Women, Wellbeing & Water

Since the announcement that Birds get Big Lottery Grant we have been super busy at Seabirds HQ. Not the bad kinda busy but the good kinda busy. People asking to join the closed Facebook Group which is used to organise our swims and share smiley swimming snaps. Lots of enquiries in the inbox asking how people can join our sea swimming community group Salty Seabirds or register for the funded confidence course. An endless amount of coffee invites from Brighton Beach community supporters keen to celebrate our success and offer help.

As can be the case when starting a social enterprise, there are just as many lows as there are highs. Money and time are tight and you can feel for every step forward you are taking two back. Funding rejections can test even the most resilient Seabird. Not only has the lottery funding covered the costs of the course but it gave us much needed affirmation buoyancy to keep our project afloat.

The number of enquiries we are receiving highlights there is definitely a demand for this type of community swimming. Open Water Swimming has grown significantly over the last few years. In Brighton and Hove there are lots of swim groups that regularly meet up for a dip in the sea. It appeals to a huge variety of people from Triathletes to soul swimmers. And there is certainly room for everyone to swim their own swim and find the group that suits their needs.

Since the new broke about the Women, Wellbeing and Water course and the opportunity to join us for a Pilot Session our small informal  swimming group has grown ten fold. We have no facilities, no committee, no rules and no subs but still people wanted to join us changing on the beach and jumping in. So many women identified with the fluid easy nature of the group. Salty Seabirds have a few regular swim spots and times but basically is there for people to say when they are swimming and where so that others can join them if they feel like it and if it fits in with their family and work commitments.

The aim of the Pilot Session was to try and test out ideas that will shape the WWW course next year. Again demand was high and we had to turn people away and instead invite them to join a Salty Seabird swim instead. This reinforced our belief that there is a need for a course that focuses on respite from daily life and provides participants with the confidence to introduce sea swimming into their lives. So leading up to the day in question was beautiful sunshine….on the actual day non stop pouring rain. Heavy traffic meant we were late to open up and set up and we hadn’t managed to bake the much promised cakes. But all participants turned up, all  participants shared their swimming experiences, all participants got in the water, all participants smiled through the rain. Oh and those smiles.

Lots was learnt including never underestimate Brighton traffic on a rainy Saturday afternoon in September and shop bought cake goes down just as well as homemade after a cold dip in the sea. We’ve all met up since for the Harvest Moon swim and the regular Friday Frolic swim which celebrates the end of the week. Many participants have introduced new swim spots that are closer to their homes since our session and swum with people they met on the day. It seems that when you strip off your clothes to swim in the sea and share that experience you instantly become part of a very inclusive community. I heard someone or read somewhere that you can enter the water as strangers but leave the water as friends. This was very true of our pilot session and we are very exited about launching Women Wellbeing and Water in 2019.

 

To learn more please email info@seabirdsltd.com

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To Swim or to Gym? That is the Question

National Women’s Health and Fitness Day falls on the last Wednesday in September. i.e. yesterday. This is an American concept but one that the UK seems to have adopted. My Social Media streams were full of positive images of women keeping physically fit. Lots of references to introducing exercise into your life and healthy living particularly diet and super foods. But still a disproportionate lack of advice, images, suggestions to promote Women’s Mental Health.

Mental and physical wellbeing are intrinsically linked. If you focus on physical health, i.e. diet and exercise, there is a positive impact on mental health . The WHO states that “there is no health without mental health.” Nowhere is the relationship between mental and physical health more evident than in the area of chronic conditions. … People with chronic physical conditions are at risk of developing poor mental health.

In the past I have prioritised my physical well being over my mental health. I was your typical gym bunny. Always doing the school run in Lycra and headed off to a gym class as soon as I had dropped the little darlings off. The sweat was addictive and the endorphins kept me coming back for more. As with open water swimming, there was a supportive gym and school mum community too. But it was a double edged sword for me. It brings out my  competitive nature and I found that it was never ‘enough’. I hadn’t trained hard ‘enough’. I hadn’t gone to ‘enough’ classes. If I didn’t sweat it wasn’t ‘enough’. My focus on my physical wellbeing was beginning to have a detrimental impact on my mental health.

