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What colour is the sea?

The weather and tides can change in an instant but so does the seascape. What colour is the sea?

The question everyone asks me is “What is the temperature of the sea?” The question I always ask myself is “What colour is the sea?”

When I swim off Brighton’s beaches, with a flock of Seabirds there is a lot of routine to what we do. We find a sheltered spot to change. But this spot can change depending on the state of the beach and the direction of the wind. We check our phones to make sure we haven’t missed any stragglers or welcome fledgling swimmers as we always swim in company. But it is never the same group of people. We look at the tides and conditions and consider the direction of the flow and which way to swim. But we don’t always get it right. We shout, scream and sing on entry into the cold water and gradually split into smaller groups to chat while we swim. But it’s not always the same person you end up swimming with each time and sometimes there is a bit of silence.

It’s in these moments of silence that I always, without fail, consider the colour of the sea. No But. There will always be a point during the swim that I focus on my hands in the water and look at the colour. The seascape changes all of the time. Sometimes the shingle is up on the prom, sometimes you can walk across sand to the pier, sometimes, just sometimes you get lovely lines of surf. Twice a day there is a high and a low tide. All of these changes are obvious to all. But how many people notice the change in colour of the sea?

sea colour1

We all use the term ‘Sky blue’…but what is sea green? I have rarely swum in the sea when it is green. But there is a palate of colours it has been and will be throughout the year.

A the sea warms up and the season moves from Spring to Summer, May bloom appears.  May Bloom, is an algae bloom that is caused by increased sunlight and water temperature. This causes a massive growth in plankton, which colours up the waters. In 2018 it lasted longer and reached further across the sea surface than I have ever known. It not only changed the colour of the sea to a rusty orange, but gave it the consistency of a really yeasty beer. You literally had to wade through froth to find clearer water to swim in and you left the water with a slimy film on your skin. At high tide the water was too deep to wade through and we ended up with dirty Father Christmas beards. In the magic of one swim as the tide turned to push you could clearly see the plankton in the strong current and swimming through it, head immersed, it was like being in an episode of Stranger Things and swimming through the ‘Upside Down’

In the winter months, storms that sweep across the Atlantic create large swells and the colour of the sea couldn’t be more different from the warm water bloom. It is a dark foreboding pewter in colour, almost metallic. It’s dark colour is almost warning you not to get in. This colour is normally accompanied by large waves that sharply break just before the shingle known as shore dump. And the colour warning should be heeded when the tide is high and the waves are big. It creates a striking contrast against a normally light grey sky and coloured pebbles but it is my least favourite colour for swimming in.

Every now and then there are summer days when the wind is offshore but not cold and the water turns a Mediterranean turquoise. It is so clear you can see the seabed right up until the end of the Pier. As well as being crystal clear, it is a flat as a millpond and the sunlight reflecting on the surface creates mesmerising shimmers and sparkles. This is when the sea is at it’s most inviting and unfortunately in Brighton it’s most busy. There will be days like this over the colder months that ensure the tranquillity of the water can enjoyed with less company but the pay off is ice cream brain as you submerge your face to experience the water clarity.

Aqua green waves are my favourite colour. Again this is a rarity and seems to accompany clean swell that has managed to make it’s way round the Isle of White without finishing at the Witterings. The waves come in regular sets and don’t churn up the seabed leaving the water awash with sand. Instead the sun catches the wave face and creates a shade between green and blue. Like the aquamarine gem it glistens. The colour is just as wonderful experienced from above as it is below the waves.

These really are just a few of the colours the sea can be. There are peaty browns, bright blues and pea greens. It’s all to do with the colour of the light and how it is absorbed by the water and the depth of the water….or so I am told. Not sure I really care how or why the colour if the sea changes, I just love that it does meaning no two swims are ever the same.

sea colour2

Author: Seabird Kath

Footnote 1: The regency iron railings along the promenade in Brighton are ‘Brighton Blue’ a kind of aqua/turquoise colour. It changes colour from Brighton Blue to Hove Green at the Peace Statue marking the boundary between the once two separate towns.

Footnote 2: 100 Flags and Colour Wheel. Over several weeks throughout 2010 Finch observed the ever changing tone and colour of the English Channel. He then selected a pantone colour swatch for each moment observed resulting in a palette of 100 variants of sea colour, which was used to dye 100 flags. The four existing flagpoles at Christchurch Gardens were used to hoist a different sea-coloured flag every day. The colour of each monochrome flag was determined by an observer of the sea every day of the Triennial following Finch’s swatch. The flag hoister chose the corresponding flags and raised them at midday

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Swimming Through Stress

How to swim through your emotions and engage your parasympathetic nervous system and get the rest your body and mind need.

Mental Health and Wellness has been front and centre of many peoples consciousness for some time now. And never more so as we navigate a very new world. Rates of stress, anxiety and depression are increasing. Even the most stoic and grounded of us have felt the impact of a global pandemic. Even if the worry that consumes them concerns the physical and mental wellbeing of their family and friends rather than their own. It is still worry and stress. We are drowning in a sea of negative emotions and stress.

Emotions can be both positive and negative and are a human response to your experience of the world. There are many and they are complex but they are all linked to the nervous system. It is how the body and mind are intrinsically linked – the body is responsible for your internal messaging system and it’s physical reactions to situations or encounters and your mind is responsible for processing your emotional reactions. Emotions such as happiness, sadness, surprise, fear and anger are all responses to an event or series of events. The fundamental purpose of the nervous system and the emotions it stimulates, is to help us to survive. The most common being the Fight or Flight reaction when we experience fear or surprise.

The Fight or Flight (and less commonly known Freeze) reactions are part of the sympathetic nervous system. These reactions to life threatening events could be the difference between whether you, as a human, survive or die as a result of the situation. Think prehistoric man encountering a large carnivorous animal – the sympathetic nervous system prepares your body for this stressful situation by releasing chemicals like adrenaline which initiate the release of glucose fuel and raise the heart rate to get oxygen into your muscles – so you can fight of flee. In the modern day world stress inducing situations are more likely to be experiencing new or unexpected things, feeling threatened or out of control. So losing your job, or being robbed in the street would be examples of these feelings and experiences. But they can also be any sort of change to your day to day situation – something we have all experienced of late! These situations trigger hormones which left unmanaged by being constantly exposed to stress inducing situations can lead to chronic or long term stress.

Once the ‘life threatening’ situation has passed, assuming you are still alive, the human body is designed to return to a state of ‘rest’. This is initiated by the parasympathetic nervous system. It returns the body to routine. The parasympathetic system is responsible for your body’s basic but very necessary functions like maintenance and repair, digestion – things that can be carried out best when the body is in a state of relaxation or sleep. The two parts of the nervous system, the sympathetic and the parasympathetic, oppose one another but in that way they work together. The problem that many of us now have, given the current situation of new, unexpected, threatening and out of control changes, is that our sympathetic nervous system is dominating our everyday. We are not fully able to return to a state of rest. No wonder we all feel exhausted and overwhelmed.

