A webinar facilitated by Open Water Swimming Coach Kath Ferguson. An Introduction to Winter Sea swimming.
Don’t ask me what the water temperature is, how long I stayed in for or how far I swam. Because I don’t know. Ask me about how I felt in the water, after my swim, for the rest of the day and I’ll wax lyrical……… This is chilled swimming.
I am not referring to cold water swimming or winter swimming. I’m referring to relaxed swimming without worry. A way of swimming free from arbitrary goals with it’s sole purpose being it’s soul purpose. This is chilled swimming.
There has been a significant increase in swimming outdoors whether it be lidos, lakes, rivers or my favourite the sea. And whilst this is wonderful, the fixation with time in the water, distance swum and the temperature of the water is also growing. I have never known how cold the water is that I am swimming in or how long I’ve been in or how far I’ve swum. I can hazard a good guess, but ultimately I swim in a huge body of water that’s temperature is effected by tidal currents, fresh source water and air temperature so any measurement I take is never going to be accurate. I don’t have a water proof watch or trust that my phone is waterproof so no idea of the time when I’m swimming and that’s just how I like it. I swim between groynes in the winter and around the piers and the swim area buoys in the summer but again I can only estimate how far I’ve swum as at some point I’ll be going against the flow.
Instead I go with the flow. The joy I experience when I’m in the water cannot be measured and as a goal orientated and competitive person if I begin to count the number of swims I do a week, month or year, it will rob me of this joy. I understand the need for some to have goals. Particularly if they are training for specific event or raising money for a good cause. Or as encouragement to keep getting in. But this, for me, cannot be to the detriment of enjoying the water, being in the moment, being present. One of the ways I manage my mental health is by spending time in the sea and I can’t risk it becoming about something else, a task or a tick box on the to do list. I cannot take the overwhelm I am running away from with me to the beach. I’m fighting against my nature to do this and it has taken a lot for me to free myself from setting myself targets. But I am definitely a chilled swimmer.
I want to notice the details. The light at different times of day. The depth at different tides. The topography at different swim spots. I am awake to the changes in the sea environment. If my focus was on measuring temperature, the time or distance would I notice the details? Focussing on the feeling of the water on my skin, the sensations, is measurement enough of the temperature. Swimming past a particular landmark is measurement enough of the distance.
Preparation is the only measured task for me. A bag full of warm clothes, cake and hot tea. Possibly a hot water bottle but definitely a woolly hat. A bag for the inevitable beach clean. Weather and Sea forecast checked. When I arrive at the beach I am prepared. Prepared to stay dry if my preparation doesn’t match the sea state before me. And when I get in the sea, I float to prepare for my swim. I think about how the water feels, and how I feel. Am I tired, am I hungry, am I melancholy? Is the water moving fast, is there a wind chill, can I see the bottom? Once in the sea, she will tell you which direction to swim in and how long to stay in for as long as your preparation is measured.
Cath Pendleton has achieved some incredible swims. But she initially took up cold water swimming to manage her wellbeing as busy single mum working for the NHS. Her experience is that she found her ‘reset button’ whilst swimming in the wilds of Wales. It wasn’t until she’d fallen in love with swimming outdoors, learned about the swimming environment, experimented with what to wear, swam in different spots that she decided to swim the channel and more recently becoming the first person to swim a mile in the Antarctic Polar Circle. The measured goals when temperature, distance and time in the water are important, came later.
It’s hard not to get caught up in the ‘need to know’ times and temperature. My Social Media feed is full of ice breaking shots of swimmers with sledgehammers and I find myself longing to be where they are. There pictures of calm clear, but bloody cold seas taken all along my local coast line tempting me in. But the accompanying text and numerous comment discussion is all about , yep you guessed it, water and air temperature, time spent in the water, distance covered. The image that filled me with joy so quickly becomes a feeling of disappointment as the ‘need to know’ and share measured success becomes the forefront of the experience. Again, I understand that people have specific challenges at this time of the year to get them up and about, and causes close to their hearts they wish to highlight or raise money for, and this type of imagery and text is necessary. But it does nothing to expel a nations fixation with goals and targets.
January can be a time for setting goals and for many this is to swim outdoors in the winter. But did you know that the promoted 10,000 steps goal is a number plucked out of the air as a marketing campaign for a company selling pedometers and is not founded on fact . Now every step counter you buy or upload is set to the golden 10,000 automatically. Just because someone, somewhere wanted to sell you a lifestyle choice. When you think about swimming goals in those terms you can question who decided official ice swimming was anything under 5 degrees……. Goals can of course give you much needed encouragement to carry on or get something done. In the case of chilled swimming they can still be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time Bound without taking the pleasure out of your winter swim. I am taking part in the Arctic Tern Challenge which is a bit of fun to encourage swimmers to swim year round and raise money for a worthy cause – Level Water. I gain immense pleasure from seeing swimmers enjoy the cold sea and know this challenge may have been just what they needed to get them started and keep them going in every aspect of their lives. I also took the time to improve my swim technique last year having lessons (even swim coaches need help to improve the efficiency of their swimming) and I wanted to improve my swimming fitness too. One of my measures of success is the timed swim at the end of my session, for others it may be putting their head in the water or learning front crawl. But I will caveat any swimming goals I have, with the knowledge that, the rivers, lochs, lakes and sea are not going anywhere so you have plenty of time to learn what your body is capable of and build up to year round swimming slowly and enjoy the journey.
This winter I have swum less than I normally would. This is due to Covid but not in the way you might expect. I have been able to swim constantly through the different tiers and local lockdowns as the beach is on my doorstep but the beach is busy. Lots of people in groups is difficult for me at the best of times but during a pandemic when my anxiety levels are heightened and you’ve got no chance. The once deserted winter seafront is full to overflowing with people getting fresh air and exercise. Good for them, shit for me. Over the festive period I went in twice. On Christmas Eve I met with the permitted six swimmers and it was magical. I arrived on the prom to grinning faces and a ton of baked goods. We, none of us, were having the Christmas we wanted and many of our clan had fallen ill. So we shouted, sang and swore it all out in the sea so we could return to our families with smiles on our faces, buoyed up by our fellow birds. My next swim was with one other, a friend who is always up for SUP, surf or swim adventures and she always arrives with homemade goods and an incredible energy. It was the pick me up I needed after post festive blues. These swims were enough for me to keep me going until the crowds had dispersed well into January. I’ve never gone in every day at a set time at a set place anyway, just when needed, when I’ve been invited or when the mood takes me. Indeed in the winter you can go for days without being able to access the sea due to storms. And I have just had to explore new swim spots and there are always seabirds willing to come with me which is all part of the experience and fun of outdoor swimming.
The best way to approach cold water swimming is to ask yourself what is your reason for getting in the water year round? Is it to decompress, to wind down, to let yourself go? Because regardless of what you think Social Media is telling you, this is perfectly possible without measuring the temperature or time in the water. In fact this can create its own problem as everyone is different, copes with cold water differently and have different swim abilities so may what be okay for a swimmer on Social Media, may not be suitable for you. I have been swimming in skins for the exact same amount of time as Co-Flounder Cath, yet I can stay in longer and she requires a considerably more layers of clothes to warm up afterwards. One of our seabirds, Clare, can stay in for what seems like forever and we’ve never seen her shiver. We are different. I have witnessed time and time again swimmers that have not taken the time to tune into their bodies stay in the water too long and require assistance because they stayed in for as long as their fellow swimmer. This should never be a measure of how long to stay in. Comparison, in this case, could be more than the thief of joy.
For me, swimming in the sea year round is a way to manage my wellbeing. It quite simply provides happiness and joy in a sometimes bleak world and a busy brain. I spend time away from the sea and swimming, thinking about it. Planning my next trip, looking for new swim spots, reading books that capture the experience of others, watch films and documentaries charting the feats and achievements of others. Learning and exploring through other peoples knowledge, words and experiences. Oh and of course writing about it. I don’t need to measure my swimming activities, this is enough. Just getting in is enough. I hope it is for you too.
Laura has been swimming with the Salty Seabirds for 3 years and is always up for an adventure. But when we asked our swimming community to share their best swim of 2020 to lift our collective spirits, she struggled to find one…..because there wasn’t just one……there were many and they all gave her something different….. in the moment. Her musings about her struggle to choose just one reduced us to tears, joyful, in the moment, belonging and connected tears. Thank you Laura.