So I changed my approach and looked for balance. I reduced the gym classes and mixed them up with more gentle classes that focused on strength, flexibility and relaxation. Much needed for 45+ year old joints and a frazzled brain. Slowly I weaned myself off the sweat addiction. But the hardest activity to change was my swimming. Open Water swimming has always been part of my life but in recent years I have introduced pool swimming into my routine. Not indoor pools….that would be a step too far! I applied my standard discipline approach to this activity. The number of lengths I swam each time and the time it took to swim distances. It was hard to be a seabird swimmer, free from swim drills in the pool. The lane ropes almost dictate swim drills to me. So I headed for the sea and ditched the pool. Luckily there was a Seabird flock waiting for me to join them.

Over the last 18 months, since the Seabirds were formed, I have swum in the sea all year round and there has been a marked improvement in my mental wellbeing. However, as soon as the water warmed up enough to be safe,  I found myself setting swim distance targets all over again. Round the pier, counting the groynes or using the iconic yellow swim buoys to measure the distance of my swim. I even swam solo, which was as much to do with a confidence goal as the need to pursue physical goals. If I didn’t swim front crawl without stopping and get up a sweat (yes you can sweat in the sea) it wasn’t ‘enough’.

Vanity played it’s part too. Ditching the gym and the pool changed my body. And not in a way I liked. It didn’t stop me from stripping off on the shingles and showing half of Brighton my bare bum. But lots of my clothes now don’t fit and even the most resilient woman would struggle in seeing the positive in that. Without knowing it the Seabird Community brought me back to balance. Listening to their pre and post swim conversations I distinctly remember one Seabirds saying at school she wasn’t ‘sporty’ and now she is proud of what her body can do after months of sea swimming. Others have talked about being role models for their children, showing them that there’s life in the old Seabird yet. All of them talk about how happy they feel in the water and for hours sometimes days afterwards. The running theme throughout was always that getting in the sea was ‘enough’. It didn’t matter if you swam out to the buoys, lay in the shore dump or floated in the waves. It was ‘enough’

Health and Fitness is and always will be a very personal choice. Alone or in a group. In a gym class or in the outdoors. Dry land or in the water. If you don’t enjoy it and if it doesn’t make you happy it won’t be ‘enough’ and you won’t keep doing it. And your mental health is as important as your physical health. For me finding a balance is a challenge. But I think I am finally there. A mixture of gym classes as I like routine and encouragement. A daily dog walk on the South Downs as I love solitude and fresh air. A seabird swim free from arbitrary goals that leaves me feeling happy.  So the question isn’t really Swim or the Gym. A balance of both is ‘enough’.

 

 

Fitting in a Swim

….or not.

Pretty apt this week because I can’t. That to do list is ever present, either in the back of my mind, the forefront of my mind, or written down (with no ticks) on the back of a used envelope. A great example of winning at the who’s busiest competition but losing at life.

Women are their own worst nightmare when it comes to wearing BUSY as a badge of honour. Whether you work full-time, part-time, freelance, manage the home or volunteer we like to share how busy we are. When asked ‘how are you?’ the reply will nearly always contain a reference to how busy you are rather than how you actually are. Probably because we are so busy we haven’t actually taken the time to figure out how we are and so don’t know the answer to the question.

In a world where Social Media now shapes and influences our lives we are bombarded with images of women who are busy. Famous female CEOs who have treadmills in their offices so they can exercise and do their emails at the same time. Women who go back to work after a few days maternity leave. Why are we even asking the question about how they balance work and life? Perpetuating the busy.

Are these ‘busy’ women pioneers shaping the way for future females or is this feminism gone wrong? This very female phenomenon of being busy all of the time could be a consequence of competing with men. They possibly feel they need to be busier to justify their position. To smash through the glass ceiling. Multitasking seen as a female attribute – men can’t do it. Women demonstrate and foster this thinking by working, cooking from scratch, running marathons, joining the PTA, arranging numerous play dates, meeting friends for drinks, attending sports day, ferrying kids to activities. It’s not that men can’t do it but chose not to do it. They worth is not measured by their peers in levels of ‘busyness’.