The stress and overwhelm of recent events has significantly impacted our ability to cope. Life has literally become unmanageable for many. And there is no sign of the situation ending anytime soon. We, and everyone around us, is showing the symptoms of long term, chronic stress. Mood symptoms are low mood, anxiety and depression. Behavioural symptoms include withdrawal, lack of sleep, irritability, being tearful or being angry. Physical symptoms can be headaches, nausea, IBS and memory loss. As the change to our way of living shows no sign of abating we need to process our emotions to treat the symptoms. Even if / when life does return to normal it is still an important step in the emotional cycle. Even if the cause of stress is removed we need to process our emotions to return to a state of rest. Some of the ways in which we can do this is to emulate rest which will give the parasympathetic nervous system the jump start it needs. I do this by swimming in the sea with a salty community.

In the book ‘Burnout: The Secret to unlocking the Stress Cycle’ by Emily and Amelia Nagoski they look at practical ways you can finish the stress cycle and return to a state of rest. Some, if not all, of the ways can be achieved by swimming in the sea with a connected sea swimming community. Here are a few of them.

  1. Breathing: Breathing regulates your nervous system, yogis have known this for years. Breathing is also a fundamental part of swimming in a couple of ways. Those of us that swim outdoors year round regulate our breathing to negate the cold water shock reaction as we enter the water. We take deep slow breaths and purposefully relax our bodies to prevent gasping and achieve acclimistation. Once swimming, particularly front crawl, long breath out, or trickle breathing as we call is, is exactly the type of breathing that allows efficient relaxed swimming.
  2. Physical Activity: Any movement of your body is a great way of completing the stress cycle by encouraging the release of happy hormones. Swimming in the sea, may be a cycle or walk to your swim spot, a run before hand or even jumping up and down to warm up afterwards are great ways of getting your body moving.
  3. Positive Social Interaction: My swimming community, like many others, has created a safe space built on positive social interaction. We are a group that value each others wellbeing. It allows us to care for one another, we fiercely protect and prioritise each others “self care” providing a place that your body knows it is safe. Just typing that I let a huge breath out! It’s the part of sea swimming with the Salty Seabirds I love the most. Our interactions don’t need to be deep and meaningful, cake and a chit chat with a huge helping of kindness is all we need to find the elusive state of rest. Even for just a few moments.
  4. Laughter: Who hasn’t been outdoor swimming when something touches your leg, you fall over on your way into a river or a wave knocks you flying. These events induce huge belly laughs, it is a universal language that reduces stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline and increases endorphins. Laughter really is the best medicine for those stress symptoms.
  5. Affection: In their book, Emily and Amelia refer to affection as human hugs, something we are still not able to do. I have my own spin on it. By being intimate and vulnerable within a swimming community you are met with virtual hugs and affection from other swimmers. Every time a new swimmer requests a swim buddy, strangers, who will soon become swimming friends, are incredibly affectionate, kind and compassionate with their responses. I also feel that the sea can hug you, hold you, provide you with a safe space as much as another human can.

Those of us that regularly swim in the outdoors have a saying, “you never regret a swim”. And this is try because it leaves you in a good mood, sometimes a high that can last the whole day. These ways in which we can return to a state of rest, relaxation and routine alleviate the mood, behavioural and physical symptoms of long term and chronic stress. So swim, breathe, laugh, hug and eat cake!

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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 here 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.

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Salty Bond

As a family, we are at our best when we are beside the sea. The bonding that has taken place over 18 years of traditional family seaside holidays has remained through challenging year and will continue to bind us long into the future.

Lockdown is loosening, we are soon going to be able to travel again. And whilst I love exploring new places, by the sea, the lure is more about being a family beside the sea, than the salt on my skin and new adventures.

That sounds silly, I realise, as we already are a family by the sea, but a few things have changed over the last couple of years. The most significant being the ages of my children. Now both in their late teens, one no longer lives at home and the other would rather be dead than be seen on the beach with his mum and dad. And then of course there has been Covid.

I look back on my childhood family holidays by the sea with great affection and fondness. They were an integral part of our family life. The building blocks of who I have become. There’s a whole lot of writing to be had on my memories of family time on the shores of West Sussex but this is my children’s story. Not mine. When I became a mother and we became a family, holidays on the coast were an unsaid certainty. As well as meeting my children’s basic needs, I wanted to provide my children with lasting memories, a constant supply of joyful happy times doing everything and nothing by the sea. I have no particular talents or gifts to bestow on them via nature or nurture but I have an insatiable curiosity for everything and anything to do with the beach and the sea. My biggest wish as a mother was for them to wonder, to encourage their inquisitive minds, to guide them to care for the beaches and seas that would form the backdrop of our bonding. As they grow in their own directions, less malleable, less influenced by parental persuasion I wonder if their souls remain salty.

My eldest now resides in the USA, as a university student. She is in landlocked Iowa. She has settled in well but has moments when she desperately misses home. Desperately misses the sea. She asks us to send her regular clips of Brighton’s famous seafront. We share the storms with her when the waves invade the prom and throw pebbles high into the air. We share quiet sunrises and ‘best in show’ winter sunsets and of course our resident seaside starlings. These images of home lift her sprits and fill her tank until she returns in the holidays. I have a little glass jar containing all her sea glass finds from her first lifeguarding season. Every time it catches my eye, from its place on my bedroom chest of drawers, I smile. Her happy place is my happy place the jar is a visual reminder of this. 

When she returned for Christmas, the first thing we did was walk on the shingle looking for sea glass, shells and pebbles. The next was to paddle board taking in the Hove vista. We even spent a night in Suffolk exploring the beaches of the North Sea together. These were her suggestions, her desire. Of course I am always going to be a willing partner when anyone suggests those activities but it’s so much sweeter when it’s your kid. Your grown up kid to boot. She is a Beach Lifeguard and a Surf Life Saving Coach now, something I am immensely proud of. But more than that, I am acutely full of pride when I see her at work on he beach picking up litter on quiet days and encouraging others to enjoy the sea safely and responsibly on busy days. She has become it’s custodian. I literally couldn’t wished for anything more.

Whilst my daughters affinity with the sea is obvious, my sons is hidden under layers of angst, self consciousness and acts of rebellion. But it is there. Of this I am sure. He once spat at me in anger ” I’m not like you, I hate the beach and the sea” when I tried to coax him out of the house and onto the shingle. Full of rage he said those words purposefully knowing they would hurt my heart. But it didn’t have the impact he desired as I know it’s just not true. In my lounge I have a photo of him standing on top of a large sand dune at Penbryn beach in Wales. His arms are outstretched as he inhaled the salty air. The snarly kid that was a toe rag to get out of the house was transformed before our eyes into the boy we know he can be.  He once found a washed up fishing tray on the beach at Praa Sands, filled it with beach combing finds and sat in it for hours, refusing to even come out for food, so he ate his dinner in it. I can close my eyes and be transported back to that exact day and time. I can picture his freckled nose, his new Year 6 haircut sun bleached around the edges. His enormous grin with teeth that are still too big for his face.

