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Know your Swim Spot

Here are ways to observe what is going on on Brighton and Hove beaches and things to look for when you go for a swim.

In order to swim safe take the time to get to know your swim spot. If you are swimming away from home do your research and/or ask local swimmers and ask to join a local group. 

Get to know the topography of your beach at all states of tide and wind direction. Here are ways to observe what is going on on Brighton and Hove beaches and things to look for when you go for a swim. Some observations will apply to all beaches but some are very specific to B & H.

Brighton and Hove’s beaches are sandy to the west and chalk reef to the east with a shingle sea defence above them. It shelves steeply at high tide and flattens out at low tide. The depth of the water will change at different tide times from being out of your depth within a few steps at spring high tide to shallow enough to stand at the swim area buoys at a spring low tide. The shingle will move after strong winds and is always higher making the water shallower on the west of the groynes due to long shore drift.

There are numerous submerged structures at high water that are identified by red buoys around the West Pier and red lampshades at the end of outflow pipes. But many of our concrete groynes are not marked or visible at high water. They really hurt if you accidentally swim over one and can of course pose a real risk if you don’t know they’re there. 

Our prevailing wind is an onshore South Westerly which creates local waves. If you haven’t checked the wind speed or direction before your swim you can look  for wind direction clues. Look for lifeguard or building flags or seagulls that always face the wind to keep their feathers flat. 

A northerly or easterly wind locally is offshore and the sea will be or look relatively flat but it can be deceptively dangerous and can push you out to sea.  Lifeguard posts will fly an orange flag. 

If you haven’t checked the tide times before your swim you can look for tide state clues. Wet shingle on a dry day indicates the tide is going out as the sea must have recently covered it. Sea craft at anchor with the bow facing east indicates the tide is going out as it faces the oncoming tidal flow. Visible dry green gutweed on groynes indicates the tide is coming in. Really sharp dry seaweed in the strand line high up the beach will be spring tide high water mark and indicate we’re on a neap tide cycle because the sea hasn’t reached it for a while. 

If you want to know which way the current is flowing look at other water users, are they drifting in a particular direction. B&H currents flow towards the west when the tide is going out and towards the east when it is coming in. If you are not sure throw a bit of seaweed in and see which way it travels. You will also see how strong it is flowing. If the sea is submerging the end of the groynes in Hove it is roughly mid tide when the tidal flow current will be at its strongest.  

The best advice is always swim at a lifeguarded beach if you can. Ask them for advice or read their information boards. Their job is to keep you safe and will welcome questions and conversation. They also appreciate being bought hot drinks or ice cream 

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Tow Float Tips and Advice

Tow Floats tips and advice for safe sea swimming

Designed to make you visible in the water so your beach spotter can see you and so can other water users.

You must remain vigilant to other water users even if wearing a tow float, as although they may see you they still might not be able to avoid you. And although a tow float can provide swimmers with confidence to explore further from the shore it is not a floatation device and should not be used as one.
Here are our top tips for sea swimmers.

🏊‍♀️The tow float bags are really useful for storing valuables you don’t want to leave on the beach like keys and phone

🌊Although the tow float bags are waterproof you may fail to seal the roll top sufficiently, they can breakdown and leak over time or you may have the odd faulty float. So always put your keys and phone in an additional waterproof bag – like a sandwich bag or a dog poo bag.

💦To close it – once you’ve put everything you need in it – squeeze all of the air out of it and roll the top over 3 times before inflating.

💙If it has 2 inflatable chambers you can adjust the buoyancy of the float so it stays on one side if you are hoping to use a tracking app on your phone while swimming. It also is less likely to be blown around by the wind if it’s not inflated fully.

🤿You can attach a whistle to the outside of your tow float to use in case of emergency to attract attention.

💨When it’s windy your tow float bag can get in the way if a gust catches it. Weigh it down by putting a bottle of water inside. It’s always good to have water with you when you swim anyway as you really dehydrate. No water bottle – put some pebbles in it! (But you should always have a hydration drink with you!)

🌊Another trick for when it’s windy is to put the tow line between your legs when you swim so the float is closer to your back and not blown around so much. Not as uncomfortable as it sounds.

🏊‍♀️If you struggle with walking to the shoreline you can wear flip flops or crocs which you can then attach to your float with a clip when you swim. Ready to put on your feet once you exit the water. This way they won’t get washed away with the incoming tide!

💧If you want to do a point to point(one way) swim you can put a lightweight hammam towel, flip flops and a T-shirt dress or shorts and tee to walk back to your start point.

🏊‍♂️If you swim at dawn or dusk you can put bike, adventure or fairy lights in your tow-float bag to make you more visible or just add to the magic of sea swimming.

🦀Don’t use one in shallow water with spilling/breaking waves. You are likely to loose it or end up with it wrapped/tangled around you. Hopefully in these conditions you are staying in the shallows close to shore and just jumping for joy rather than swimming.

🌊Write your name and ICE information in permanent marker on the tow float.

🏊‍♂️It is not a lifesaving device but it can be useful to lean on when you want to catch your breath or just admire the vista.

🐟My favourite tow float tip – I have attached mine with my packed lunch in it to my SUP to stop my food from becoming sweaty and over heating when I go out on the water for the day.

There are lots to choose from and come in many different sizes depended on what you want to store in them and what kind of swim you are doing.

Seabirds stock the Puffin brand (because it is a seabird) and because the 15litre and 25 litre are biodegradable and the 20litre and 28 litre are made with recycled materials. As well as looking after ourselves in the water we like to look after the marine life too!

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Nothing says summer like a jellyfish sting!

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

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

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

sea goosberry

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

moon

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

compass

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

blue

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

Largelionsmanejellyfish

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

barrel

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

mauve

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

Portuguese_Man-O-War_(Physalia_physalis)

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

by the wind

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

STINGS – what to do!

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Just keep swimming!

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The Wonder of Waves

You can’t stop the waves but you can learn to swim over them and under them or just watch them from the shore. If you understand waves you can make safe swim choices. In this blog we explore the science and the wonder of waves.

Watching waves is a really relaxing thing to do. Where do they come from? Where will they end? When will they break? The negative ions they throw out when they break, we breathe in, creating biochemical reactions that boost our mood and energy. But it is also these same waves that can prevent us from swimming in the sea………

The surface of the sea is never really flat. The smallest sea breeze can create ripples. Where I swim on the south coast we are in the middle of a shallow south facing bay that stretches from Selsey Bill in West Sussex to Beachy Head in East Sussex. Our beaches are made up of sea defense shingle and we have very little shelter from the prevailing south westerly winds. So when there are certain types of waves of significant size, we cannot swim in the sea safely. The key to choosing a time to swim is understanding your local beach topography, tide times and states and of course waves.

What are waves?

Here’s the physics bit. Waves are energy. Specifically transport energy. The medium that transports this energy is water. Yep I’ll leave that one with you for a while for you to ponder. From a sea swimmers perspective this is only relevant in the context of how waves are created so you can better understand forecasts and make safe swim choices.

How are waves created?

Waves are created by wind/air moving across the surface of the sea. The energy is created by friction between the water and air molecules. This energy is then stored in the wave it creates. What this friction creates, depends on the conditions. A gentle local breeze will create RIPPLES sometimes referred to as capillary waves. You can see the gusts on the waters surface as it breaks the surface tension. If these conditions continue for any length of time the ripples will mature into WAVES sometimes referred to as gravity waves or wind swell. The vertical disturbance of the water is no longer due to surface tension and they can travel further and last after the the wind has dropped. However, if the wind continues to blow at speed for a significant amount of time over a large area of the sea SWELL or ground swell will be created. Swell contains more stored energy and can travel huge distances across vast oceans. A storm in the Caribbean creating capillary waves, gravity waves and then swell can arrive on UK south coast shores a few days later .

Parts of a Wave

  • Crest – the highest point of a wave
  • Trough – the lowest part of the wave
  • Wave height -The vertical distance between the wave trough and the wave crest
  • Wavelength – The distance between two consecutive wave crests
  • Period – the time taken for two consecutive wave crests to pass a stationary point.
  • Wave face – the front of the wave facing the shore

How to tell the difference between Waves and Swell?

You can differentiate waves from swell and judge how powerful the swell is on a forecast by it’s PERIOD. The period refers to the length of time between waves and is measured in seconds. As a general rule of thumb, a period up to 1 second is a ripple. A period of more than 10 seconds is ground swell. Anything in between are waves or wind swell. What that actually means in reality is the wind swell waves are created by local winds and it is likely that strong winds may still be blowing. They haven’t had a chance to travel far and therefore have not arranged themselves into sets. They will be chaotic or what can be referred to as ‘messy’. The longer and stronger the wind blows and if there is enough ‘fetch’ (area of water for the wind to blow across) the wind swell will begin to group into SETS of waves of similar characteristics and energy. So from a sea swimming perspective, although on a particular day ground swell wave heights may be higher than a previous days wind swell waves, their regularity and long period between each wave may make it easier to enter and exit the sea safely.

What happens when a wave or swell meets the shore?

As waves travel forward and reach the shore it ‘breaks’ or becomes a ‘breaker’. It is the change in depth of the water that causes the wave to break . When we say that waves break we are referring to when the peak or crest of the wave tumbles over. When the depth is less than 1/2 the wave height the wave crests falls forward forming surf or swash. Swash is the water that rushes up the beach and is the release of the wave energy. It is the sea bed that determines in which manner the waves break. A gradual slope creates a spilling wave. A steep underwater wall or slope will create a plunging wave. How a wave breaks will depend on the seabed, the state of the tide and gradient of the intertidal zone. It will also depend on wind strength and direction. An onshore wind – wind blowing from the sea towards the shore – causes waves to break earlier, and is likely to create a spilling wave . An offshore wind – wind blowing from the shore to the sea – causes waves to break later, as it pushes against the wave face preventing the crest from tumbling, and is likely to create a plunging wave. If there is a significant swell and an offshore wind the waves are likely to be ‘clean‘.

Types of breaking waves

Plunging – This is a wave that occurs close to shore due to a steep shelving beach like shingle. The seabed rises up suddenly causing the crest of the wave to topple over and plunge suddenly

Spilling – These waves occur when the seabed is a gently slope like a sandy flat beach. As the wave approaches the shore, it slowly releases energy, and the crest gradually spills forward down it’s face until it’s all white water.

Surging – These waves never actually break as the seabed remains deeper thant he wave height – instead it reaches harbour walls, cliffs or rocks.

Different wave heights and sea beds will create different types of breaking waves. Therefore you will get different types at different parts of the coast or indeed on the same beach at different states of tide. Many people choose to swim at low tide on wavy days on my local beach because at this tide state the sea bed is sandy and flat and the waves that break are spilling and easier to enter and exit the water and a whole lot of fun to play in.

Reading Waves

The secret to be able to swim safely in the sea is being able to read wave forecasts and the sea state when you arrive at the beach. Knowing your local swim spot at different tide states and what happens to the surface water depending on the wind direction also helps chose safe entry and exit locations.

Watching the waves from the safety of the shore you can see if they match the pre swim forecast you read. Count the waves in a set. Roughly note the period between each wave, would it give you time to get past the break point safely and more importantly back out. Is there a significant lull – time between a set of waves that may allow gradual acclimistation into the water. Are the waves messy and coming from all directions making it a challenge to get in and out safely.

A good time for competent and experienced sea swimmers to get into the water is during a lull. Currents pull hardest during a lull as the swash water that was pushed up the beach returns to the sea trying to level itself. A pause or space in the waves breaking allows the water to surge back out to sea. Once past the break line the waves will simply move you up and down and not out. Alternatively you can dive through the breaking wave and break the surface on the other side of the wave. Whatever you do do not stand motionless in the break zone! (Back wash is sometimes referred to as under tow. Although it may knock you off your feet you are not being pulled under by the motion of the water.)

The same can be said for returning to shore. You can use the waves energy and it’s breaking motion to get back to dry land. If you try to swim back to shore when there is a lull you will literally go no where and the back wash pulls you away from the shore. Although it can be intimidating to try and catch a wave in, if you are cold and tired it will make the process much easier as long as they are not significant plunging waves which can break with such force you can be thrown to the bottom.

Wave Predictability

Although swell waves arrive to our shores in sets and are usually consistent in their size, period and the lull between sets there will always be rogue waves.

  • 1 in 23 waves is twice the average height
  • 1 wave in 1.175 is three times the average height
  • 1 wave in 300,000 is four times the average

Our local conditions on the south coast are driven by the Atlantic weather systems. We rarely get decent ground swell as it is refracted by the Isle of Wight land mass. Coastal areas that face the open ocean and the prevailing weather systems and storms out to sea are more likely to have more powerful and organised wave breaks. The longer the period between waves in a swell means an a more significant increase in the waves height when they reach the beach.

There will always be waves that catch you unawares!

Recommendations for further reading.

Tristan Gooley’s Book; How to Read Water – is a fantastic read.

Advice to Sea Swimming in the waves

  • Entry – wait for the lull between sets – if caught out dive through the wave or duck under, don’t stand motionless in the break zone.
  • Exit – experienced swimmer uses energy of wave to return to shore. Try this on smaller waves and gradually build up your confidence.
  • Rough wavy water means you will need a faster stroke & kick causing more rapid fatigue. Make sure you plan to get out way before you are beginning to tire and get cold.
  • Breathing will be difficult in wavy water. Make sure you turn your head to breath away from the wave
  • Learn how to read sea and wave forecasts
  • Get to know your local swim spot intimately at different times of the year, different states of tide and different sea conditions.
  • Only enter the water if it is within your range of ability and you are confident you can get out safely

This blog forms part of a series of Outdoor Swimming Advice blogs written by a qualified Surf Lifeguard and Open Water Swimming coach who has been swimming in the sea year round since 2012. They are written to encourage others to swim safe and share the swim love. If you have read and shared this blog we invite you to donate the cost of a post swim hot drink or slice of cake to the Seabirds Community Swim Fund. All profits from our online wild swim shop are also donated to the Seabirds Community Swim fund. This way you can buy your wild swim kit to keep you warm and donate.

The Seabird’s Community Swim Fund raises money to pay for swim kit and lessons for non-swimmers with a focus on fulfilling Seabirds’ commitment to the Black Swimming Association’s DIPER charter – where Seabirds “stand with the BSA to create a swim buddy system in which we partner non-swimmers and swimmers for the purpose of exchanging aquatic information, support, education and resources to enable more ethnically diverse communities to get in the water.” So far donations have enabled us to fund swimming lessons, kit and transport for a number of Brighton and Hove adults and children who are under represented in the Outdoor Swimming Community. Many of whom have gone on to join us swimming in the sea to improve their wellbeing!

THANK YOU

The “Pass the Salt” Seabirds Blogs include; Stories from the Sea, Advice for safe swimming, Swim kit recommendations and Wellbeing and Water reflections. Use the category menu on the home page to search for many more ……. happy reading and happy swimming.

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Brighton and Hove Safe Summer Swimming

This blog contains specific details of the Brighton and Hove Lifeguard and Seafront Service for the summer of 2022 AND more general tips and links to useful resources for swimming in the sea in the summer.

Seabirds’ operate as a Community Interest Company that aims to encourage all local residents, of all swim abilities to join us in the sea. Our aim is to create a community space for people to enjoy the water and provide a way for swimmers to manage their mental health and wellbeing. The summer is great time to start as the lifeguard service is available and we have already seen lots of new Salties joining our flock. So as a warm welcome to warmer seas here is an informative blog featuring the iconic ‘Brighton Buoys’ and our summer season lifeguard service.

Normal Operating Lifeguard Service

The ‘SWIM AREA’ buoys arrive in early May ready for the lifeguard season to start on Brighton and Hove’s beaches over the May Half Term. Brighton and Hove normally has 11 lifeguarded beaches covering 14km of seafront from Saltdean to Hove Lagoon.  The swim area buoys mark out an area that is safe to swim in if the yellow and red flags are flying and a lifeguard is on duty.  They are not there for swimmers to swim round although many use them as markers to swim too and roughly measure the distance of their swim. If you were to see a bird’s eye view of them you would see they are never parallel and move around quite a bit in bad weather so it is a very rough measurement.

The season runs from May to September with the outer posts of Saltdean, Rottingdean and Ovingdean opening from July to September, as the schools break up. There can be between 2-4 lifeguards per post depending on how busy that particular beach is. The more popular touristy beaches by the Palace Pier have more lifeguards. All the beach lifeguards are supported by a lifeguarded boat that patrols daily and the Seafront staff and co-ordinators (the staff on the quad bikes).

Buoy Formation

These buoys are not to be confused with the boat lane buoys. These too are yellow but a different shape. However, from a distance, and as the swim area buoys are in a parallel line alongside the boat buoys, it is hard to see the difference. These buoys look like the picture below and are there to indicate where boats can approach to and from the shore. If you don’t want to get hit by a boat – don’t swim in these lanes. The boat lane buoys line up with yellow posts on the beach as per the picture below. This one to the west of King Alfred is by the boat winches and normally has kayaks locked to it. So if you can’t see the shape of the buoy from the shore – look for a post. The boat lanes are very close in proximity to some of the lifeguard posts most notably at King Alfred and Hove Lawns (D5) so please be mindful when you swim there as jet skis and small craft are allowed to launch and land there.

The most common rescue the lifeguards perform is retrieving swimmers from the Swim Area buoys. Swimmers head out for the buoys and when they get there can be too tired to swim back, not realise they made it there on a tidal current or offshore wind and don’t have the ability to get back, or get there and realise how far they are from shore and freeze both in temperature and ability to move. If you want to know more about swimming safely, improve your swimming confidence and technique or join us for a guided swim to enable you to swim safely this summer you can BOOK HERE

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

The positions the lifeguards patrol are:

Duke’s Mound, BN2 1EN – 10:30am to 5:30pm

East of Brighton Palace Pier, BN2 1PS – 10am to 6pm

Central Brighton, West Street, BN1 2FN – 10am to 6pm

West Pier, BN1 2LN – 10am to 6pm

Hove Lawns Café, BN3 2FR – 10am to 6pm

King Alfred, BN3 2WW – 10am to 6pm

Extended positions for the summer holiday starting late July:

Rottingdean, BN2 7HR – 11:30am to 5:30pm

Saltdean, BN2 8SQ – 11:30am to 5:30pm

They are normally happy for you to leave your bags and belongings with them while you swim. And, they are happy to answer any of your questions or give you advice before you get in the water.