There’s been an invitation to choose the best swim of 2020.
It’s been responded to by many, many beautiful posts & memories.
It’s such an honour to be able to read each personal journey.
But I’ve struggled to post myself.
And I couldn’t put my finger on why.
2020 has been described by many, and for good reason, a terrible year.
But I heard on women’s hour on Christmas day, whilst driving a 5hr round trip to the New forest to see my loved ones (Covid tests negative), a suggestion that we see beyond just thinking of it as terrible. Not in a way to be insensitivily, ignorant, bulldozing through the horrors of others; but to not see the space of time of the year as inately bad. This may then stop one from seeing the joy in any of it or the joy that might come tomorrow or anything within that “year”.
I’m not sure I’ve summarised it well but the theme was Joy, and the idea as I saw it, that no matter what, joy might come, even in the darkest times.
What then ensued was a conversation about the fact that the interviewee was a swimmer, infact many of the guests were, including Rev Kate Bottley (swam every day with her lowest swim minus 3) and writer Tonia Buxton who sits in her freezer for 3 mins every morning (she’s a food writer so I’m guessing she might have access to a walk in one because there’s sod all room in mine even if I chopped a hand off!)
And that’s it, there it is again in 2020 (and before*).
The immersion in the cold that has allowed us to feel joy in what has been a difficult year.
And it’s hard to pin it down, that Joy.
I have photos but which one was the most joyous?
Not because they weren’t full or good enough. Or because it may be crass to spout about good when others may be struggling.
Infact it’s so important to share.
I shared the amazing story of Katie Wotton with a client recently. If you haven’t seen the story Katie has lipoedema and the psychological and physical pain of getting into a swimsuit and bring active has been such a struggle but she knew she loved it, and now she’s “got her smile back”.
It’s been so touching to see her journey on FB and to be able to personally encourage her I’ve seen so many other Seabirds give her the encouragement and love she deserved. (Here’s a little clip to watch)
And those of us in the know get it. That joy.
I am openly evangelical about it.
And now the joke has changed from: How do you know if someone’s a vegan to, How do you know someone cold water swims?
Because they’ll tell you, over and over again.
And it’s true.
I’m asked regularly why and it’s hard to sum up.
I’m a Dramatherapist and there’s a similar dilemma, I can tell you in theory what it is and how it works but the spark comes in doing it.
And so I tell people, just try it, it really isn’t that cold…
And many have this year.
And if I’m honest, it was a little bit of a shock to see so many people swim this year, and for a time I felt a little bit overwhelmed.
Suddenly Kingston beach in Shoreham, our* little respite from the storm, was now suddenly packed that you couldn’t get into the car park.
That took some getting use to. But then I quickly got over myself because of course they’re swimming, because its fucking fantastic.
And the Sea is big enough for us all, that’s the beauty.
It’s all of ours. It belongs only to itself.
And if people in one room studio flats in the city need to access it, move aside and let them through because it’s not mine just because I have the luxury of being able to walk down.
It’s life enhancing.
It’s saved us all.
It’s listened to our woes, it’s held our weaknesses. It’s given strength and courage.
It’s tickles our senses & enlivened our spirit and it’s washed away what we don’t need to hold.
And so now I’m obsessed.
If I’m not in it, I’m next to it, scouring it’s shores, cleaning it. Taking 3 for the sea and more.
Because we have a duty to look after it.
And if I can’t be near it I’m reading more about it.
For Christmas my work Secret Santa gave me the book Gift from the Sea.
I devoured it in one sitting and sat emotional, awestruck and understood.
Anne Morrow Lindbergh wrote it in 1955 and it’s still so relevant in so many ways.
I could quote so much of it now but I’ll let you find the nuggets that might resonate. Or not. Because we’re all different (thank goodness).
But what it made me realise is I can’t find my most memorable swim because I needed each one in so many different ways this year.
The fierce ridiculously large storm waves on my first crawl swim lesson with the amazing Christine who was so calmly unflappable as we spluttered and inelegantly forth with our breathing, the waves and the jellyfish flying by us!
The times when we pilcharded on the shoreline, getting gravelly knickers, peb-jazzled nether regions, and exerting exhilarating Cackles.
The early morning quieter meets, that start with a few nods and end in dressing while singing je t’aime.
The swims to let go, to mark losses.
The swims where we curse and cackle and turn the air bluer than the sea and sky with our language.
The swims where the world is put to rights, and we remembered what we used to know but have forgotten.
The river swim where I swam furthest I ever have and practised my crawl, with pride and trepidation that I might be swallowing cow pee, but just loving the glorious beauty of it all.
The night swim with my youngest on a deserted beach.
The many many many Groans, Huff’s, Grunts, swearing, cursing, gutteral release of almost every one.
The letting go of the Rona, Boris, building work, relationships, work, hormones, perimenopausal angst, life
Just letting go.
And the moment in every swim where I float on my back, breathe, silent and look up into the sky.
And none of that could have happen without a Seabird by my side.
To quote Anne:
My Island selects for me people who are very different from me-the strangers who turns out to be, in the frame of sufficient time and space, invariably interesting and enriching…life chose them for us.
And that’s partly why I can’t choose one swim this year.
Because in every swim there has been a different beauty and often a different seabird.
I can’t choose and miss one.
And also I realise that I can’t choose the best because the sensation of Joy is in the “now” moment of every swim.
I find it hard to feel that exactness again.
It’s being completely alone yet being completely held at the exact same time .
It is in being in the present so completely.
That is what gives me exactly what I need, and that’s what I hope you’ll find if you try it.
Here’s to being in the moment.
Thank you Saltys
The skill you need for winter swimming is patience. During a season full of storms it’s a waiting game for safe swim conditions.
I am often asked what do you need to swim in the sea through the winter? Is it maintaining the frequency of your swims? Is it having all the kit? Is it a wetsuit? It is none of these. What you need to swim in the sea, through the winter, is patience.
Along with a drop in temperature comes an increase of storms and conditions that are unsafe for swimming in the sea. With less daylight hours, opportunities to swim can be scarce for days on end and there is quite literally nothing you can do but wait. I’m not very good at living in the present. I tend to live in the past, rehashing and overthinking every interactions, or the future, making an overwhelming amount of plans in the pursuit of happiness. Being present and being patient is very difficult for me. But if I don’t practice patience it can be detrimental to my mental health.
I am also asked how cold water sea swimming through the winter improves my mental health. Based on the above you could assume it would have negative connotations. But it doesn’t. The answer is, in lots of ways. The kindness of the community I swim with is uplifting. My time in the water is full of fun and innate joy. The cold water biting and burning my skin improves my resilience in my day to day. But, one of the most fundamental impacts it has had is it has taught me how to wait and appreciate the present and the swims no matter how scarce they are.
I learned that lesson, the hard way, some years back. About 8 years ago I attended a conference in Cornwall in the winter. I travelled with a couple of colleagues from the south coast. We took our surf boards and at the first opportunity during a free afternoon, we pulled on our neoprene and headed to the beach. The wind was cross shore and savage. There were blinding squalls. The waves were all over the place. And it was cold, bitterly exposed Atlantic cold. Undeterred we paddled out. Waves are rare on the South coast so anything is better than nothing right? Well no.
I spent a good hour being smashed about on frankly shit waves, every bash depleting what little energy I had left. I was tired, I was frustrated but I refused to get out. Soon, I was pretty much incapable of getting out past the waves, my arms were like jelly and my head dropped so far my cheek was practically stuck to my board. But then it happened. The happy ending to this tale, isn’t the perfect wave but the realisation that I needed to stop. What happened next I remember so intensely, when I think about it I am transported back to that moment. I sat on my board, finally past the breaking waves, exhausted, freezing while hail from another squall stung my face to the point of crying. I sat motionless, depleted and defeated. And I became acutely aware of my surroundings. I marvelled at the towering granite cliffs and watched the waves relentlessly pound at their foundations. The sky was full of fast moving grey, fully laden clouds, they were hypnotic to watch from my front row seat. I took immense pleasure at what was on offer, and that was not good surf conditions. And I was happy, content, in the illusive moment. I headed back to shore when my numb fingers reminded me I’d outstayed my welcome. Surfers have long since learned patience, finally so had I.