My Son has recently turned 16 and would, under normal circumstances be taking his GCSE exams in a few months time. During this difficult age and difficult times we’ve not been a whole unit, as one child, his confidant, is missing and we’ve not been able to partake in our family rituals. Up to 3 times a year we holiday in the UK. Normally the rugged coast line of the South West or Wales. After being locked away in our own worlds, work and bedrooms, we come back together by the sea. There’s a great freedom in the the ‘holiday’ seaside for him. No risk of bumping into his mates. Far away from his friends he loses his inhibitions. Being by he sea facilitates the opportunity for my boy to really be himself. His curious, fun loving, adventurous self. The self that is in all of us if we allow it the blue space and time to emerge from time to time. And holidays by the sea are a great way to do this. 

I perform best as a parent by the sea on holiday. Being a parent is the job that we never feel we do well at. Always self critical of our parental choices and abilities. As a mother that suffers from depression and anxiety, who struggles to disguise all the behaviours attributed to this illness, my children seeing me at my best is something I purposeful try to orchestrate. My role as their protector, although wanting them to experience the diversity of human kind, it needs to be peppered with simple joyful behaviours demonstrated by their closest role model. Me. By the sea and particularly on holiday, I am the best mum I can be. My children bear witness to my enchantment as we arrive and we race to the beach before even unpacking the car. They see me jump into cold clear water screeching with joy. They see me smile as I pick up finds and treasures from the shore. They see me unwind as we travel ever further, waiting for who will be the first one to see the sea and call it out. All of this ‘perfect’ parenting is of course lubricating with lots of late nights, ice cream, chips and sometimes new surfboards. And a total escape from household chores and work. I have purposefully cultivated a connection between them and seaside places encouraging a life long love affair with the solace that can be found there.

But recent events have robbed of us of our holiday rituals. And whilst the world stood still my children did not. One left home and the other embarked on his final year of school. These have been left unmarked as important events and transitions in our lives, unable to express joy or sorrow, or reinforce our identity as a foursome without our treasured time together by the sea. Our seaside holidays give us, and our children, a sense of security, identity and belonging. They have ben needed now more than ever to make them feel safe during uncertain and changing times. We forgo luxury for tents and caravans the motivation being just being together. We are entering uncharted seas. How to remain a family without our traditional seaside holiday.

One of our most treasured traditions is visiting a certain secret cove in Cornwall. Every time we visit we write messages on rocks and hide them in the granite walls of the small fishing slipway there. We planned to do this, possibly for the last time, last Spring. Sadly Covid arrived before we could leave and this tradition could not be completed before we became a three. Missing out on this precious bonding time, for a while, left me bereft. I realise how privileged that sounds but the simple truth is I could handle most of the restrictions placed upon us all over the last 12 months but I ached for time together, away from our urban beach for what was likely to be the last time. And now that restrictions are lifting, we are missing one.

So we adapt, we have no choice. Adaptation in inevitable as your children grow and your family unit changes. But I know the salty bond is still there. I trust that the foundations that we have laid will remain long into the future and will continue to fuel family jokes and stories. I have seen glimpses over the last year, enough to fill my cup. We’ve kayaked and paddled at the meanders. Walked along the river and accompanied by a seal. Spent Christmas morning rock pooling. Raced across the sand with the dog. My daughters Christmas gift is a couple of nights away, by the sea, when she is home for the summer. My son is keen to visit his grandparents, when lockdown lifts, in the Easter holidays on the IOW where seaside tradition was born. These rare days out replacing our family seaside holidays. Not always the full four. But enough to reinforce the bond.

We hope to get away to a caravan in Devon as a four in the summer. When I announced this two my children, one in person and one via facetime, the response was overwhelming smiles. The connection was clear the bond still holding. To put it in my daughter’s words ‘ I miss our family holidays’. It remains interwoven into our lives, binding us together even when we are not.

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Be Your Own Brave

Being brave feels good. Achieving, accomplishing, striving for something when your are vulnerable, scared and full of fear. We are all capable of bravery. Be your own brave.

People often tell me that I am brave. Mainly because I swim in the sea year round but sometimes because I ‘manage my life’ in spite of my mental illness. And I used to be unable to accept the compliment because I felt a bit of a fraud. And that’s because, I assumed, if you were brave or courageous, it was because you were fearless. You had no fear. But I have so much fear. I am literally afraid of everything. But I am also able to face my fears.

I have recently discovered the joy of Jo Moseley’s instagram account and tuned into The Joy of SUP – The Paddle-boarding Sunshine Podcast. Jo took up paddle-boarding in 2016 after injuring her knee and since then had become the first woman to paddle coast to coast across Northern England at the young age of 54. Her adventure was captured as a film called Brave Enough- A Journey home to Joy. What I love about Jo is her absolute faith that we are all braver than we think and we have the ability to make a difference and find joy in that journey. And her story made me release that the thing I am most afraid of has already happened. I have always been terrified that people will see through the façade of me and be privy to the internal conversations of doubt and distress. But the disguise well and truly failed over a decade ago. It had already happened.

In a former life I was a successful Project Manager, working for a large corporation. I was well paid for the long hours and arduous targets I achieved. In the last couple of years of working there, I was responsible for finding and saving the company tens of millions of dollars. But, like everything in life, they still wanted more. I’d been managing all of this with a young family, a husband who worked away a lot, post natal depression and a head injury. One day I woke up and knew I couldn’t go to work. Not just that day. But never again. My body and mind responded to this drop in disguise by shutting down. For weeks I was unable to do anything but sleep and a short walk, if I managed to leave the house, would leave me wiped out. The full terror of my depression was obvious for all to see. So in my case, the thing that I fear the most, has already happened. The real me has been revealed. And although it is an extreme example, it is true for all of us. Our biggest fears are normally our own internal dialogue that has already taken place, a throw away comment from a friend from years ago that you carry with you, or years of conditioning created by your upbringing. Being brave is overcoming these fears and as Jo has reminded me in recent weeks, this brings joy.

After a while, I’m not sure how long, probably months, although the worst had happened I still had fear. And it was getting in the way of me living. So I took some small steps back into the world. I began to get involved in my children’s school and helped with the swimming lessons and reading in the classroom. My journey to wellness had begun by being brave. Every step of my journey gave me a sense of achievement. It was gradual and very personal to me. I built up slowly, nudging past my comfort zone each time.

Over the next ten years I continued to accomplish and achieve in my own arena. It didn’t look anything like my old life of long hours and arbitrary goals. Fear of failure remained but I accepted that I couldn’t be brave without fear. Elizabeth Gilbert wrote in her brilliant book; Big Magic “Trust me, your fear will always show up, especially when you’re trying to be inventive or innovative.” But she goes on to say; “It seems to me that the less I fight my fear, the less it fights back. If I can relax, fear relaxes, too.”.