They will have boards close to their posts indicating tide times and sea conditions. There will be increased water patrols on boards and the boat and the new additions of towers dotted along our beaches have made watching beach and sea users much easier. They raise flags at their posts so it is easy to identify where they are and the safe swimming zone. A red and yellow flag indicates a safe swimming area. An orange flag indicates the wind is offshore and therefore inflatables should not be used. A Red Flag means it is dangerous to enter the water – this can be for many reasons and if you are unsure go and speak to the lifeguards on duty.

As RNLI Ambassadors we help share key messages about swimming in the sea safely. Below are their top 4 tips for using the beach safely and advice on what to do in an emergency.

Four Key Beach Safety Tips

  1. Choose a lifeguarded beach. Swim between the red and yellow flags.
  2. Don’t use inflatables in the sea. You can easily be blown out to sea with no way of getting back to shore.
  3. Take a phone. In an emergency, dial 999 for the Coastguard.
  4. If you’re in trouble in the water, remember #FloatToLive Lean back and use your arms and legs to help you float.

What to do in an emergency

STEP 1: Call for help. Keep an eye on the casualty, call 999 and ask for the Coastguard.

STEP 2: Talk. Talk to the casualty, encourage them to keep calm and float. Reassure them that you are getting help.

STEP 3: Reach. Try to reach them from the shore using any lifesaving equipment available. Do not go in the water yourself.

STEP 4: Throw. Throw a line to the casualty and pull them towards the shore if possible.

Other Useful Resources

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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 be 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 2 years. And now, anxiety about the loosening of restrictions just as we’ve got used to them. We don’t know what the new normal is going to be and anxiety comes with that. Let’s not mention a war and cost of living crisis!

As a life long anxiety sufferer I felt better equipped than most to deal with the last few years. 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 could 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 your 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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What if swimming in the sea isn’t the cure?

There are points in everybody’s life when they struggle with their mental health and wellbeing. Part of being human is to experience suffering and sadness. But for most, this low mood is temporary and can lessen with time and there will be a return to being socially, cognitively and emotionally healthy. For others, who have mental illness disorders, the suffering and sadness do not go away. These feelings are life long. And whilst swimming in the sea improves their mental health it does not ‘cure’ their mental illness.

So what is the difference between mental health and mental illness? Well we all have mental health, and it relates to wellness. Mental illness is when you have been diagnosed with a mental disorder, of which there are a wide range and you may be suffering with more than one. Think about it in physical terms. You eat well and exercise to manage your physical health and remain physically healthy. But, if you have a physical illness, like diabetes, managing your physical health will lessen the symptoms but it won’t cure it. Someone with a mental illness or disorder has poor mental health just as someone with a physically illness or disorder has poor physical health. But situations or experiences can cause anyone to have poor mental health like a change in personal circumstances. Much like falling off a bike will impact someone’s physical health.

The World Health Organisation defines mental health as as “a state of well-being in which every individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and can contribute to her or his community”. A salutogenic approach to wellbeing is achievable in lots of ways, but for me, it’s being by the sea, swimming in the sea, walking by the sea etc. But mental illness or disorder is a diagnosed condition. Both affect how we think, feel and act so they are often grouped together as the same thing, but they are not. I view my mental health and mental disorder as two separate entities that are intrinsically linked but they are not the same.

So I have poor mental health, in the most part, because of my mental illness. I can improve it but I cannot ever have ‘good’ mental health, only mental health that is bearable and manageable. This, I realise, sounds stark and hopeless but I have come to accept it and as long as I keep myself in check, get enough rest, and take daily medication I can cope. Rest for me is time away from over stimulation and time spent in nature. I can actually feel my shoulders move away from my ears as I near the beach. Just the sight and sound instantly takes me away from my day to day depression. And whilst I cant permanently live on the beach – although that plan is in gestation – I can make regular swims in the sea when everything feels too much.

I started swimming outdoors a long time ago, as most people do, during my childhood. Summers spent on Sussex shores and term time spent in local ponds and rivers. Not quite all year round, but not far off. I also started suffering with a mental illness a long time ago. But it has only been in recent years that I have really become aware of the positive impact that swimming in the sea and being on the beach has had on my mental health. It has not bought an end to my mental illness but it has provided relief when I am in the water and I believe prevented a significant number of my inevitable dysthymia episodes or at least reduced the amount of time they hang around.

Over recent years, there has been a considerable amount of coverage in the media and across agencies highlighting the importance of looking after your mental health. There are lots of ways you can do this one of which is swimming in the outdoors. For many it has been something they have turned to at a particular time in their life. To release their grief at losing a loved one, to release their anger over a failed relationship, to release the stress of their job, to release the pain of a physical ailment. But there is no release for my storm clouds, they will always be there. I have never been so low that I am unable to see tomorrow, but tomorrow’s sky is still grey. There are breaks in the cloud, my life is not void of joy, there are chinks where the sun shines down. It’s just these moments are few and far between but they are most certainly always found by the sea. I will always return to my state du jour of lethargy, overwhelm and anger not long after I leave the beach. What my time in the sea gives me is respite rather than a progressive way to end my sadness.

One of the mental disorders I have been diagnosed with is Persistent Depressive Disorder (PDD) or Dysthemia. The key word here being persistent. It is both chronic and lifelong. It is exhausting living with it and the internal miserable and angry dialogue that accompanies it. It is also exhausting living with me, so we can add a tremendous amount of guilt into the mix too. I take medication every day which in the most part helps me get up, get dressed and function. My symptoms come and go, and their intensity can change over time which I have become much more aware of since swimming in the sea. But typically, for me, my symptoms don’t disappear for more than a couple of months at a time.

Like all humans I will experience changes and situations that cause me stress and loss. During these times I will feel hard and it can manifest as a depressive episode. This is exhibited and apparent differently for different people. For me I will be unable to to get dressed or leave the house. I will be angry with the whole world but particularly those closest to me. I see the world around me conspiring against me and I become resentful and judgmental of others. This is sometimes referred to as double depression and true to it’s name it feels doubly hard. I can prevent an episode if I have enough awareness to see it coming or at the very least I can reduce the time spent on a downward spiral. This I do by swimming in the sea which is available to me alongside a supportive community. Meeting someone to swim makes me accountable, it literally lifts me out of bed and lifts my mood.

I have tried various forms of therapy to alleviate the symptoms of my mental disorders. Some have worked to varying degrees, some haven’t. It’s all very individual and what I may advocate isn’t for all and vice versa. But I have remained open to trying and forever curious which has been my saving grace over the years. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is a form of talking therapy that aims to break your present negative thoughts down into manageable parts. Mindfulness based CBT as an ongoing therapy, but I just see this as another thing on the long to do list that needs ticking off. Meditation which does not come easily to me unless it happens by chance which frequently occurs whilst I find my swimming flow in the sea but not in a studio or workshop environment. Journaling doesn’t appeal to me as I can become frustrated if I don’t do it every day or if I sit down to do it and I have just got nothing to say or most likely if the thought of writing overwhelms me. But in reality writing this blog is my journal – so clearly writing as a way of processing my thoughts and emotions is a good practice for me. Practising gratitude is really not something I have achieved as the things I am grateful for are surrounded by negative thoughts – for example why my long suffering husband has stuck it out for so long. And then there’s always the self sabotaging glass of wine or 6 in the evening.

After a number of years trying new things, reading a lot, keeping curious and not giving up – not consistently and not without falling a lot – I think, I hope, I have found my flow. For me, nothing beats daily medication complimented by swimming in the sea with a supportive community. This is how I manage my mental illness AND my mental health. Salted Wellbeing with dash of SSRIs. It may not be the cure, there is not cure, but I have found a way to stay safe in the storm.

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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 not always 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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How Wild Swimming As A Black Woman Helped Me Heal From My Grief

Cat White is a writer, filmmaker, gender expert for the UN and founder of Kusini Productions, a Black female-led platform created to champion voices of Black women and girls. Her upcoming film Fifty-Four Days follows the journey of a girl who starts wild swimming in the wake of losing her father to suicide. Here, she tells us the real-life inspiration behind the project.

Content Warning: Suicide

Cat White is a writer, filmmaker, gender expert for the UN and founder of Kusini Productions, a Black female-led platform created to champion voices of Black women and girls. Her upcoming film Fifty-Four Days follows the journey of a girl who starts wild swimming in the wake of losing her father to suicide. Here, she tells us the real-life inspiration behind the project.

When I went swimming for the first time it felt like freedom. I can still remember 5-year-old me bouncing in my car seat, the sharp tang of chlorine as I entered our local leisure centre and the bright, harsh lights and loud, excited voices. I remember changing in the humid cubicles and taking extra care to walk not run as I made my way to the edge of the pool, even though everything in me wanted to run – to fly, even.

Fast-forward 10 years or so and the place of my childhood jubilation was a prison for my teenage self. My freshly relaxed hair would be destroyed the moment water so much as touched it. And if I didn’t wear it straight then my swimming cap wouldn’t fit over my afro. I couldn’t win. There was no one I could ask for advice about this. The other girls had the sleek, straight hair I burned my scalp every six weeks to get. They wouldn’t understand. I started hiding in the changing rooms, correctly making the gamble that my swimming teacher wouldn’t follow up on my absence if I showed my face every once in a while.

Eventually, hating everything about the tight lanes, the tight swimming caps and the tightness of the space itself, I began to recognise that the brightness and the whiteness of the swimming pool made no space for me. So I stopped. For almost the next decade, this was how things stayed. Swimming was not for me. 

Then, in January 2020, as the earliest strains of coronavirus – at that time still nothing more than an unfamiliar word at the bottom of the weekly news cycle – began to ravage our world, my complicated, brilliant, deeply loved Uncle Delroy died without warning. It was so unexpected that when I found out all I could manage to mutter was: “What? What? What?” I didn’t understand. We had just been together at Christmas, 10 days earlier. He’d seemed fine. We’d had an argument about Stormzy. I’d offered to make him an Aperol Spritz and he’d said he was off the hard stuff. We’d done our annual Christmas quiz and he had been quizmaster. The only son out of seven siblings, he’d helmed our family since Granddad had died. So how could it be possible that he was no longer here? And even more importantly, how could he already be gone when life had been so unkind to him? When he had suffered so much? Things were supposed to get better, they were supposed to work out eventually. But they don’t always – and they didn’t for him. I fell apart. My whole family did. And then, mere weeks later, the world followed suit. Death and loss and pain, unbearable pain, was all around us – everywhere we looked. I constantly searched over my shoulder, fearing it would happen again and reassuring myself that it couldn’t. The worst had already come for me.

But then, in January 2021, as the third lockdown hung insidiously over our lives, the hardest one yet, I received a text in our group WhatsApp chat, apologising for the medium – and the message – and letting us know that our friend Simon had taken his own life. I couldn’t even ask the question “What?” this time. It was beyond all comprehension. I was silent. And somewhere deep, deep within me, I screamed. Inside I screamed for the minutes, hours and days that followed. But I was locked in my house where I did not live alone and could not find peace, locked in my mind which was knotted with the devastating anxiety of words that I understood on an intellectual level but could not believe to be true. And so I did not scream, desperately as I wanted to, because I could not. I choked on my own sorrow and wondered how I would go on. 

With no other option available to me in lockdown, I walked. Headphones in, India Arie soothing the thick, choking feeling that consumed me. Right near my house was a lake. It looked mysterious and imposing but I was drawn to it and kept going back there. Instead of raw pain, when I was by the water I felt something closer to a simple numbness, which was a comfort and a reprieve. It started to feel like a holy place. I was in awe of it, although I didn’t know why. And then one day I decided to get in.

It was freezing. Really, really freezing. This was January and I didn’t have any fancy equipment. Just my bra and pants on that first day. I probably stayed in for less than a minute: just over to the buoy and back again. But as I gasped at the cold and struggled to mobilise my arms and legs like I’d been taught all those years ago – “Breaststroke, arms: scooping round for ice cream. Legs: bend, round and snap together” – I realised that I had released something.

I became more proficient and adept, used to the temperature. As I started to swim more frequently and for longer, I began to shift the thick wedge that had lodged itself in my chest and my throat. It was as if each stroke, each splash, each gasp as I slid into the water loosened it a little each time. I started to feel freer, sometimes feeling waves of euphoria even though that thing still gripped my throat like a vice. And then, after some weeks of this routine, it dislodged itself completely. My body still followed the same mechanical motions – “Bend, round and snap together. Scooping up that ice cream” – but I started to cry.

I knew from that precise moment that I would be okay. Even as my cry became a bigger and uglier sob and I started to choke, exiting the water to hold onto something so that I wouldn’t fall apart, I knew that it marked something monumental. My swimming turned from being something that I didn’t quite understand to being something that was anchoring me – keeping me. It become personal. It became political. 

I became mental health first aid trained and learned about warning signs for those suffering from mental ill health. I became aware that men (and Black men in particular) are most at risk but also that Black people are disproportionately represented in mental health institutions, more likely to encounter inpatient mental health services and be detained under the Mental Health Act than white people. I learned that stopping swimming when I’d been good at it wasn’t just teenage vanity or boredom – it was me being pushed out of a space where I didn’t belong because nobody looked like me and had ever thought to make space for anyone like me. I learned that despite wild swimming being proven to boost dopamine levels and increase overall happiness, according to Swim England 95% of Black adults and 80% of Black children in England do not swim. One in four Black children leave primary school not knowing how to swim. 

These facts both terrified and angered me. Being able to access that lake every day in the aftermath of my grief not only healed me, it saved me. Swimming should not be inaccessible to Black people or working class people or any group at all. Desperate to do something about this, I started working with Soul Cap, the inclusive swimwear brand which is rewriting the rules around accessibility to swimming. 

And somewhere along the way of doing all this learning and grieving and swimming, I also started writing. I put pen to paper and wrote a film called Fifty-Four Days, following the journey of a girl who starts wild swimming every day for 54 days in the wake of losing her father to suicide. It looks at loss and how we grieve but, more importantly, it looks at hope and how we heal. As well as teaming up with Soul Cap, I also partnered with Dry Robe (the ultimate outdoor changing robe) Papyrus (a young suicide prevention charity) and Seabirds (who promote the benefits of swimming outdoors for everyone’s mental health) with the aim of setting new standards in mental health, wellbeing and inclusivity in the film and swimming worlds. I hired a dedicated mental health and wellbeing co-ordinator, something that is still not the norm in the film industry. We had open and honest conversations about our mental health. It was groundbreaking, liberating.

Even though it tackles a subject as heartbreaking as suicide, Fifty-Four Days – and my own journey as a swimmer – is about healing. It is about remembering and honouring those we have lost, knowing that there is no right or wrong way to grieve. It is about challenging the narrative that says Black people don’t swim and fighting for the little girls and their afros bounding into their swimming lessons on Saturday mornings. It is about checking in again on the older men who have lost their way and the friend you’re long overdue a catch-up with. It is about holding the people who are being choked by the thing inside their chest and the people who just want to embrace what life has to offer. It is about checking in on yourself. 

It is for every single person who deserves to feel the freedom of the water and bask in its holy silence. It is yours. Jump in.

Fifty-Four Days is produced by Kusini ProductionsIntermission Film and Broken Flames Productions. It stars Celia Imrie, Cat White, Juliet Cowan, Delroy Brown and Josh Williams. The bulk of this blog was originally published here by Refinery69.com on Sept 28th 2021. Photos are stills from the film and property of Kusini Productions.

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Seabirds’ Social Impact

Swim England’s research shows that swimming improves physical and mental wellbeing, actively reducing depression and anxiety in regular swimmers. Swimming has the power to help people live longer, better, happier lives – and as regular sea swimmers we know that swimming in natural, outdoor water like the sea, turbo boosts this power.

Seabirds is all about helping more people access the healing power of the sea and building community. We are a ‘Social Enterprise’. This means we run our business to do some good in the world, with the community’s interest at the heart of what we do.

This is how we do it:

Salted Wellbeing: Swimming for mental health

As mental health warriors Seabirds continues to promote Mental Health Awareness through our blog, social media posts and within our Swim Community.

Swim for All: Diversity and Inclusion

Our focus in 2022 will be on those who are unable to swim and work with other organisations to increase the diversity of the group to encourage more of our local community to access the sea as a way of managing their wellbeing.

We’ve signed up to the Black Swimming Association DIPER Charter and want to see the swimming community better reflect our whole community. We plan to support this by expanding our funding of courses of swimming lessons in local pools and provision of swim kit for both children and adults that are underrepresented in the outdoor swimming community. We have exciting plans to work with a local cycling community group, Brighton Multi-Ethnic Wheelers (BMWs!) to run beginner swimming lessons for their members.

Change the narrative

In 2022 we’re very excited to sponsor the film 54 Days exploring mental health, race, friendship, grief and wild swimming which highlights men’s mental health and challenges the narrative that ‘black people don’t swim’. (Please give their social media a follow and share so that we spread the word before the film comes out. )

Share the Swim Love: Community

We continue to nurture our Salty Seabird community (now at 4600 members!), which has been a lifeline for many during the pandemic. The community continues to amaze us with the love and support that the members offer each other through a shared love of getting in the sea.

We run confidence courses to provide a holding hand for people interested in swimming in the sea but nervous to join an established group.

Love where you Live: Environment

Seabirds stands for clean seas, clean beaches and the elimination of plastic pollution. We try to keep our environmental impact to a minimum. Locally we support sister Social Enterprise – Leave No Trace Brighton – with beach cleans and advocacy; and nationally we are members of Surfers Against Sewage’s 250 club, our way of being part of a powerful network of leaders, driving forward a movement for change and to protect the UK’s unique coastal environment.

