Anxiety, the Sea and Me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meet the Flockers; Series 1, Rachel

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

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

What is the earliest memory you have of swimming?

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

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

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

What made you join the Salty Seabird Swimming Community Group?

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

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

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

Why do you swim in the sea?

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

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

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

How often do you swim in the sea?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Salty Reflection

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

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

The story so far……….

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

The Story of the Shop

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

The story of the Social Enterprise

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

The story of the Salty Seabirds

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

The story of our highlights

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lots of salty love

Cath & Kath

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Kindness; The Salty Kind

The kindness of a south coast sea swimming community knows no bounds. It’s an incredible privilege to be part of it. Kindness really does taste sweeter when it’s salty.

All humans are worthy of love, belonging and joy. When we set up the Salty Seabirds sea swimming group, our aim was to create an inclusive community. A group that provided the isolated, the new, the anxious, the self-conscious, would be sea swimmers with love, belonging and joy. And this has been achieved through kindness.

Seabirds asking others to dog sit and babysit while they swim. Seabirds asking for lifts to swim spots they cannot reach otherwise. Seabirds asking for help getting in and out of the sea when they are afraid. These Seabird’s are able to receive kindness. It is that vulnerability that makes being kind such an intrinsic part of being a seabird. The kindness is visible to all in the community, as our dialogue is purposefully kept in a closed social media group. The daily discussions and conversations demonstrate that anyone can participate and ask for assistance and advice. And will be met with kindness.

In the ‘real’ world, self-worth is sought and found in ‘never asking for help.’ In our group it is quite the opposite. Kindness isn’t just about giving. Being kind to ourselves is where it should always start. By being open to receiving love and support and of course kindness from others is definitely top of my self-care list. Recently a new Seabird asked for advice on the safety of the nudist beach, information on jellyfish, and if anyone would swim with her. She was met with offers and advice from many. The kindness of strangers.

There is an element of anonymity within the group.  We know each other’s names and faces (Well I don’t retain names but I do recognise faces), but not what bought them to the group and the sea. It makes asking for help easier when there is no preconceptions or fear of judgement. Remove the machismo of measured activities and you also remove the standard definitions of people by their jobs, family status and postcode. As Hannah so perfectly put in her ‘Meet the Flockers’ Blog; “They (we) swim for companionship with the sea and with each other, to wrestle with devils, to frolic, handstand and sob into the waves, and not once has anyone asked me how far I have swum and judged my response or my fitness

One of the best ways of being kind to yourself is feeling useful. So providing another with kindness actually becomes mutual and reciprocal. The person requiring the kindness from others receives it. The person providing the kindness is, in fact, also being kind to themselves. Affording another kindness provides you with feelings of purpose and usefulness. Rick Hanson wrote an article called “Kindness to you is kindness to me; Kindness to me is kindness to you.” Quite a tongue twister but his article writes about cyclical kindness. Our salty community has cultivated a collective consciousness of kindness. (Another tongue twister). The group has created an environment where approaching strangers to help or be helped is the norm. Kindness is our normal and has become a working practice of the group.

Practising the mindset of caring and compassion leads to continued kind behaviour. Our community provides regular opportunities to practice the skill of kindness. It doesn’t need to be a grand gesture. Something as simple as cake sharing after a swim. We do it unintentionally but with intent. In Ellie’s ‘Meet the Flockers’ Blog, she revealed she was searching for a community of like minded kind people, swimming in the sea was just an added bonus.

The last couple of months has been a challenge for us all, to varying degrees for sure, but still a challenge. As the outdoor swimming community became divided on whether to swim wild or stay at home, we feared the same would happen with our group. The fear was unfounded. The kindness has continued. Personal choices respected. Micro-flocks began to form, reaching out to those self-isolating or living alone. Once the Seabirds were just the salt of the sea. Now they very much are the salt of the earth.

And you thought our group was all about Sea Swimming. Turns out it is so much more than this. It is a kind community.

Until we all swim together again.