I began to volunteer with the local Surf Lifesaving Club that my children joined. Initially doing all of the administration but eventually achieving lifesaving and trainer awards that allowed me to teach in the water. After a few years I began to run day long sessions for local schools in the summer term and actually get paid! My new office had the same view as my old one, the sea, but the job could not have been more different. After noticing some of the pupils really thrived during their day out of the classroom and being by the sea I set up the Brighton location for the Wave Project. A charity that aims to improve young people wellbeing and self esteem through surfing. There is nothing more brave than putting on a wetsuit with your fellow UK coordinators that are 25 years your junior. But I did it regularly travelling to the west country to participate in training and updates. And now I am a Seabird co-running my own Community Interest Company and gaining my Open Water Swimming Coaching award. I’ve even agreed to swim the bloody channel. The woman that walked (well pretty much was carried) out of her corporate job is almost unrecognisable as she slowly removed the layers of disguise. Plus my hair and skin have deteriorated from being in the sea in all of the elements and no longer being able to afford an expensive skin care regime.

None of this happened over night. It took a decade. Not everything I tried worked out. I’ve had some set backs both professionally and once again mentally, the two being intrinsically linked. In fact I only feel settled now I am able to work at my own pace with a supportive co-founder by my side. Managing my mental health is a bigger challenge for me than swimming the channel so I said yes to doing it. I know I am physically capable of doing it. I know that what lies beneath cannot hurt me. Swimming at night in the darkness doesn’t daunt me as the darkest place on earth is normally inside my mind. My biggest fear is actually that my happy place, the place I go to for rest and respite, may become a place of anxiety and training obligation. But I’ll cross that bridge when, and if, I get to it. We can always find fear if we look hard enough for it, but it’s is there to be overcome, not stop your journey.

Being brave can look and be very different for everyone. As humans we are unique so our experiences, fears and therefore courageous steps will also be exclusive to us. There isn’t one size fits all, you just take the step that is appropriate for you. I can strip down to my cossie on a crowded beach without a second thought. I have faith in my swim ability so I am not afraid of the water. But making small talk with a stranger literally brings me out in a cold sweat. Yet I have found courage in the company of my fellow swimmers. Swimming in the sea year round taught me to be brave at a time when I needed it most. There is no braver person that the skin swimmer about to enter the vast sea on a cold foreboding winter’s morning armed with just a flask of tea. I have been able to take this bravery into my everyday and explore the possibility of my purpose.

The first step on my journey since leaving my corporate job, was opening myself up to possibility. And I have never stopped doing that. Where it led me was sometimes in the wrong direction and not quite right for me but it showed me EVERY time that stepping outside my comfort zone could be scary but what was the worst that could happen that hadn’t already happened? Being brave is not innate. Start small and keep going, practise really does make perfect – well maybe not perfect, but manageable. And if you are really not feeling brave, just pretend you are. This, in itself, is being brave and gradually the pretence will become your reality.

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Swimming Friendship

I was not expecting to make new friends while swimming in the sea. In fact I was resistant to making new friends having recently suffered a friendship ‘break-up’. But the friendships that have formed in the back drop of the beach and in the briny were as unexpected as they are wonderful, life affirming, supportive and much needed. Swimming friends are the salt of the sea.

Friendship is a vital part of maintaining good mental health and wellbeing. Many studies have been undertaken to look at the links between social relationships and wellbeing. The Seabird’s Women Wellbeing and Water project aims to provide a way for local people to manage their wellbeing by using sea swimming and friendship. The central theme of my own swims is friendship.

My aunt always says “Friend for a reason, friend for a season or friend for life.” And she’s right. Quite recently I was ghosted by someone I mistakenly thought was a friend for life. She’d been my friend for over 20 years and God Parent to both my smalls. I’d given her a roof over her head, twice, when her marriage and then a long term relationship ended. She’d holidayed with me and my family, spent Christmases with us. I held her hand as she went into the operating theatre. Organised her wedding celebration. So you can see how I was mistaken. I was shocked that this could happen to a woman in her 40s as I’d always assumed ghosting was reserved for teens on Tinder. But no, I could go for months without replies to my messages and invitations to meet up. My kids birthday and Christmas presents were left on the doorstep, unannounced in the dead of night to be found the next morning. It wasn’t the usual drift apart that we’ve all experienced over the years with friends for a reason and season. It was very deliberate, as my husband continued to receive birthday greeting across social media while I was removed from seeing her timeline. As we have mutual friends her 50th birthday celebrations, that I was not aware of or invited too, was displayed across my feed. It still came as a sucker punch to my heart, even after all of the distancing signs in the preceding years. And it really fucking hurt.

It’s been hard to accept the end of a friendship when you don’t know why it ended. I’m left with a lot of questions and sometimes spiteful thoughts. As time has passed it has become easier but no one likes not to be liked or be dumped. In reality if she hadn’t ghosted me, we’d be living out a false friendship of obligation. Our lives were very much going in different directions, our parenting styles could not have been more different, and our values were no longer shared. I’m not sure if she changed or I changed, but most likely we both changed. I know I can be challenging to be around, particularly when I am having a mental health episode. But I also know that constantly being asked “what on earth have you got to be sad about? ” never helped my sometimes low mood. Even with that rational acceptance that I would sometimes leave our interactions feeling worse rather than better, I still went into self-defence mode post ghosting. I decided then and there I did not need any new friends and I certainly wouldn’t be opening myself up and revealing my vulnerable self to anyone else in a hurry.

That was until I co-founded the Salty Seabirds Swimming Community group. The time that we started the group, was about the same time as I was grieving for my lost friendship. I was in no mood to make new friends. Oh the irony! Friendship is fundamental to being able to cope with what life throws at you. And living with a mental health problem, can at times be really isolating. You remove yourself from social settings and interactions because you don’t want to trouble people or you are just unable to leave the house. I often joke that if I hadn’t co-founded a community group I wouldn’t be a part of it as my anxiety would have prevented me from meeting a bunch of strangers of the beach to play around in the sea. But in reality it is the thing that keeps me accountable, keeps me showing up, keeps me swimming and keeps me afloat. Being part of a supportive social network can lead to better mental health. My sense of identity, and self worth lies in the group as much as myself.

The friendships, I was initially resistant to form, from swimming in the sea are like no other and borne from a shared experience like no other. My previous friendships have been made via school, work or my children. Once my children entered the teenage years, I left the traditional workplace and I’d already established some firm friendships I assumed I was done with making new friends. But apparently not. Alongside my ‘old as time’ solid, established friendships, new ones have come about. Aristotle wrote about friendship in Nicomachean Ethics, Book VIII. He advocated three kinds of friendship: friendships of pleasure, of utility, and of virtue – similar to my Aunt’s friends for a reason, season and friend for life saying and probably where it originates from. Aristotle’s 350BC idea seems to be that pleasure, utility, and virtue are the reasons we have these various kinds of relationships. Utility friendship is useful to you. Pleasurable friendship is enjoying the company of another. Friendship or virtue is based upon a mutual respect and admiration of each other. Looking at the friendships I have formed with others in my swimming community I can see that some have all of these attributes, some have just one and some have started as friends of utility, become pleasure finally becoming friends of virtue over time.

