November, after returning from swimming in Sardinia and recruiting another recently made swim friend, we made the plunge and joined a seabird swim. And I knew I had found my flock.

Where is you favourite place to swim in Brighton and Hove and why?

Ooo, isn’t that like trying to choose a favourite child? I love D5 in Hove, because that’s where we meet most of the time as Seabirds. I also like being closer to the West Pier, by the sailing club (but obviously not too close!) as it’s a great backdrop for photos. I also swim a lot at Ovingdean as it’s close to home and work and a bit wilder. You can also get tea in a proper mug from the fabulous café. Just remember to check the tides unless you want a long, slippery, unsteady walk to the water! (you only do it once!)

Why do you swim in the sea?

Oh for so many reasons, which also change depending on what is happening in my life, or the swim experiences I’ve had. It’s my physical and emotional exercise. I’ve gone from just bobbing and dipping to wanting to build up stamina and distance. But overall – because it’s there, I live near the sea and unfortunately we don’t have much access to fresh water nearby (I am an otter – I do love fresh water just as much, especially if it’s up a mountain). But also, because it really calls to me. I often have to go and ‘check it’. Just being next to the sea soothes me especially if I’m feeling anxious. I love the line from the Alt J song, Dissolve me; She makes the sound, the sound the sea makes to calm me down”. I swim to have the wonderful sensation of being held and enveloped in the water, both physically and emotionally. Until I had swim lessons I couldn’t really float, and now it’s one of my favourite things. The sea brings so much joy, especially when it’s bouncy and wavy and we’re jumping and tumbling more than swimming. You can’t help but shriek and laugh. I also love the flat calm days when you can really stretch out for a swim and practice handstands. I enjoy the long warm swims in summer, when my fair-weather friends join me and we swim into the evening in clear seas. But now, having done my second winter, I love the tingly bitey rush of the cold water and the camaraderie of dancing, swearing and shrieking into the sea, knowing it will be ok and the benefits with outweigh the pain! The sea is always different yet always the same. It always anchors and revives me and it always comes with smiles.

What do you like most about swimming (insert chatting and eating cake) with the Salty Seabird Community?

I have found my flock! Seabirds have brought me so much more than people to swim with. It’s not about the physical safety of having someone to swim with, it’s the emotional support the flock bring, whether consciously or not. The seabirds are a broad church, differing backgrounds, jobs, experiences and interests, yet we are all brought together by the sea and that bonds us. From the start, meeting others was a part of the experience, I don’t make friends easily, I can be shy or feel awkward but I was happy in the flock, even if on the edge of it. Everyone is always friendly and I’ve been happy with everyone I’ve met and swum with. At first, I didn’t necessarily feel fully part of the ‘gang’, I hadn’t made what I’d deem ‘proper’ friends, but slowly slowly, probably because I started involving myself more and because I’m always taking photos, I realised, these wonderful wonderful women were my friends. Their hugs nurture me, even times when I haven’t thought I’ve needed it. Their smiles, laughter and silliness has given me even more opportunities to bring out my inner child. The lovely conversations we have while treading water, when you sometimes aren’t even sure exactly who you are talking to because of googles and hats, we are connected. It’s given me a place where I can help people too, give them a hug, a lift to a swim, hold their hand getting into the sea, support them with a challenge or take a photo to remember a wonderful moment. The physical and emotional changes in my life over the last few years had narrowed my life and my friendships, but the seabirds have changed that and I know it’s only going to continue to grow. These friendships have gone from the water, to the beach to my life. I need the seabirds as much as I need the sea. Oh, and the cake… !

How often do you swim in the sea?

Not as much as I’d like, life gets in the way and I have to get over the need to have a nap after! But certainly 2 or 3 times a week. I usually have swim kit in the car, just in case! My house is always dotted with kit drying out over radiators and doors.

Rachel2

What would you say to anyone thinking of starting wild swimming as a form of managing wellbeing?