Pay it Forward

To date we have raised over £17,000, which has:

  • been donated to local charities
  • funded swimming lessons, swim kit and pool access to local asylum seekers and;
  • funded our own sessions free or heavily subsidised for NHS workers and marginalised groups.

This is with huge thanks to all of you who have supported our mission by buying swim kit , signing up for swimming lessonsdonated directly or taken part in our Arctic Tern Challenge Fundraiser. Thank you! xxx

Photo credit Julia Claxton who has an exhibition of her work on right now at the i360! go and see it!!!

Although the blog is free it would be wonderful if you could donate to our Swimming Community Fund. If you have found the advice useful, shared the content or enjoyed our stories of the sea a few quid would be gratefully received. Whilst anyone can suffer with a mental disorder and experience issues with their mental health, outdoor swimming community groups are only really visible and therefore accessible to people who are aware of them, and can swim! The Swimming Community fund allows us to work with existing ethnically diverse, refugee and low income community groups. We start from the point of teaching them how to swim and go from there. The idea being they then become part of our Brighton and Hove wide sea swimming community.
Featured

The Truth About Cold Water Swimming

Separating fact from fiction and dispelling the many myths that surround cold water swimming. From an experienced 5 year year round skin sea swimmer and qualified Surf Lifeguard and Open Water Swimming Coach!

There is a lot of misinformation associated with cold water swimming and how to swim though the winter safely. Key messages are misinterpreted and shared across swimming community groups. Information is misunderstood and spread across river banks and sea shores as fact. So as an RNLI Ambassador, OWS Swimming Coach and a Surf Lifeguard who has been swimming though winter since 2012, here is a list of my most heard myths and the truth behind them.

SWIM WITH COMPANY

I think a better way of phrasing it would be never swim without a spotter. The way ‘swimming with company’ or ‘never swim alone’ has been interpreted is that there needs to be at least two of you in the water. In reality there needs to be at least two of you at your swimming location but you don’t both have to be wet. The idea here, is that if you get into trouble there is someone there to get help. In fact, if one of you remains out of the water they are in a better position to help. They are able to see you from an elevated position, they are warm and dry and not tired, they have access to a phone they can help and encourage you out of the water. Unless your swim buddy, in the water with you, is not fatigued, cold and lifesaving trained they may not be in a position to help you if you begin to struggle. If you are both in the water, one of you struggling, and the other trying to help, the situation can very rapidly go from one to two casualties.

I am not saying when you swim there should be one person in the water and one person out of the water. This just isn’t practical at every swim. What I am saying is don’t interpret the advice ‘swim with company’ as there should be two people in the water at all times. The spotter can be in the water with or on dry land. The best advice is to know how to assess if your fellow swimmers are struggling and what you can do to help in an emergency situation. And know that your fellow swimmers are not responsible for your safety and that you should assess yourself and your environment before every swim and ensure it is within your capability.

If you are in the water with a struggling swimmer. Keep a safe distance from them. They are liable to grab the nearest floating object and that could be you. Keep talking to them, encourage them to make their way to the shore, or ask them to float on their back and scull swim back to the shore. Shout for help and when out of the water call the emergency services for help. If you are out of the water and see a struggling swimmer follow RNLI advice. 1. Do not take your eyes off them and call the emergency services for help. 2. Talk to the swimmer, encourage them to swim or float, reassure them you have called for help. 3. If you can reach them from shore/bank or if there is lifesaving or floating equipment throw it to them. 4. Never enter the water to attempt a rescue.

you should stay in the water a minute for every degree celsius

I think anyone who has swum in cold water has heard this one. There are so many other factors at play when you swim in cold water to consider that impact your ability to adapt to the cold water. And these factors will change every time you swim. So rather than asking how cold the water is? A better question is how cold do I feel? Or how cold am I likely to feel? Things that will influence this are, air temperature, wind chill, how well you slept, your mental state, when you last ate, how cold you were before getting in. The list goes on. So before every swim take the time to consider all of these factors and check in with yourself and your fellow swimmers throughout your swim. You will come to see that the actual temperature of the water can have a very small impact on how cold you feel and how long you are comfortable and safe in he water. All of the other contributing factors have a bigger influence and need considering. On a warm summers day I have been known to get the shakes post swim because I have had an awful nights sleep and no breakfast. Every swim is a new experience, as none of the factors impacting your cold water adaptation are ever the same. You gain the cold water thrill and post swim high from just a few moments in the water – so you don’t need to stay in for long.

Swimming for wellness isn’t measuring and monitoring. It’s about getting to know yourself, what you can endure, and how your body tells you it’s time to get out. Free from daily stresses and arbitrary goals, you come to know your bodies capabilities and when it needs you to return to dry land to warm up. You will inevitably make mistakes along the way, we all do, just make sure you learn from them. I know that the moment I feel like I could stay in there forever, is the time for me to get out. My body tells me this rather than my watch or thermometer.

you don’t expereince the benefits of cold water swimming in a wetsuit

How do you know someone is a skin swimmer? They’ll tell you! Occasionally there is form of purist bias in the outdoor swimming society associated with neoprene. The same people that tell you wild swimming is just swimming, will tell you that they don’t wear any neoprene into the water. It is true to say that wetsuits are a faff. They take ages to get on and off for the uninitiated and they take days to dry but you will still experience cold water if you wear one. Wetsuits work by allowing water into the space between your skin and the neoprene. Your body then warms that layer of water up. Before this can happen that water will be cold, you can still experience cold water shock in a wetsuit so therefore you are still experiencing cold water! Those that study the physical benefits of and responses to cold water have found that they happen within the first few minutes of immersion – so before the water in the wetsuit has had a chance to warm up. If you need to put a wetsuit on to get in the water just do it. If you want to feel the water directly on your skin, take it off just before you exit the water.

There are so many other benefits to cold water swimming that do not involve the skin Vs suit debate. Being part of a community. Being away from your screen, phone and desk. Being in the moment. Being by water. It builds confidence and courage which can be taken out of the water and into your everyday life. None of these are influenced by what you wear into the water

you have to go in every day to acclimistise for cold water swimming

Whilst is is true to say that you build up an adaptation to cold water over time and you can better control your sweary shouting and rapid breathing the more regularly you go in it is just not true that you won’t be able to get back in after a prolonged break. It’s like riding a bike, your body has learnt adaptation muscle memory. Every time my bare feet walk across cold shingle my body know what is coming next and begins to tense up in anticipation. Once I am submerged my body also remembers to calm my breathing down and relax. It will do this even when I have been land locked for weeks.

For most people it is just not possible to go in every day or even every week. And with colder temperature comes colds, chest infections the dreaded C19 which can keep swimmers out of the water for weeks on end. The most important acclimistation to cold water is the acclimistation you do each time you enter the water safely. Enter the water slowly, control your breathing , when you are waist deep gently lower yourself to submerge your shoulders, relax and when you are ready float on your back and take some slow steady breaths.

the best way to get in is jump straight in

As per the above, safe entry into the water requires acclimatisation and cold water shock can occur in temperatures as high as 16 degrees Celsius. Most drownings occur when people accidently fall into cold water and their body and mind is not prepared for what will happen next. The body’s innate reaction is to gasp and if you are partially submerge you will inhale water instead of air. This is why it is import to enter the water slowly and acclimatise every time you swim.

you should be cold before you go into cold water

Reducing your body’s core temperature before getting into cold water, where it will inevitably reduce even further, makes no sense and will not prevent the body’s cold water shock response. You will continue to cool for 20-30 minutes after exiting the water. By being cold before you enter the water all you are doing is increasing the risk of hypothermia by reducing your core temperature before you swim.

a hot drink and cake warms you up

It doesn’t but you’ve earned it! And it makes you feel warm inside.

However long you go in for, whatever you wear to get in enjoy it and stay safe.

This blog forms part of a series of Outdoor Swimming Advice blogs written by a qualified Surf Lifeguard and Open Water Swimming coach who has been swimming in the sea year round since 2012. They are written to encourage others to swim safe and share the swim love. If you have read and shared this blog we invite you to donate the cost of a post swim hot drink or slice of cake to the Seabirds Community Swim Fund.

This funds swim kit and lessons for non-swimmers with a focus on fulfilling Seabirds’ commitment to the Black Swimming Association’s DIPER charter – where Seabirds “stand with the BSA to create a swim buddy system in which we partner non-swimmers and swimmers for the purpose of exchanging aquatic information, support, education and resources to enable more ethnically diverse communities to get in the water.” So far donations have enabled us to fund swimming lessons, kit and transport for a number of Brighton and Hove adults and children who are under represented in the Outdoor Swimming Community. Many of whom have gone on to join us swimming in the sea to improve their wellbeing!

All profits from our online wild swim shop are also donated to the Seabirds Community Swim fund. This way you can buy your wild swim kit to keep you warm and donate.

Thank You!

Featured

Safe Swim Choices

As our waters warm up, many swimmers will return to outdoor swimming after a winter of hibernation. We know, we know, many didn’t stop! Whenever and wherever you swim outdoors there will be a risk associated with your swimming activity. So how can you make safe swim choices?

The majority of the people I swim with in the sea are doing it as a way to manage their wellbeing. Community, connection and kindness is at the core of the sort of sea swimming I enjoy. When asked if it is safe to swim, I can sound unkind when I reply to the asker of that question “Only you can make that decision.” I’m not trying to limit people’s access to the sea, make it an exclusive club for only the brave or foolhardy. I’m trying to keep them safe and move the responsibility for their swim back to them. But I’m also encouraging them to lift their mood and find their happiness in a way that hasn’t been considered as a benefit of outdoor swimming. In addition to the wealth of wellbeing research and methods cold water swimming approaches take, happiness can also be found in making safe swim choices based on sound sea knowledge. Giving individuals more responsibility for organising their own swims and making appropriate risk assessments helps to build self-esteem and self confidence which will contribute to their wellbeing. This adds a sense of responsibility and gives the swimmers an investment into the successful swims which acts as a motivating factor, lifting their mood and levels of happiness.

So how do you plan a successful swim?

  • You assess how ‘risky’ your swim will be, by identifying the hazards.
  • Then assess level of risk associated with the hazard. In other words, how bad would it be if your swim was impacted by the identified hazard AND how likely is it that that would happen.
  • And finally, can you mitigate or reduce those risks.

So for example, one of the hazards of a winter swim, could be the water temperature and the risk is you are incapacitated by Cold Water Shock. The level of risk is high as it can lead to drowning. The likelihood of it happening is high as water temperatures are in single figures in the winter. BUT to mitigate those risks you can wear a wetsuit, acclimatise and immerse yourself in the water slowly. Completing your own personal risk assessment every time you swim just follows this process for each hazard associated with your swimming activity.

The top 4 hazards for sea swimming are;
  • Water temperature,
  • Sea state,
  • Weather conditions and
  • Water quality.
  • But you also need to consider yourself, other water users, local topography and structures.
To identify hazards when I swim, I break it down into 4 parts;
  • Weather Hazards
  • Water Hazards
  • Physical Hazards
  • Individual Hazards
Weather Hazards

Some of the things to think about are; and can you mitigate any of the risks these hazards present?

  • How strong is the wind blowing? Is it creating chop? Will it prevent my swim from staying on course?
  • Which direction is the wind blowing? Is it onshore, cross shore or offshore?
  • What is the wind chill factor? Is there somewhere I can shelter to change post swim?
  • Is it raining or can I see rain approaching? Can I keep my kit dry? is it affecting visibility in the water? Is it creating fast river flow or run off discharge?
  • Is it sunny? Do I need UV protection? Does the glare affect visibility? Do I need polarised goggles?
  • What is the air temperature? Do I have the correct kit to wear?
Water Hazards
  • Is the water surface calm, choppy or rough? Is it affecting your ability to get in or out or visibility?
  • Is there a current? Rips or river flow? How strong is it?
  • What state is the tide and which way and how strong is it flowing? Can I swim against the flow?
  • How deep is the water, can you see the bottom, is the water clear? Can I swim close to shore?
  • What is the temperature of the water?
  • Is there debris in the water? Has there been a storm lately, can you see semi submerged objects or flotsam?
  • Has water quality been affect by sewage? Algae blooms? Run Off? Boat spills?
Physical Hazards
  • Are there any manmade structures in the vicinity of my swim. For example piers, groynes, harbour walls, bridges?
  • Are there other water users close by? Windsurfers, surfers, kite surfers, kayakers, body boarders, dog walkers
  • Where is your entry and exit point into the water? Is it slippery, muddy, sandy, pebbly, steep, shelving, gradual. Are there slipways?
  • What type of beach is it? Sandy, rocky, shingle, cliffs, sea wall?
  • What is the local topography and tidal range? Are there hidden underwater hazards?
  • Wildlife – are there jelly fish? weaver fish? marine life?
  • What time of day is it? Will it be getting dark soon? Are there lifeguards on duty?
Individual Hazards
  • Am I swimming alone or in a group? Is there a spotter?
  • How close is my swim spot to accessing the emergency services?
  • What level of swimming experience do I have? What is my swim ability level?
  • How am I feeling physically today? Am i fit? do I have an injury? Am i recovering from an illness? Am i tired? How did I sleep last night? When did I last eat or drink? Am i hydrated? Do I have a medical condition?
  • How am I feeling mentally today? Am I emotionally exhausted? Am I overwhelmed or anxious? Am I tired? Am I suffering with a mental illness? Am I in a fit state to make sound judgements?
  • What swim kit have I got with me? Am I wearing a wetsuit? do I have footwear? Do I have a tow float?

Assessing your individual capability and confidence is really important and sadly all too often overlooked. You are always responsible for your own swim even if there is a lifeguard on duty in a lido! So take the time to check in on yourself. Ask yourself how you are feeling physically and mentally? Be honest about your capabilities and be brave enough to decide to do a different swim from your group. Experience and ability are NOT the same thing! And both should be considered in the context of the swim you plan to do and the state of the water and the weather. Swim your swim, not anyone else’s!

None of these lists are exhaustive but are to give you an idea of the things you need to consider before swimming in the sea. Other hazards will be present if you swim in rivers, lakes, reservoirs, waterfalls and lidos. You should always take the time to get to know your swim spot and do a risk assessment before you swim. If you are swimming in a new location ask a local swimmer, a lifeguard or swim community group. And while in the water keep reassessing the suitability of your swim as conditions and your adaptations can change quickly.

Sea state, forecast apps and web cams are great to give you an idea of what you might find when you get to the beach but they are not always accurate and never be a substitute for taking your time to evaluate your environment when you get to the beach and before you go for a swim. I find it a really mindful activity, staring out to sea and taking in my surroundings. My swim starts the minute I arrive at my swim spot and on the occasions, too numerous to mention, that haven’t gone in the water, I still feel like I’ve had a swim. Chasing the post swimmers high can be counter productive when it compromises your safety and really misses the point of swimming outdoors being free from arbitrary goals and being a place of rest and respite.

The most important thing about swimming outdoors is, you need to be prepared to not swim, abandon your swim or change your swim. The sea isn’t going anywhere so you need to make sure you aren’t either and by making safe swim choices you will be here to swim another day.

Seabirds is all about helping more people access the healing power of the sea and building community. We are a ‘Social Enterprise’, this means we run our business to do some good in the world, with the community’s interest at the heart of what we do. As mental health warriors Seabirds continues to promote Mental Health Awareness through this blog, social media posts and within our Swim Community.
Although the blog is free it would be wonderful if you could donate to our Swimming Community Fund. If you have found the advice useful, shared the content or enjoyed our stories of the sea a few quid would be gratefully received. Whilst anyone can suffer with a mental disorder and experience issues with their mental health, outdoor swimming community groups are only really visible and therefore accessible to people who are aware of them, and can swim! The Swimming Community fund allows us to work with existing ethnically diverse, refugee and low income community groups. We start from the point of teaching them how to swim and go from there. The idea being they then become part of our Brighton and Hove wide sea swimming community.
Featured

Acceptance and Commitment, the sea swimming way

Turning my fear into dare. The most fearful place for me is being alone with my thoughts and you cannot escape them in a swimming pool. But swimming in the sea puts them into perspective and they can even be diluted in a pool! How I have practised the principles of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy by swimming in the sea……and the pool.

I have always struggled with therapy. Experience and curiosity is the way that I have managed my mental illness alongside medication and lots of rest. But recently I have come to realise that the type of therapy I experienced, a significant time ago, may not have been right for me. And that there are many types of therapy including some that may be more suited to my state of mind. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) may just be a therapy that would have had more of a positive effect on managing my mental illness. It’s never too late as they say and on reading about it I have realised I’m already practising many of the methods. As ever by swimming in the sea!

The types of therapies I have experienced in the past encourage you to challenge and change your thoughts. This just served to reinforce that my brain was wired differently, to what felt like, everyone around me. I needed to change. I was different. I strived to be the elusive normal. In contrast, ACT encourages you to sit with those thoughts and accept that pain and unhappiness are valid and we must get comfortable with them, because they are part of life and not going away. To experience human existence is to suffer. We will all suffer at some point in our lives.

When you swim in the cold sea the only way in or out of it is through the waves. I’m going to get brain freeze. My breath will be stolen, I will struggle to breathe and quite possibly panic. My skin is going to burn and hurt like hell. Doing this over and over and over again, the physical feelings don’t diminish. But it’s significance reduces and can all but disappear.

Well most of the time. Once a week I swim early in the morning. During the winter months this can be in the dark. A few weeks ago the sea was forecast to be a bit lumpy, the tail end of a storm, and a flooding tide. My swim mate and I decided to head down to get a better look. He confidently marched in, dived straight through the waves, and resurfaced grinning. I stood in the shallows convinced I could see huge storm flotsam in the half light where there was none. When the sun rose the waves weren’t nearly as big as I had imagined. I had felt that the inevitable physical reactions upon entering the water were going to be beyond my abilities. Enough so that I physically froze at the waters edge. So what happened next? Well, my swim mate came back out of the water to walk me in. And I had a safe and bouncy swim to start the day.