When I started swimming in the sea year round I was able to apply my new found approach of waiting for the right time. It is assumed that those that advocate the benefits of cold water swimming go in every day. But that simply isn’t true and just not possible. Even if you have the time and energy the sea will dictate whether it is safe to swim. Like good surf conditions, good swimming conditions are not guaranteed. You can only control how you respond. The world we live in is all about the immediate and instant gratification. We can sometimes sneer at the younger generation as they order food to be delivered by Uber in five minutes, buy the latest trendsetting item of clothing the day it launches, use of snapchat and TikTok counting the speedy likes. But are the middle aged (me included) not guilty of the same when we moan about our WIFI providers, in inability to get a next day delivery and, as is the case for a sea swimmer, when you cannot get your cold water fix because the sea is inaccessible? If your expectation is that you can get what you want when you want it you will always be disappointed. In my case I have applied this to swimming in the sea through the winter. I am swimming to improve my mental health but without the right mindset and approach, in my case setting the expectation that I won’t always be able to swim, it can actually have the adverse effect.
According to the OED patience is the capacity to accept or tolerate delay, problems, or suffering without becoming annoyed or anxious. Not much research has been done into patience and the link this personality trait has to mental health and wellbeing. A study published in the the Iranian Journal of Psychiatry and Behavioural Sciences in 2015 examined the relationship between patience and mental health “Conclusions: Patience is a unique predictor of mental well-being. It is suggested that long-term patience is more important for depression and general health, whereas short-term patience is more beneficial for hedonic well-being.” So while we seek the solace of the sea to improve our wellbeing it should go hand in hand with our ability to wait.
I see practicing patience as a powerful choice that suppresses the stress of modern day living. I don’t always achieve it but I try! According to Judith Orloff a practising Psychologist, “Practicing patience will help you dissipate stress and give you a choice about how you respond to disappointment and frustration. When you can stay calm, centered, and not act rashly out of frustration, all areas of your life will improve.” Whenever I go for a sea swim I am prepared to abandon it before or during the swim. This may be because the sea conditions are unsafe but it could also be because there is pollution, I’m too tired, it’s too busy. In beauty spots in rural parts of the UK people block roads, park in passing places, block access to farm land in their pursuit of a swim…… I always have a plan B so waiting for another opportunity to swim isn’t such a difficult decision.
Living in Sussex can be a challenge when you want to swim outdoors. There is a distinct lack of inland waterways or sheltered coves. There is one ugly industrial port you can access when the sea is just too rough to swim in but frankly it is like swimming in used dishwater and the back drop is like something out of a dystopian novel. Being a coastal county all of our rivers are tidal meaning the safe slack tides may not be at a time when you are able to swim or in fact during daylight hours. The porous chalk of the South Downs prevents lakes from forming and any there are tend to be privately owned or privately run. Pells Pool, a beautiful spring fed freshwater outdoor pool remained open until November this year but has now closed for the winter. Saltdean Lido only opens it’s heated outdoor pool for the summer season. So when relentless storms arrive on our shores at the start of the winter season, there really is no option for me but to wait.
Finding other things to do other than swim in the sea is a good way to wait it out and can still provide the cold water therapy and blue space that your wellbeing requires. Reframe your winter sea swimming as a small part of the holistic experience. Part of the adventure could be looking through maps for new swim spots and a coastal walk with friends. Even if you are unable to swim you will have found a new swim spot for a future date and enjoyed the journey. If the sea is not safe to swim in it may still be okay to play in the shallows. Sit on the shingle and let the waves roll over you, known locally as pilcharding or wave bathing. It’s a really good way to watch the behaviour of waves and understand their strength and gain the experience and expertise needed to swim another day. Beachcombing or beach cleaning are really mindful pastimes and a really good way to understand the topography of your local beach as well being a guardian for your swim spot. After the recent storms there is a huge amount of plastic in the strandline and it you feel like you have done something positive as you place it in the bin. On a recent beach clean a particularly wet weather front arrived very suddenly after blue sky. I was soaked though to the skin, resistance was futile and I found myself laughing uncontrollably at the situation – pretty much the same experience as swimming in the sea! And the reward was a hot bath afterwards.
Even if the sea provides the perfect swimming conditions I may not be physically or mentally capable of a swim. During the colder months people are more prone to illnesses and this year a significant number of people will have contracted C19 which entails a slow recovery. Physical injuries like sprain and strains also put a stop to swimming. I suffer from BPPV which kept me out of the water and in bed for quite a while this month. Experience reassures me that my ability to enter the cold water again, when I am ready, will always be there. I can understand the fear of those new to winter swimming that they will lose the cold adaptation they have built up to combat a drop in sea temperature and nurtured since the summer, if they do not swim regularly. This simply isn’t true. Yes getting in regularly helps, I hardly have a gasp reflex at all after 4 years of skin swimming but it isn’t the be all and end all. Don’t worry so much about cold adaptation, it’s the acclimatisation you do before each individual swim and entering the water safely each time you swim. that is important. Not how often you swim. A couple of years ago I was unable to swim for 3 weeks. When I was finally back in the sea it was no different to any of my other dips. So if you can’t get in for days or even weeks, don’t sweat it. And trust me when I say, that first swim after a setback is oh so sweet!
Above all remember, all good things come to those that wait!
The first question a fellow open water swimmers asks you is, skins or suit? Most people are a mixture of the two. Here is our guide to neoprene accessories, how they work, and how to look after them!
Are you skins or suit is pretty much the first question fellow outdoor swimmers will ask you. And my answer is both. I have been swimming in the sea, year round, for 10 years. The first 6 in a very thick 5mm wetsuit, gloves, boots and hood and skins for 4 years, the last one forgoing boots and gloves too. I choose what to wear depending on my swim. I have a 5mm watersports wetsuit for teaching children in, when I can be in the water for up to 2 hours in the middle of winter. I even wear my swimming wetsuit when I am coaching in the summer a lot of the time so I am warm and prepared to deal with emergencies should they arise. I also wear it when I swim alone for long distances, again for the same reason, I want to be safe. But most of the time I swim in skins. And it isn’t because of the faff. After decades of putting wetsuits on and taking them off I’m pretty quick at it and I have plenty of space to dry them. It’s just because now I associate my wetsuit with work or a work out and I associate skins with fun!
IT DOESN’T MATTER WHAT YOU WEAR AS ALONG AS YOU GET IN
Wetsuits work by trapping a thin layer of water between your body and the suit, that your body warms up, so you need to get wet! Wetsuit wearers tend to gasp when the water finally trickles from the neck down the back. So you see, it does not protect you from cold water shock and you still get that initial ‘getting in’ screeching feeling, but you will be kept warmer over all by the neoprene. Neoprene is made of small closed cells that are filled with air which provide insulation against cold water by trapping heat in. The thing that they do need to be is tight. It will loosen a wee bit in the water, as it expands, but it does need to be close fitting without constricting the movement of your swim. Can you wave your arms about and do some squats is a good way to test it out for size. Too big and it will just fill-up with too much water to warm up, so pretty much pointless. If your core is kept warm by a wetsuit, a noticeable difference will be you hands, feet and head stay warmer for longer and so you may be able to swim head in and without the faff of socks and gloves as temperatures decline.
So what type of wetsuit? Oh and there are so many. So work out what kind of swimming you want it for and how you deal with cold temperatures. So you can opt for a swimming wetsuit or a watersports wetsuit. A swimming wetsuit is specifically designed for front crawl, lots of shoulder and arm flexibility, a smooth surface and it makes your bum buoyant to achieve correct body position. They can rip and tear easily so you need to be very careful when putting it on and it can make your neck and shoulders ache if you are wearing it to do head up breaststroke as you are fighting against a floating derriere. (There are also tri-suits which are specifically design for triathlons and transitions ). A watersports wetsuit is more robust but much less flexible making front crawl a lot of hard work. It is perfect for bobbing and head up chatting swimming though.