There are so many reasons why wild swimming supports wellbeing, which is probably why it’s so hard to scientifically say why it does. At first, I thought for me, it was more about the people and community. I thought didn’t really get the same boost with a solo swim as when I was with a group. But now, when our flock are distanced from each other physically I’ve found I still have really really needed the water. This pandemic is a challenging time for mental health as well as the physical health crisis and there have been days when the other tools in my self care kit just haven’t worked and the sea is the only thing that has soothed and reset me. Even watching wild swimming films give me that sensation of the cool silky water on my skin. So my message would be – yes, give it a go, find someone to guide you and read the safety advice. Believe that what everyone thinks is the worse part – the cold, is actually the best part. Take a deep breath and remember to keep breathing calmly and go with the sensations. Bear with the first few minutes until your body adjusts and wait for the smile that will come. And if you come with the seabirds, there will be a supportive hand if you want it.

Where and when was your favourite swim? – details please and lots of them

Oh, so hard to choose! I’ve been lucky to swim in some amazingly beautiful places, all over the UK, including up to North Scotland, lakes in Snowdonia, aszure clear seas in Sardinia and glacier fed rivers in the Alps. Can I have two? Firstly, one of the first times we set out on a walk specifically to swim. It was when the osteoarthritis in my foot was getting worse and I couldn’t walk up mountains any more. We were in mid wales and my OH remembered a lake he’d seen from a mountain top on a previous trip. It was absolutely in the middle of nowhere, a long drive in on a windy single track road. We parked on a small layby and started heading up. Unfortunately, marsh land and my foot meant we didn’t reach the lake. But – I’d spotted pools on the river coming off the mountain and though they might be possible. They were mostly hidden from the path so when we rounded a large boulder to find a big pool under a waterfall, with further gentle bubbling falls below it, I thought I’d arrived in Mother Nature’s heaven. We now call it my jacuzzi as after swimming and floating in the main pool I then sat for ages in the lower falls with the water bubbling around me. In the photos I just have a look of pure joy. I’ve since taken friends there too and it was so wonderful to share it with them and have it induce the same joy.

Then, a sea swim, one of the Seabird full moon swims near the West Pier. It was high summer, a glorious warm calm evening with the sun setting as we got in to the silky soft sea. Many of us had lights in our tow floats and that just added to the amazing light show. Some of us stayed in for ages, floating, chatting, smiling, swimming out to a buoy and for me – taking the most photos I’ve ever taken on a swim! It was just so beautiful and I was so glad to share it with my salties. We also shared it with a lot of onlookers from the beach but I didn’t mind, I was in a little bubble of happiness. The colours of the sky and our smiles are engrained in my mind whenever I want to bring up some joy.

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A Salty Reflection

Seabirds Community Interest Company celebrated it’s 2nd birthday this week. A time to reflect on how far we have come and how we have shared salted wellbeing.

It’s been two years since Seabirds Community Interest Company started trading. And it has been far from plain swimming. But we wouldn’t change it for the world.

The story so far……….

Our aim was to operate a small social enterprise that made a difference. Made a difference to us, working for ourselves, choosing our hours, and providing autonomy of role. Made a difference to our customers, giving them the option to give back whilst buying their wild swim kit. Made a difference to our partners, other small start up business and ethical family firms. Made a difference to the environment by offering alternative products and donating to Surfers Against Sewage. Made a difference to our local community by providing people with a means to manage their wellbeing and a safe and inclusive swimming group.

The Story of the Shop

It was all done on a budget and without a bank loan. Instead we launched a Crowd Funder in April 2018 to raise enough funds to start the business, buy inventory and donate to Surf Solace. We did no market research other than we knew what worked for us when we swam in the sea.  There have been sleepless nights and differing directions but two years on we are finally where we want to be. A Wild Swim Shop. We still have much to learn and a long list of things we want to do. But we balance that with our time, making sure we still have time to swim in the sea, Social Media marketing can wait! We still suffer from Impostor Syndrome yet are fiercely protective of our company.

