Guest Blog by Seabird Anne as we transition from summer to autumn
What is the Salty Seabird sea swimming community group and how does it work?
What is achievement?
This blog had a very different working title when I started it and then I watched Channel 4’s Stand Up to Cancer series Sink or Swim. Keri-anne Payne and Ross Edgely have 12 weeks to get non-swimming celebrities ready to be in a relay team to cross the Channel. I was lucky enough to spend three days with Keri-anne, back in June, as she facilitated my Level 2 Open Water Coaching award course. Since then all of the participants and Keri-anne have stayed in touch providing each other with overwhelming levels of support. So when we knew the Keri-anne was involved in the SOS programme we naturally all tuned in.
I undertook the Open Water Coaching course so I would have the relevant skills, knowledge and qualifications to run courses to encourage other people to try wild swimming. I swim for my mental health and am an advocate of it’s wellbeing benefits. Doing something on my own, away from home, is something I am not always able to do. Sometimes my anxiety wins. Sometimes it is all I can do to leave the house to walk the dog. (This is the very reason I have a dog!) I am not even always able to to head down to the beach for a swim. Fortunately this is rare but it does happen. So turning up for the course was a massive achievement for me.
Initially I felt like a fish out of water amongst my fellow course mates. They were/are swimmers extraordinaire. But they soon had me at ease and we’ve all stayed in touch since the course providing each other with advice and support. Some of them have gone on to achieve incredible feats. One has relayed around the IOW, one has relayed across the channel and another has relayed there and back across the channel, to name but a few. Things I could never dream of achieving. But I have achieved, in my own way and their cheers were just as loud.
I’ve been thinking a lot about achievement lately. I am surrounded by people I admire who have achieved impressive feats of human endurance. But also other, smaller but just as significant achievements. Achievement is something very different for every individual. I can swim and I am relatively fit for my age yet I would never consider swimming the channel. Yet swimming without a wetsuit all year round in sea temperatures as low as 3 degrees with snow on the beach does not faze me. Entering a rough sea does not concern me (not life threateningly rough). Not knowing what lies beneath the surface and being touched by a creature of the sea does not bother me. My friends and family see this as an achievement and I brush it off. Not arrogantly, it’s just I know it’s within my limit and therefore I can achieve it.
I know that swimming the channel is not within my limits of attainment. I would not be able to swim in the dark, I would be distracted by jellyfish and try to catch them, and I would be risking my mental health by spending that much time alone in my head. So I stick to doing things that push my limits outside of my comfort zone but are achievable. And what that looks like for me is something very different to what it looks like for other people.
I watched Sink or Swim already in awe of the celebrities that had signed up to do it as I wouldn’t ever consider it. Some of them couldn’t swim, couldn’t float, had previous bad swimming experiences, had physical challenges and mental challenges. Yet they agreed to give it a go. What an achievement. They had just 3 months to learn to swim and train for it. Can you believe that? What an achievement. As I write this I have no idea if any or how many drop out, or if they make it, as the swim is scheduled for next month. But because even contemplating it is beyond my limit I already see them as achievers.
I have been able to achieve my year round skin swimmer status by getting to know my limits. This wasn’t initially a conscious decision, I just didn’t put my wetsuit on one year when the temperature began to drop. However, it did allow me to really reflect on what my body is capable of and get in tune with what it was telling me without words. In the sea you are able to really focus on yourself, your whole self, and start to see what it can do. I soon knew I would be able to skin swim all year round – my limit was how long I could last in the water. This I was able to push, within a limit of being safe, and soon my body just adapted to the cold.
It’s hard to see achievement when somethings are comfortably within your limits. I can run. I am one of those annoying people that can talk while they run and can run substantial distances with little training. I have done a couple of marathons and although one year I was plagued with IT band problems I didn’t find the training or event too arduous. So I made the decision to never sponsor anyone, unless they were doing a marathon or more. If you wanted sponsoring for a 5km you could jog on. I completely failed to see that running a 5km could be a massive achievement for someone that had only started running 2 weeks ago, was recently bereaved, had no childcare, had agoraphobia, had heath issues, the list goes on. I wasn’t intentionally being unkind or dismissive, but I was, because running is comfortably within my limit.