I now recognise, the thoughts that initially prevented me from getting in as fear. I don’t often experience fear when getting in the sea. Getting out yes!, but not getting in. I was able to process this once I’d got over the fear and was in the water having a wonderful chinwag with my mate and afterwards on the beach warm and dry. The fear was there, real or imagined, but with the helping hand of my mate it’s significance was reduced. Playing a fictious scenario over and over in my head was causing my feet to stay rooted to the ground. But accepting that my fear was real and there but it could be diffused really helped. Sometimes fear is useful when sea swimming as it allows us to be cautious. I couldn’t influence the sea state or make the feelings of fear go away but it wasn’t beyond my ability to swim in it. It didn’t disappear altogether when I got in the sea either but hung around in the background ready for when it was time to get out. But accepting it was there and getting past it, left me elated. She who dares swims!

By swimming in the sea I have developed a new relationship with my depression and anxiety. There is no longer a denial or fruitless quest to rid myself of it. Only to live with it. At times this can be a struggle and at others times it’s manageable. I have no choice but to live with it. Being in the sea creates a space for my emotions and feelings. It puts them in perspective and reduces the overwhelm. It defuses and dilutes my out of proportion thoughts. One of the issues I have always had with wellness practioners and mindfulness is that you are completely unable to be mindful when you are having a mental illness episode. Which is normally when I was prescribed therapy. It enrages me when I am in the midst of an episode and someone suggests meditation. However, when I am well enough to function I can achieve a version of it by swimming in the sea as a response to the inevitable suffering life will throw at us all from time to time.

The other important aspect of ACT is the “commitment to take action and bring positive changes into your life” Once again I have drawn upon my love of sea swimming as a back drop for this. I left my corporate career a decade ago. For a few years I was too ill to work. I returned to work slowly first in the voluntary sector and then the third sector. Unfortunately, the culture of productivity at all costs and nepotism was apparent in them all. So once again I was jobless and unwell. By coincidence so was another ‘mum I knew’. She’d also left her third sector job, burnt out and unable to influence a change in her working environment. So we began to swim in the sea regularly together and created a plan that that was aligned with our values and would give us purpose. Setting up Seabirds Community Interest Company was out commitment to take action and bring positive changes into our lives.

More recently I have put Acceptance and Commitment therapy into practice. I am in a Channel Swimming relay team set to swim across to France in July. There are days when I have literally no idea why I signed up to do this when my anxiety is standing on my chest and I am completely unable to breathe. But I’ve committed to it.

Training for the channel, I am alone with my thoughts, in a pool, ploughing up and down the same boring lane for hours on end. I hate the pool. I more than hate the pool. I am scared of the pool. I can swim. Obviously. And you are never more than a few metres away from the edge. But pools still petrify me. Because they are full of people. I have social anxiety and claustrophobia. There are unwritten rules for pools. Lane etiquette is just one of them. What to wear, where to get changed, taking off shoes, getting lost in the changing rooms, the showers. All full of strange unfamiliar rituals that terrify the uninitiated me. I have had a panic attack in a pool before during a coached session. Avoiding pools has prevented me from attempting or achieving so many swimming milestones. And until recently I just didn’t go.

I imagine all of the other swimmers are questioning why I have chosen their lane. I’m too slow, my propulsion is off point, my goggles are shit. In my head the whole pool is looking at me rather than the black line on the bottom of the pool. They are judging, sniggering tutting. These thoughts don’t leave me for the entire time I am in the pool. The first 15 minutes is a battle between my brain and my body. I am exhausted by the time I have finished my warm up but not from the swimming. Laboured, anxious, agitated breathing is not the relaxed trickle breathing required for swimming long distances. Every length is a diatribe of dialogue telling me to make an excuse and get out. You are not a swimmer! I have been known to cry into my goggles whilst swimming and I regularly cry when I get out.

But to be able to train for the channel relay, I have to get in the pool. I am committed to it! So, I brave it each week, in a quiet lane to myself I’ve orchestrated. Still full of negative thoughts in a a place I cannot escape them., I allow them the space to play out. And after about 15 minutes I’m into my stride, a slow relaxed rolling stroke and I feel like I could swim forever. ( I can’t I knackered if I swim over an hour) Even leaking goggles, gob full of chlorinated choking water or hitting the lane rope can’t put me off my rhythm. The thoughts still come to the forefront occasionally, about being a swimming imposter mainly and letting the team down but they spindrift away again when I don’t give them undue attention. These thoughts are mine. They will always be there. But I’m still swimming.

I had no idea that pool training for a channel relay would be therapy! Swimming in a boring pool has helped me see my thoughts are transient like a tidal stream of words and images. I can’t swim away from them but while I focus on my stroke technique in the here and now they don’t get the attention they need to overwhelm me. The purpose of the pool is to to be physically and mentally fit for something I have committed to, something that has given me purpose.

Although I still can’t wait for the training to move to the sea!

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 remains open only until until November. 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 contract Coronavirus, 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!

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Parallel Swimming

We all share the same fears. Us sea swimmers. Some rational and some irrational. And when you overcome that fear to get in the sea or swim an event it can be an incredible achievement accompanied by an incredible high! This is the story of my first swimming event and soon to be my second.

My social media feed is full of swimmers. The ones that I identify with, connect with, engage with. The well-being water tribes and the wear whatever you want communities. But it’s also full of elite swimmers and endurance athletes who, until recently, I thought are nothing like me. They still got double click likes from me but I didn’t always read the words that accompanied the images and I certainly did not comment.

Visibly, what they all have in common is their swim smiles. Less visible, and what I have recently come to learn, is they also have their fears, worries and anxieties when they swim in common.   It is not just swimmers that swim like me, that are like me. It’s all swimmers. We’re all the same inside. When you listen to swimmers share their fears they are nearly always the same. A fear of the deep, of jellyfish of buoys. And I find this very reassuring in a perverse way. Their fears just haven’t stopped them from swimming in events.

I’ve always avoided swim events. Stories of goggle pulling and ankle grabbing at the start line filled me with horror. My claustrophobia and fear of being surrounded by other swimmers in a pack. That was until I did my first one last year. And I loved it. Maybe not at the time but upon reflection. I also realised that because I am not an elite swimmer, in fact I’m rather slow, I will never be overwhelmed by goggle grabbing swimmers swimming on top of me. What’s more likely is they’ll be wearing their medals at the finish line whilst I’m plodding along at the back. Got to love an irrational fear when you place yourself at the front of the pack with world class medal swimmers. Anxiety with an ego.

So why did I eventually enter an event. The truth is I’ve entered lots but just not turned up. A fictitious sore shoulder or tummy bug has always stopped me from making it to the start line. The reason I entered them was to go the distance. I can swim forever, albeit slowly, but I don’t. I get bored so I stop and I float and I do handstands and I dive through waves and I explore under piers. I needed the motivation of an event to see what my old bag of bones was capable of. Problem was, until last year my noggin wasn’t capable of it. Every time I started training for it and the date got closer I just shut down.  

So what changed? 

I honestly don’t know. I’ve wondered a lot about what got me to that start line and it can only have been an infectious positive laid back attitude. Not mine. I, as ever, had a stream of negative narrative playing on repeat in my head. My swim mate Jess had entered for a laugh and was upbeat and excited all the way to the start line. And although it didn’t stop the constant ‘ you can’t do it’ dialogue in my mind it did distract me and lift me just enough to don a wetsuit and wander down the river bank. 

The day of the event and getting there did not go smoothly AT ALL. Jess drove and there were roadworks and we were late. Still she smiled. Fortunately the bus to ferry us to the start line was also late so we had some hanging around to do in our wetsuits on Littlehampton sea front with the other swimmers. She nipped to the loo and I stood frozen staring at the ground on the outer edges of the congregated swimmers avoiding eye contact with familiar faces. Finally we got on the bus only for it to breakdown and have to get off the bus again. We then had to wait some time for another bus. This swim is tide dependant so my mind was already racing through calculations about the impact a delayed start would have. At least I wouldn’t get swept out to sea I supposed – another irrational fear that had a hold. Jess got out the hobnobs and shared them with any swimmer within earshot. Socially at ease she chatted to those around her. Oh the chasm between our reactions to the same situation now has me in stitches. But it’s why she was exactly the person I needed to be with that day. How I feel about Jess and our friendship is a story for another day but suffice to say she now holds a revered place in my heart. 

So our bus finally gets us to the river entry point. We line up in our different coloured finish time hats and start the single file walk to the river bank. Now I’m questioning the colour of my hat. It’s pink and indicates how long you estimate the swim will take you. I look at the other pink swimmers in their very expensive swim wetsuits and beeping watches and think I must be in the wrong group. My wetsuit is over a decade old and has holes in it. Then I’m recognised by a swimmer from up the coast. She’s a customer and has read some of my blogs so we begin to chat all things Seabird. Damn it my ‘no eye contact’ attempt has failed. According to my public life I am a swimmer. A swim coach. A swim shop owner. A swimming community admin. And someone here knows it and so now there is an expectation that I can swim this with ease. But she’s lovely and I’m enjoying our conversation as we meander along the footpath. Turns out she’s just had a baby and she’s as nervous as me but she is also excited. 

Finally the river. The elite swimmers are already in and warming up. We enter on a wide bend and I stay in the shallows away from the flow and the throng of bodies. I’m temporarily distracted about how far we are from the sea yet there is seaweed in the water. It’s a comfort to me, like seeing a familiar face in a crowd. I tell Jess that I’m going to hang back from the start and not to wait for me I’m just going to put my head down and get on with it. I’ll likely wait right until the last minute to start when the pack have disappeared around the first river bend.  I make her agree to my terms so I know whatever happens to me it won’t prevent her from having a lovely swim and finishing the course. We arrange to collect our bags at the finish line and call each other to find each other at the end. With that said the event started and there was a massive flurry of of limbs and splashing and a nauseas feeling in my stomach. I wait as I said I would, but not for as long as I expected. The competitive in me suddenly had an opening  and before I knew it I’d started swimming. I’d not even said bye to Jess or that I was going – just a push and glide and I was gone. I have since apologised profusely to Jess for this but she gave no shits. Again demonstrating why she was my perfect partner that day. 

So the swim. The first 15 minutes was crowded. Not that crowded but out of proportion exaggerated crowded to a person that craves wide open spaces. All of my worst fears. I can’t sight for toffee and if left to my own devises I will swim in circles. My wetsuit was uncomfortable and I was hot. I normally swim in skins so the added buoyancy was unusual. I hadn’t practiced in a suit as I assumed I’d drop out again. I tuned in to every part of my body that was rubbing or aching whilst swimmers around me closed in making me claustrophobic. I remember looking both ways and seeing swimmers penning me in and beating down on me. I was not grateful that I find bilateral breathing easy at this point as it just meant I could see more swimmers on both sides in close proximity. In reality they were likely swimming in a straight line and it was me with my malfunctioning steering swimming towards them. I wanted to cut corners as the river bent to reduce the swim distance but it just wasn’t possible  at this point.  

And then it thinned out. I have no idea of time as I had no watch. I began to pass people doing breaststroke who would then over take me when they reverted to front crawl. I can remember this from running events when people walk to catch their breath and then speed up again only to get fatigued and walk once more. The same seemed to be true for some swimmers with their breaststroke front crawl river medley. My eyes were constantly searching for the nearest safety boat when I turned to breath so at any point I could raise my arm in the air and say enough, I’m done, get me out. One safety boat seemed to stay close by forever. I wondered if they were watching me, waiting for me to stop. Or were they the mop up boat at the back and I was miles behind all the other swimmers. Or were they looking at my technique and placing bets on whether I’d finish it not. My rational mind knows they were doing no such thing but my irrational mind had decided a river was no place for a seabird. But still I kept swimming. A constant one arm after the other and a Dory mantra of just keep swimming. 

With no watch I had no concept if time. It felt like forever and no time at all before the river began to narrow and flow faster. Swimming over seaweed that was going in the same direction as you but slower was a really weird experience as it looks like it’s moving against the flow. House boats moored on the sides began to appear and people on decks and balconies smiling and cheering. I must be near the end. So I began to look for the RNLI and slipway and head towards it – still convinced I’d be swept out to sea. And then there was an arm under my shoulder lifting me up and I was standing on slippery concrete with a volunteer marshal beaming at me and congratulating me on my swim. Just like that I was done. 

My time and where I finished were and are important to me. For lots of reasons that are too long and too complex to unravel in this writing. All part of the imposter syndrome and paranoia that accompanies my mental illness and plagues anything I may go on to achieve. But I am bloody chuffed I did it. I had a wee discreet cry while I waited to find Jess. A mixture of relief and pride tears. Yes fucking pride – I was and am proud of myself. I know physically I can do distance events but mentally I’d never made to a start line let alone a finish line. It may not have been the perfect swim but it buoyed me up for weeks afterwards. 

We finished the hobnobs with a cup of tea on the beach before we headed back to Brighton. We said we’d love to do it again but there needs to be food and beer afterwards and a few more salty swimmers to join us so a bit more planning on our part. It was a really well organised event. Even the curve ball broken down bus was handled well. Really friendly and kind volunteers and all the other swimmers were also super nice. Even the ones in expensive wetsuits and bank breaking watches. They all remained at the finish line clapping in the rest of the field. 

If I hadn’t done this event there is no way I would have signed up for my second. Not an event as such. In fact there won’t be any other swimmers in the sea with me when I am swimming it. I’m not sure how it happened but I have signed up for a Channel Relay. The disparaging internal dialogue is on repeat and deafening at times. But the rest of the team are more than aware of my mental illness. An incredible bunch of women that I was able to be honest with right from the offset. They are witness to my training tantrums in the pool and provide a huge amount of support with a touch of silliness and sarcasm.

The thought of swimming the channel, to me, is less daunting than entering an event. I am not concerned about the cold, not afraid of the dark and I’ve been known to chase jellyfish for fun. It’s an hour in the water for each swimmer in rotation which I know I can do. Not fast or pretty but I can do it. But I am afraid of smelly diesel boats, being alone with my thoughts for an hour, letting the rest of the team down and having no place to escape on the boat.

Part of my preparation is not to prepare. I’m ignoring all the stuff I’m meant to read. I rarely set my super expensive beeping watch off before I start swimming. My goggles are practically falling apart. I am avoiding all channel swim forums and social media groups. But I have been reading the words that accompany the images of ‘proper’ swimmers on my social media feed now. And listening to podcasts. And reading blogs. And this is how I discovered that there is a parallel to our fears and that this fear never goes away no matter how amazing you are at swimming. This has allowed me to sit with my fear and accept it is never going away but that it is possible to push past it. I live with constant anxiety, a type of fear, and every day, well most days, I push past it.

So I need to keep swimming that hour alone with my thoughts and make sure I spend time in the water next to smelly diesel boats as much as possible. This is how I plan to overcome my fear and swim the channel. And I hope, when it’s done to enter some more swim events. As long as there are hobnobs.

If you are local to Brighton and Hove and are interested in entering the Round the Pier Swim or volunteering at the swim event see below;
The Round the Pier Swim is open for entries – click here for details
If you are able to volunteer at the Round the Pier Swim on July 23rd click here to provide your contact details
If you are interested in the ‘Flock to the Sea’ 8 week course that takes swimmers with limited front crawl experience from the pool to the open water click here to provide your details and be notified when bookings open.
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How Did I Get Here?

It’s a question I often ask myself when my skin is burning with he cold and the wind and rain is whipping and stinging my face. How on earth did I get here? Who thought this would be a good idea? why am I doing this to myself? After a few minutes the pain and questions pass replaced by a familiar but sometimes elusive feeling of joy. But how did it all start?

It is a question I have asked myself many times. To put the question into context, I normally ask myself when I am swimming in the sea and I’m referring to how I ended up swimming year round with a likeminded shoal. I ask myself that question when I am gasping for breath, my skin is burning and a cold wind is whipping sea spray into my frozen face. Or when I am sheltering unsuccessfully from the elements trying unsuccessfully to get dressed as my knickers blow across the beach. Or I’m shivering uncontrollably post swim, with sea water gushing out of my nose with no off tap clad in a fashionista’s idea of hell.

So how did I get here? How did you get here? How did we get here? Jumping into cold water in the middle of winter. Playing in the surf when it is lashing it down with rain. Challenging ourselves to try new things. The answer nearly always points to a pivotal moment in adult life. The end of a relationship. Bereavement. The start of a new job. A move to a new location. Recovery from a physical trauma. A mental heath episode. Transitioning into a new phase of your life. A loss of identity. The list goes on. But, didn’t you swim in the sea when you were a child? Didn’t you play with friends in the water when you were younger? It is very likely you’ve been here before. On a beach, with a smile on your face. In the water doing handstands. Shivering with sweet treats by the waters edge in the rain.

Your outdoor swimming journey most likely started when you were young. As individual as our upbringing and experiences are, it is very likely you and the sea, or a lake, or a river or an outdoor pool have crossed paths before. For some the annual family holiday is taken at the same time and place every year by the sea. For others you may have swum competitively in a swimming pool but have crossed over to outdoor swimming. My relationship with sea swimming is, that it has always been there, just in different guises and not as consistent, regular or year round. But I have always been a water baby since I was, well, a water baby.

My first memories are of Selsey’s summers with my siblings and a raggle taggle group of friends and cousins. My swimming season ran from the Easter Holidays to October Half Term. It was straight from an Enid Blyton book. Making flotillas from old crabbing markers, diving of breakwaters, collecting winkles and selling them to the local fish monger. Swimming under thunderstorms, in the dark, at dawn, in fact anytime we wanted. There was always salt on my skin and a smile on my face. Fast forward forty years and I am doing the same thing just a bit further along the coast and year round. As a really skinny child I am all too familiar with shivering, blue lips and chattering teeth. So it just feels like coming home.