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Meet the Flockers; Series 1, Ellie

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

I’m Ellie, I live in Hove with my husband and 2 kids exactly 15 mins walk from the Seafront! I’ve lived by the sea all my life and cannot imagine living inland at all. I lived first near the beautiful sandy beaches that give Sandbanks in Dorset its name. Not the posh peninsula, but still just a swift stroll to the sea. When I was choosing a university it was a choice only between places near the channel.

 

I really struck gold when I first arrived in Hove – a 1 min stroll to the beach and a glimpse of the sea from our huge bay windows. Shame the flat was so tiny!

Fast forward a few years; 2 kids, a stressful and emotionally demanding job as a primary school teacher and then management in a large school and my visits to the seafront to swim had all but dried up! Discovering the Seabirds has changed that in a big way.

Thinking back to my earliest swimming experience  it wasn’t in the sea at all. We had swimming lessons in the local Pool in Poole and I was awarded a certificate for swimming 5 metres! I think my mum’s still got it somewhere. I’ve never really liked swimming in indoor pools and that one was particularly noisy and smelly! I much prefer to remember my early swimming experiences as being back on that beach at Sandbanks. We often spent whole days (or that’s how it felt) building sandcastles in the white sand and collecting shells at the water’s edge. I’d often just run in and out of the shallow water watching my older brother but the competitive side of me couldn’t resist a challenge. Lifting my feet off the sandy sea floor and splashing along behind the rubber dingy dragged by my dad was a wondrous moment. The smell of sea is still one of my favourites even the algae that’s lurking around at the moment!

 

At the beginning of last year I’d resigned from my teaching job following increased anxiety and the return of my depression. I thought hard about why I’d suffered again with my mental health and concluded I needed to find a new community of people, to join something (I’m not a joiner!) and hopefully feel happier in myself.  I’ve not been disappointed!  The encouragement and support from the seabirds has been a huge part of my recovery and their companionship has been so powerful.

 

Just as I found the Seabirds wild swimming community on Facebook, I heard about the Women, Wellbeing and Water course they were running and joined the 4 weekly sessions. I loved hearing Kath wax lyrical about the tides and currents and it gave me great confidence and resilience in swimming more frequently in the sea. (The tea and cake after each dip helped too!)

I took the plunge and joined my first Seabird Swim on 1st May last year and could not have imagined how amazing it would feel. A year on and I was disappointed to spend only 5 minutes in the sea on my ‘Salty swimversary’. Although much more confident in the water than I was a year ago – big seas still scare me and the lack of Seabird laughter and screeching during this time has made the sea swimming experience a serious and almost silent one!

 

The great thing about swimming with the Seabirds is that you can just post a swim if you fancy one, no need to organise weeks in advance, and see who rocks up. Sometimes it’s just 1 other person sometimes 20. I’m still shy in big groups and often hover on the edge of a Monday Mass if I manage to get there at all. But at every single swim whatever I am  feeling when I turn up, the sea and the salty flock always make me feel welcome and part of the community and that is after all why I joined! Thanks to all you amazing people who’ve chatted, shared cake, swimming hats, laughter,  tears, lifts to Shoreham and companionship with me over the last year I’m so looking forward to being back with  the flock soon.

To Swim or not to Swim?

Never has a debate more divided the outdoor swimming community since Skins Vs Suits! So should you be swimming in the outdoors right now?

 

That really is the question. And the question that is dividing the once aligned community of wild, open and outdoor swimmers. This is hopefully a balanced view, if there is such a thing…..

Being an outdoor swimmer opens you up to a large friendly wild swimming community. I swim with the Salty Seabirds in Brighton and Hove because they are my safe harbour in stormy seas. Always kind, willing to help and support each other. Swimmers I have never met, and never will, virtually share their swimming lives with each other on a daily basis. Again the positive affirmations and generosity keeps your spirits lifted.  This has continued throughout the Covid19 crisis but not even this robust and buoyant community is coming out of this unscathed.

We don’t have a governing body – we outdoor swimmers, swim wild and free – that is the point. The group I swim with have rejected clubs rules, constitutions and committees in favour of fluid freedom. However – we do stress that everyone swims and their own risk and precautions should be taken – those being irresponsible are removed from the group so there are group rules of a kind.