The story of the Social Enterprise

In our first year of trading we donated unrestricted funds to Surf Solace and Hove Surf Life Saving Club – both charities that focus on using the sea safely and health and wellbeing. In our second year of trading we received National Lottery and Paddle Round the Pier funding to run Women Wellbeing and Water (WWW) free community courses. WWW’s aim is to provide a way for local people to manage their wellbeing by using sea swimming and friendship. Our aim is to give participants the skills, confidence and self-belief they need to enjoy sea swimming, no matter what additional challenges they face.

The story of the Salty Seabirds

This is our ever growing kind and inclusive swimming community. This wasn’t in the plan but it has become a massive part of who we are and what we do. We needed somewhere to signpost local swimmers who wanted to join us, swimmers who participated in WWW or our Sea Swimming Taster sessions and Confidence Swimming Lessons. So we set up a closed community group, fed and watered it, and it flourished. We have regular weekly swim meets and ad-hoc smaller ones. We have organised events like Moon Swims, Starling Swims and International Women’s Day celebrations. Firm friendships have been formed with members spending Christmas together, trips away together and working together. It is an incredible community and something we are very proud of.

The story of our highlights

We launched our Women, Water and Wellbeing free community course. This has been a real highlight for us. We know how much being part of a nurturing group and swimming in the sea has helped us through some challenging times and has such a positive impact on our wellbeing. We have been fortunate enough to be able to share that with others.

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We have raised nearly £2000 for Thousand 4 £1000 Covid Emergency Fund Thank you to everyone that bought a donation gift or bought a raffle ticket to the weekly art auction. Both are still running until the end of June so still plenty of time to make a difference.

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We ran film nights, safe swim talks and wellbeing talks all to raise funds for causes close to our hearts. Beneficiaries included Cal Major’s Vitamin Sea project and hosted an evening with her. Hove Life Saving Club’s Training Officer gave a series of safe swim talks at Sea Lanes as a fundraiser. We created the extinction rebellion symbol in the sea. Spelled out words with our bodies on the beach. We also joined the Surfers Against Sewage 250 Club as our birthday present to ourselves!

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We have featured on the radio, TV (This Morning) , podcasts (Mother of all Movement and Growing Wild FM) and in magazines (Coast, Health and Fitness and Outdoor Swimmer). We write our only weekly blogs to share stories of the sea and our experiences of mental health. (This is this weeks :-)) We have been guinea pigs for a lot of research into cold water swimming and subjects for university students.

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We have completed a year of moon swims and collaborated with Salt Images on a photographic exhibition that was due to be revealed on the Onca Barge. We were devastated when Covid 19 meant its postponement as part of the Brighton Fringe Festival. As well as the exhibition we had planned beach cleans with The Deans Beach and Environmental Volunteers, guided swims, yoga sessions and short films and talks to share over the course of the festival. For now we have memories of monumental monthly swims under the full moon, watching her rise as we floated in the sea, howling as a group. Starlings at sunset and 4am winter blood moons to name but a few.

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We joined the Blue-tits in Wales for the Great Tit Weekend. We shared an unforgettable few days in Pembrokeshire, constantly wet and smiling. We swam, we sang, we danced. We jumped off cliffs naked into crystal clear waters. We made friends and memories galore.

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We have run Sea Swimming Tasters and pool based swimming lessons all with the emphasis on confidence building and swimming for wellbeing. We are lucky to be supported by local coaches, trainer and teachers that meet the needs of our nervous swimmers.

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We currently have 1719 members of our supportive Salty Seabirds Community Swim Group! We’ve swum in rivers and lakes and of course the sea, across Sussex together but we’ve also shared lots of love, support and kindness. We draw on each other’s bottoms with lipstick, whilst others swim wearing lipstick. We make up songs and sing them with real gusto. We don a fancy dress costume at the drop of a hat. Some of us, take all our clothes off at the drop of a hat. We have handstand competitions regularly. Fire-pits and food on the beach in the evenings. We regularly rally together for good causes close to our hearts. Our flock have run taster sessions for mental health awareness week providing a range of free activities including body positive workshops, yoga, meditation and beach school. We lend and borrow and gift each other with books, plants, recipes, sourdough starters and secret swim spots. We share lifts, laughter, love and lots of cake! And sometimes we even swim!