I am reliving my childhood in a lot of ways. Swimming in the sea, from a young age, gave me a solid foundation to fall back on. A way to be sociable when quite frankly I am not. A way to have fun and experience joy in the most innocent and fundamental way a human can. A way to tune out the internal dialogue that modern day living has created as our narrative of normal. A way to manage my mental illness. A way back to myself. It meets my needs in a way that work, family, other physical and self care activities just don’t. We never stray far from each other, the sea and me. Swimming in the sea has been my most faithful companion. A lifetime of loyalty, of lessons learnt, of problems solved, of keeping my head above water.

My swimming in the sea has not always been consistent but the presence of the sea has been constant. My twenties was a decade that saw me buy my first house, by the sea. But the closest I got to it was in a queue for a nightclub on the seafront. Even in the warm summer months I stayed away from the beach. The drought decade. In my thirties I became a parent and the sea became our place for us as a family. Much like it had been for me. It was important to me to recreate the hedonistic long salty days of my childhood for my children. So I’d take dips in the summer, rock pool in the winter, with them in tow. In my forties I discovered surfing, year round swimming, qualified as a Surf Lifeguard and an Open Water Swimming Coach. Now, hardly a day goes by when I do not visit the beach and get in the sea.

Many turn to swimming in the sea at a point in their lives when they need it the most. This can become a lifelong affair or just a passing phase. We have seen many faces come and go in the few short years our swimming community has been in existence. A transient time and place for some. They found us and swimming in the sea when they needed it. They may drift back when they need it again. Others have remained and formed strong bonds and friendships. I have a new raggle taggle group of friends to have fun with. Whatever the reason or the season, there is balm.

Swimming in the sea can turn into something very different based on the needs of the individual. It is not one size fits all. I am known for never measuring temperature or time in the water. But I don’t feel I’ve had a swim unless I get my head wet. Waves put many people off but they are welcome invitation to have some fun for me. And although full immersion is the ultimate goal, when it’s too rough I’m happy to wait out the storm and walk on the shingle instead. Others need to to go in a certain number of times a week and will swim in the calm waters of the local stinky port if the sea is inaccessible. Some measure minutes and degrees and always swim at the same spot. It’s not for me but if it works for them who am I to judge. OK I am judging but I’m also accepting. And they will ALL ask themselves how they got here when forget their cossie, go in in the sea in their underwear and they are naked , cold and tired on an exposed beach trying to put layers onto sticky cold skin that is acting like a repellent. And they’ll ALL be happy that they ‘did get here’.

Swimming in the sea is the best example I can think of for ‘whatever works for you’. Go in every day, go in when you can. Wear a wetsuit, go in naked. We are all different but what sea swimming has to offer is the same. A moment of joy, connection with nature, community and kindness. Things you likely experienced in childhood that are still very much needed in adulthood. The sea will always be there when you need it. You may always ask yourself how you got here, but you’ll be happy that you did!

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Is it safe to swim in the sea?

Part of the joy of swimming in the sea year round is getting to know your swim spot, your limits, your abilities and your swim buddies intimately. Do this the right way and you will be able to make sound judgements about whether it is safe to swim in the sea.

Swimming in cold water and outside of the ‘bathing season’ is very different to summer swimming. Lower air temperatures, storms are more likely, no lifeguards on the beach. It’s no longer just a case of grab your cossie and head out the door. People asking each other if it’s ok to swim. We get asked a lot, both online and on the beach, ‘is it safe to go in?’ And our answer is we don’t know.

We’re not saying that to be unhelpful, unkind, smug or territorial.  It’s just that we don’t know. In most cases we have never met the person asking before. So we have no idea of their swim ability and more importantly experience of sea swimming at that particular location. We also have no insight into their physical and mental health at the time of asking and time of potential swimming.

Part of the joy of swimming in the sea year round is getting to know your swim spot, your limits, your abilities and your swim buddies intimately. By going in regularly at different tide states, tidal flows and temperatures you will begin to get to know yourself and what you are capable of and comfortable with. Do this gradually and safely, there is no rush, the sea is not going anywhere. 

In addition to reviewing weather forecasts, sea conditions, tides before you swim you need to review yourself and your swim buddies. This is only possible by being honest and realistic about your capabilities and relying only on yourself to make decisions about whether it is safe to swim. Trusting your swim buddies to make the right decision for only themselves too. The decisions may be different for all of you. And that’s OK. Many times I have chosen not to swim in challenging conditions because I do not want to influence my swimming buddies by going in. Many times I have chosen a more sheltered spot because the forecast predicted unsuitable sea conditions where I normally swim. Many times I have just waited for a different day.

Whenever we swim somewhere new, we research the local conditions, tide times by asking locals. Whenever we swim in our usual spot we review for topographical changes each time we arrive. Whenever we swim anywhere we check our swim kit, swim buddies, forecasts before we leave the house, conditions when we arrive at the beach, entry and exit points, for hazards and most importantly how we are feeling. This ‘checklist’ is by no means exhaustive but demonstrates the need for safe choices being based on careful consideration and sound sea knowledge. 

In the winter you can’t always swim on a wim. There is a degree of planning involved before you even leave the house. You need to know what the weather, the waves and the tides are doing. Find the apps or websites that work for you. When making decisions affecting your swim don’t rely on a single source of information. Check a few, make sure they are all saying the same thing, build a picture of what the conditions will look like based on the forecast information. 

But remember nothing beats actually getting to the beach and checking again. Forecasts are exactly that, forecasts. Someone’s best predictions based on a multitude of factors. What is going on locally, in reality, can be different or you may have read the forecast wrong. It happens. Be prepared to abandon or adapt your swim plans when you arrive at your swim spot based on what is actually before you. 

Webcams are looking at the water from a high vantage point which can distort our ability to assess wave and swell height. Even standing on a beach doesn’t really provide an insight into just how big a wave looks.  When you are in the water, can’t touch the seabed, your head is in a trough and a two foot wave is bearing down on you it seems huge. If you are cold and tired it can look like a mountain. When only your head is above water, it’s all about perspective. And this can cause panic!

The wave seems bigger when you are in the water

This is particularly important when you are planning your entry and exit points. When you enter cold water your breath will be robbed. On flat calm you can enter gradually. This is also true of shallow waters. Rough high water swims mean you are going to get wet quick. Timing your entry is everything and fast immersion is inevitable. 

But more importantly you need to plan your exit. 

Waiting for a break in the waves to get in when you are standing on dry land and  you are warm and full of anticipation energy is a completely different experience to getting out of the sea. You will be cold. You will be tired. It may not be the same spot you got in. You may not be in your depth and able to plant your feet on the sea bed and will be treading water for a while. You need to look out to sea and back to shore alternately and you assess when it’s good to get out. You may need to go back past the break line a few times until it’s safe to get out which can zap you of energy. You need to time it so the energy of the wave carries you in without dumping you unceremoniously on the shore. Can you do all of this? If you can’t don’t go in. 

You need to check your swim spot and yourself before you go in. Have a good look around and look at yourself. When else do you get to stand still and just take stock? Hardly ever right? So embrace it and take advantage of this quiet time to give yourself an ‘MOT’ and connect with your surroundings. 

Looking outward, what is the state of the beach? What is the state of the sea? Are there any structures likes harbour walls, groynes, rocks, piers? Are there any other water users like swimmers, fishermen, kite surfers, surfers, paddle boarders, the much maligned jet skiers? Is there slippery seaweed, flotsam, run off, litter? Looking inward, what state are you in. Did you sleep well last night? When did you last eat? How is your mental health? Do you have any injuries? And keep looking outward and inward through your swim and be be prepared to alter it so you stay safe. 

Always be prepared to abandon your swim, before or during your dip. 

Find a swim buddy or group to enjoy your sea swims with. They are not your lifeguards, your safety cover or your spotters. They are your company, your confidants, your community. My ‘swim wife’ knows me in a way my husband doesn’t, she is more aware of my abilities in the sea than he is, the signs that I’ve stayed in a tad too long, or if I’m procrastinating on the shoreline for longer than usual. Yes in an emergency they may be able to get help. But don’t rely on them to do that. The idea of swimming with others in the colder months is to build an intimate trust between each other. These are the the people that may spot the signs of cold water incapacitation in you and kindly but firmly tell you to exit the water. These are the people that help you get dressed when the after drop hits. These are the people who loan you a spare brightly coloured swim hat to keep your head warm and you seen. These are the people that support your safe swim decisions and share your winter swimming experience with. These people are not there to tell you whether it’s safe to swim. Only you can do that. 

What you wear into the water is entirely up to you and there are adaptations you can make to your normal attire depending on the entry/exit point water temperature, and type of swim you plan to do. For example, I am a year round skin swimmer. Most of the time I don’t wear boots or gloves just a cossie and a brightly coloured hat.  My feet have adapted to the shifting shingle of my local swim spot and my hands seem to manage without gloves. Many of my peers who have the same experience as me always wear something on their feet and hands. It’s just personal choice. And my choices are based on my knowing my limits and keeping my safety at the forefront of my decisions. In the coldest months I’m dipping for a few minutes no more so I’m just in my cossie but keep myself seen with a brightly coloured hat. 

I wear a brightly coloured hat all year round! Be safe be seen – no one can help you if they can’t see you.  It needs to be pink like a fishing float marker, yellow like a swim buoy, or orange like a lifeboat – colours chosen for the purpose of being seen at sea. Blue, white, black just cannot be seen even in relatively flat seas. If there are waves I occasionally put neoprene boots on so I can place my feet on the seabed and time my entry and exit with a modicum of certainty or run like Billy O away from a breaking wave. If I am swimming at a new spot I most definitely put something on my feet as it’s unfamiliar territory. If I’m coaching in autumn, winter and spring, I will wear a water sports wetsuit so I remain warm whilst I am responsible for others and myself. If I’m swimming any kind of distance I may chose to wear a swimming wetsuit, and always a tow float so I can be seen and stay warm. Different swims and different conditions warrant different decisions. 

Photo Credit Julia Claxton

You still gain the cold water benefits when wearing a wetsuit and if that’s what is needed for you to be able to get in the sea, put one on. There’s no room for purists when it comes to safe sea swimming. 

What you wear after your swim requires the same consideration. Nothing tight fitting and lots of loose layers. Buttons can bog off along with bras and tights and knickers are unnecessary. Have your clothes ready in the order you are going to put them on. I pity the person that tries to put on an inside out pair of trousers in the wind and rain. When you get out of the sea you need to be able to get into your clothes quickly. 

A few hacks include;

  1. Keep your dry attire in an insulated shopping bag with a hot water bottle.
  2. Invest in a haramaki – it can be worn as a bra substitute or a core warmer and you can tuck another hot water bottle inside it – be careful not to burn yourself! 
  3. Do the zip half way up on your swim robe before you go into the sea so you can simply step into when you get out and not rely on numb fingers to do it up. 
  4. Bring two woolly bobble hats – one to wear in the water and a dry one to put on when you get out
  5. Bring something to stand on and keep your kit dry. The ground can be freezing, wet, sandy….. my favourite bit of kit is a mat I can stand on with a waterproof base that has drawstrings and handles to carry my wet stuff home in. It can also be used to cover up my kit and keep it dry while I swim. Game changer! 

You need to get dry and warm fast. 

So to answer the question is it safe to swim in the sea? The answer is not a simple yes or no. Find your own sweet spot, somewhere between being safe and being spirited. You’ll know it when you find it. It’s all part of the adventure. And if anyone asks you if it’s safe to swim you know what to say! 

Be kind but be firm that you cannot make that decision for others, only yourself. Look after each other – but most of all look after yourself! You are not responsible for anyone else’s swim decisions and they are not responsible for yours.

Author: Seabirds CIC

The “Pass the Salt” Seabirds Blogs include; Stories from the Sea, Advice for safe swimming, Swim kit recommendations and Wellbeing and Water reflections. Use the category menu on the home page to search for many more ……. happy reading and happy swimming. If you enjoyed this blog and/or others and have shared them please consider donating the cost of a hot drink or slice of cake to our Community Fund using the buttons below. The Community fund pays for swimming lessons, swim kit, transport etc for people in our local area that would benefit the most from sea swimming as a way to manage their wellbeing, but are under-represented in the outdoor swimming community. THANK YOU!

Further reading;

How swimming into winter in a wild swim community ensures you are looking out for each other physically AND mentally.

Separating fact from fiction and dispelling the many myths that surround cold water swimming

Introduction to Winter Sea Swimming

Chilled Swimming

Winter Swimming; The Waiting Game

Cold Water Swimming; Kill or Cure?

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. Like gloves and socks, choose the thickness that is right for you. If you wish to continue front crawl swimming into the winter months, or handstands, the heat tech cap is the one for you.

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!

The “Pass the Salt” Seabirds Blogs include; Stories from the Sea, Advice for safe swimming, Swim kit recommendations and Wellbeing and Water reflections. Use the category menu on the home page to search for many more ……. happy reading and happy swimming.

This blog forms part of a series of Outdoor Swimming Advice blogs written by a qualified Surf Lifeguard and Open Water Swimming coach who has been swimming in the sea year round since 2012. They are written to encourage others to swim safe and share the swim love. If you have read and shared this blog we invite you to donate the cost of a post swim hot drink or slice of cake to the Seabirds Community Swim Fund. All profits from our online wild swim shop are also donated to the Seabirds Community Swim fund. This way you can buy your wild swim kit to keep you warm and donate.

The Seabird’s Community Swim Fund raises money to pay for swim kit and lessons for non-swimmers with a focus on fulfilling Seabirds’ commitment to the Black Swimming Association’s DIPER charter – where Seabirds “stand with the BSA to create a swim buddy system in which we partner non-swimmers and swimmers for the purpose of exchanging aquatic information, support, education and resources to enable more ethnically diverse communities to get in the water.” So far donations have enabled us to fund swimming lessons, kit and transport for a number of Brighton and Hove adults and children who are under represented in the Outdoor Swimming Community. Many of whom have gone on to join us swimming in the sea to improve their wellbeing!

Thank You

Featured

IMPROVE the Moment by Swimming in the Sea

Cold Water Therapy. Salted Wellbeing. Vitamin Sea. Whatever you want to call it many people are turning to sea swimming to improve their wellness and reduce stress. How it works for me is similar to Dialectical Behavioural Therapy I’ve had in the past. This blog explores the similarities between DBT and swimming in the sea as part of a community.

How do you deal with life’s daily stress?

I look to IMPROVE the moment which is a form of Dialectical Behavioural Therapy (DBT). The aim of DBT is for you to learn skills to manage difficult feelings and make positive changes in your life. I have tried various forms of therapy over the years to manage my PDD and Anxiety. I have been rather negative when asked about my experiences of them. When asked I say they are not for me (read they don’t work for me) but I don’t want put other people off from trying them as they may work for them. I have since come to realise, for me, it was the situation of a clinical room, a desperation to feel better fast, and a prescriptive session that created my resistance to any form of clinical therapy. I just needed to be in the sea with a community and there it was, my therapy.

5 years ago, I stumbled upon skin swimming year round with a mate. We were having a similar difficult time at work and both decided to resign from our jobs as they were having a significantly detrimental effect on our wellness. With the luxury time afforded us, we began to swim in the sea regularly, putting the world to rights in the waves. And we just didn’t stop. Before we knew it we had swum through winter. And we felt so much better. So we set up a Community Interest Company and a Community Swim Group to encourage others to swim in the sea too. I recently realised that I was actually drawing upon things I had learned in behaviour therapy and finally reaping the rewards simply because the setting had changed. In and around the sea I was able to IMPROVE my wellness.

Fun in the waves

IMPROVE STANDS FOR;

  • IMAGERY
  • MEANING
  • PRACTICE
  • ONE
  • VACATION
  • ENCOURAGE

IMAGERY

As part of the therapy, you are meant to imagine the outcome you want from your current situation. I always struggled with this. Until I got in the sea. The ‘in real life’ imagery surrounding me of blue space gave me head space. And my post swim chats with fellow swimmers added to the clarity of the outcome I wanted. Floating, breathing, relaxing in the water all created an environment where I could picture myself doing things differently. I’ve made my best decisions in the sea. The most obvious being, starting a Social Enterprise that aims to provide others with the opportunity to swim in the sea to manage their wellbeing and a Sea Swimming Community!

Relax and float

meaning

This is about reasoning and finding the reason in a past or present situation. Again framed in the sea or the backdrop of the beach, many of the things that create anxiety and worry for me pale into insignificance next to the magnitude of Mother Nature. In the sea I am constantly learning and adapting to the environment around me, something I am frequently able to take home with me when I leave the beach. What this can mean, for me, is the situation or relationship that was causing me so much angst is put into perspective. The weight of it’s meaning is lightened, whilst what is important to me remains intact. There is purpose in every painful experience, even if it’s that I survived it albeit scathed!

practice

This refers to the practice of acknowledging our connection to something bigger. For some this is prayer and religion. For others it’s mediation and a higher meaning. For me it’s getting into a vast expanse of salty water and feeling connected with the natural environment, my swimming community, my past, present and future happy place. There is an undeniable connection between my wellness and water. The societal and social media pressure to practice mindfulness sends my busy brain into overdrive and overwhelm. At the mere mention of Wim Hoff I come out in a cold sweat. Upon reflection I have come to realise my simple practice of sea swimming is the way I confirm my connection.

Community Swim

relax

Yogic breathing, baths, getting out in nature. All great ways of relaxing. And sea swimming has it all. In order to prevent Cold Water Shock and acclimatise when entering the sea, we need to relax our breathing which in turn relaxes our nervous system. Floating in the water and stilling the mind. The blue hues of the seascape and the sounds of waves on the shore are all tried and tested relaxation aids. I’ve tried yoga but I just think about all the things I should be doing instead. I love reading but when my mental health is poor I’m unable to focus on the text for any length of time. Walking is great but I often get my phone out and go down an internet rabbit hole when I should be looking to make sure I don’t step down an actual rabbit hole. But, I have found that sea swimming and being at the beach works for me. So much easier when you cannot take screens into the sea and it’s the only way I’ve really found I can relax.