Regardless of the ‘type’ of friendship all of the people I swim with are seeing me, and I am seeing them at their most stripped back, their most raw, their most vulnerable. We expose our bodies without clothes and our faces without make-up. The person we present to the world is disrobed back to the bare essentials. We accept that what we are doing requires care and consideration and to this end we look out for each other. We hold hands as we enter the water, metaphorically and literally. We lend swim hats to those that have forgotten theirs, provide lifts to sheltered swim spots and even rub each other dry if need be. We are all equal when we are in the sea, regardless of swim ability, it is a real leveller. Our body’s reaction when we enter cold water is pretty much the same way it responds to a panic attack. The swimmers you are with, are witnessing, and you are realising your worst anxiety fears and your breath is taken away. But experience and exposure to this feeling, in a group of supportive swimmers continues to confirm that ‘this too shall pass’ and you’ll be okay. And the folk around you have all felt it too. “Friendship is born at the moment when one man says to another ‘What! You too? I thought I was the only one” C.S.Lewis. These are your swimming friends.

These people soon become part of your tribe. The support they provide becomes much more that kit advice, a lift, a lend of a swim hat. You begin to share your personal difficulties, the pleasure you gain from their company becomes more intense and full of guttural laughter. The sea and your sea swimming friends help you put your problems into proportion, into perspective. Generosity of spirit and practical solutions to problems increase the pleasure, there is nothing nicer than the gift of giving – for both beneficiary and benefactor. And you still may not even know their surname, or in my menopausal memory brain their first name. We swim in groups or pairs to look out for each other when we are in the water. And we just don’t seem to stop when we are on dry land.

My friendships shaped by the shingle are diverse and different even though they are underpinned by a shared experience, the experience of swimming in the sea year round on the south coast. The rhythm of our day is dictated by what we do for a living and our living arrangements. It therefore dictates the times we swim and where we swim. Many of my friendships have formed around the same free time schedules and sleeping patterns. I am an early riser and therefore like to swim as the sunrises. It can be a bit daunting arriving on the seafront before dawn when it is still dark. But as I get closer to the steps to the beach I can always make out the shape of my fellow early bird and I relax and feel safe once more. He always arrives a few moments before me. He’s easy company, loves the mornings and the same books as me. We both go wetsuit, glove and boot free year round and have a similar tolerance for the cold. I swim at dusk in the winter with another friend when she has finished work just across the road from where she lives. It takes a lot to get me out of the house after lunchtime as I’m usually spent by then ready to hibernate. But tempted, encouraged and made accountable by meeting a friend gets me out of the house. And I sleep so well after an evening swim. Sometimes I swim with just one other, sometimes I swim in a group, sometimes in quiet companionship, sometimes accompanied by shrieks and squeals. Whatever friendship provision is required at any given point in time, support, company, reassurance having the ability to disguise it as an invitation to swim makes it so much easier to ask for what you need. For what friendship can provide.

I knew I needed to heal from a friendship lost, what I didn’t know was that I was. This unintentional group of people who swim in the sea with me gave me my faith in friendship back. And for that I will always be eternally grateful.

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Reading Forecasts: for Sea Swimming

How to understand the basic of sea and weather forecast apps an sites and plan your sea swim.

I am asked all time of it is ‘safe to swim?’ on any given day or ‘what are the waves doing?’ The only way to really know for sure is to go and look for yourself. But failing that, checking the forecast is fundamental………

It is really important for sea swimmers to take responsibility for themselves when swimming. Only you can decide if you are capable of swimming in the conditions that present themselves to you on any given day, time, location or state of tide. Part of the journey, of swimming in the sea, year round, is understanding all elements of your swim and this includes the sea and the weather forecast. Along with packing a towel this should be part of the preparation for swimming in the sea.

This blog contains a list of some of the apps and sites I use, a brief description of what they are designed for and the basics of how to interpret the forecast they are showing. Swimmers use all manner of forecasts and like everything in life people have their favourites. This list is not exhaustive and they are all the free versions. Understanding coastal weather and waves and their impact on sea swimming is an important step before looking to understand forecasts. CLICK HERE for an introduction webinar to weather, wind and waves which will help you make sense of the forecasts below.

Magic Seaweed

This is actually designed for surfers and shows wind and sea forecast at ‘surf spots’ around the world. You can select and save your local swim spot (or nearest) for future reference. Available both on the Web and as an App

A detailed blog on how to read Magic Seaweed is is already available – click here

Windguru

This shows weather and sea forecast – you have to upgrade to the paid version for tide information. Available only as Web version but you can save a link icon to your phone homepage.

Search for a Live Station or forecast spot- the screen shot below shows Brighton as a Spot and shows you that the live wind stations providing the forecast are Lancing Sailing Club, Newhaven and Seaford Sailing Club and East Preston.

Above the live stations it shows you sunrise and moonrise times and the water temperature. Remember sunrise is not first light!

To read the forecast follow the column on the far left. If you click on the headings you can change the measurements to suite your needs. For example I prefer wind speed at mph. The Top row shows the day, date and time in 2 hourly intervals

Wind Speed: as well as providing the wind speed it provides a category colour – red is strong wind and the lighter blue colour indicate the wind is more manageable and suitable for swimming

Wind Gusts: As above – the more gusty the wind the harder it will be to swim in and navigate a safe entry and exit into the sea

Wind Direction: The chart below shows that on Tuesday 2nd February the wind is coming from the South West but on Saturday it swings round to come from the North.

Wave: Hight of the Wave – again you can change this to be imperial or metric

Wave Period: this is the time in seconds between each wave – the lower the number to more disorganised local choppy waves will be and the higher the number shows the waves have formed into more orderly sets

Wave Direction: It is important to note here that wind and wave direction are not always the same. Waves can be created by a westerly wind thousands of miles away on the other side of the Atlantic yet when they arrive on our shores in the UK we have a northerly wind blowing. Saturday in the image is a good example of this occurrence.

Screen Shot of Windguru

BBC – online and app

This weather forecast used to be directly linked to the government Met Office but it is now supplied by MeteoGroup. Specific towns and sometimes villages can be selected to provide a more accurate picture. The website also has tide times in it’s specific ‘Coast and Sea’ page – but the locations are few and far between. Other applications have better sea condition forecasts.

Information in hourly increments is available for each location listed.

In the first row it provides a universally recognised symbol to indicate the expected weather condition at that time.

The second row indicates the air temperature – remember this may feel colder due to the the wind direction and speed at your location.

The percentage and water droplet symbol indicates the likely hood of precipitation – ie water vapour falling from the sky. This is most commonly rain, but can be snow, sleet, hail etc

The final row indications the wind speed and direction. The arrow points in the direction is has come from. The wind speed is measured in mph.