The answer to the question to swim or not to swim, is all about personal perspective, personal experience (not the swimming kind) and personal need. And therefore, the only person that can answer the question is you! When the government guidelines in England prevented people from travelling to exercise/go outdoors for an hour it was a very easy decision to make. If it’s not on your doorstep you can’t do it.

Cue the ‘haves’ and ‘have not’ division. All over the Outdoor Swimming Society images of huge paddling pools (sometimes in huge gardens attached to huge houses) popped up. Instead of asking about places to swim the most asked question switched to the type and size of paddling pool to get. So much so that the poor group admins had to restrict the number of posts on the subject.

As the English restrictions were relaxed cue the ‘wild’ and ‘open’ division. Those that dip in any river, pond, cove or muddy puddles could now jump in their car and seek out spots to get wet. Those that swim for fitness and train for events were still being denied access to commercial open water swimming venues. And the no swimming rules have remained in Scotland, Wales and NI.

Nothing has been so hotly debated since the days of the skin Vs suits discussion. I swim in the sea because I love the expanse of it, the never ending horizon, how it changes every minute of every day. I love swimming with my flock, faffing, chatting and eating cake. I admire the creative ingenuity of those able to rig up resistance bungees to provide them with personal endless pools. I have enjoyed watching people get into cold baths and showers. I have particularly liked the imaginative buckets of cold water being thrown about all over social media. But none of this does it for me. My personal perspective, experience and need means it’s the sea or nothing for me.

Now, as we approach a sunny bank holiday in England and you are allowed to travel, meet a friend albeit 2 metres apart it is not quite so cut and dry. Under normal circumstances this would be the first weekend of the lifeguard season for seaside resorts up and down the country. But this year it is not. Last weekend Coastguard rescue teams from around the UK were called out 194 times to incidents including inflatables drifting offshore, crashed and broken down jetskis and pleasure boats, people injured while out walking or cycling along the coast, paddleboarders, kayakers, windsurfers and kite surfers who found themselves in difficulty and people cut off by the tide or stuck in mud. As I write this the coastguard helicopter is flying over Brighton looking for lost children. More people in the water definitely increasing the probability of accidents and emergencies which will inevitability put the NHS resources under strain and voluntary RNLI crew at risk.

 

Beautiful locations are normally so popular and picturesque because they are rural and remote. What this means is they will naturally have lower incidents of Covid19 and they do not have the infrastructure to deal with a huge increase of visitors at a time when the emergency services are stretched to the limit. People are being asked to stay away from the Lake District = and the coasts of Cornwall to protect these communities. Popular tourists resorts like Brighton are also under threat. Just a quick hop down the A23 from London and you can be on the beach in an hour. Up until now Brighton and Hove has had one of the lowest rates of Covid19 cases. We’d like to keep it that way!

For those of us that make a living from teaching people to swim or open water coaching the personal need to get in the water may be financial. However, how are we meant to perform a rescue under social distancing regulations. The risk assessments we normally use are redundant. I specialise in working with people with confidence , mental health and wellbeing issues. I have to be closer than 2 metres with my swimmers to provide them with the very necessary reassurance they need. So my personal perspective is to postpone all of the confidence tasters and wellbeing sessions until all restrictions are removed. We have also felt a uncomfortable promoting our wild swim shop when not everyone is allowed to swim and not everyone should be swimming.

People who no longer have access to their local pool, or have always wanted to try wild swimming and the change in weather and working circumstances has made this possible now are keen to experience outdoor swimming. We receive lots of request asking for advice on how to start, what to wear, where to go etc. We gently advise them that this isn’t the best time to start swimming outdoors. You can’t miss something you have never experienced and the sea will always be there when this is all over. We’d also like to be able to personally welcome them into our group and show them the ropes  For us running a community group we cannot provide the support/guidance etc they require without actually being with them and as voluntary admins we don’t have the time or resources to do it and are not prepared to ask those in the group to either. So, our Salty Seabird community group remains closed for the foreseeable future. People have begun to swim again, in pairs based on their personal perspective, experience and need.

We are very visible here on Brighton and Hove’s beaches  and have monkey see, monkey do concerns.  Many of us are experienced year round swimmers but know that anyone regardless of swim ability and local knowledge can get into difficulty. Those that choose to swim try to be discreet and respectful of others that choose not to.