How thick should my wetsuit be? The thicker the suit’s neoprene, the warmer the suit will be because it has more heat-trapping insulation. However it is a trade off so the thicker the neoprene the less flexible and more constricting your suit will be. The normal range of thickness for swimming outdoors in the UK goes from 2mm in the summer to 5mm in the winter. The thickness various across the suit as it is thicker on the torso to aid with body position and keeping the core warm and thinner on the limbs for freedom of movement. You can of course opt for sleeveless, shortie, vest, cossie, zip up jacket, leggings….the list is endless. All aimed at keeping your core warm the difference is simply down to personal choice.
Many skin swimmers opt for neoprene accessories, like gloves when temperatures really begin to drop. Some swimmers suffer from Raynaud’s Syndrome, Cold water Urticaria and chilblains. For them gloves are a game changer and allow them to continue enjoying cold water swims. Indeed it allows most skin swimmers to continue as the hands feel the cold strongly and after a prolonged period in the water warm blood is redirected away from them to keep your core warm making them colder still. Much like your choice of wetsuit or neoprene core warmer the right gloves for you will depend on what kind of swimmer you are or swim you plan to do. If you wish to continue head in front crawl throughout the year then you need a thinner glove with good flexibility so you can continue to feel the water and adjust your stroke accordingly. It you plan on a head out breast stroke you may be happier with a thicker choice. What ever you choose the advantage of wearing gloves is that you are able to get dressed and warm quicker after your swim than someone with numb lobster claws.
These are all slightly different and again should be selected for the swim you want to do or the swimmer you are. The purpose of neoprene shoes is to protect the sole of your foot but not keep your feet warm. The purpose of the neoprene sock is to keep your feet warm but not protect the soles of your feet. The purpose of a neoprene boot is to do both. Both the shoe and the boot will affect your ability to swim as they will make your feet too buoyant but a good sock should allow you to swim normally regardless of which stroke you are doing. Again they need to be tight fitting or they will end up full of water some have additional fasteners to keep them flush to your skin. The boots can be awful to get on and off but there are some that have zips to make it easier. All offer some form of protection, for example, allowing you to enter and exit the water safely if it is a steep shingle beach and stopping shar objects from cutting your feet. So some form of neoprene on your feet is a good option for swimming year round!
It is a bit of an old wives tale that your body loses a lot of its heat out through the head. However as normally the only bit of your body that experiences the sea temperature, air temperature and wind chill while swimming outdoors it is a good idea to keep it warm. Again there are few options for swimmers to chose from. Whatever you wear cover your ears, they definitely need protecting from the cold water and ear infections and swimmers ear can keep you out of the water for long periods of time, so cover them up with some neoprene.
Neoprene is not cheap, and it goes through more stress than normal fabric, constantly being submerged in water, which in my case is salty. It is held together by a mixture of glue and stitching which don’t take kindly to be roughly treated. So look after it. Turn them inside out if you can and give them a rinse in fresh clean water. I put my watersports wetsuit on a gently rinse cycle in the washing machine, my swimming wetsuit I do not, it’s too fragile. If they really pong you can add a bit of specialist gentle detergent. To dry them, inside out again if possible, remembering to turn them the right way when they are dry to the touch and allow them to dry again. Outside in the wind is always best. Don’t use a coat hanger on your wetsuit – it will stretch and damage the shoulders. Radiators can be used but they can damage the seals and glue! Gloves and boots should be dried allowing the evaporating water to escape – so not upside down or they will remain wet. You can use newspaper or kitchen towel to absorb the stubborn moisture from the finger and toe area but remove it after a short amount of time, remaining in there wet and damp just hinders the drying!
So the choice is yours! Wear whatever you want as long as you swim safe and have fun! You can always strip back to just a cossie just as you are about to exit the water if you want to feel the water on your skin. And look after your kit so your kit continues to look after you.
How swimming into winter in a wild swim community ensures you are looking out for each other physically AND mentally.
There is a reason birds roost together, fly together, flock together. It’s for strength, safety and warmth. And this is also the reason the Salty Seabirds swim together. As we move into the cold winter months and a second lockdown in England, it is more important than ever that we look out for one other both physically and emotionally. In the immediate future, we may be swimming in pairs or not at all due to distance but we definitely need to come together for the winter.
We’ve had a huge increase in the number of swimmers joining our flock since September. A mixture of excitement and nerves as they look to swim through their first winter. Swimmers tend to focus on the practicalities of cold water swimming. Like what kit is required? How long should they stay in? How often should they go to build up acclimatisation? In reality you don’t need any kit at all. Yes it makes it more comfortable to have a sports robe and a woolly hat post swim but really to swim all you need is your cossie, and sometimes not even that. Instead what experience has shown me is, I need support to swim through winter. The support of a swimming community to look out for me both physically and emotionally.
How can we look out for each other emotionally?
Simply by bringing your swimming into your everyday. I don’t mean actually go swimming everyday but the sense of community, kindness and care you experience with your fellow swimmers shouldn’t be left at the beach, but bought into your everyday. Keep in touch with each other digitally with simple text message checking in on each other providing peer support. Particularly if you notice someone has been missing from swimming for a while or if you noticed a change in their behaviour when you last swam with them. Many swimmers live alone and a swimming community that they regularly interact with may be he first to notice if they are absent, if they are distracted, if they appear sad.
We can look at meeting other swimmers for a walk before or after our swims to be able to catch up with each other without our voices being drowned out by the sound of waves. You don’t even need to talk, just being with another person surrounded by the sound of the sea can provide a positive emotion response. Eating, particularly cake after a winter swim is pretty much compulsory so trying out new recipes and sharing baked goods or even stews and soups with one another can provide much needed routine and activity.
If you have been swimming in the sea year round for a while you are likely to have made some swimmy friends that you swim with regularly. You will have a good idea of swim routine and rituals. If you notice any changes to this it may be worth a quick check in with them. If they are normally okay in challenging (not dangerous) sea conditions but are choosing not to go in. Or if they are choosing to go in when the sea is challenging and/or dangerous and this is not a risk they would normally take. This change in behaviour could be due to changes in their wellbeing and someone asking them how they are could make all the difference.
Swimming with others makes winter swimming more pleasurable. It can provide you with the confidence needed to enter the water. If you are meeting someone for a swim it’s harder to back out and you know you never regret a swim! Other swimmers can also provide you with the reassurance that you don’t have to get in. If it’s too rough they’ll sit with you on the beach. You can get the same benefit from cold water swimming just by paddling. Just getting out of the house and being by the sea with a likeminded soul may be just what a swimmer needs! So invite someone to swim with you!
How can we look out for each other physically?
So to do this you need to know how cold water swimming can impact swimmers physically. Our body’s response to being in cold water can be both immediate and when we have exited the water. Knowing the signs and symptoms and what to do to help your fellow swimmers is a really important part of winter swimming.
Cold water shock
Happens in the water. Water does not have to be really cold for swimmers to experience cold water shock. It can occur in 15°C water and it can occur if you are wearing a wetsuit. Acclimatisation throughout the colder months and upon entry into the water as well as breathing exercises can help but they are not guaranteed to prevent it. When you immerse you body into cold water a couple of things happen. 1. You can gasp involuntarily which may result in you breathing in water. 2. Your blood arteries constrict and your blood flow increases to warm you up making the heart rate increase considerably as it works harder. These reactions to cold water can quickly turn into drowning and/or a heart attack. So watch out for your swim buddy(s) as you get into the water, keep an eye on each other, keep talking to regulate breathing. If your fellow swimmer is struggling to breathe and swim – get them out and warm them up!
cold water incapacitation
Happens in the water. While your body is immersed in cold water it works to adapt to this change in circumstances and survive. Blood is redirected to your core and vital organs leaving your limbs and digits without blood and unable to move and function as they should – i.e. you will not be able to swim which can obviously lead to drowning. Whilst you are swimming watch your swim buddy’s stroke, are they slowing down, disorientated, finding it difficult to propel themselves through the water. Talk to each other as you swim asking how your bodies are coping, which bits of them are cold, are they beginning to tire. If you are concerned about a fellow swimmer actually ask them if they are ok to keep swimming – they may well answer yes – so ask them other questions to gauge their cognitive processing like what they watched on TV last night or who their favourite Spice Girl is. If you feel their cognition is impaired its time to leave the water, you may need to lead by example or be quite straight with them about the risk of staying in.