If you click on any of the symbols it will give you more detail as per the first column of the 2nd image below.

WillyWeather

This is an all round forecast available on the web or as an app. Unlike most other apps it provides details per location for weather, wind, tides, swell, moon and much more.

It provides weather information in 3 hourly increments for daylight hours. This is the same as other weather forecasts and can be read the same way. Image 1

It provides detailed wind forecast from the nearest station. Speed is measured in kmph. Image 2

It gives real time tide information in addition to a 7 day future forecast. It’s really straight forward to read and indicates the tide state in real time – image 3

The Swell forecast is a really good one for swimmers. It provides detail on Swell height and the Swell period and sell direction. You can scroll horizontally on the 1 day forecast to give you an indication of he sea conditions at the time you are planning to swim. Image 4

Even when you check the forecast; Remember

The conditions when you arrive at the beach can be different from the forecast. They are best guesses and the reality may be different.

Be prepared to abandon your swim before or during your swim if conditions are not suitable for your swim ability and experience

The weather and sea conditions can change fast particularly along the coast. You need to assess the conditions regularly during your swim.

Webcams are great but wave height and speed are hard to ascertain this way. Nothing beats actually standing on the beach.

How cold the water is is not as important as how cold the water feels which will be influenced by many external factors.

The further into the future the forecast is the less reliable it will be.

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For My Daughter

As a woman of a certain age, I feel a huge responsibility to ensure that my daughter, and all of our daughters, never become daunted by the aging process. We can remain visible and relevant, brave and bold, throughout our lifetime. I want to set them an example I can be proud of. I found my way back to myself, I hope the next generation never loses sight of themselves as they age.

As a woman of a certain age I feel a deep sense of responsibility to ensure my daughter does not feel the way I have sometimes felt over the last few years. Invisible. Irrelevant. And all because I am middle aged and because our self-worth and identity is directly linked to how others see us. That’s assuming they even see us at all!

The hardest part about getting older is navigating a world that does not value your experience of the aging process. It is framed by society, the media, dare I say it men, and even more frustratingly by women, as a negative experience. But there is a beauty, wisdom and confidence that comes with age that is wonderfully freeing and positive if we can just be brave enough to escape the traditional narrative of getting old. This is the legacy I wish to leave my daughter.

In my late 30’s I left my corporate career because I had a breakdown. I told the world it was because I wanted to retire before I was 40 because life is an adventure and I wanted to be young enough to have those adventures. Why didn’t I tell the truth? Why did I assume I needed to be relatively young to have those longed for adventures?  As I hurtle towards 50, I am more able to appreciate those adventures as I have a new found confidence and that comes with an extra decade under my belt. And I am more than happy to share my mental health experiences – albeit from this side of the keyboard. This is only possible because of the passing of years.

There are so many things I have achieved and still want to achieve. I started my own business at 46. And I know many women have done the same. Possibly because the menopause can be tricky to traverse in the work place due to the length and rigidity of the modern working day. This just doesn’t work for the sandwich generation juggling the care of elderly parents and young children alongside a huge shift in hormones. Hormones that left untreated will rob you of sleep and potentially self worth and replace it with fatigue, anxiety and brain fog. The menopause is still under researched even though it affects 50% of the population so many women either do not know what it is or how to manage it . So either because they can no longer work with unmanaged symptoms or because they’ve gained a confidence that comes with age, or both, they are leaving he work place in droves. This mass exodus needs to be viewed as an opportunity, a positive change, a new adventure rather than being put out to pasture.

For me, it is the sea that keeps me young, bold, brave, strong, relevant and visible. It is the sea that buoys up my self esteem and self worth. It is the sea that washes away my anxiety and clears the brain fog. It is the sea that helps me sleep and restores my energy. So it was to the sea I turned to define me, post career, post a significant mental health episode, post 40.

When my daughter was 8 or 9 she joined a newly formed Surf Life Saving Club. As with any community sports club, it required volunteers to keep it running. Little did I know that this would be the start of my adventure into year round swimming. It came at the perfect time, I’d just left work and was recovering from a significant mental health episode. So I gained trainer and lifesaving qualifications and began to run training sessions for the kids. More recently we set up another new club to meet local membership demands and some of the volunteer coaches are the kids I once trained now in their late teens and twenties. Competent adults, fierce swimmers and capable coaches that see me as just one of them. They see me getting in the water, with them, week after week, battling the same challenging conditions, demonstrating the same skills. This defines my identity in their group. Every year I consider handing over the reigns to the next generation, but every year i come back for more, because I like the me I see through their eyes. One the volunteer lifeguards is 61. He’s set the bar high and I aim to rise to the challenge.

Before we set up Seabirds I launched the local Wave Project initiative. Another big step out of my comfort zone of the corporate world. The project required a lot of solo travel and training to the west country and working alongside young, capable, cool surfers as my fellow coordinators around the UK. By now I was in my mid 40s. My lifesaving experience was drawn upon when considering how to run therapeutic sessions safely, my background in corporate project management and report writing proved to be useful and relevant. I was working alongside the younger generation, not competing but lifting each other up. By not segregating the generations we engaged in equal dialogue and interactions. Once again I could see myself through their eyes and I liked what I saw.

So then to Seabirds. By now I was clearly not going to age quietly. I was doing this growing old thing my way. And I was fortunate enough to know and set up a business with a woman who shared my approach to the aging process. We’d gained so much strength and confidence and a new relationship with our bodies from skin swimming in the sea year round we wanted to share this experience with others. We wanted adventure, fun, new challenges to be beyond budget and background. Any new experience is an adventure. Every sea swim is a different experience. Connection and community can eliminate fear, allow you to be bold, break free from self or societal imposed limits. Be you! Swimming in the sea demonstrates strength to step outside your comfort zone. Provides an opportunity to explore new places and travel to new swim spots. Its a place to have fun and rediscover childlike joy. Exposing yourself to cold water is a way of regularly facing your fears. And anyone can do it, they really can, with a group of supportive swimmers to encourage them. We are re-writing our history (in our case her story).

The legacy I am leaving my daughter is that growing old is not a bad thing. The fun loving, thrill seeking, woman of my youth is still there. She just had a curfew imposed on her for a while by dwindling confidence. I have more confidence now than I ever did. I accept myself and although my identity can still be defined to how others see me, I have taken control of what they see. They see a woman who has agreed to swim the channel when she is 50. I have been able to be brave enough to agree to this rather daunting challenge because of the incredible water warriors I surround myself with. Christine is about to to celebrate a significant birthday with a 6 in it and still has many swim challenges set in her sights. She has swum the channel and coached others to achieve it many times. Her calm and confident approach has quietened my anxiety. I am in safe hands with her. And Emma, with a 5 in her number of years, is set to complete her channel swim this year. Her self depreciating tag line ‘If I can do it anyone can’ and infectious encouragement makes you feel like you can do anything you set your mind to. These are the women who inspire me, not the enhanced images of perfection we are subjected to on our screens. It is no coincidence that these women are our chosen swim coaches as they set the most wonderful example to the world.