We have a trauma surgeon in our group that works in a busy A&E department – if anyone needs a bloody swim outdoors it is her. But she hasn’t and she isn’t going to until the rest of the UK allows swimming, and she evaluates the impact of the bank holiday and the more relaxed lockdown regime on the Covid figures at the hospital. This is based on her perspective and experience overriding her need. (We will of course provide her with a guard of honour when she enter the water when she returns to the flock.)

We also have some swimmers in our group that suffer severely with their mental health and they believe that as a direct consequence of their lack of access to cold water they have suffered relapses in some cases resulting in admission to hospital. They feel that a quick low tide dip is less likely to result in a stay on the ward that not doing so would.

So the choice is yours. What is your perspective, experience and need? If you do chose to get in the water, do it safely. If you chose to wait, the sea will be there with open arms when you do.

 

Social Distancing Safe Swimming!

  • Never swim alone – but during these times it needs to be just one other!
  • Always wear a brightly coloured hat and tow float to be seen.
  • Always wear goggles so that you can see hazards
  • Adhere to social distancing requirements throughout your swim, including arrival, changing and post swim.
  • Let someone in your household know where you are, what you are doing and expected time to return.
  • It is your responsibility that you are sufficiently fit and healthy to swim and that you know your limits, have you eaten, are you hydrated, what is your state of mind?
  •  In terms of sea swimming, there are no RNLI lifeguards (Council Lifeguards in Brighton and Hove) operating presently, so you need to complete your own risk assessment on the water conditions, safe exit points, water hazards.

 

 

Seasoned With Salt

The best things about swimming n the sea in the winter in Brighton and Hove.

We are transitioning from winter swimming to summer swimming. Sea temperatures are definitely in double digits. But the waters have been devoid of swimmers. It’s around now that I start to swim less often, but for longer. The swim area buoys are still locked in their winter cages, a maiden voyage may have happened by now. By the time July and August comes around, I avoid the seafront, but I’d even face that to swim with my birds right now. That first swim is going to be glorious, but I still prefer winter swimming………

Over the winter months the tourism trade dies down and we get our beach back to ourselves. We reclaim our treasured sheltered spots in the morning sunshine on the east side of the concrete groynes or wooden breakwaters. Space to spread out the huge array of winter swim kit we have accumulated, borne of experience of regular year round swimming.

For those that don’t live within walking distance of the beach, parking spots are actually available on the seafront. Unlike other seaside resorts, it is not free off season in Brighton and Hove, but the traffic wardens tend to migrate inland to prey on locals rather than tourists in the colder months. Having a car in close proximity to the beach is great for a quick getaway when you need to warm up quick. Those with heated car seats are the most prized seabird friends.

The starlings only mumurate over the winter months. Starlings spend their days on the South Downs but just as evening approaches they make their way to the piers and the marina to roost for the night, I live below their flight path and they often stop and rest in the trees that line the streets of terraced houses. Just before sunset they come together to create mesmerising displays of aerobatic feats. This winter we donned wetsuits to swim underneath them, the best seats in the house. You can also catch great clouds of them in the morning as they head north again for the day, giving the gulls their turf back.

Dawn is at a more reasonable hour during the winter months so a sunrise swim is actually achievable without having to have an afternoon nana nap to recover later the same day. And sunsets are at teatime so swimming in the fading light is a regular treat. Our much treasured moon swims often have moon rises that coincide with sunsets in the winter. We have fire pits and bike lights in tow floats to create a festive and fun backdrop as the light fades. Many pairs of knickers have been lost to the sea as we scrabble in the dark and cold to get dressed. On these swims, you look to the east to see the moon make her entrance and then turn to the west to watch the sun kowtow to her night-time friend. Both are strikingly visible and the sea’s constant horizon ensures you have an uninterrupted view, with the exception of the piers, but they just add to the magic! The colours created by the sunsetting are so much brighter and intense in the winter.  There is less water vapour in the air and it is colder which removes any filters. Dust and pollution particles are also less prevalent in the sea. So the best place to watch the sunset is in the sea, in winter. Add in a full moon and some starlings and you’ve hit the jackpot.