What was interesting on Sink or Swim were the number of athletes taking part. Linford Christie was was once, the fastest man in the planet, but he couldn’t swim for toffee (Sorry Linford). Then there is Greg Rutherford and Tessa Sanderson. All achieved huge accolades at the pinnacle of their careers but struggled to swim 500m in the open water. Yet they have signed up to swim the Channel. What an achievement. Georgia Kousoulou, is a reality TV star, who suffers from anxiety and panic attacks. She is on TV without make-up, in a swim hat and unflattering neoprene, which for me is no big deal, but for someone like her, who, by the nature of her fame needs to always be insta-ready this is an achievement. Her experience resonated with me in others ways though, as she struggled to regulate her breathing. Controlling your breathing is the best tool in your toolbox if you suffer with anxiety. It’s also the key to being able to swim front crawl. Having you face in the water means you cannot decide when you are going to breathe. Yet she still signed up to do it. What an achievement.
Since swimming in the sea with a huge variety of people, I no longer have a fixed idea of what an achievement is. We are all unique individuals so it makes sense that our achievements would also be unique. One individual’s 500m swim is another individual’s Channel swim. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, achievement is; a thing done successfully with effort, skill, or courage. Using this definition, many things individuals do in their day to day is an achievement. Some of the people I have coached with acute anxiety have turned up, that took effort and courage. Putting on a wetsuit for the first time, that took effort and skill. Swimming in the open water, that took effort, skill and courage. Therefore, by it’s very definition, it is an achievement.
The toughest battle most people face is with their own mind. We all have that voice that sometimes tells us we can’t do something. If the voice shouts loud enough, some people don’t even bother to try. I know there are a lot of things I do not do because my head tells me I can’t. But those that do, despite the internal dialogue, even if they ‘fail’, have achieved. They tried and sometimes this is the only way to push your limits to know if it something you can achieve. The difference between try and triumph is a little ‘umph’.
The all or nothing approach to achievement is something I always have to keep in check. I am, by nature a sink or swim person. I either swim 1km as planned or I have not achieved. This can be really detrimental to my wellbeing. So I have had to adjust the way I view and approach achievement. I now count every step forward towards my end goal as an achievement. I am still trying to achieve, but to remain positive and engaged in the process as I am able to celebrate each incremental step in the process. In this way I am able to maintain some semblance of resilience if things do not go according to plan as the smaller steps of goal setting allows more flexibility.
What I have learnt through my consideration of achievement is that I need to be kinder to myself and kinder to others and recognise achievement in all it’s forms. I firmly believe that if at first you don’t achieve, try, try again. Being afraid is OK, but it shouldn’t stop you from striving to achieve. Just by trying, you have achieved.
Author: Seabird Kath
NB a significant achievement for me was being able to spell achievement by the time I had finished writing this blog! I before E.
I’m all come swim with me until the summer when I have no desire to swim. Or is it because I have no need to swim?
It’s that time of year again when the inevitable summer swim slump occurs. Life gets busy and the beach gets busy. I find myself muttering under my breath about fair weather swimmers as I approach our increasingly crowded favourite spot of shingle in front of Hove Lawns. Hardly aligned with my belief that swimming is for all and everyone should give it a go. The warmer waters remove the temperature barrier that prevents so many from swimming in the sea. This is a good thing. But still it keeps me away from my sacred sea.
It’s not that I like solitude when I am swimming. I have written many times about the sense of community and connection I gain from swimming with others. But I also do not like crowds. Too many people, too much noise, bodies invading my fiercely protected personal space overwhelms my over sensitive brain. I also fiercely protect my swimming space and when I see plastic all over the pebbles I want to weep. Hardly my happy place in the summer months.
My swim squad also disperses across Europe on their holidays. They share images of Italian Lakes, Yorkshire Tarns, French Rivers and Greeks Seas. They have all found secret swim spots, a Salty Seabird haven away from our busy beaches. There really is nothing better than finding a swim spot with family and friends and there is no one else there. You’ve hit the wild swimming jackpot. This is impossible in Brighton and Hove as the beaches are always busy in the summer and good old Sussex by the sea is a wild swimmers dry spot. There are rivers and lakes in abundance but they are not accessible to the public. I scroll through neighbouring Surrey’s wild swim group in envy at the access they have to the Thames and the River Wey. The Wild Swim guide books offer no real alternative to the sea in Sussex.