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We’ve had a lot of headaches but a lot of fun. We are super grateful for all of the support we have received from the Salty community. None of this would have been possible if it were not for our incredible flock! Here’s to more exciting adventure in the future and an abundance of salted wellbeing.

Lots of salty love

Cath & Kath

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Meet the Flockers; Series 1, Claudine

The fifth in our ‘Meet the Flockers’ series of blogs where we bring salted wellbeing away from the beach and into your home. Grab yourself a cuppa and get to know the salty seabirds.

Tell us a bit about you?

I’m Claudine, a 43 year old mum of two, wife, business owner and Seabird.  I have always loved swimming.  It was the sport I was “least bad at”, at school!  We also had swimming lessons outside of school and I remember it being one of the few extra curricular activities I enjoyed.  I continued to swim, on and off, throughout my adult life, it has generally been my go-to exercise.

I have always loved the sea and for years I was unable to visit a beach without going for a paddle.  I have lived in Hove for 13 years but it took me nearly 10 to actually swim in the sea here.

I discovered proper sea swimming two years ago now (my swimmiversary being 20th April).  In March, I was running on the seafront and saw some swimmers come out of the sea, I decided to walk over to and chat to them.  As I got closer, I realised one was Rachael, who my children had had some swimming lessons with.  As I spoke to her and her two friends, I said wistfully “I wish I could do that”, and they all looked at me, puzzled, and said “why can’t you?”.  Good question.  So a month later, I did.  I met Rachael and another of her friends, (now one of mine), and went in the freezing April ocean (why not start in more or less the coldest sea temperature of the year?), wetsuited up.  It was joyous!  I felt the buzz.  Two years on and I have done two winters, mostly without a wetsuit, and it is now “my thing”.

What made you join the Salty Seabird Swimming Community Group?

I did a few swims with a colleague I was working with in Portsmouth, and then with another Brighton swimming club.  One day I picked up a flyer for the Seabirds.  I liked the sound of them, swimming for wellbeing.  I went along to Lagoonfest where they had a stall, met them and bought some of their wares.  Then decided to join them for a swim.  I loved the community feel of the group, even though it was much smaller then than it is now.  It felt casual, there were a few who would swim off and get some distance covered, but others who would bob and chat.  It was nice to have the choice to do either.  I have since swam regularly with the Seabirds, several times a week, either in the large group swims, or when I am feeling less able socially, I’ll message one or two of them and see if they’d like to meet. With the Seabirds, there are people who completely get me.  I feel that amongst the Seabirds, I’ve found my tribe.

Where is you favourite place to swim in Brighton and Hove and why?

I’m not sure I have a favourite spot.  Anywhere along the beach at Hove is good with me.  Anywhere there are not too many people.  I don’t mind Shoreham when it’s too rough at Hove.  It’s not the prettiest but it’s good knowing you’re right next to the RNLI station, although it would be quite embarrassing to have to be rescued a few metres away from it!

Why do you swim in the sea and when did you start?

I’m interested in the research and the findings about the positive impact of cold water on mental health, and in particular depression and anxiety.  I struggle with these two unwelcome visitors at times, and take medication for it.  I would love swimming to be a way of reducing or getting off medication for me.  I would love it to be socially prescribed so I “have” to go, (although that might take the fun out of it)!  I know there is research going on to prove its impact so that it can be prescribed.

Does swimming in cold water itself impact positively my mental health?  Yes, I think it does. I no longer get the rush and buzz I got when I first started.  I rarely get the hysterical giggles after a cold swim any more.  I wonder if the impact in that sense has warn off over time.  I haven’t since got the child-like rush of excitement I got after swimming 30 meters in 2 degree water at the Cold Water Swimming Championships.  Dr Mark Harper suggests the cold water swimming high replicates a cocaine high.  Well, I have developed a tolerance to the effects of my drug of choice.