 

For many of our flock, winter swimming brings a strange kind of security. The seaweed dies back and the jellyfish disappear so they are secure in the knowledge that whatever lies beneath will not brush past their legs whilst swimming. The dreaded May Bloom doesn’t plague the seas in the colder months. The algae feeds on sunshine as the waters begin to warm up and at it’s worst it can be like swimming through frothy yeasty beer. It even makes the water effervescent. It can hang around for weeks on end leaving your skin slimy and your cossie stinky. Once it dies back it leaves plankton for the jellies to feed on, so once your skin stops being slimy it starts to get stung. But not in the winter.

Many of our salties swear by cold water therapy as a way to manage their wellbeing. This is only possible in the winter months. There are lots of reasons and lots of research into cold water swimming and why people do it. People looking for a cure for depression, anxiety, physical pain and discomfort.   It’s a great group activity and creates community and camaraderie.  Exposing yourself regularly to stress, by swimming in cold water allows your body and mind to adapt to dealing with stress in daily situations. Yes there is pain to begin with, alongside a lot of profanities the benefits are oh so worth it.

Head in swimming over winter is only for the hardy. And that’s not me. I can manage year round skin swimming, without any neoprene accessories but my head is up for the duration, unless I am wiped out by a wave. I wear a swim hat to keep the wind chill away and my hair dry but other than that I am clad in only my cossie. Cold water swimming does not come without it’s risks, you need to make sure you have a quick exit route and strategy. But this awareness can enhance the swim no end. With your head out of the water you are able to notice your surroundings, become more aware of the behaviour of the water and the waves and understand weather patterns.  It is also a more social swim as you chat and check in with your fellow swimmers. And for those who feel a swim is not complete without getting your head wet and stimulating the vagus nerve, there is always the opportunity for handstands before you get out of the sea.

Post winter swim rituals also provide more reasons to get in the sea during the colder months. It is a time to dust of your baking books and start making cakes. The extra layers of insulation created by eating cake, makes you more resistant to the cold temperatures. This has been tried and tested by many of our flock. You can also partake in indulgent day time baths to warm up afterwards (not recommended immediately after swimming!). Baths and baked goods are reason enough to swim in December.

So what of swimming now? False summers, that commonly occur in the UK, can bring a false sense of security. Air temperatures rise at a much quicker rate than sea temperatures and also we are now well into May the sea is very cold. Particularly if you are not a seasoned swimmer. Even in mid-summer you can experience cold water shock, a life threatening reaction to being immersed in cold water. So although there is still the opportunity to get your cold water fix I am still wearing my sports robe, woolly hat and haramaki post swim to beat the after drop caused by a cold core . And eating lots of cake!

 

 

Seabird’s Art Raffle – Roll Up, Roll Up!

Enter the draw for the Seabird’s Art Raffle. Only £2 a ticket. Weekly draw every Monday until the end of June. Local artist’s images and prints kindly donated. All money raised goes to Thousand 4 £1000 charity’s emergency Covid19 appeal. Good deeds in dark times. Sharing the Seabird love

Somewhat beached by the lock-down we have had to postpone  our water and wellbeing courses and other Seabirds events. While we are in discussion about how to plan for the future and seeing where lock-down leads us it has helped us both personally and as a business to make sure Seabirds continues to focus on community wellbeing. We have found we can continue to do this through mutual aid and community action –  supporting our friends at Thousand 4 £1000 with our Covid-19 fundraiser and now our ….

Seabirds’ Weekly Art Raffle!

Own original artwork, limited edition prints and one- off objects by Brighton’s wonderful photographers, illustrators and graphic novelists!

We will donate every penny of this and enter your name into a draw where you will stand a far-higher-than- the-national-lottery chance of having successfully bid for one of our featured artworks, which are all worth a lot more than two quid.