There is nothing wrong with doing all of the above but there is also nothing wrong with doing none of the above. I am a big reader yet I am often met with scorn from other women when I suggest a good book to them. I am have been told, on more than one occasion, I am lucky that I have time to read. It takes all of my self control not to snipe back ‘I am just more organised than you’ but that would be childish and encourage the busy competition. I hate busy competition but it is ever present in my life. I worry when I post a happy picture of me swimming in the sea it will be received and interpreted as ‘she’s got far too much time on her hands’ by other women.

I am not immune to these thoughts, opinions, scoffs. It’s so easy to judge and compare when our lives are laid out for all to observe on Instagram or Facebook. One of the ways I combat being caught up in the busy race and social media life comparisons, is swimming. You cannot take your phone into the sea. Your mental to do list is actually erased by salt water. And I can’t be a mum Taxi if I am on the beach.

There are still times when I am ‘too busy’ to swim. This week is a great example of how Mother Nature put pay to my swimming plans and I rolled over and let her. I could have relocated, found shelter in the harbour, tried a river instead or even an outdoor pool. But no, I had a great excuse not to swim. Stormy seas meant having to consider tide times and conditions and relocating was far to difficult to fit into my busy schedule. So I didn’t and haven’t had a sea swim all week. And my goodness do my kids and husband know it!

So I am back in the sea today. I can’t wait. Whilst I have had a dopamine hit from ticking off that to do list, I think an adrenaline rush from diving through waves would have been better. It’s great that I have managed to re-do our household budget, switch insurance providers and sort out my cluttered wardrobe but all of those tasks could have waited until after I had had a swim. Especially when I know how great I feel after some salt water therapy.

It’s time to stop the busy bus – I want to get off!

The Days of the Dawnie are numbered

Not only is winter approaching, fast cooling the sea and air temperature, but daylight is fading fast too. And shorter days mean less opportunity to swim particularly if you are an early bird like me.

My favourite time to swim is first thing in the morning. I regularly wake up at 5.30am without an alarm all year round no matter what time, and in what state, I have gone to bed. This is both a blessing and curse. The curse is quite obvious. I can’t stay awake past 9pm, most peoples lunchtime is when I want to be eating my evening meal and don’t even think about asking me to do anything that uses my brain or my body after 4pm.

The blessing of being up at the crack of dawn is no body else is. I can start my day at my own pace and chose solitude or a seabird swim.

Brighton Beach in the morning is a totally different place to the bustling tourist trap that is presented on the front page of the red tops every time we get a hot day. Most locals stay up late and get up late so the shops and cafes do the same. So you can head down to the beach and scarcely see a soul. There is a huge community of sea swimmers, cycling commuters and promenade runners, but not a tourist in sight. Sadly the remnants of their late night activities too often are.

As you approach the sea front road you see people strolling out of the flats, towels rolled under arm, and heading onto the shingle for their morning constitutional. Open water swimming is a very social pursuit and fosters strong communities but the early morning swimmer seeks solace and silence. Courteous nods are exchanged but little chatter as you find your own spot and sink into the sea. Even if you are in a group voices are muted to suit the situation.

I have been trying to put my finger on what is so special about swimming at dawn. For surfers they can catch clean waves before the air temperature rises and creates a sea breeze. With less people in the line up, they also get their pick of the waves. The same can be said for morning swimming. The still air can create mill pond conditions and you will always be able to find a quiet spot.

But it is more than that. Knowing you will leave the water feeling relaxed and ready to face the day is a particular draw for me. The calm before the storm. The stillness of the air and water literally gets absorbed into your soul. The light in the morning also carries a sweet peace. Grey or blue, bright or dull, cloudy or clear it has a special sort of light in the sky that steals the horizon creating an endless seascape. The sun is low in the sky gradually creeping upwards taking your mood with it.