ONE THING IN THE MOMENT

My mind is constantly caught up in thoughts about the future or more commonly the past. And not in a happy memory or excited about what’s to come way. Being present is something I really struggle with. I’m regularly awake at 4am replaying the previous days interactions. Swimming in the sea provides me with respite from these distorted thoughts. Swimming in the sea brings your attention back to ‘one thing in the moment’. I need to think about what the sea is doing, where will I get in, how will I get out, where are the waves coming from, how is my swim buddy doing, has the wind changed direction……. the list goes on and you get my point.

Be in the Moment

vacation

Excuse the Americanism, but the word holiday would ruin the acronym. What is meant here is taking a break. Just for an hour or two. Bunk off from work. Bin the home cooked dinner. Switch off your phone. Get into bed. Or, my preferred option, is to go for a swim in the sea or take a bracing walk on the beach. Yes it will still be there when I get back but I will return to it with renewed energy after a break. Being accountable by arranging to meet others for a swim is a really good way to ensure you take a break. Another benefit of swimming with a community. I have a couple of regular swim times a week with friends, that ensure I get my sea time.

encouragement

This can be provided by others. My swim community can be my biggest cheer leaders BUT it’s best when it comes from me. Again another one I struggle with as I am extremely self critical and far too worried about what other people think of me. However, with practice I have got better. The way I have approached this is to talk to myself as my swim community friends would speak to me. In really hard times, and sometimes during significant depressive episodes, people swimming beside me have shown me immense support and love. At times, without them there would be no self efficacy. And as with so many of my sea swimming experiences I have been able to take this away from the beach and change my internal dialogue to replicate their kind words. I can navigate choppy water, I can cope with the cold, I can deal with my daily life.

All of these IMPROVEMENTS have not been done consciously or with intent. They have been the happy outcome of swimming in the sea. This is my therapy.

Super Support

If you have read and shared this blog we invite you to donate the cost of a post swim hot drink or slice of cake to the Seabirds Community Swim Fund. All profits from our online wild swim shop are also donated to the Seabirds Community Swim fund. This way you can buy your wild swim kit to keep you warm and donate.

The Seabird’s Community Swim Fund raises money to pay for swim kit and lessons for non-swimmers with a focus on fulfilling Seabirds’ commitment to the Black Swimming Association’s DIPER charter – where Seabirds “stand with the BSA to create a swim buddy system in which we partner non-swimmers and swimmers for the purpose of exchanging aquatic information, support, education and resources to enable more ethnically diverse communities to get in the water.” So far donations have enabled us to fund swimming lessons, kit and transport for a number of Brighton and Hove adults and children who are under represented in the Outdoor Swimming Community. Many of whom have gone on to join us swimming in the sea to improve their wellbeing!

THANK YOU

The “Pass the Salt” Seabirds Blogs include; Stories from the Sea, Advice for safe swimming, Swim kit recommendations and Wellbeing and Water reflections. Use the category menu on the home page to search for many more ……. happy reading and happy swimming.

Community Swimmers Sharing the Swim Love
Featured

The question everyone asks about Cold Water Swimming…..

People always ask me how cold the water is. And my answer is I don’t know. But I do know how cold I feel and that’s how I make safe swim choices.

Some people ask how to acclimatise to cold water swimming. Others ask how to warm up afterwards and beat the after drop. There are lots of technical questions about various pieces of kit, where it is safe to swim and how long you should stay in for. Cold water Swimming is of the moment and there are lots of people taking to the water to improve their mental and physical health. BUT the question that is ALWAYS asked without fail is “What’s the water temperature?

And do you know what? I have no bloody idea and I don’t bloomin’ care. For non sea swimmers I’m intrigued to know why they want to know – do they measure my hardiness by water temperature? For fellow year round swimmers I hope they are not asking to time how long they intend to stay in the water……

The Outdoor Swimming community is growing and so is it’s presence on Social Media. My feed is full of the most beautiful photographs of idyllic wild swims. But it is also full of  photos of the thermometers. The colder it gets the more I get! There are discussions on the best thermometer to use to measure the temperature of the water. My ‘lick my finger and hold it in the air’ thermometer does not measure the temperature in degrees Celsius or Fahrenheit. In the summer the sea can be as warm as a bath, my internal thermometer measures this as ‘barmy bathing’. In the winter it is cold enough to take your breath away, which shows on my internal thermometer as ‘bloody baltic’ . Anything below 5 degrees requires a profanity and is as ‘f@?$ing freezing’.  In the winter you would think our flock would migrate to warmer climes but in fact as we drop out of double digit sea temperatures our numbers increase as locals look to improve their wellbeing by partaking in cold water swimming.

It is hard to actually measure the temperature of the sea in Brighton.  In the summer, Brighton’s Beach Lifeguard Posts and year round, Brighton Sea Swimming Club regularly display the temperature of the sea on beach front boards. Forecasting apps also list the sea temperature at certain locations. But it doesn’t always reflect how the water actually feels and I’m not convinced it’s particularly accurate as they differ so substantially. The energy of a ground or wind swell that create waves and chop can make it feel a couple of degrees warmer. It’s like the energy of the waves is warming it up.  Underground fresh water streams empty into the sea all along the seafront which causes the temperature to vary considerably. If there has been significant rainfall the river Wellesbourne and underground chalk streams increases the cold freshwater entering the sea along our beaches. Even in the summer months you can find yourself in a really cold spot.

This is my fifth winter of skin swimming. Last year felt much easier even though we were unable to meet in encouraging groups. It felt milder and I managed the entire year without resorting to boots or gloves. I don’t say this to brag, or indeed recommend, it’s just a fact. However, the sea seemed to take an age to warm up as we headed towards Spring and Summer 2021. We lost our prevailing warm westerly wind as the Jet Stream seemed to miss us and high pressure for months meant arctic cold winds but beautiful flat seas. This has continued throughout the summer and other than the occasional storm we’ve maintained the clear skies and cold air temperatures. So may be it is just colder this year as my boots and gloves have appeared in my swim bag already.

For the many people, this year marks their first year swimming in the sea year round. They have been told tales of the 2018 Beast from the East and have been longing to swim in sub 5 degree temperatures. We have enticed them with stories of how cold it gets in March only for false Spring to arrive and temperatures almost reached double digits again (according to my internal thermometer). Many have researched the effects of cold water swimming on mental and physical wellbeing and are chasing the elusive cold water cure. Adaptations like duck diving, wave jumping and full stroke with head in, are made to ensure that vagus nerve gets the shock it needs. Fortunately being with the flock can also make you smile on a bad day whatever the water temperature.

How cold the sea feels can depend on so many factors, none of which can be captured in a thermometer. Am I swimming alone or with a group? Which way and how strongly is the wind blowing? Am I close to freshwater run off from a river, stream, outfall? What am I wearing? How tired am I? What is my mental state? When did I last get in? And then there is the science of thermoclines………. OR is the sea just colder than last year? As I don’t have a thermometer I don’t know the answer, but it feels it. And so I have adapted my swims and swim kit according to how cold it feels.

There are so many other factors at play when you swim in cold water to consider that impact your ability to adapt to the cold water. And these factors will change every time you swim. So rather than asking how cold the water is? A better question is how cold do I feel? Or how cold am I likely to feel? Things that will influence this are as per the list of questions above; air temperature, wind chill, how well you slept, your mental state, when you last ate, how cold you were before getting in. The list goes on. So before every swim take the time to consider all of these factors and check in with yourself and your fellow swimmers throughout your swim. You will come to see that the actual temperature of the water can have a very small impact on how cold you feel and how long you are comfortable and safe in he water. All of the other contributing factors have a bigger influence and need considering.

On a warm summers day I have been known to get the shakes post swim because I have had an awful nights sleep and no breakfast. Every swim is a new experience, as none of the factors impacting your cold water adaptation are ever the same. You gain the cold water thrill and post swim high from just a few moments in the water (and whatever you wear)- so you don’t need to stay in for long.

Swimming for wellness isn’t measuring and monitoring. It’s about getting to know yourself, what you can endure, and how your body tells you it’s time to get out. Free from daily stresses and arbitrary goals, you come to know your bodies capabilities and when it needs you to return to dry land to warm up. You will inevitably make mistakes along the way, we all do, just make sure you learn from them. I know that the moment I feel like I could stay in there forever, is the time for me to get out. My body tells me this rather than my watch or thermometer.

We are looking for our skin to burn, our breath to be taken away, our fingers to fumble and for the post swim high to last all day! As long as this happens I do not care what a watch, baby’s duck thermometer or aquarium thermometer say the temperature is. As long as I squeal as I get in, shake as I get out and share the swim love, I am a happy year round sea swimmer!

So next time you want to know what the temperature of the sea is, don’t ask me! But do ask yourself how cold do I feel.

The “Pass the Salt” Seabirds Blogs include; Stories from the Sea, Advice for safe swimming, Swim kit recommendations and Wellbeing and Water reflections. Use the category menu on the home page to search for many more ……. happy reading and happy swimming. If you enjoyed this blog and/or others and have shared them please consider donating the cost of a hot drink or slice of cake to our Community Fund using the buttons below. The Community fund pays for swimming lessons, swim kit, transport etc for people in our local area that would benefit the most from sea swimming as a way to manage their wellbeing, but are under-represented in the outdoor swimming community. THANK YOU!

Further reading;

How swimming into winter in a wild swim community ensures you are looking out for each other physically AND mentally.

Separating fact from fiction and dispelling the many myths that surround cold water swimming

Introduction to Winter Sea Swimming

Featured

Warming up after Cold Water swimming

Tips and Advice on how to warm up after cold water swimming, including preparation, what to wear after a swim, and some swim changing hacks!

“After drop” is common after swimming in cold water; you get out and feel fine, and then you start to get colder, sometimes growing faint, shivering violently and feeling unwell.” (Outdoor Swimming Society) 

Learning to head off the after drop is a key part of continuing to swim in cold water all year round. While in the cold water you can be lured into a false sense of security (numbness!) and stay in for what turns out to be too long. With practice you learn your limitations and just how cold you are going to be about 10 minutes after getting out. You then moderate your swim times and get out before you feel you have to. Then the key is warming up – slowly. If you have a hot shower, for example, the blood can run from your core (where it is working hard to maintain your core temperature and keep you alive!) to your skin and actually make your temperature drop along with your blood pressure – potentially making you feel faint and ‘stinging’ your skin.

Preparing to get into the Water

  • Don’t wait for you mates – once you are swim ready get in the water. You will get cold before you get in which isn’t advisable.
  • If your neoprene accessories are cold and wet from a previously swim pour  hot water over them to warm them up before putting them on.
  • Wear neoprene on your hands, feet and head. Functioning hands mean you can get dressed fast and soles on your feet mean you can exit the water fast!

Preparing to get out of the water

  • Find a sheltered spot out of the wind and protected from the elements to store your dry clothes and kit. You will appreciate this when you get out when you are struggling to get dressed.
  • Your dry kit – Cover it, water proof it, protect it from dogs peeing on it!
  • Have something to stand on – it doesn’t matter what. An old yoga mat, bath mat, changing mat. It isn’t just the water that is cold, the ground can be colder much of the time, so something to stand on will stop the cold from penetrating your feet and travelling up your body!
  • Have your clothes ready, the right way out and in the order you will be putting them on. Have the layers that will touch your skin wrapped up in a hot water bottle and in an insulated bag!
  • Insulated bag Hack – the bags you get from the supermarket that keep your groceries warm also work in reverse and keep hot things hot. So they are a great place to keep your post swim kit and hottie!

Getting dressed; What to Wear: 

  • Leave your swim hat on until you are dressed – it’s keeping your head warm, let it continue doing that. You can always but a bobble hat on over it until you are fully dressed.
  • Remove neoprene accessories but replace them immediately with dry alternatives. So after you have taken off neoprene gloves, replace them with thin thermal cotton ones. They’ve been kept warm by neoprene while you were in the water, so the wind chill will sting!
  • Get dressed as soon as you can. Swim smile selfies can wait! Preferably starting with the top half of your body.  Use a haramaki core-warmer – a band to wear around your core. As you start to warm up blood starts to recirculate in your extremities and peripheral blood vessels, cooling as it travels. You can lose up to 4.5°C from your core temperature so a haramaki is great.
  • Use a robe or a sports cloak to get dressed quicker and protect you from the wind-chill as well as your dignity. Have the zip partially done up before you enter the water so you can step into it and not have to fiddle with the fastening with cold hands.
  • Put on lots of layers, thermals, core-warmer, no fastenings, no sports leggings, no knickers, elasticated waists, fluffy socks, pull on warm boots and gloves and of course a woolly hat. 
  • If you swim in a bobble hat, bring a dry one to put on after your swim.
  • Put on a hat and gloves and have some tea from a flask you brought with you!
  • Hand warming Hack – If you bring a cup with you you can pour a hat drink from your flask into an instant hand warmer!

Others ways of warming up

  • Sip a warm drink: this doesn’t really do much, but it’s comforting and makes you feel like you are warming the body gently from the inside.
  • Eat something: sugar will help raise body temperature so have some cake!
  • Sit in a warm environment: chance for more tea and more cake with your fellow swimmers….. Pre covid and post swim huddle and cuddle was wonderful!
  • Walk around to generate body heat. It can take some time to warm properly. Running up and down the beach while waiting for your friends-who-faff can help.
  • Squats – the quads are the biggest muscle in your body so by doing squats it helps you warm up from the inside out. But any form of exercise it good, hoovering, walking the dog. Just don’t go and sit at a desk straight away afterwards.
  • Hot Water bottle hack – the hot water bottle you bought to wrap you clothes up in will have cooled down fast so bring more hot water in an insulated flask to refill it to use after your swim. Be careful you don’t hold it directly onto bare skin, swimmers have been known to get burns! You can get cases and wearable body warming ones
  • Feet Warming Hack – some swimmers have been known to bring washing up bowls to the beach that they fill with warm water and stand in while they get dressed.

If you have any good tips please add in the comments 🙂

Further reading; How swimming into winter in a wild swim community ensures you are looking out for each other physically AND mentally. Separating fact from fiction and dispelling the many myths that surround cold water swimming Introduction to Winter Sea Swimming The “Pass the Salt” Seabirds Blogs include; Stories from the Sea, Advice for safe swimming, Swim kit recommendations and Wellbeing and Water reflections. Use the category menu on the home page to search for many more ……. happy reading and happy swimming. This blog forms part of a series of Outdoor Swimming Advice blogs written by a qualified Surf Lifeguard and Open Water Swimming coach who has been swimming in the sea year round since 2012. They are written to encourage others to swim safe and share the swim love. If you have read and shared this blog we invite you to donate the cost of a post swim hot drink or slice of cake to the Seabirds Community Swim Fund. All profits from our online wild swim shop are donated to the Seabirds Community Swim fund. This way you can buy your wild swim kit to keep you warm and donate. Just click on the button below.  The Seabird’s Community Swim Fund raises money to pay for swim kit and lessons for non-swimmers with a focus on fulfilling Seabirds’ commitment to the Black Swimming Association’s DIPER charter – where Seabirds “stand with the BSA to create a swim buddy system in which we partner non-swimmers and swimmers for the purpose of exchanging aquatic information, support, education and resources to enable more ethnically diverse communities to get in the water.” So far donations have enabled us to fund swimming lessons, kit and transport for a number of Brighton and Hove adults and children who are under represented in the Outdoor Swimming Community. Many of whom have gone on to join us swimming in the sea to improve their wellbeing!

THANK YOU

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? But when my physical health takes a downward turn and I am unable to leave the house, let a lone swim, the kindness of my swimming community keeps me going. So here it is, my I can’t make do and I certainly won’t mend story.

16 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 are, until now, unknown to even my closest swimming friends. The Kath they 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 is only when I cannot get out of bed, let alone make it to the beach, that the salty community become aware of my head injury legacy.

Once aware the kindness of community is incredible. I am inundated with offers to drive me places, help me onto the beach and supportive messages of love. Tis time last year, the sea was stormy, big waves and wind. My BPPV had been bad but had began to improve throughout the week and by the end of the week I was ready to give swimming a go. My first swim back after this setback was wonderfully warm , albeit not literally 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!

This blog forms part of a series of Outdoor Swimming Advice blogs written by a qualified Surf Lifeguard and Open Water Swimming coach who has been swimming in the sea year round since 2012. They are written to encourage others to swim safe and share the swim love. If you have read and shared this blog we invite you to donate the cost of a post swim hot drink or slice of cake to the Seabirds Community Swim Fund. All profits from our online wild swim shop are also donated to the Seabirds Community Swim fund. This way you can buy your wild swim kit to keep you warm and donate.

The Seabird’s Community Swim Fund raises money to pay for swim kit and lessons for non-swimmers with a focus on fulfilling Seabirds’ commitment to the Black Swimming Association’s DIPER charter – where Seabirds “stand with the BSA to create a swim buddy system in which we partner non-swimmers and swimmers for the purpose of exchanging aquatic information, support, education and resources to enable more ethnically diverse communities to get in the water.” So far donations have enabled us to fund swimming lessons, kit and transport for a number of Brighton and Hove adults and children who are under represented in the Outdoor Swimming Community. Many of whom have gone on to join us swimming in the sea to improve their wellbeing!

THANK YOU

The “Pass the Salt” Seabirds Blogs include; Stories from the Sea, Advice for safe swimming, Swim kit recommendations and Wellbeing and Water reflections. Use the category menu on the home page to search for many more ……. happy reading and happy swimming.

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 in England, it is more important than ever that we look out for one other both physically and emotionally.

We always experience a huge increase in the number of swimmers joining our flock from about 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……..

This blog forms part of a series of Outdoor Swimming Advice blogs written by a qualified Surf Lifeguard and Open Water Swimming coach who has been swimming in the sea year round since 2012. They are written to encourage others to swim safe and share the swim love. If you have read and shared this blog we invite you to donate the cost of a post swim hot drink or slice of cake to the Seabirds Community Swim Fund. All profits from our online wild swim shop are also donated to the Seabirds Community Swim fund. This way you can buy your wild swim kit to keep you warm and donate.