Happens out of the water. All of that blood that left your limbs to keep your core and vital organs warm now heads back out to your cold limbs and extremities cooling back down as it does so. As it is cooled down by your cold body it makes you even colder for a while. You though your were cold when you got out of the water when in reality you will be at your coldest about ten minutes later. Which is why it is important to get out of cold wet swimming attire and into dry warm layers as soon as possible. If you see your swim buddy faffing, taking photos or chatting before they’ve got dressed tell them off! Help them if they need help pulling on layers, now is not a time for dignity and grace. Get sipping that tea and scoffing that cake whilst moving around. It’s also a great excuse for a post swim hug!
Happens in and out of the water Hypothermia occurs when the bodies core temperature falls below 35°C – fortunately the onset is slow so if you spot the signs early enough you have time to take appropriate action. The first one being – GET OUT OF THE WATER. Mild hypothermia: uncontrollable shivering and numbness, loss of simple coordination. Probably more noticeable out of the water than in but again regularly check in with your swim buddy and get out if in doubt. Out of the water, the signs are similar to the After Drop but remember this time the core is cold so moving around will not help warm them up. Get them into layers and lots of them. Get them into a warm shelter, off the cold ground, in a car with the heaters on full will suffice. Don’t put hot things like hot water bottles and mugs of hot drinks near their skin. Moderate hypothermia: confusion and strange inebriated-like behaviour, slurred speech it’s like they are drunk. Get them out of the water now! And if you are on land post swim get them warm with layers, hats, towels, coats, gloves and follow the advice above. Keep them talking and keep monitoring them. Ask them to count from 10 backwards or other more challenging mental tasks and keep a note of how they answered to assess if they are improving or deteriorating. If they deteriorate call 999. Severe hypothermia: blue-grey skin, slow or halted breathing, loss of consciousness. Do all of the above and call 999 immediately!
I am lucky to be a part of the Salty Seabird community. This community has, at times, carried me into the water and now I look to them to carry me through another winter. It’s strange because I don’t usually thrive in a group, but in this one I do. Let’s keep looking out for one other both physically and emotionally so we both thrive and survive! Together we will get through another winter……..
Coming soon the Seabird’s winter swimming webinar with tips on kit, acclimatisation, safety, weather, sea conditions……..
Swimming through winter with a wee fun challenge that raises money for charity. Oh go on then!
As a swimming community we have been swimming year round for a few years and are now entering our 3rd winter. Many of our flock have swum more than 3 winters and many of us have swum less but what is different about this year is we are going to be raising money while we do it. Introducing the Salty Seabirds Arctic Tern Test……..
We know we are winter swimming wellbeing warriors. Most of our friends and families do too and we harp on about it so much and there is always some shingle in the toilet/shower/bath and soggy neoprene on a radiator. But now we need the world to know and what better way to do that than with a woven badge we can sew on something.
This Salty Seabird Challenge will run from 1 November to 30 April and the aim is to complete a number of cold water swims in varying attire over varying distances in the sea over the winter months. It is a bit of fun to encourage swimmers to swim year round and raise money for a worthy cause – Level Water. There is a donation to enter and if you complete the challenge you will receive a Seabirds woven badge and certificate. All profits will be donated.
How it works –
- Enter the Challenge by choosing your Challenge level on the website
- Swim the swims relevant to your chosen level in your own time but make sure that you complete all the required swims and distances each month.
- Record your swims anyhow you like – we trust you not to cheat!
- Post lots of smiling swim pics of you completing your swims with the hashtags #saltyAF #levelwater #arcticterntest #saltyseabirds
- PENGIUN – Get in once a month wearing anything you like even paddling counts
- PUFFIN – Get in 4 times a month wearing anything you like, head to toe neoprene still counts
- NORTHERN GANNET – Get in 4 times a month wearing a cossie, gloves, boots and hat and swim from one groyne to another
- SNOW BUNTING -Get in 4 times a month wearing a cossie, gloves, boots and hat and swim a groyne and back
- ARCTIC TERN – Get in 4 times a month wearing ONLY a cossie and hat and swim a groyne
We can’t control the temperature of the sea so this may be significantly more challenging if we have a cold spell. If you are away you are welcome to record a river, lake or lido swim. It is just for fun! Please be safe and know your limits!!!!!
THE SMALL PRINT! You must be 18 or over to enter the Challenge. If this is your first winter of cold water swimming we suggest you choose Penguin or Puffin level. As said this is a bit of fun to raise money for charity and tp provide gentle encouragement and camaraderie to help you get through your winter swims. It is not an organised event, we have no liability insurance, you swim at your own discretion and are therefore responsible for checking conditions and being realistic about your ability.
Remember to post lots of smiley pics on social media with the following tags #saltyAF #levelwater #arcticterntest #saltyseabirds
Here are some tips for safe swimming;
- Always swim with company for fun, community and as someone to call for help if needed, but remember you are responsible for your own safety in the sea. Respect the safety of others and swim responsibly at all times. Other Swimmers are not there for your safety or to make decisions for you.
- Always check the conditions and be prepared to cancel your planned swim or abandon the sea mid swim. Take time to learn and understand sea and weather forecasts and really get to know your local beach and how it changes with the tide and weather fronts.
- Acclimatize gradually as the sea temperature drops. Go in regularly and just for very short periods and get to know your own abilities and limitations. Acclimatize each time you swim. Warm up with stretches before you go in the water, enter the water slowly, regulate your breathing.
- Stay close to the shore and wear very bright colours and a tow float.
- Have your clothes ready on the beach in the order you will put them on, lots of loose layers, wrap them in a hot water bottle and put them in a supermarket insulated bag
- After your swim, move around – A LOT – drink warm drinks, eat cake, and don’t hang around.
We will continue to support Level Water throughout 2021. Making swimming accessible to all is something we truly believe in as a community. Water is a real leveller and regardless of your body’s abilities with the right equipment and help everyone can enjoy being in the water. Level Water are the only UK swimming charity who provide specialist one-to-one swimming lessons for children with physical and sensory disabilities. Once each child has learnt to swim 15m front crawl and backstroke, they can be safe and independent in the water, and can join group swimming lessons or join their local competitive club. But it’s not just about swimming… Through developing independence in the water, and being able to join mainstream classes, each child develops confidence, self-esteem and resilience. Providing them with the tools to manage their wellbeing into adult life – what a great idea!
As well as the Arctic Tern Test, 8 Salty Seabirds and Seadogs will be swimming in the Sunrise Swoosh – a 6km swim in a sandy bottomed estuary in Devon. The swim is organised by The Outdoor Swimming Society and culminates in a “swoosh” as the ebbing tide is funnelled through a narrow section of river, speeding you along over the riverbed at up to four times your usual swimming speed. The event takes place in July so at least it will be warm but it’s a river and it’s a distance. We’re all more used to bobbing, dipping and chatting in the sea so swimming front crawl consistently for this length of time is going to be no easy feat. If you are unable to take part in the Arctic Tern Test please consider sponsoring these Salties as they embark on this challenge.
So come join us for our winter swims whilst helping a worthy cause! As ever we are very grateful for the community support. Lots of Salty Love and remember to stay safe!
I’ve accepted that my brain, can at times, be broken. But when my body lets me down, I’m not quite so accepting……
I write a lot about my mental health and how swimming in the sea with a supportive and kind community improves my wellbeing. What is less known about me, and until now not written about, is my physical health. I have gone back and forth about whether to put this into the public domain. Will I sound ‘poor me’? Do I want to reveal another layer of my vulnerability? At a time when happiness is hard to find is it the right time for me to share my frustration and anger? The decision was made for me when my physical health took a downward turn this week and I was unable to leave the house, let a lone swim. But the kindness of my swimming community kept me going. So here it is, my I can’t make do and I certainly won’t mend story.