I feel a huge responsibility to ensure that my daughter, and all of our daughters, and our sons, never become daunted by the aging process. We can remain visible and relevant, brave and bold, throughout our lifetime. I want to set them an example I can be proud of. That they can be proud of. I found my way back to myself. I hope the next generation never loses sight of themselves as they age, that they never have to find themselves. But rather they dictate their own self worth throughout their lifetime as I have finally dictated mine.

This weekend my swimming group and hopefully swimming communities around the UK have been encourage to add some fun to their swims. After what feels like the longest month in history fun is most definitely needed. We feel we all need a bit of glamour in these grey days – so when you are dipping this weekend , glam up and out your glad rags on. Take some photos and share with the rest of us to make us smile 🙂#furcoatnoknickers is the hashtag. For me , not only is this another opportunity to embarrass my kids, but also another opportunity to be visible. I won’t be left out of the conversation just because I am of a certain age. I’m going to be the conversation. I hope you can be too!

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The Seabirds Story

Seabirds was set up with one specific aim. To make swimming in the sea accessible for all as a way to manage wellbeing and mental health. So how have we done this on the South Coast?

Seabirds was set up with one specific aim. To make swimming in the sea accessible for all as a way to manage wellbeing and mental health.

Swimming outdoors ‘in theory’ is free. Find a body of water and get in. But it’s not accessible to all and in particular the most vulnerable in our society. There are many obstacles that people face getting in the water or even considering it an option. Just because it doesn’t cost money, not everyone has equal access, availability or awareness. The list of why swimming in the outdoors is not accessible and available to all is lengthy. And not all of the obstacles can be overcome. But some can.

We set up Seabirds, Cath and I, because we felt better after swimming in the sea but we were only able to do this because we left our jobs. In fact it was our jobs that were taking their toll on our wellbeing, and we began swimming in the sea with each other, sharing our stories, getting closer and closer to winter and to each other when we realised we were beginning to feel better. It wasn’t a considered approach to managing our mental health and we didn’t ever plan on swimming through the winter but we just kept on swimming…. and didn’t stop. It was during one of these winter swims, when our skin stung with the cold as we entered the water and the wind whipped waves up into our faces and we drank hot tea behind a breakwater that we realised we were happy. And more importantly that we wanted others to realise this happiness too.

We’d both worked in the Third Sector and understood the hoops you had to jump through to gain funding for any type of community project. We also knew we didn’t want to be restricted by what we could spend the funding on and spend precious time writing long applications in the hope that we met the necessary requirements. Instead we set up a Community Interest Company, Seabirds Ltd, invited three Non-Executive Directors to oversee our activities and set up a crowd funder to kick start our idea. The Non-Executive directors bought the perfect insight and skills to the table with backgrounds in mental health, accounting and occupational health and have been a source of great support and advice. Cath has experience in retail running her own business and working with vulnerable people and I have a background in, Project Management, Surf Life Saving and running group activities in the sea.

The idea was to create a constant stream of unrestricted funds via a social enterprise swim shop. The profits from everything we sold were, and are, redirected to fund our community project. The initial crowd funder allowed us to buy a limited amount of stock for the shop and build a website. But not much else.  We looked for stuff to sell that is ethically made and has a reduced carbon footprint. In reality this hasn’t always been possible, neoprene is a great material but it is ultimately petrol-based, so for now we do the best we can and hope to do better in the future.  Getting suppliers to sign us up has also been a challenge. When you have a limited amount of money and don’t meet minimum order requirements a lot of doors close. But we have established some wonderful working relationships with local suppliers who share our values. It might be a harder sell than the well-known brands and we can’t offer discounts like  Amazon, Decathlon and Wiggle but we are involved in every step of the sales process, we try out all of our products and we value every customer. And we thought this would be easier than applying for grants!

Our own circular economy model was working, but slowly, and we were keen to launch our community project ‘Women Wellbeing and Water’ while the weather was still warm.  The projects aim is to provide a way for local people to manage their wellbeing by using sea swimming and friendship. To give participants the skills, confidence and self-belief they need to enjoy sea swimming, no matter what additional challenges they face. We recognise that everyone person is different and each responds to challenges differently. But we believe that with the right assistance and support everyone can enjoy swimming in the sea. So we applied for a National Lottery grant to cover the cost of participant transport, childcare, neoprene accessories, refreshments and safety equipment. To pay swim coaches, administrators and lifeguards. And to gain relevant qualifications and awards to be able to run the courses ‘in house’ in the future. And while we waited we ran a pilot session with the help of some wonderful community volunteers.

The pilot course was run in Brighton in the autumn of 2018 to see if the proposed model was effective. It was, with a few tweaks. Post pilot, Seabirds set up a sustainable wild swimming community group for participants to continue to engage with the local swim community and friends they have met on their course. And so the Salty Seabirds group was born. Soon after we learned that the National Lottery Community Fund scheme agreed to fund the project in Brighton. The first course offered a four-week course for 10 women who were referred to us by BHT Threshold Women’s Services. Threshold provides support to women with a wide range of issues, including anxiety, depression, self-harm, post-traumatic stress, chronic low self-esteem, suicidal thoughts, parenting issues, birth trauma and perinatal depression. We were up and running!

We’ve come a long way in the last couple of years and learned a lot. Sometimes from making mistakes and picking ourselves up again. The best way to learn sometimes. But we are now self sustaining and self sufficient. . The profits from the shop and other fund raising activities now produce enough money to run regular free community courses. The shop has expanded its product range and the big brands are now happy to do business with us. And we have grown in terms of what we offer as a social enterprise to include swimming lessons and coaching sessions as well as swiminars (swim webinars) and swimposiums (swim symposiums). We’ve been impacted by the pandemic and leaving the EU, who hasn’t, and whilst we have the customer demand for swimming goods, we haven’t always have the stock due to shortages in manufacturing and hold ups in shipping. Running a business from home with limited space for stock or solitude has been a challenge. We were also unable to run community courses whilst adhering to local lock down legislation and physical distancing guidelines. But we’ve weathered the storm and are excited to get back on the beach this year.

So where we are now – how do we make swimming accessible for all as a way to manage wellbeing and mental health. One size does not fit all. What might be the way into the water for some, isn’t right for others. Some are happy to join an established community group. Others like more structure and require an introductory session. Some want to increase their confidence and improve their swimming technique before they venture into the sea regularly. Some have established peer groups they can swim with but want advice and safety information. Some need the sense of belonging and encouragement. With all of this in mind, this is what are doing to meet the needs of our local swimming community and get more people in the sea.