In future weeks we will have:​​​​​​​

Amazing Brighton Wave Photos and images from Toby; our very own Hannah Eaton , Seabird Jess Barnes and Cath’s generous neighbour, Bite your Granny

Please donate as much as you can – you can buy as many tickets as you like to improve your chances 🙂 If you want to enter each week there is a BUNDLE available for the entire raffle (valid each week – £20)

Don’t forget to get your tickets and good luck. Please spread the word and share the love! xxx

Meet the Flockers; Series 1, Cath

The second in the series of blogs that get to know the salty seabirds and understand why they swim in the sea. This week it is Co-Flounder Cath giving us an insight into her reasons for staying salty!

I have always swum in pools, and the sea when I had the chance (holidays in Bournemouth as a kid getting sunburnt in the shallows). I have always liked being in water but forced myself to swim really getting bored ploughing up and down the lanes but finding it meditative and therapeutic. Then I had kids and became my mother, sitting on the beach staying covered up while the kids enjoyed themselves but not joining in the fun of it.

We joined the Surf Lifesaving Club when our eldest was 11 and it was on a week way in North Devon where the kids and many of the Dads were surfing that I thought, “what the hell I am doing? why aren’t I in there having fun like them – what is going on with all us Mums that we are still on the shore?”. Many of us then had a surf lesson and that was that – I was someone who got in, fell off boards, got tumbled, tired and freezing. And loved it! Fast forward a few years and I am still getting in but only in a wetsuit with a board, or on really really hot days and holidays.

Stress build up at work and a group of friends from surf club (including Kath) started sea swimming in the Spring, and we just never stopped. It became an essential in my life but hadn’t realised it was missing until I found it. It got me through a difficult time back then and lead to a big life and career change – founding the Seabirds 🙂

My earliest memory of the sea is jumping up and down in rubber rings playing a game with no rules or logic that I had created with my brother in Durley Chine, Bournemouth. Hours in the sea in hot sunshine but blue round the mouth with cold and sunburnt so my Dad made me wear a t-shirt in the sea. Loving it. Joyful and playful, laughing in the waves. (probably 1976?)

My favourite place to swim in Brighton and Hove….Costa del Brunswick, especially in the hot summer when I park up there for hours at a time with the kids in the water and coming back for food and drinks and a Salty Seabird will join me for a swim (Sam swum down from D5 to see me there last summer, seeing her appear unannounced out of the sea like Bottecelli’s Venus was a highlight of my hot summer sea days)

I swim in the sea because it meets a deep need in me for being immersed in water, nature and the feeling of release and being ‘held’. I never regret a swim and always feel happier and better after one.

In ‘regular’ times I swim most days – 5 days a week if I can. Favourite kind of sea is a bouncy watery roller coaster type just this side of safe! Plunging through big crashy waves and not feeling the cold (what is that about not feeling it so much when its rough?) but getting the energy is so invigorating and makes me feel great. With sea swimming and the Salty community in my life I am a more even, happier person. It has re-built my resilience.

I love the Salty Seabird Community so much – when we started it 2 years ago we had no idea it would grow so big and vibrant. That people have made lasting friendships and find support from the community there makes me proud and happy beyond words. Who knew there were so many up for dicking about the sea and being bloody brilliant to each other? So much love. I have met some truly fabulous people. Miss you all during lock-down and look forward to swimming with you all soon xxxx

seabirds brighton art raffle

PS Another of my roles is as a volunteer with a Thousand 4 £1000 who Seabirds are supporting with our fundraiser our Weekly Art Raffle – please click the links to read more about what we do and how you could help. Like Seabirds, T4K is all about building community and sharing the love. If you can donate the price of a cup of coffee a month to support some of the most vulnerable in our local community then please sign up on the website. xxx

PPS I also have another business – NukuNuku (= warm and cosy in Japanese) where making and selling haramaki core-warmers that we sell in Seabirds and a few other cosy items. Check it out x

 

 

How a child copes with a curfew

Children experience new things all the time. It’s how they grow. All that we are experiencing now is not new. So look to your inner child for ways to cope.

I am an adult, but a large proportion of my responses to situations, no matter how trivial, are very childlike. As I navigated and passed through adolescence to adulthood, I learnt to disguise my immediate response, most of the time, sometimes my face will still give me away. My unadulterated go to emotion in any given situation will be raw. Painfully raw. Followed rapidly by ‘it’s not fair’ thoughts and lots of self-pity. Even someone’s light-hearted comment about what they cooked for dinner last night can release my jealous inner brat. He’s normally sent to his room without any dinner for reacting so childishly and rational thinking is allowed to return. More paradoxical thinking.