However, I still get a lot from it.  I have a great sense of achievement when I’ve overcome the freezing-ness and got myself in, shoulder-deep and then dunked my head.  Once I catch my breath I always have a sense of “ahh, that’s better”.  I feel invincible when I’ve gone into deeper water and swam round the buoys, especially after overcoming a panic attack out there.  But most of all I have a great time when I swim with my salties,  I have the connection.  So for my wellbeing I think what I need is to swim, with a small group if that feels right, or a big one on other days.  To listen to myself and see whether I need to chat with newbies or stick to those who know me.  I always need to dunk my head and get my face in.  And above all just get in that damn sea!

What do you love most about swimming in the sea?

I love a cold day when the sea is still and the sun is sparkling off it.  I like being able to have a good swim and look at the sky, look at the sun sparkling on the water.  I love a calm day when I can float on my back, stare at the clouds and feel grateful for being able to do that.  I love the summer when the buoys are out and I can challenge myself to swim around them.  I love a bouncy day when the waves a just a little bit scary but fun to jump around in.  I love getting out and feeling the bitey cold of my skin, trying to dress quickly so I don’t start shivering, and then feeling the warm ribena slowly heating me up from the inside.

How often do you swim in the sea?

As often as I can.  It would be every day if I could.  Generally it is 3-4 times a week.  Last year I completed 200 swims, over 190 of which were in the sea!  This year’s target is 201 but Covid 19 has made that target look difficult to achieve.

How would you describe your experience of swimming with the Salty Seabirds?

Empowering, joyful, necessary.  I never regret a swim.  There are days when I’m not sure I feel like it, or can’t be bothered or am feeling socially awkward and don’t feel like seeing people.  Even on the crappiest day, in the lowest mood, and the trickiest swim, I come out feeling at the very least a little better than I went in, and very often hugely better.  I enjoy the long detailed conversations about tea after swims, and the hilarity that follows.  I enjoy giving penguin hugs to those who shake when they get out. I am one of the lucky ones who have enough natural neoprene (or “bioprene”) to offer insulation to the cold so I have rarely shivered, even after almost half an hour in under 10 degree water.   And one of my favourite seabirds moments, I stood on the shore at Shoreham contemplating going in the water, in tears, and felt a huge warm hug envelope me.  I didn’t know which Seabird it was holding me, and it didn’t matter.  Only when we eventually pulled away, I saw the huge smile of our own baltic mermaid.  She didn’t say anything, other than perhaps “come on”, and gently encouraged me to get in the water.  She had known exactly what I needed at that moment, a big bear hug and a freezing cold swim: the two best cures for most things.

What would you say to anyone thinking of starting wild swimming as a form of managing wellbeing?

Give it a try.  As long as you do it in a safe way, what have you got to lose?  I have taken a couple of friends in for their first cold swim and they have loved it.  It’s great to see the buzz on their face and then hear later on that they felt incredible for hours afterwards.  The sense of a achievement to accomplish what many people couldn’t (and admittedly many people have no interest in doing), is awesome.  So many friends and acquaintances say they really want to join me, one day…..

Where and when was your favourite swim? – details please and lots of them

One of my favourites was during the crazy weekend in Wales a few of us Seabirds went to, for the Bluetits weekend.  We drove a looooong way to get there, had a great Friday night, dipped at a lovely couple of beaches on the Saturday, a rather crazy Saturday night in the cow shed, followed by a magical swim on Sunday.  I’d seen idyllic pictures of the Blue Lagoon and was thrilled to be swimming there.  It is the sea but in an almost enclosed pool so it would be possible to swim even when the waves are too big.  It did not disappoint.  Surrounded by smooth black rocks that some swimmers climbed up and dived off.  We knew that as honorary Bluetits for the weekend, we would collect a muffeteer badge for going in naked.  So I was up for the challenge.  Not one to rush into getting my kit off in Hove, I was happy to strip amongst this wonderful group of crazy (mostly) women.  It was liberating.  It was a gorgeous location, a lot of fun doing it naked, watching the brave ones cliff jumping without putting pressure on myself to have a go.  And someone said there was a seal.  I didn’t see her pop her head up but later saw an incredible video of one of the group having a little chat with the seal.