15 years ago I slipped on some leaves and fractured my skull. I was unconscious for 2 days and in hospital for a week. As a result I am deaf in one ear and I have no sense of smell. Sounds manageable right? Just wear a hearing aid and really who needs smell? Well me. I do. We all do. Smell and more importantly scents are processed via the amygdala and hippocampus meaning scent can immediately trigger an intense emotion and/or memory. Your amygdala enables you to feel, to process emotions and respond to situations but, in my case, part of its supply chain has been cut off. Which just leaves rage and anger. And I can’t wear a bloody hearing aid in the sea, when I’m running, anywhere windy i.e. anywhere outdoors in the UK. But that’s ok I have another working ear. Well no actually it’s not. Due to the way sound waves travel, high-frequency sounds don’t make it round my head to my working ear, I am unable to judge distance by sound when crossing a road, and being in a busy pub, shop or room is totally unbearable at times. And that’s not the worst of it……..
I have tinnitus – sometimes known as a ringing in the ears but actually it’s more like a whine, a constant never ending whine that fingers in the ears cannot block out. Imagine the sound of static searching for radio or TV station in the 1970s by turning a dial or the morning after a night stood by a speaker at a loud gig. It’s that, but it never goes away. And here’s the one head injury legacy that appears rarely but when it does it leaves me totally floored, Benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV). This wonderful condition is caused by the crystals that tell you which way is up in your semi-circular canals (inner ear) escape and go off on a little jolly. So they start sending your brain the wrong information about which way you’re facing or which way up your head is, which is complete contradiction to the messages your eyes are sending your brain. The symptoms are dizziness, headaches, nausea, vomiting and falling over. The only relief to be found is lying totally still with your eyes closed. In my case this can go on for days until those pesky crystals find their way home with the help of head manipulation.
If I sound angry, resentful and embittered it’s because I am. I have slowly, over time, come to accept my mental health and although there is no cure I can manage it via medication, rest and of course swimming in the sea. But for my physical health there is no cure, I will not hear or smell again, the tinnitus will never go away and every now and then, normally at the worst time possible, I am totally incapacitated by BPPV. And just to rub salt in the wound, being at logger heads with my physical health results in poor mental health.
I am often referred to (by my mum) as head strong. But I’m really not. My head is broken. I have shoulders of a Russian shot putter and legs that can run and walk for miles but my bloody head is bust. One of the things advocated for good mental health and wellbeing is self-care including time on the sofa, bed and bath. Read a book, watch a box set. But when that is your retreat when your mental health is bad, the irony is you feel worse. And when this is your only option because of BPPV, the accompanying low mood is inevitable. The way I deal with my physical disability is distraction. If I keep busy I can tune out from the tinnitus. If I swim in the sea everyone with me is hearing impaired due to the wind and the waves. If I play and perform the iconic Seabird handstand in the shallows my world is upside down, quite literally which then matches the messages in my brain. In the sea we are the same.
The relationship you have with your body and it’s impact on your mental health is well researched and written about. But it focuses more on the shape and size of our body. Body positivity and body confidence campaigns tend to concentrate on the appearance of the body rather than what the body is capable of. I don’t hate my body because of what it looks like. I hate the bit above the shoulders that is broken and stops me from doing the stuff I love and improves my mental health. Not being able to hear stops me from spending time in large groups and in noisy places like pubs and restaurants. I am constantly having to turn my head to be able to lip read which isn’t great for the dizziness and nausea symptoms associated with BPPV. It is also incredibly tiring lipreading and trying to process and filter out of the balance, hearing, sight activity going on in my brain that is in conflict with each other. When your ears say you are looking left but your eyes tell you you’re looking straight forward it’s exhausting.
The relationship between my physical health and my mental health is intrinsically linked. A symptom of my depression is tiredness and staying in bed and it is also a symptom of my BPPV, and impaired processing abilities. A symptom of my anxiety is not being able to face large groups of people and it is also a symptom of not being able to hear what people are saying. So the stuff my mental health stops me from doing is also the stuff my physical health stops me from doing. It’s hard to swim when you can’t turn your head to breathe without wanting to throw up or walk across the shingles without falling over.
But, my love for sea swimming has been a life saver. Yes I need to use my head to make decisions and assess risks etc but I’m predominantly reliant on my arms and legs – my strength. I don’t need to do front crawl to swim, I can breast stroke, back stroke, float or sit in the shallows. It makes me feel good about myself. I can mask my disabilities in my swimming community. The details of my disability were, until this week, unknown to even my closest swimming friends. The Kath the see in the sea is not the person I have described in this blog. I’m not broken in the water and this is the Kath they know. It was only because I could not get out of bed, let alone make it to the beach this week that the salty community became aware of my head injury legacy.
Once aware the kindness of community was incredible. I was inundated with offers to drive me places, help me onto the beach and supportive messages of love. The sea was stormy this week, big waves and wind. My BPPV began to improve throughout the week and by Thursday I was ready to give swimming a go. And on Friday I went again. Both swims were wonderfully warm and full of smiling seabirds. I’m always the first into the sea and this was no different. I love to stride with purpose when I get in. After being knocked over by waves so many times I kinda don’t care if it happens. In fact it is part of the joy, the thrill the exhilaration. And I like this version of me. The capable me. They say the view you get from the sea is like no other. For me the view I have of myself in the sea is like no other.
Water is a real leveller. Long term the physical damage to by brain is permanent. And there will be times when I cannot swim. But, the sea will always be there, ready, for when I can. And so will the collective consciousness of kindness that is the salty seabirds. And swimming after a setback is oh so so sweet!
It’s World Mental Health Day. This year’s theme is ‘mental health for all’ because we’ve all taken a battering lately. I’m fortunate to have a supportive partner and swimming in the sea, and more recently the lochs and rivers of Scotland to keep me on an even keel. But it’s not been easy. Our mostly water tight marriage has been weathering some significant storms…….
There are lots of things I do to manage my mental heath. Medication. Rest. Swimming in the sea. I also never give up on searching for the feeling of happiness. But I can’t do this on my own. Whilst depression steals my happiness anxiety robs me of the ability to do new things, meet new people and visit new places. Despite my anxiety, I love finding new swim spots and experiencing new adventures. They bring me so much joy. Fortunately, for the last 33 years I’ve had Ferg, my husband, who makes all of this possible.
When lockdown happened everybody was affected. Not being able to move freely, explore and travel impacted the whole world. My husband, who normally travels for work, was now in the house 24/7. Initially this was a blessing. Unable to leave the house due to the sheer number of people walking in my once out-of-the-way footpaths and swimming on my once quiet secluded beaches, he walked the dog, went to the supermarket and ran the errands. Sounds great right? And it was initially. But here’s the thing about anxiety and depression, to function you have to face them. Not without help and never alone but you have to push through the anxiety and go outside to remind your battered brain that you will come to no harm. Once outside, you will experience the happiness and joy that only the natural world can bring. The problem was, we were now in a pattern. And not a healthy one. One that caused resentment, frustration and a lot of anger. We were navigating stormy waters.
Like any couple, we’ve weathered a lot of storms over the past 3 decades. Life’s monumental moments, marriage, having kids and buying a home, bring a lot of joy, but also a lot of stress. I don’t deal with stress very well and Ferg takes the brunt of my mental health moods. We’ve had times in the past when we have co-existed and tolerated each other rather than supported one another and said sorry. But in more recent years he has tried to understand my mind more, created a safe space for me to just be and been the entire support crew for every decision, idea, and plan I come up with. He is unable to sit and be still, he needs to be doing and so is happy to go where my plans take him. He enables me to find happiness and that makes him happy. That was until my decisions, ideas and plans were all put in jeopardy by a bloody pandemic. Lock down was challenging my marriage.
During the last 6 months the even keel that he and I have worked so hard to achieve was listing. There are too many to mention reasons for this, some are circumstantial, some are my fault, some are his. But suffice to say my mental health was taking a battering and therefore so was he. Our usual time away trips provide an opportunity for us to really check in with each other but these were cancelled. The only trip on the horizon was the Swim Wild UK Highland Gathering weekend in Scotland. He was only coming to keep me company and provide me with the confidence to join in with a swimming weekend. At home he doesn’t swim with me, but when we are away he indulges me. But this was altogether the next level. A whole weekend with cold water swimmers. He was coming to make me happy. And then, that too, was cancelled.
As my mental health deteriorated and my mood continued to spiral downward I didn’t go to the Doctors. Far be it for a trained professional to tell me that I probably needed to up my medication. I was self-medicating with wine instead because of course that’s a real mood lifter! My marriage and me were in the doldrums.