  1. We run an online not-for-profit swim shop that supports other small businesses and sells affordable swimming kit and accessories creating a revenue stream for our community initiatives. We also regularly support and donate to campaigns that protect our beaches and our seas like Leave No Trace Brighton and Surfers against Sewage fostering strong community ties.
  2. We run free community courses for women who self identify as having wellbeing or mental health struggles that have been referred to us by other community agencies. This is our Women Wellbeing and Water project.
  3. We have created and oversee the Salty Seabird community swimming group which has regular drop in swims and enables new swimmers to connect with their local community. Whilst our free community courses are exclusively for women our community group is not. All are welcome. We host wonderful Moon and Starling swims and at any opportunity will dress up to celebrate any occasion which are the highlight of our swim calendar and really bring the community together. At the time or publicatoin we have 2.7k members!
  4. We provide outdoor and cold water swimming advice via community group files, blogs , swiminar videos and swimposium talks that tackle all manner of topics from swimming for your mental heath to what kit works and how to swim safely. We have years of cold water swimming experience, a list of lifesaving and swim coaching qualifications, and a network of other community group admins to draw on to provide you with the information you need to swim in the sea.
  5. We run confidence and technique swimming lessons in both the sea and the pool and facilitate ‘Introduction to Sea Swimming‘ sessions, the profits from which again provide unrestricted fund for our community project. These are welcoming small groups with experienced local swim coaches who bring with them a wealth of knowledge and provide incredible encouragement. 2021 dates to be released soon!

So what more can we do – how do we make swimming accessible for all as a way to manage wellbeing and mental health. We have signed up to the Black Swimming Association DIPER Charter and have a lot of work to do to make our swim group membership better reflect our whole community. We aim to work with already established community groups to provide sea swimming social activities with the aim to encourage their members to join us in the sea on a regular basis. The Salty Seabird community has raised £1.5K for  Level Water  through our Artic Tern Challenge. Level Water’s Mission is ‘A Fair Start in Sport’ the only UK swimming charity who provide specialist one-to-one swimming lessons for children with physical and sensory disabilities. Hopefully a skill and pastime they will take with them into adult life.

All of this has been made possible by every shop purchase, every swimmer that participated in a lesson and every donation made by those who already swim in the outdoors to manage their mental health and wellbeing. And for that we are very grateful. We hope to run more Women Wellbeing and Water sessions in the summer, provide lessons in both the sea and pool and get back to swimming in smiling groups as soon as we are allowed. Until then we’ll just keep swimming……….. we hope you do too!

Lots of swim love

Cath & Kath

If you wish to make a donation to the Women Wellbeing and Water project please follow this link. DONATE

Featured

Introduction to Winter Sea Swimming

A webinar facilitated by Open Water Swimming Coach Kath Ferguson. An Introduction to Winter Sea swimming.

Seabird’s have produced as series of informative webinars to provide advice for cold water sea swimmers. Much of the content can be applied to other bodies of water and warmer temperatures. This is the first in the series. The YouTube link is at the bottom of the page.

If you enjoyed the webinar consider paying what you can afford / think it worth using this PayPal link: DONATE . Or you can purchase a Lunar Chart or Brighton and Hove Swimming Map. 100% of profit will be donated.

100% of the donation proceeds will go to the Seabird’s Women, Wellbeing and Water project. The project’s aim is to provide a way for local people to manage their wellbeing by using sea swimming and friendship. To give participants the skills, confidence and self-belief they need to enjoy sea swimming, no matter what additional challenges they face. We recognise that everyone person is different and each responds to challenges differently. But we believe that with the right assistance and support everyone can enjoy swimming in the sea.

Your donation will cover the costs of the project including; participant transport, childcare, neoprene accessories, refreshments and safety equipment. It will also be put towards the cost of paying swim coaches, administrators and lifeguards.

We really appreciate your support and encourage you to donate if you can so we can continue to provide free information and run our wellbeing project. It’s entirely up to you how much you donate, but £5 would seems like a fair amount to us. It’s a little more than the cost of a pint of beer or a glass of wine to each of you and if everybody who can afford to donate that amount does means we can reach more people and introduce them to swimming in the sea as a way of managing their mental health and wellbeing. THANK YOU

Featured

Chilled 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.

Featured

Swimming through 2020

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 swimming.

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
X

Featured

Winter Swimming; The Waiting Game

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.

Cornwall in a squall in the winter

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!

Featured

The Great Neoprene Debate

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

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.

Accessories

Gloves
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.

Socks/Boots/Shoes
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!

Hats/Headbands/Caps
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.

Aftercare
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.

Different Folks, Different Strokes. Post swim smiles are still the same!
Featured

Swimming with a Flock in the Winter

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.

After drop

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!

hypothermia

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……..

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The Arctic Tern Test

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 –

  1. Enter the Challenge by choosing your Challenge level on the website
  2. 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.
  3. Record your swims anyhow you like – we trust you not to cheat!
  4. Post lots of smiling swim pics of you completing your swims with the hashtags #saltyAF #levelwater #arcticterntest #saltyseabirds
  1. PENGIUN – Get in once a month wearing anything you like even paddling counts
  2. PUFFIN – Get in 4 times a month wearing anything you like, head to toe neoprene still counts
  3. NORTHERN GANNET – Get in 4 times a month wearing a cossie, gloves, boots and hat and swim from one groyne to another
  4. SNOW BUNTING -Get in 4 times a month wearing a cossie, gloves, boots and hat and swim a groyne and back
  5. 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;

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Stay close to the shore and wear very bright colours and a tow float.
  5. 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
  6. 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!

Featured

Swimming after a Setback

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.

Upside down – an award winning headstand

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!

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Stormy Waters

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.

Featured

Early Bird

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.

Featured

A Permission of Seabirds

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.

Introduction to Weather and Waves for Sea Swimmers

A webinar facilitated by Open Water Swimming Coach Kath Ferguson. An Introduction to Weather and Waves for Sea Swimmers

Seabird’s have produced as series of informative webinars to provide advice for cold water sea swimmers. Much of the content can be applied to other bodies of water and warmer temperatures. This is the second in the series. The YouTube link is at the bottom of the page.

If you enjoyed the webinar consider paying what you can afford / think it worth using this PayPal link: DONATE. Or you can purchase a Lunar Chart or Brighton and Hove Swimming Map. 100% of profit will be donated.

100% of the proceeds from donations will go to the Seabird’s Women, Wellbeing and Water project. The project’s aim is to provide a way for local people to manage their wellbeing by using sea swimming and friendship. To give participants the skills, confidence and self-belief they need to enjoy sea swimming, no matter what additional challenges they face. We recognise that everyone person is different and each responds to challenges differently. But we believe that with the right assistance and support everyone can enjoy swimming in the sea.

Your donation will cover the costs of the project including; participant transport, childcare, neoprene accessories, refreshments and safety equipment. It will also be put towards the cost of paying swim coaches, administrators and lifeguards.

We really appreciate your support and encourage you to donate if you can so we can continue to provide free information and run our wellbeing project. It’s entirely up to you how much you donate, but £5 would seems like a fair amount to us. It’s a little more than the cost of a pint of beer or a glass of wine to each of you and if everybody who can afford to donate that amount does means we can reach more people and introduce them to swimming in the sea as a way of managing their mental health and wellbeing. THANK YOU