The Seabird’s Community Swim Fund raises money to pay for swim kit and lessons for non-swimmers with a focus on fulfilling Seabirds’ commitment to the Black Swimming Association’s DIPER charter – where Seabirds “stand with the BSA to create a swim buddy system in which we partner non-swimmers and swimmers for the purpose of exchanging aquatic information, support, education and resources to enable more ethnically diverse communities to get in the water.” So far donations have enabled us to fund swimming lessons, kit and transport for a number of Brighton and Hove adults and children who are under represented in the Outdoor Swimming Community. Many of whom have gone on to join us swimming in the sea to improve their wellbeing!

THANK YOU

The “Pass the Salt” Seabirds Blogs include; Stories from the Sea, Advice for safe swimming, Swim kit recommendations and Wellbeing and Water reflections. Use the category menu on the home page to search for many more ……. happy reading and happy swimming.

Featured

Reconnecting with myself by Salty Seabird Ludo Foster

As Transgender Awareness week draws to a close we are publishing a blog by a swimmer in our local community documenting their experience. Transgender Awareness Week is a week when transgender people and their allies take action to bring attention to the community by educating the public about who transgender people are, sharing stories and experiences, and advancing advocacy around the issues of prejudice, discrimination, and violence that affect the transgender community.

My name is Ludo and I identify as a mixed race trans man. I was born and raised in the South Wales Valleys and now live in Hove East Sussex.

As a young child I was quite adventurous. I didn’t have a sense of fear. I spent much of my time riding my bike, roller skating and climbing trees. Swimming began at a young age at the local leisure centre, with my mother and siblings. The busyness of the pool bothered me, but I would splashed around with my arm bands making sure I stayed close to my mother.

School sports on the other hand, I didn’t enjoy. Especially team sports like netball. They were boring, too many rules and I had to rely on what other people were doing. People were picking teams and I felt that I wasn’t very good at sports and I would shy away. I did however like gymnastics. It was so natural to me. Vaulting, standing on my hands and climbing over things. It was a great pleasure and I was good at it. I was free.

At 11 I started comprehensive school. Sport became regimented in a way that didn’t make sense. Things were gendered and I had no control over what I could wear. In gym I had to wear a little skirt and white top. Gymnastics changed into dance and became more group orientated. It felt very confining. Swimming became very formal with weekly school swimming lessons. The tutor was quite stern and everyone was afraid of him. It became a fearful thing. It was noisy, chaotic and I was body conscious. I made excuses not to attend and I had a note to be excused. I lost my interest and the desire to do sporty things were quashed. It would be decades before I rediscovered physical activity.

From that point I retreated more and did a lot of drawing, created stories and music came to the forefront. I was growing up, but during this time I didn’t have access to LGBT information. Being trans wasn’t spoken about and I first heard about trans men existing in my late 20s. I came out as trans myself in my mid 30s and had top surgery in my late 30s. About 12 months after the procedure I had a yearning to try out different things. I had the feeling for a while that I wanted to try swimming. So I began checking out my options.

The pools in my area are larger and deeper than the local pool I had grown up using as a child. I didn’t think that I could do it. In fact once again it was my mother who encouraged me, when she came to visit me. I chose one of the local authority swimming pools and we went and visited it together. On arrival I was intimidated and didn’t know what to expect. It was all new to me. I was relieved to discover that they had gender neutral changing room with cubicles.

When changing I reflected on the fact that for many years I had had an eating disorder, something which is sadly very common in trans people. As a result my body was very emaciated. Something I used to disguise by wear baggy clothes. I was worried that people might judge me or ask me to leave. I walked onto poolside with my trunks, googles and I was very underweight. No one said anything to me.

When I first went back to swimming, it had been 25 years and I felt that I had forgotten how to swim. I find it difficult to be taught things. So, I watched some YouTube videos and taught myself how to not only to swim again, but to dive. The water felt cold, but I soon acclimatised. Being diagnosed with autism later in life, my sensory issues were a test of my passion, but I found ways to manage. First with ear plugs then later an underwater MP3 player. I got used to the layout, the people and the staff. I was around people and felt a sense of community, without having to know anything about the people.

What ignited my passion for swimming was putting the googles on and going under water. It was just so calm and lovely. I realised that I could still tumble while submerged and I felt connected again to gymnastics. It was a childlike pleasure. I woke up to that. It felt amazing. It was this feeling that kept me going back.

When it comes to swimming I think many people will feel that they will be a minority and made to feel unwelcome. Whether its in reference to their race or gender identity. For me it became part of my daily routine and an obsession. Once in the water I am often rather oblivious to what everyone else is thinking. I feel comfortable in my body and the process is all very natural to me. Someone would have to be very overt for me to pay them any attention. I don’t take this for granted, as I know it’s not the same for everyone.

Obviously with lock down the public pool was closed. During this time I took part in Trans Can Sport online sessions. The various instructors give a holistic approach to the sessions. It’s now become a routine and it makes me feel a part of things. I feel a sense of familiarity and it’s been psychologically useful. I was initially interested in Trans Can Core, but I’m also taking part in Trans Can Fight and HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training). I’m particularly enjoying HIIT. Like all TCS sessions the exercises are being tailored to suit individual needs and there is a real emphasis on going at your own pace. Even though it’s a group setting I don’t feel overwhelmed as I would do in a face to face sessions.

I am happy for Seabirds to share my Trans Can Sport blog post on the Seabirds blog. It would be great if it could help spread the word about Trans Can Sport and also encourage other Trans and non binary swimmers, also disabled swimmers. I’m passionate about swimming and did lots sea swimming last Autumn and Winter (the Salty fb page has been great for tips!) usually alone as I find groups a bit overwhelming, but hopefully I can start connecting with the sea swimming community more. At the moment I’m in the pool quite a bit working on technique, but I still love the sea.

About Trans Can Sport:

‘Trans Can Sport is a not-for-profit project based in Brighton and Hove. It was created to get trans people into exercise and healthy living, and aims to help anyone who feels their transgender identity makes participating in sport difficult, including people who are questioning or exploring their gender. We also welcome their friends, families and allies.

Trans people want to engage in activities, both sporting and social, like everyone else. Trans Can Sport was formed to provide a safe space to allow these things to happen in a supportive, friendly and non-competitive environment.

We want to resolve and avoid some of the barriers that stop trans people accessing sport, like gendered sports and changing facilities. Sometimes, the tricky navigation of a gendered changing facility is enough to stop trans people from accessing a particular sport or activity. Trans people often avoid gendered sports altogether, because they may not be accommodating or welcoming of diversity.

We work with local fitness professionals and organisations to provide free or low-cost sports sessions, and make sure our trainers have a thorough understanding of how gender may affect their discipline. Further than ensuring the correct use of names and pronoun preferences, we also consider how gender can creep in elsewhere. Our trainers will always communicate about bodies and movement in a non-gendered way.

Trans Can Sport creates a safe space for trans people to use freely, and provides a supportive environment that allows people to connect with their bodies in a positive way. In the words of one of our participants: “I no longer feel alone and don’t have to worry about being self-conscious in front of people who don’t understand why I might look different. I’m looking forward to taking part in as many of the future activities as I can”.


To find out more you can visit  Trans Can Sport on Facebook or to support their work you can donate here

November 13th -19th is Trans Awareness Week – a week to help raise the visibility of transgender and gender non-conforming people, and address the issues the community faces. Seabirds stands in solidarity with all our swimmers (and potential swimmers) in the LGBTQI+ community and welcomes suggestions as to how we can make our swimming community more inclusive to all and break down barriers to swimming for all, together. #sharetheswimlove #swimforall

Vector modern transgender flag background
Featured

Presents with Purpose….

Give Presents with purpose this Christmas. Social Enterprises do business for good and are regulated to ensure they have a positive social and/or environment impact. Seabirds is part of the UK’s network of Social Enterprises, something we are very passionate about and proud of.

When we are not packing and sending out your orders or titting about on the beach the two C/Kaths at Seabirds are joining many of you trying to make our Christmas shopping more Conscious – buying ethical, local and minimal….Try as we might most of us can’t avoid gifting this winter – so how can we make this seasonal consumption harm less and do more good?

One way to give more than just a gift is to buy a Present with Purpose. Presents With Purpose are brought from Social Enterprises tackling society’s toughest social & environmental problems. You can use the Gift Guide to #BuySocial this Xmas from Seabirds and our fellow Social Enterprises. Seabirds want everyone getting in the sea and benefitting their mental and physical health through swimming. We fund this with sales from our Swim Shop, Swim and Confidence lessons and donations. The more we have the more we can achieve and the more people will benefit.

Sharing the Salty Sea Love this Christmas:

Buy your presents at Seabirds swim shop or Seabirds ebay4change shop. There are plenty or gifts for both swimmers and non-swimmers alike. All profits are donated to the Community Swim Fund.

Join the Arctic Tern Challenge to encourage you and your fellow swimmers to make it through winter with a smile on your face. You will receive a woven badge and certificate on completion. Donations go directly to the Community Swim Fund.

Donate when you read our blogs, watch our webinars or like what we do. If everyone who read our Magic Seaweed blog had donated a £1 we would have raised £20,000! (hint hint 😉 ). Donations go directly to the the Community Swim Fund.

Please share with swim-mates. We need your help to keep sharing that swim love!

If you have a great suggestion for ethical Sea related Christmas stuff then please post in the comments – links to your small businesses, charities and social enterprises welcome in the blog comments.

And we’d like to share with you 20% off selected items this weekend only in our ebay4change shop with code BLACKFRIDAYUK at checkout.

The Seabird’s Community Swim Fund raises money to pay for swim kit and lessons for non-swimmers with a focus on fulfilling Seabirds’ commitment to the Black Swimming Association’s DIPER charter – where Seabirds “stand with the BSA to create a swim buddy system in which we partner non-swimmers and swimmers for the purpose of exchanging aquatic information, support, education and resources to enable more ethnically diverse communities to get in the water.” So far donations have enabled us to fund swimming lessons, kit and transport for a number of Brighton and Hove adults and children who are under represented in the Outdoor Swimming Community. Many of whom have gone on to join us swimming in the sea to improve their wellbeing!

THANK YOU

The “Pass the Salt” Seabirds Blogs include; Stories from the Sea, Advice for safe swimming, Swim kit recommendations and Wellbeing and Water reflections. Use the category menu on the home page to search for many more ……. happy reading and happy swimming.

Community Swimmers Sharing the Swim Love

Featured

Magic Seaweed explained for Sea Swimmers

The Magic Seaweed app was designed for surfers. However the information it contains on tides, swells, waves and wind can also be used by sea swimmers. This blog explains how to read and understand the MSW forecast app. Safe swim choices are based on sound sea knowledge. Swim the Salty Seabird Way!

This is a brilliant blog by Brighton and Hove Sea Swimmer Freyja. Everyone has a different favourite forecasting app that they use to see if it is safe to swim. The most commonly used app is Magic Seaweed that was designed for surfers see what swell was approaching but it can be used to look at sea swimming conditions too!
 
 

Magic Seaweed (MSW) surf report provides a seven day forecast of sea conditions. Here’s a guide to understanding the data so you can get a better idea of what to expect before heading down to the beach.

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Surf

This is the first column in blue. In Brighton and Hove, this is essentially the height of the shore break (or the white bits that can knock you over). This will give you an idea of how difficult it will be to enter and exit the water. MSW is designed for surfers so the measurement used is that of the surfable wave rather than the total wave height. For us sea swimmers it might be worth adding a little extra on to this measurement.

It is worth noting that the value given is the average height. 1 wave in 23 is likely to be twice the average height and one in 1,175 is three times the average height. Therefore, it is worth taking this as a rough guideline and always be on the lookout for larger waves when getting in and out.

In terms of height of the shore break, my rule of thumb is anything above waist height is capable of knocking me over.

Swell

Swell – listed in the second column – is the height of the waves once you are past the shore break. A big swell can be a lot of fun as you bounce around above and below your swimming buddies.

The next column gives an indication of the wavelength, or the time between the crest of each wave in seconds. The longer the time, the gentler and more undulating the waves will feel. Conversely, shorter times between each crest means the waves will come more frequently and you may be more likely to get a mouthful of sea water.

wavelength

The black arrow to the right is an indication of the direction the swell is travelling. If you are doing a point to point swim, this is worth bearing in mind – if the swell is travelling in the same direction as you, it will feel like it is pushing you along. If you are swimming into the swell you will again, be more likely to get lung-fulls of sea water.

Wind

Wind is the main factor influencing how rough the sea is going to be. The stronger the wind is and the longer it has blown for, the larger the swell is likely to be.

The right-hand number column denotes wind speed. The larger number being the steady wind speed, and the small number being the gust speed. The arrow shows the direction the wind is travelling in. In Brighton and Hove the prevailing wind is South Westerly.

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It is worth considering that MSW doesn’t factor in local sea breezes. Sea breezes are caused as the land changes temperature faster than the sea. For example, in the morning the sun heats up the land quicker than the sea. This triggers the air on the land to rise up and and cooler air is drawn in from the sea to replace it. Sea breezes are generally onshore in the afternoon (as the land heats up and air rushes in from the sea) and offshore in the morning (where the land falls below sea temperature overnight and air moves from land to sea).  You might therefore expect the wind to be slightly stronger in the afternoon than denoted on MSW.

Tidal Information

Magic Seaweed also shows the times and heights of the high and low tides. In Brighton and Hove, low tides generally vary between 1 and 2.5 meters and high tides between 5 and 6.5 meters above chart datum. The difference between the two is the tidal range. The tidal range has an effect on currents – the larger the tidal range, generally the stronger the currents will be. The tidal range during spring tide in Brighton is around 6 metres.

tide

In a nutshell

The first column is the height of the shore break and gives you an idea of how difficult it is to enter and exit.

The second column is the height of the swell and tells you how bouncy it will be once you are in and past the shore break.

The third section tells you wind speed and direction – or the best direction to swim in to avoid getting a mouth full of sea water.

The box below informs you of the times of high and low tides and the tidal range. From this, you can have a go at working out the direction and strength of the current.

Once again thank you for Freya for producing an easy to understand blog that allows us to make safe swim choices!

This blog forms part of a series of Outdoor Swimming Advice blogs written by a qualified Surf Lifeguard and Open Water Swimming coach who has been swimming in the sea year round since 2012. They are written to encourage others to swim safe and share the swim love. If you have read and shared this blog we invite you to donate the cost of a post swim hot drink or slice of cake to the Seabirds Community Swim Fund. All profits from our online wild swim shop are also donated to the Seabirds Community Swim fund. This way you can buy your wild swim kit to keep you warm and donate.

The Seabird’s Community Swim Fund raises money to pay for swim kit and lessons for non-swimmers with a focus on fulfilling Seabirds’ commitment to the Black Swimming Association’s DIPER charter – where Seabirds “stand with the BSA to create a swim buddy system in which we partner non-swimmers and swimmers for the purpose of exchanging aquatic information, support, education and resources to enable more ethnically diverse communities to get in the water.” So far donations have enabled us to fund swimming lessons, kit and transport for a number of Brighton and Hove adults and children who are under represented in the Outdoor Swimming Community. Many of whom have gone on to join us swimming in the sea to improve their wellbeing!

THANK YOU

The “Pass the Salt” Seabirds Blogs include; Stories from the Sea, Advice for safe swimming, Swim kit recommendations and Wellbeing and Water reflections. Use the category menu on the home page to search for many more ……. happy reading and happy swimming.

Featured

Grounding A Seabird

How swimming in the sea can set you free from negative thoughts and feelings

Not literally – you can’t clip a seabirds wings and stop it from swimming – but grounding is a technique used to focus on what is happening in the present moment. And we all need that once in a while.

Rumination is my usual state of mind.  It causes me sleepless nights and anxious days,  thinking about things I cannot solve but also cannot accept. I focus on the past and problems rather than the present.  My solution for rumination is grounding.  I need to be bought back to the moment. Sea swimming does this for me

Grounding is a technique that can be used to distract you from negative emotions or challenges. We can use things in our physical environment to do this as way of redirecting our thoughts. The seascape and immersing yourself in the sea is a really good way of doing this.

Being in or around the sea is an absolute assault on the senses so works really well as an environment for grounding. In fact you can ground yourself without actually realising that you are doing it. Your senses focus on everything around you leaving little room for rumination and anxious thoughts.

Part of grounding is not just focusing on something physical but touching something, a tangible object. And what could be better than a large body of water. I love how the seascape changes everyday depending on the sea, weather and tide conditions. I love the changing colour of the sea and sky and have begun to consider different names for them/. A Seabirds colour wheel. I focus on my hands as they glide through the water and provide a perspective on the shade and tone. I have been known to base my decision to swim or not to swim on the colour of the sea. Focusing on my surroundings grounds me.

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Against all good safety advice, I enter the water swiftly. Normally because I need a wee (I always need a wee) but also because by nature I am quick to act. It stops me from hesitating and procrastinating at the waters edge – which is just another variant of rumination! My routine is to then take a few head in strokes and flip onto my back to float once well clear of the break line.

Floating as a physical form of grounding is incredible in so many ways. When you enter cold water, particularly when you do it quickly, your breath is literally taken away and you can find yourself gasping for breath. Lying on my back, I am able to regulate my breathing with either deep diaphragmatic breaths, singing (in my head or out loud) and counting. I am present in my breathing. Once my breath regulates I take time to consider how the water feels. Which direction s the current going in so I can decide which direction to swim in. How choppy is it so I can consider which way to breathe or do head out breast stroke. How cold does it feel on my skin and is the burn subsiding. Although the temperature can remain static for weeks on end, how I am feeling mentally and physically changes all the time impacting my ability to cope with cold water. Floating allows me to take stock of this before I venture too far from shore.

Getting in the water is not at simple as it sounds, particularly when faced with a steep shingle shelf. You have to focus on the waves, their size and speed and search for a lull to enter. All done on a floor of shifting shingle whilst you trying to maintain your balance and muster up the courage needed to plunge into cold water. At certain tides, you feel with your shuffling feet for the soft sand that you know you will eventually find making staying on your feet more likely. It’s the same when you are getting out, head swinging from shore to sea to decide when to swim and run like Billy-O. There is no room in your brain to worry about anything else.