But how many Dawn Patrols are their left before winter steals the sunlight? Well that all depends on how close you are to the equator. For the Seabirds in Brighton we’ve got light at 7am until the end of the October. When the clocks change and we leave British Summer Time we are given the gift of a few more early starts possibly into November. Much like last year we will just keep getting in the sea and see.

Winter is Coming – the anticipation of cold water

Last year, the Seabirds swam in the sea all year round. It wasn’t a conscious decision. It just sorta happened. We started meeting on the beach to swim in May and we just didn’t stop. We were/are just a bunch of ordinary people who began regularly sea swimming due to changes in our personal lives. These changes meant we had the time in our normally busy, modern day, lives to take to the water at short notice and during the working day. Every month going in was another notch on the bed post although we convinced ourselves we hadn’t set ourselves arbitrary goals. Making it to December and the end of 2017, was a real highlight. Making it through January, February and March, when the Beast from the East turned up, really tested our determination. Swimming in the snow and frozen shingle. Who knew that would be a thing.
We all agreed that we would make concessions for the cold to ensure we were still able to get in the sea. Even if it meant donning a wet-suit which we were very keen to avoid. But, if it meant the difference between getting in or not, we would wear a wet-suit. This never happened. We are not skin swimming purists. We don’t judge neoprene clad swimmers. We believe you should wear what you feel comfortable in to ensure you get in. If the cold is a barrier then neoprene is the key that unlocks that door. As long as you get in who cares what you wear! Skin swimming is, for us, a choice we made as we love the high we get from being cold and hate the restriction of a wet-suit. However, if you are swimming kilometres rather than Brighton buoys and groynes and aren’t blessed with a slight middle aged spread, get your seal skin on.
We do have some adaptations though. For me, the head stops going in when the sea temperature drops out of double digits. I revert to a shoulder aching, face out, breast stroke. This is when my collar bone gets cold, a painful burning cold, from being both in and out of the water and the inevitable wind chill. So I resort to a thermal vest over my swim suit. Neoprene boots/socks are also a must. Not just for traversing the shingle beach to enter the sea, but to get out. I need to know that when it is time to get out, I can get out and get out quickly and safely. We double hat to preserve heat and pull on gloves to stop gnarly hands. See, hardly skin swimming purists, more cold water swimming with reasonable adaptations!
Swimming safely is also a massive consideration. Most of our flock have links with Brighton Surf Life Saving Club and the Seafront Office. We know only too well what can happen if you get too cold in the water. More concessions are made in the colder months. In deepest darkest winter when the water temperature plummets our swims are no more than 10/15 minutes. We never swim alone. There are no Lifeguards on duty after September until May so no red and yellow flags and safe swim areas. So if it’s too rough we just don’t go in or we pilchard on the beach. (Pilcharding is lying down in the shallows on the shingle in a line allowing the cold waves to wash cold water over you.)

We also have the best selection of cold combating after wear, accessories and refreshments. Hot tea and cake is an absolute must. Along with a woolly hat, woolly socks and woolly gloves The brighter and more garish the better. A brisk walk is better than a bath afterwards….but a bath ….with wine is also good!

Lots of layers, it sounds obvious but we love our haramaki core warmers. A fleece lined sports cloak is brilliant to get changed under and indeed travel home in. And clothes to easily get on afterwards when your hands just do not function with the cold. Tights and skinny jeans are not part of an outdoor swimmers staple wardrobe. Nor are bras. And sometimes knickers when we forget to pack them. 
So we made it though last winter with our concessions and cold combating accessories. The positive impact on our well being being the driving force. In fact, we swam more regularly during he cold months than we have all summer, as the Seabirds migrated for their holidays. And now here we are, turning to face the changing season. Last time full of naive anticipation. This time full of nervous anticipation. While the sea has been warmer and our swims longer we are looking forward to the more social winter swims. With heads out we get more time to chat. The chat is a necessary part of the swim, not just for our well being. It also allows us to regulate our breathing as we adapt to the sudden drop in temperature and prevents cold water shock and panic. Sometimes we sing too.