It’s hard to pinpoint when the tide turned. A sequence of events, a conscious effort, small adaptations. I think it was all of these. We stopped drinking and began to go outside again together. To the beach and the sea. On Saturdays we’d go for long walks with picnic lunches. As lock down lessened we moved further afield. There isn’t a beach in Sussex we haven’t visited over the summer months. We, like most couples, are at our best when we leave our responsibilities behind and really spend time together. So, we still went to Scotland. The event was cancelled but we still had our accommodation booked.
We spent three blissful days out of range and undisturbed in a Shepherd’s Hut in the Cairngorms. The River Spey’s fast flow could be heard from our cosy raised bed and we spent time easily together in a breathtaking part of the world. We have been north of the border many times but this trip was more than much needed. It was the piece of the puzzle we didn’t know was missing.
It’s an easier task for him to find my happy when we are away from the world and I am near water. He spends a lot of time watching me in the sea or searching beaches for treasure. In Scotland, we walked around deep dark lochs, found lochans of lily pads and clambered over rocks on the edge of fast flowing gorges and waterfalls. We spent our evenings in the river. I’ve never known cold like it and this was summer! Although this is my natural habitat, being submerged in cold water, it is not his. But he does it to find my happy. (We found his happy on a big beach break in the North Sea. As long as there is a warm wave, there is a smile on his face.)
We left Scotland with heavy hearts but a lightened load. Spending time together is something we’d stopped doing whilst we were forced under one roof. Unable to escape each others sighs. Unable to hear what the other was saying. Unable to see past our our situations. But being at our worst as a couple makes you appreciate each other when you are at your best. We are at our best when it’s just the two of us, wide open space and of course water. And Ferg makes this possible.
Swimming in the sea at the start of the day is cemented in my self-care. It doesn’t need to be every day and it will always be worth it.
I am an early bird. Silly and ridiculously early. Nothing really affects it. A late night, alcohol or jet lag do nothing to change the hour I wake. This is both a curse and a blessing. Alongside medication, I manage my mental health with a self-care package that includes enough sleep and swimming in the sea. Getting enough sleep when you always wake before first light is a challenge. However, it means I get some solitude in the still cool morning air to enjoy my first cuppa alone to collect my thoughts. And a swim, as the sun is rising, is the best way to start the day.
When I wake up, whatever time that is, there is just no going back to sleep. My busy brain engages and an incredibly messy amount of thoughts rush in to replace my dreams. I don’t fight it anymore. I’ve learned to go with it. I get up and allow the crazy chatter some room while the kettle boils and I unload the dishwasher. Like the waves in the sea, fierce and full of energy, left to their own devices they form into sets and swells. If left to organize themselves I gain quiet clarity.
Being alone with my thoughts is something I actively avoid throughout the day. But there is something about the stillness of the morning, particularly on the beach or in the sea, that makes them more manageable. I’m rested and ready to face the maelstrom of my mind. I know I’ll be done by midday, exhausted and ready to retreat so it’s now or never. It is the calm before the storm.
Before the sun takes control of the wind there is often a gentle off shore breeze on the beach in the mornings. Only the tops of the trees know that the wind is there. It is enough to muffle and mute the sounds of the land. And it allows the sea some space to sing to the shingle. Everything appears gentler, even the way I enter the sea and swim in the mornings is ethereal.
I leave home before the kids get up and the house stirs and I am never more alone in the mornings on the beach or in the sea. Conversely, this time of much treasured solitude, is when I feel most connected. Being alone, in the damp air, on a deserted beach, at dawn I am connected to myself. I am connected to the natural rhythm of the sea. My world is still spinning but my axis is still.
There is something fresh about the mornings, and not just the bite of the wind and the water before the sun has had the chance to warm them. Every day is a fresh start. Yesterday is in the past. Your possibilities for the day are endless. There is hope. “So fine was the morning except for a streak of wind here and there that the sea and sky looked all one fabric, as if sails were stuck high up in the sky, or the clouds had dropped down into the sea.” Virginia Woolf.
On wild windy mornings you feel alive. And it’s good to be alive! You feel every part of your body. The cold and the waves of the vast winter seas is mother nature as her best. Your worries float away on a calm sea, but in a choppy chill waters in January, he sea renders them insignificant.
Routine is a key component to managing my mental health. Throughout the day the decisions we make increase, causing fatigue, so having a morning routine that requires no decision making keeps the tiredness at bay. The brains resources and my resilience is limited, but my morning swims, cemented in my every day, keep it topped up. This healthy routine helps me maintain physical, emotional, and mental health during stressful times.
Morning swims are different to those later in the day. You are waking your mind and your body. Swimming is a great form of exercise that is low impact and really gives your body a great stretch and work out. Even if the sea is too rough to swim in I will head to the beach to walk on the shore or run on the promenade. Just being by the sea.
My solo morning swims differ from those I share with my swimming community. They are full of chatter, laughter and cake. Whereas my morning swims are meditative and mindful. I find a calm flow of repetitive strokes. Again this is a time when my thoughts come and go and requires little effort to practice. As the winter draws in the and the sea temperature drops and dawn distance swims are no longer possible, quick cold dips replace them. Instead the cold water resets by brain and shocks my body into morning mode.
Once I’ve had a swim, combed the beach or I have sat and watched the waves come and go and I have quite literally collected my thoughts, the tone is set for the day. Without this morning ritual, the day can take quite a dark turn. Up with the larks I am grateful that it provides me with a natural coping mechanism for my anxiety and depression. Left alone with my thoughts I am able to plan rather than procrastinate.
I couldn’t not live by the sea. I couldn’t live without my mornings in the sea.
Finding a flock where you belong, where you are accepted, where you are at ease is a thing to be treasured. It gives you permission to be you. And that was evident in abundance during a weekend away with the Seabirds in Suffolk.
Last weekend, a flock of Seabirds and I headed to Suffolk for a weekend of swimming. It is a beautiful part of the country and we became enamoured by her quiet beaches, meandering rivers and tidal creeks. We’d done something similar the year before when we spent a few days in a bunkhouse in Pembrokeshire. As soon as we had unpacked from that weekend in Wales we had booked this years Seabird tour to Suffolk. It’s hard to imagine that a group, like ours, where many of us suffer with mental illnesses, wellbeing issues and physical difficulties would want to spend a weekend away with a big noisy group doing physical activities. But it is what bought us together, these flaws of ours. We accept that everyone in this group has a back story. More importantly we accept ourselves. So whilst the scenic swims and adventures in new places is a big draw, giving ourselves permission and being granted permission, to just be, was an even bigger draw.
Right up until the day of departure our flock was dwindling. Covid has not been kind to anyone and many circumstances have changed that meant a few of the flock had to stay at home. But with an itinerary of swims, a YHA Hostel booked, a silent disco at the ready and enough food to feed an army we were Suffolk bound. Cath and I left early to spend the day ‘working’ offsite which included a visit to Dunwich beach. The rest of the flock were travelling after work so we were the first to arrive at the hostel. Gradually the birds began to arrive in dribs and drabs. Every car load a wondrous surprise of which birds had travelled with which. The success of this community evident in friendships that had formed in the sea, only a few months ago, but now away from the beach, arriving together.
Once we’d all arrived, dumped our belongings, had nana naps, been to the loo, we headed out to find a tidal creek to swim in. 18 women walking along a narrow footpath with tow floats and swim robes trying to find a suitable spot to get in was more than a local bird watcher could believe. With eyes like saucers she asked if she could stay and watch. After investigating a jetty and a floating pontoon it was deemed too muddy to get in and out without getting stuck. So we headed to the sea and the familiar feel of shingle under foot in Aldeburgh. A convoy of cars in the dark soon lost each other but we all made it to the beach and were content to swim in car loads scattered along the shore. Tow floats illuminated with bike lights or being buff on the beach. Swims in different stretches but all experiencing the magic of being in the sea after the sun had set and the light had left for the day. Almost brackish to the taste, silky to the touch and quiet apart from our cackling. It was a wonderful way to start the weekend
Saturday, and the plan was to swim 1.5 miles along the River Stour from Dedham Mill to Flatford Mill. This wonderful part of the world was captured in Constable’s The Hay Wain and it did not disappoint. Two of the flock needed rest rather than a swim and set off for a beach stroll and lunch instead so down to 16 we set off to walk between the two mills before swimming back. It was an incredible swim through chocolate box countryside. The water was clear and void of litter, wonderful underwater woodlands of aquatic plants grew in abundance, shallow gravel bends meant sighting fish was easy and there were Constable painting worthy lily pads in the shade. A few walked the first section and got in later. A few got out early. Some hopped in and out as the mood took them. We ended up back at the starting meadow in different groups to the ones we had set off in, at various different times. Once the swan and her cygnets at the exit bridge were negotiated, we picnicked on the grass by the river. Cake is the most suitable way to celebrate a swim safari. Then it was back to the hostel to dry our kit while we read books, snoozed or sunbathed on the beach.