Much of childhood is spent learning to be an adult. Not the understanding credit card APR, mortgages and pensions type of learning, but how to behave appropriately and responsibly in society. And most of us have nailed it. But sometimes to the detriment of the inner child. Feeling childlike joy, playful happiness and innocent wonder is something you should never grow out of. I got this back in abundance when I started to swim with the Salty Seabird flock. We bring out the child in each other, pulling moonies, doing handstands, diving through waves accompanied by loud laughter. Lots of loud laughter.

Having always had mental health issues and episodes of poor emotional wellbeing I am always checking in on how I feel. Now I have a new worry. I worry about other people’s mental health. Particularly the mental health of my flock of Salty Seabirds with the removal of their regular cold water swims. And we are most definitely having to act appropriately and responsibly at the moment. Just when we need it our escape hatch has been firmly closed.

It isn’t just the company, connection and community that make our daily dips such an adventure. Cold water swimming means we regularly subject our brains and bodies to a risky environment and our fight or flight reactions are triggered. I do it because this repetitive behaviours demonstrates to my brain that I can and will survive when the worst happens. So I know I will survive the current situation. What worries me is that everybody has the capacity to experience poor mental health and as a direct result of social isolation and lock down regulations some normally sound and stoic people will. I have had years of therapy, counselling, reading books and articles exploring mechanisms to manage my mental health. But others are not as well equipped as me to deal with it.

But we do all have a childhood. And that has equipped us to deal with the current situation in more ways than we probably realise. Whether we had a good or a bad childhood, we had one, during which we experienced new things. Our first snow, our first kiss, our first swim. I listened to a podcast recently in which Dr Gabor Maté said the response to C19 crisis has seen the removal of distraction from our everyday lives and that the emotions we are feeling are not new. We have experienced this uncertainty before. Everything we experienced in childhood, at some point, was a new experience. And it got me thinking. I have experienced a much more insular world, insecurity, boredom, simple pleasure, waiting and day dreaming all before. As a child. And I realised I was experiencing it again.

I had a rich upbringing in the 1970s and 80s. Not rich, as in financially well off but rich in substance. I haven’t experienced any childhood trauma and look back with affection on my family life. Over the last few weeks, I realised I have readily drawn upon the skills I learned as a child. Bought up in a large family by a fireman and a teacher, self-sufficiency was encouraged and to make do and mend was a necessity rather than a response to environmental concerns. A make ends meet philosophy has seen me regularly whip a meal from leftovers and tins just like my parents did.

I can also deal with the seemingly endless same old, same old day by replicating my childhood activities. This is not a time for learning new things. It is a time for remembering how to do things you used to do! One of which was the skill of being bored. So you will not see me joining zoom anytime soon or partaking in a Facebook quiz. Don’t get me started on top 10 albums, they are for listening to and reminiscing, not posting on social media. Instead I am remembering how to grow carrot tops and mend my favourite cut off jeans. I can read quietly in a corner, I can go for a walk and recognise sky lark song, I can cloud gaze and I can watch rain drops run down a window pane. All these things I have done before as a child. Even my relationship with the sea was borne of my upbringing.

My mum asked me recently if my mental illness is her fault. ABSOLUTELY NOT. In fact, the way she raised me has given me a huge range of tools and coping mechanisms including my love of the wild and the water. But the most important lesson she taught me is that children need to be bored. Because it is through that boredom that your brain can create a whole new world of experiences and you can feel all the emotions it provokes. I’m struggling with the uncertainty and insecurity of it all but I have accepted that being frightened is a ‘normal’ response and reaction rather and I’m going with the flow.

So, let that inner child have a tantrum at the injustice of it all. But also let that imaginative, curious, self-sufficient, problem solving kid have a turn at the helm once in a while. Seeing things through their eyes, feeling the emotions they experience will remind you, you’ve been here before and you survived. Just with a few grazed knees and great stories to tell.

Stay Salty

xx

The inner teen!