We are all a year older and hopefully wiser. Wise enough to know that it gets cold. Really cold. But while there’s a Seabird that is willing to swim it will encourage the rest of the flock into the swimming formation. Of this we are sure. 

Birds get Big Lottery Grant

This week at Seabirds HQ we have received the wonderful news that we will receive a lottery grant. The grant will fund a 6 week course focusing on women’s confidence in the water. It is aimed at women who wish to improve their physical, emotional and mental well being.  There are lots of courses locally run to help people transition from the pool to the sea but many people are intimidated by these courses, and imagine the participants to be all fit die-hard triathletes. Whether this be true or not, there is definitely a demand for a female-centric course. Many women struggle to get into a swim suit, let alone a pool or the wide open sea. Yet it is exactly these women that would benefit so much from introducing open water swimming into their lives.

The course will run in June 2019 but we will be testing out the course content on some ‘willing’ volunteers in September 2018. Our working title is Women, Well being and Water. We will be working with other agencies, charities and local community groups to create a course framework that can easily be used by other groups and clubs.

There are points in people’s lives where they need support to build resilience and to make improvements to their wellbeing. We believe that outdoor swimming can improve outcomes for women experiencing mental health challenges from first-hand experience. Having an understanding of the benefits of getting in the sea all year round, the Seabirds want to help make sure more people have the opportunity. Their courses aim to reduce obstacles to sea swimming, empower more women to get in the sea and use this fabulous, free, local resource in a safe and confident way.

Many women that would benefit most from sport and physical activity are the very women who are least likely to participate for cultural, personal, practical, and economic reasons. Helping women to overcome these barriers and supporting them to engage in activity will provide them with many positive outcomes and ensure that access to sport and physical activity is equal for all.

Open water swimming benefits have been researched and written about a great deal over the last few years and is often referred to as Blue Science. In 2009, Prof Michael Depledge and Dr William Bird, from the European Centre for Environment and Health, based out of the University of Exeter Medical School, proposed a notion called the “Blue Gym” – the idea being that the sea can be used as motivation to exercise outdoors to influence health and wellbeing.

Various social factors put women at greater risk of poor mental health than men. However, women’s readiness to talk about their feelings and their strong social networks can help protect their mental health. Seabirds already have an established network of sea swimmers that gain confidence and happiness from being part of a community group. The course would act as a foundation for women to join the already established swimming community group providing them with respite from daily worries, a support network and a regular activity and meet up.

We literally cannot wait to get more women in the sea!

September Book Club Read

I am finding it hard to put into words my thoughts about the September Seabirds Virtual Book Club read. Just thinking about some of the emotions this book invokes starts the back of my eyes stinging and the laptop screen becomes a bit of a blur. It is also an impossible task as nothing I can even contemplate writing comes close to the authors wonderful way with words. I think the best thing to do is just read it, and read it again, and again and again and again.

Wild Woman Swimming is a collection of Lynne Roper’s diary entries about wild swimming. The entries were written over a five year period in which she was recovering from a double mastectomy until her passing. Lots of her thoughts, experiences and stories resonate with me as they will for anyone who has been fortunate enough to be part of an outdoor swimming community.

The book was edited by Tanya Shadrick, Pells Pool‘s writer in residence for the last couple of years. I was lucky enough to attend a Swim Talk event recently where Tanya was a participant speaker and heard her read extracts from the book. She has the kind of gentle brogue you could listen too forever, slightly hypnotic and incredibly soothing. And when the words she recites have such insight into the freedom and respite wild swimming can provide…… well you have the perfect partnership.

So here is a taster to wet your reading appetite. “It’s a spiritual experience, sliding through wild water. Worries dissolve, my mind is liberated; thoughts flow and glide and play like dolphins. My soul swims wild.”

Enjoy and may all of your souls swim wild.

**Disclaimer – This s a book to be read outside – may it go waterlogged, sun-buckled and wind-chapped.