Possibly my favourite local swim was the sunset starling swim which was the last in the 12 moon swims series.  By the Palace pier, we gathered and swam, or at least jumped the waves, as the starlings did their beautiful murmuration above us. It was magical.  I have seen so many pictures and videos of the starlings making their shapes, but rarely seen them in reality, so to look up whilst being in the sea and watch was magical.

What’s been the biggest barrier you’ve had to overcome to regularly swim in the sea?

I have never been particularly nervous of a little dip in the shallows, but on a rough day it can scare me.  I have been in a number of situations where fellow swimmers have been tumbled or got into trouble quite a way out from shore.  I have kept my cool and helped those who needed it.  But confidence is certainly something that I have gained whilst swimming.

Time is always a barrier for many of us, and as a working mum running my own business, I can’t swim as often as I’d like.  I am often away for work and have yet to pluck up the courage to meet up with other wild swimming groups wherever I am staying.  When I’m not away I am based at home so some days have too much to do, to justify time out for a swim.  But when I can go, I go.  Sometimes for a long chill on the beach afterwards, and sometimes for a “dip and dash”.
Thirdly (although I know you said your biggest barrier, I have picked three!) I have a reputation amongst the Seabirds for being terrified of “creatures” in the sea.  I am not sure where it comes from, as i have willingly paid good money to swim with creatures in all sorts of parts of the world.  And yet if I feel something touch my leg or hand, my squeal can be heard for miles, and I jump 5 metres in the air.  I am particularly afraid of jellyfish,  to the extent that when I saw one last year during the 2.5km swim as part of the Paddle Round the Pier Festival, I could barely catch my breath an had to cling onto the surfboard of a young lifeguard who then stayed with me for the whole swim.  This slowed me down as I stopped the next two times I saw jellies, despite them being meters below me, and it resulted in me missing the cut off time for the swim and being pulled out by the safety boat.  Jellyfish 1,: Claudine 0!  This year I was planning on getting hypnotherapy to help with my irrational fear, and so I can conquer that 2.5km sea swim, but as yet it hasn’t been possible.

Is there anything else you want to add? 

One of the things I think about when I’m swimming is that the onlookers (and often there are many, pausing their walk along the prom to look at the group on the beach, particularly in the middle of winter) are thinking.  I reckon half are thinking “what a bunch of crazies, why on earth would they be going in the sea??  I’m cold and I have a hundred layers on – you wouldn’t catch me in there!” or words to that effect.  I think the other half are thinking “ooh, that looks fun and exhilarating, I wish I could join them” or perhaps “one day I will”.  This assumption is based on the fact that these are the two reactions I generally get when I chat to people about sea swimming in winter.  So many friends have said they’ll join me, but haven’t as yet.  I do feel pretty tough when I’ve got in past my shoulders and caught my breath.  But that’s not what I do it for.

The other benefit, and this is a big one, that I have gained from sea swimming is that it has helped me gain confidence in my body, in terms of it’s capability and the image I have of it.  I’ve had a fairly negative relationship with my body most of my life, until a couple of years ago when my eyes were opened to the idea that I didn’t have to conform to society’s one dimensional idea of thin = beautiful, thin = healthy, and that I can be large and beautiful, and large and healthy.  I now appreciate my body for what it can do, including entering cold water, swimming (nearly) 2.5km in the sea, swimming out beyond the west pier, carrying me 3.8km down the river Arun.  I have stopped beating myself up because my body doesn’t fit certain norms and I now feel far more comfortable changing on the beach, and even, as mentioned above, having the odd naked swim without worrying what judgements people are making about how I look.  The only judgement that matters is my own and that is gradually getting more positive.

Finally, I am so pleased to have found the Seabirds, and for the Seabirds to have found me.  During this time of lockdown, I am speaking to friends and family more often than I would otherwise, as many of us have more time on our hands.  But the ones reaching out to me most with hands (not literally) of support are my birds, the Seabirds.