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Once swimming, I find that moving my body, in long purposeful strokes is a distraction from the day to day. Challenging my arms to ignore the muscle memory of my inefficient stroke and consider my body position in the water. I almost enter a hypnotic state as I count my strokes. Keeping on eye on my direction, location and proximity to other swimmers and shore also keeps my mind occupied. When the water is clear you can use the sand lines to find your way home, swimming through them horizontally until you hit shingle. Then listening to the shingle roar grow louder as the water grows shallower indicating when it is time to stand up. (or do a handstand!)

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As well as physical grounding techniques there are also mental ones. Most of them are not intended to prevent rumination but to ensure I have a joyful swim. There are preparations to be made when you go for a sea swim in Brighton. You can’t just grab and towel and jump in. Well you can but it is not advisable. Where and when we swim is dictated by the tides and conditions so being able to read various complicated apps becomes a girl guide badge mission. Once on the beach,  a review of your swim area also helps you focus on the here and now.  Are there other beach/sea users, where are your safe entry and exit points, are your clothes lined up ready to be quickly pulled over your head post swim. Do you have your underwear and is it wrapped in a hot water bottle! All of this occupies your mind so your anxious thoughts can’t.

In all of these ways and many more the sea provides a way for me to manage my negative thoughts and feelings. The sea, as a brilliant oxymoron, can ground you!

Author: Seabird Kath

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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.

Featured

How Lucky are we to have the Sea

On World Mental Health Day 2021, do one thing. For us it will be swimming swimming in the sea. How lucky are we.

On Word Mental Health Day 2021 we reflect on how the sea has been our sanctuary over the last year.

The wellness affect of being in the water produces an almost weekly article in The Guardian. Our shelves are full of books that focus on the mental heath benefits of taking a dip in cold water year round. Our Social Media feeds are full of swim smiles. So when our sanctuary was taken from us at a time when we needed it most……….

At the height of the pandemic we were instructed to leave the house for an hour a day, stay local to home and only meet one other person outside our family group. Fine for us. We are lucky enough to have the sea on our doorstep and each other. For others lidos and lakes closed. Those that travelled to their swim spots were unable to access them. Rural residents pleaded for people to stay away from their rivers and waterfalls, afraid of the impact to their limited medical services. A backlash began against outdoor swimmers, branding them as selfish, risking the lives of those tasked with saving them should they they get into difficulty.

And then the resentment and judgement started within the outdoor swimming community. People started meeting in groups when they weren’t meant to. Particularly on the beach and in the sea. We had to close down the Salty Seabird Community group as people’s different behaviours and outlooks caused a huge divide amongst swimmers. Our community of kindness, we’d spent so much time fostering, was suddenly gone, just like that.

Cath’s Story

Lockdowns really made me realise that sea is my everything and I how thankful I am both to live near it and that I had discovered it in time to cling on to it through the pandemic and beyond. I don’t know what I would do without it – it’s the light and fun and the thing to look forward to in my day or week. Feeling the solidarity with the extended swimming community – and meeting with small groups or just one swim mate when possible, got me through lockdowns and is still keeping me going now.

Before I discovered that I loved sea swimming and hanging out on the beach in all weathers with likeminded salty souls there is nothing that can really equate to it – I have other interests (honest!) but nothing that is so sustaining and makes such a huge difference to my mental health on a daily basis and lifts me up so effectively. I felt so hugely grateful to have sea swimming in my life and have often wondered how the hell I would  managed without it (how?!).

It works so well for us we want others to discover it so it can be their ‘thing that gets them through stuff’ too. As it gets colder I am looking forward to the Sea, my Salties and some shows from the starlings getting me through the next winter. 

Kath’s Story

When the world came to an end, at least it felt like it was coming to an end, I was convinced I would spiral down into an all familiar depressive episode. But I didn’t. In fact I embraced it. We weren’t allowed out of homes apart from an hour a day. It was like Armageddon was happing in right in in front of us, like something out of a Hollywood movie. Yet I seemed to thrive. I didn’t have to make excuses about not going out anymore, I could, in fact, stay in. And in my allocated hour a day I could go to the beach and swim in the sea.

But it didn’t last long. Because everybody else started to get the same idea. The Brighton and Hove residents with no gardens to speak of headed to the same spaces. Places that had long been my quiet places, my solitude spaces. Everybody headed for the beach, walking along the prom. There wasn’t even space in the sea.

But still no much expected breakdown. I just kept going and going and suddenly a year had gone by and still I kept going. And then I broke. The constant low level anxiety, of not knowing what was going to happen next, dealing with so many changing on such a regular basis finally got the better of me. Nothing major, nothing big, but consistent low level fear. It eroded every last bit of resilience I had left, slowly but surely, until I realise I wasn’t ok. I wasn’t sleeping. I was barely functioning. It was time to go to the doctor.

I think I had managed to keep going for so long because of sea swimming. Sea swimming has been the stable grounding that has been constantly part my life. Before, during and will be after the pandemic. Yes it was different, yes I couldn’t swim as part of a community but I could still go to the beach and get in the sea. The minute you finished your swim you were expected to get dressed and leave the beach before officials in hi vis jackets told you to move along.

But unlike so many others, I still had the sea. It was still there. And now it’s getting colder I’m full of excited anticipation of swims to come.

Salty Seabird’s Story

The hardest part for us both was closing the community group, albeit temporarily. But with such polarised approaches to government guidelines we were left without a choice. We had a duty of care to the wellbeing of all in our group, many of whom were shielding and/or were deeply affected by the pandemic, to not parade pictures of packed beaches. Swimmers found other ways to meet in large groups. We understood that everyone had their own path to follow during the pandemic but we had a responsibility to stay within the guidelines. The regular swim meets and our monthly moon swims were no more. And that was hard. Really hard. Particularly as others continued to swim at our swim spots under our name. And since we are allowed to meet again in numbers many of the flock have not returned.

We opened back up just as the sea began to warm up again before the summer. It’s not the same and it never will be again. But the constant cake and kindness can still be found on Brighton’s beaches and in the sea. New swimmers can still reach out and ask for company. We are looking forward to the camaraderie that is formed in cold water as the temperatures begin to drop.

We remain as constant as the sea, we change with the seasons, tides and currents but we are still there. How lucky are we. Now go get in it!

Featured

Winter is coming…

For some of you this is a familiar feeling, the colder water, rougher waters and shorter days starting to give you that anticipation of the winter swims ahead. For others it might be your first year sea swimming and you are wondering whether you want to keep going, or you want to and are wondering if it will be possible or will it get too cold to get in?! . Our first year we had no clear intention of going all year round – we just kept going until it wasn’t fun anymore….and that didn’t happen! We surprised ourselves by keeping going and there we were, out the other side of our first winter swimming. All weather, all year swimmers!

Last year we launched our first Arctic Tern Challenge as a gentle motivator through pandemic swimming to encourage swimmers to keep on through the winter, in whatever they want to wear, how often they want to go. The feedback was great, a lot of people reported that they hadn’t thought they could do it but the challenge encouraged them and kept them going – gave them something to aim for and be accountable to swim-mates. So, we will run the challenge this year too – Nov 1st to April 30th. Swim in what you want, as often as you want and choose the bird that suits you best. Donate at 3 different levels (generous, very generous, extremely generous) and as the cold season closes you will get a certificate and a woven patch to sew onto your towel/hat/robe and show off to your friends.

This year’s Arctic Tern Challenge will raise money for our Seabird Community Swim Fund – this pays for swimming lessons, swim kit and subsided and free courses with a particular focus on fulfilling Seabirds’ commitment to the Black Swimming Association’s DIPER charter – where Seabirds “stand with the BSA to create a swim buddy system in which we partner non-swimmers and swimmers for the purpose of exchanging aquatic information, support, education and resources to enable more ethnically diverse communities to get in the water.” This is what Seabirds Social Enterprise is all about – championing sea swimming as a way to better health and happiness for all and welcoming all to our swim community.

Here are your challenge options (although last year some made up their own too!);

PENGUIN – Get in once a month wearing anything you like even paddling counts

PUFFIN – Get in 4 times a month wearing anything you like, head to toe neoprene still counts

NORTHERN GANNET – Get in 4 times a month wearing a cossie, gloves, boots and hat and swim from one groyne to another

SNOW BUNTING -Get in 4 times a month wearing a cossie, gloves, boots and hat and swim a groyne and back

ARCTIC TERN – Get in 4 times a month wearing ONLY a cossie and hat and swim a groyne

It is just for fun, nobody is checking on you and we don’t need proof that you have completed the challenge – it’s just for you to decide. However, we do encourage you to take photos and share them please! It motivates us all to keep doing what’s best for us when we might get stuck to the sofa – GET IN THE SEA 🙂

Other ways to support Seabirds’ Community Swim Fund (and get more people swimming by removing obstacles and offering active support):

Sign up for Octopus Energy (Seabirds get £50 for every sign up)

Donate to the Seabirds Community Swim Fund directly

Share our SM posts , this blog and our YouTube videos, buy from our Swim Shop and spread the word.

Salty Seabird Hannah Eaton is to thank for the beautiful images of the Arctic Tern Challenge birds – to see more of her artwork etc you can buy her books and follow her here

Featured

Seabirds for Social Change

Seabirds Swimmer striding into the sea - evening light
Salty Seabird Striding into the Blue @Salt.Images

Hello Seabirds, this week we want to share with you both a nice chunky discount off our swim kit and an update about a programme we are excited to be part of…

The ‘shop for change’ report shows how there is a real appetite amongst consumers to buy social and support ethical businesses (like Seabirds!) stating that they want to spend their money in a way that will help build a better future for the next generation.  

With more shoppers keen to use their spending power to build a better world we are delighted to be part of the ‘ebay for Change’ platform – an online hub hosted by ebay (with lots of training and support for all the social enterprises) which makes ‘buying social’ really easy.

The ‘ebay for change’ platform will help connect over 29 million ebay shoppers with us social enterprises. There are 50 of us and we are in great and inspiring company and are first collaboration is this fairtrade and upcycled goggles case joining the Seabirds Shop. This is the best part of the programme for us so far.

swimmer floating in the sea with blue summer sky and feet visible
Salted Wellbeing from Salty Seabird Julia Claxton

Every purchase made from a social enterprise has a direct, positive impact on supporting communities – whether that’s providing job or training opportunities, or tackling issues such as homelessness, exclusion, improving people’s life chances, or supporting environmental action. Do have a look on the hub and see the amazing work the social enterprises do, there is a huge variety.

In Seabirds case this means our sales fund our Community Swim Fund – which this year has taken NHS workers and community activists into the sea for some well-earned blue respite and we have been able to start our Salty Swim Scholarships for non-swimmers from groups under-represented in the swim community – the first of which have already begun this week we are very proud to announce! Getting wave-wary swimmers confident enough to join our Swim community and find their joy in the blue. More sales means we can help more people find their salty swim smiles! Together we will #sharetheswimlove and #makespaceforall

From the 19th to the 22nd July there will be a 20% discount across the eBay for Change hub  – all the Social Enterprises get the full amount but you the buyer get a sizeable discount – time to think ahead to colder water and get that Eco Swim Robe you have been thinking about?

West Pier Sea Scape Panorama
Photo by Salty Seabird Julia Claxton
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What is it about being by the sea that makes us feel good?

Cold Water Swimming an the positive impact it can have on us both physically and mentally is being researched and promoted by many. But if swimming in the sea is not for you just being by the sea can make us feel good. Why? Well there are many reasons………

Our outdoor swimming community, our Salty flock, has grown vastly over the last year and shows no sign of slowing down. And whilst the main purpose for our time on the beach is usually a swim in the sea and to reap the benefits of cold water swimming this isn’t the only reason we spend time there and isn’t the only thing that makes us feel good.

In a clinical trial both bright light and negative air ion exposure were found to  improve the symptoms of Chronic Depression and Seasonal Affective Disorder. And the good new for us sea swimmers is that bright light and negative air ions are readily available by the sea.  Artists often talk of the unique quality of light by the sea. The sea absorbs less light that the dark land and is unobstructed to the horizon and beyond. Salty versus soil particles may also play a part. So even on the greyest day the best light is on the coast. Negative ions are created when air molecules are broken apart by moving water like waves. Even on the calmest day small waves will lap the shore.

Negative ions also have an impact on us physically and specifically hormonally,  which are intrinsically linked to mental health benefits in the sense that it makes you feel good. The negative ions in the sea air increase your body’s  ability to  absorb oxygen and balance your serotonin levels. Serotonin is game changer hormone that regulates your mood and induces feelings of happiness and wellbeing. The most commonly prescribed anti-depressant is a serotonin reuptake inhibitor – SSRI. Being at the beach is a natural serotonin booster. You feel more relaxed and energised after being at the beach.   The salt in sea water also plays a part by preserving hormone levels in your brain that are commonly linked with reducing the symptoms of depression. Melatonin, helps you to sleep, insomnia is a common infliction for people living with depression and anxiety. Tryptamine regulates multiple processes within the nervous system such as cognition and memory which leaves you feeling more alert and prepared to deal with life when you leave the sea.

And what of the ‘Vitamin Sea’ many refer to. Is there a link between the sea and vitamins? Well the answer is yes – there is a link between the sea and Vitamin D. Vitamin D is absorbed by the body and in the UK we get most of our vitamin D from sunlight exposure or oily fish from the sea.  Even on the most overcast day, there is more sunlight by the sea.  The surface area of the sea ensures sunlight is not diluted by big buildings or natural landscapes. Diseases such as rickets and osteoporosis are associated with a deficiency of Vitamin D and these diseases are less prevalent amongst coastal dwelling communities.  A lack of Vitamin D is also associated with hypertension, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and anaemia.

The sea and seascape with a clear view to the horizon and the endless sky is blue, a colour favoured by many people. Human beings preference for colour has been studied the world over. Blue is chosen by many people as their favourite colour and strangely is not associated with the namesake mood of feeling blue. Instead blue calls to mind feelings of calm, peace, stillness, serenity and tranquility. This is in abundance at the beach, even on a stormy foreboding blue day. As well as the colours, the vista of the endless horizon of the sea provides a visual stimuli for your brain. It literally opens your mind to new opportunities and experiences. I have my best thoughts and ideas at the beach.

This quiet headspace that can be found by the water’s edge is not only due to the sight of blue but to the sounds of the sea. The sound of waves alters brain patterns and like a lullaby, soothes you into a relaxed state and allows your body and mind to rest.  There is a reason the speakers in spas emit the sounds of the sea. The rhythmic sounds of waves reaching the shore, for me, more so on the shingle, provides the perfect backdrop for meditation or the elusive mindfulness the media tell us we all need to seek out. Again the benefits of mindful meditation are well researched and written about. It reduces stress, provides a window of relaxion, improves peace of mind and can also increase creativity.  

Walking on the beach, listening to the waves is a way of exercising the body whilst relaxing the mind. Being by the sea, increases the physical benefits of this form of exercise, negotiating the uneven surfaces of shingle, sand and rocks . You are constantly counter balancing giving your calves, thighs and core a great work out. Swimming in the sea gives your body a full work out and improves your circulation without the high impact and high intensity of other forms of exercise making it appealing to many. But for many when they are in, on or by the sea they don’t even realise they are exercising and improving their physical health. There time spent in the sea is reminiscent of childhood and we instantly become more playful as we enter the water, squealing, laughing, splashing. A great way to manage your wellbeing. When you swim in the sea with your friends it’s like the endless summers of my youth even on winter’s darkest days.

‘Thalassotherapy’ or sea therapy was prescribed by Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine. My home town of Brighton was built by the Victorians as a response to people leaving London in their droves to get some ‘sea air’. Doctors of the time prescribed sea air in the treatment of tuberculosis and consumption. It is true that sea air contains mist of saline water, which seems to have a soothing effect on the mucosal lining of the respiratory system. So, people suffering from inflammatory respiratory conditions can benefit from a lung full of salty sea air. Who knew aspiration of sea spray when a wave whacks you in the face can be beneficial for the lungs. The popularity of cold water swimming to improve your physical and mental health is no a new phenomenon.

And it isn’t just being by the sea that makes us feel good, it’s all bodies of water.  Dr Catherine Kelly has written a book entitled; Blue Spaces: How and Why Water Can Make You Feel Better. Catherine Kelly has graciously facilitated talks on all things water and wellbeing for our growing flock over the last few years. She will be again during Mental Health Awareness week when the theme is nature. She will be hosting a webinar and for Brighton and Hove locals, will  be available at her beach hut one evening to talk all manner of things water and wellness.

Regardless of my own established connection with the sea this book still taught me things I did not know, encouraged me to reflect on other aspects of blue space and frankly soothed my soul. It’s a well thought out publication. A mixture of wax lyrical stories, scientific study, anecdotal experiences and gentle encouragement to try out easy mindful exercises. It takes you on a journey from Catherine’s own relationship with water to what wellbeing actually means and how blue space can be harnessed to create a calmness of mind. As she quite rightly points out, it is not one size fits all and the book continues to explore the different ways this can work for you in the everyday and particularly in times of great need and stress. The book concludes by looking at the bond between guardianship of blue spaces and wellness. If being by the water makes us feel well we must protect to ensure future generations are able to do the same.

She writes as she speaks, and the tone is ‘just right’. You feel that you are part of the conversation, rather than being spoken to. The balance of academic research and anecdotal encounters with the water make it an accessible read  for all. It takes you on a watery walk of reflection and will appeal to a vast array of people for so many different reasons.

Ella Foote, Outdoor Swimming Magazine said; “ A timely read for today’s challenges. Catherine’s wise and informed memoir-style narrative helps us understand why blue spaces are so valued by swimmers everywhere and offers tools for those seeking wellbeing in a new way. “

Don’t take my word for it (or Ella’s) . Go get it.  And come and get it signed at the beach hut! (She will have some available to purchase on the night)

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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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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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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

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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

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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.

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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?