The next swim was an early evening dip at Thorpeness. Again the birds opted in or out depending on their mood. Some stayed behind to cook. Others were already on the beach. I opted for the beach but went for a wander along the shoreline to look for treasure before jumping in the big blue. There is a lot of tidal erosion in this part of the world but also a wealth of wildlife and nature reserves. It is a beach combers paradise. As I returned to the fold some were getting out of the sea, some were getting dressed, some where still in the water. As I slipped into the cooling waters, doing my own thing, I realised so was everyone else.
That evening we were treated by the culinary skills of the group and had a feast of curries, followed by meringues and lemon curd. A firepit was built in the back garden and we danced to a Silent Disco. (Silent it wasn’t with lots of singing). Again the group came and went – some danced all night (well til 11pm), some opted for an early turn in, others went straight to bed after dinner. We didn’t care, we didn’t mind. If they were happy, we were happy.
The next morning and more food. Also, aching bodies and ailments taking their toll. So instead of the planned long river swim in Cambridge we opted for salt and the sea once more. Over breakfast some of the group made an early start home with work and family commitments to attend to. Simple shouts of goodbye and waves whilst the rest of us remained at the breakfast table were enough. With beds stripped and the kitchen empty the remainder birds headed for Covehithe beach with the contents of the fridge in a cool box. Covehithe is a beach at the end of a lane and was a stunning place to spend a sunny morning. Sat Navs took us various ways and when we arrived there were birds already bobbing and bathing. Clear blue skies and warm winds meant a morning of sunbathing, swimming and strolling. More left after a quick dip as they needed the rest and respite of home and again farewell shouts from the shore to the sea were sufficient. Lunch was eaten, sea glass was searched for and final wees were had in the sea before it was time to go home.
So the weekend was a success. Not because we managed to squeeze it in before ever changing Covid regulations. Not because the beaches and rivers were idyllic and far from the madding crowd, unlike our home town. Not because the food was lush and the company was salty. But because we are a group that accept each other. A group that doesn’t judge how many eggs you’ve laid or even if you’ve ever laid any. It is a group that enables you to give yourself permission to be imperfect, permission to chose, permission to try new things, permission to take chances. Permission to come and go as you chose. Words cannot express how freeing that is.
We speak the common language of permission to be happy. That is to say, we’ve all (to varying degrees) stopped looking for approval or seeking consent. We’ve realised it is pointless and we don’t need permission from others, we give ourselves permission, we chose to do things that make us happy. We’ve accepted our flaws and given ourselves permission to be imperfect. Perfection isn’t real and only serves to steal happiness. We permit ourselves time to step out of the day to day and try new things, visit new places, find new adventures. If we fail, we fail together but you’ll have a bunch of Seabirds cheering you on from the sidelines regardless. And in this safe environment we have permission to take a chance, take a risk, a leap of faith where the rewards make us happy. This is why the weekend was a success. We accept and are accepted.
When home at last, I was soaking in the bath reflecting on my gratitude for the flocks’ time, cooking, enthusiasm, sense of adventure, sense of humour, quiet conversations, sea glass hunting and not forgetting swimming. My greatest love is seeking out new places by the sea, but my biggest fear is the loud and busy bustle of being around groups for extended periods of time. That weekend I was able to walk alone on the shoreline yet dance with friends. I was able to read on my own, yet join in the chatter in the kitchen. I was able to float in solitude yet be part of the flock as we headed downstream in idyllic settings. I was able to say loud rude sweary words where I wanted and whenever I needed. A place of permission and acceptance is a thing to be treasured.
The scariest thing about Halloween is how much plastic there is in the sea! But everyday my swimming community pull on their Water Warrior costumes clean beaches, collect water samples, donate to environmental charities. In the words of King David “The Natural World is changing. It is the most precious thing we have and we need to defend it.”
All over my social media feed is the following call to arms; The scariest thing about Halloween is how much plastic there is in the sea. And after a battering by storms over recent weeks there is evidence of it in abundance on our beaches. I live, swim and work on Brighton and Hove’s shingle beaches. You either love them or hate them. It’s hard to park even in winter. The shingle is not kind under foot. You have the busy bars and pier of central beach with its “kiss me quick hats” and penny falls or the more gently sloping shingle of Hove, where the middles classes flock in fair weather to drink frothy coffee. I pick and chose my beach depending on my mood, the time of day and the time of year and love them all for their diversity. But what they all have in common is a litter problem. It isn’t just discarded plastic straws, ice-cream spoons and pint cups left by tourists in Brighton, it is also the dog poo bags, waxed coffee cups and sauce sachets left by the locals in Hove. Don’t get me started on microplastics in the sea……….
Every day, all year round, members of the Salty Seabird community swim in the sea. Swimming in the sea is free, but we pay the fee. We clean beaches, we collect water samples and donate and support environmental campaigns and charities. We want to protect what we love, and we love swimming in the sea. At Seabird’s HQ we are continually questioning ourselves and asking what more can we do. We have moved away from recycled plastic packaging and labels to paper packaging and stamps. We continue to use social media and our community voice to promote environmental campaigns and groups. We are members of the Surfers Against Sewage 250 Club business membership scheme. We fundraise for and donate unrestricted funds to local campaigns that focus on cleaning up or beaches and re-educate visitors to our beaches. And we continue to worship at the throne of King David.
David Attenborough’s latest film, A Life on Our Planet, is his witness statement. A statement that captures all he has witnessed over the 94 years he has been on this planet. The huge impact humans have had and still have on the natural world that he has witnessed first-hand. It is hard hitting and heart-breaking. But he advocates hope. He talks about solutions like restoring biodiversity, tackling poverty, reusable energy sources and reducing consumption. He also talks protecting our oceans, or as we call it, our playground.
It is easy to despair, do nothing, and continue on the well-trodden path of indifference. But where there is life there is hope. And all the while we are swimming in the sea we can be the water warriors for our local swim spot. And we do this on both a local and national level. In the words of Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
On a National level we have joined forces with We Swim Wild. This is the brain child of Laura, who is a passionate welsh wild swimmer and has created a network of wild swimming communities and water users to take action against micro plastic pollution. The Salty Seabirds are part of the UK network of water loggers, who look after their local stretch of water completing beach, river and lake clean ups. Twice a year we take scientific samples of sea water so it can be tested for levels of microplastics at Bangor University under the direction of Dr Christian Dunn. This research informs We Swim Wild’s annual ‘ U.K Plastic Waters Report’. This report enables them to lobby the government to start testing U.K waters for levels and quantities of micro plastics. This is just one of the strings to her bow – please visit the We Swim Wild website to learn more about he work that is being undertaken by this incredible Community Interest Company and the formidable force that is Laura.
On a Local level, one of our favourite Salty Seabirds, local photographer, visual creative and community collaborator Coral Evans is calling for change. She has channelled a huge amount of energy working with local businesses, politicians and community groups 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 positive talks with the city council are in their infancy the clicktivism campaign has commenced, bringing people together to focus on the campaign cause. Most recently Leave No Trace has adopted the #take3forthesea campaign. The message is simple. Take 3 pieces of rubbish with you when you leave the beach, waterway or ……anywhere and you have made a difference. Again go check it out and begin your #take3forthesea journey
Being a water warrior amongst this community of strong and capable leading ladies provides hope. It provides a positive shared focus for the Salty Seabird swimming community. It provides a plan, a way forward, an activity, all of which is wonderful for our wellbeing. We may sometimes feel against we are constantly swimming against the current but the tide does change. There is hope.
“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot,
Nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”
― Dr. Seuss