The alternative would be getting up at sunrise before the beach gets busy. Not really a hard task for an early riser like me. What ever the season I will wake up between 5-5.30am every day. During the summer months it is light enough to head down to the beach for a swim. Seabird Christine runs the 6.15am club and most mornings partakes in a dawn dip so I would even have Salty company. But I just can’t seem to muster the enthusiasm during the hot months. I think I may be a cold water junkie. If the sea temperature is below double digits it seems to be more appealing. During the summer the sea is room temperature, which for me, is a bit bath like.
I am currently on holiday in France where they have a much more tolerant attitude towards swimming outdoors than we do in the England. There are Lakes and rivers in abundance close to where I am staying. But, in all honesty lakes just don’t do it for me, especially when they are 25 degrees. I class the Mediterranean as a Salty Lake – not a sea. The water level is low so the rivers near by are too shallow to swim in. With lots of research and driving around I could no doubt find a suitable deep bend in a river. But I came on holiday to relax and read not to swim. And I am just as happy to be dry for the duration.
So what happens to my mental health during these times of drought, when I am an advocate of outdoor swimming as a way of managing wellbeing. As I write this, with a glass on rosé sitting on a veranda in Provence in the cool outdoor air I am happy. I have in fact been happy all summer long, even with a reduction in regular swims. Life has been by no means smooth swimming, life isn’t for anyone, but I have experienced no significant episodes of anxiety or depression. Which has made me consider why. Don’t get me wrong I am glad not to be sad but I wonder why.
Cold water swimming is just one thing in my arsenal against my mental health demons. I have lots of other things that are working alongside regular sea swimming. They have been been doing their thing in the background consistently as the dips have dwindled. Supplements, talking, rest, new experiences, good books, digital downtime, exercise, dog walks; are just some of the things in the mental health ammunition box that allow people to continue to cope. I am fortunate to have access to them all.
I have a husband and a business partner that keep me in check and tell me to slow down when I am accelerating at a rate of knots that is not necessary. Down time away from digital distractions is a necessary part of my mental maintenance but difficult to balance when you run your own business. Being disciplined with my down time and clever with scheduling has had a positive impact on my wellbeing.
I am currently well rested. Lots of early nights and saying no to too many evenings out has enabled me to manage and recover from numerous Seabird evening sessions, lessons and events. Now I am on holiday and the pace has definitely slowed to a crawl. If we are lucky, the kids may rise before lunchtime, so our excursions are mainly low key and local. I have entire mornings to read, write, think.
I know these things, amongst others, are working on my wellbeing. They are the hidden cogs that aren’t as visible as my sea swimming. My shoulder was injured for months preventing me from doing any swimming of substance. Yes I was frustrated but I accepted it. The busy beaches have reduced my swim time to once a week but I don’t mind. I am on holiday and the main focus isn’t finding a swim spot and that’s OK.
Don’t get me wrong the desire to jump into any body of water I happen to stumble across is still there. And I cannot wait to get back to the pebble, waves and community of my favourite Hove beach. But for now I am just as happy out of the water
Author: Seabird Kath
A couple of months ago, Seabirds hosted a wellbeing talk led by Dr Catherine Kelly who wears many hats, one of which is super supportive Salty Seabird! She also has decades of experience as a wellbeing practitioner, more qualifications than anyone I have ever met and an incredible passion and enthusiasm for helping others find their happy place. Hers, like mine, is on the beach or in the sea.
Recently, Catherine facilitated a free Wellbeing and Water presentation – which was booked up within 24 hours! The 3 speakers, all academics, shared some of their research work on how being in or near the sea can make us feel well. The theory of water and wellness that has stayed with me, resonated with me, made me consider me, was Catherine’s reference to connection. Our connection to others (1), ourselves (2), the sea (3) and environment (4) are all made possible by sea swimming.
I have talked and written at length about the sense of connection I experience from swimming with a group. In a fragmented world, the need for connection, collaboration and community has never been more necessary. The Salty Seabirds have grown from a few to the many, some I have never met, some have names I don’t know, some swim in different spots, some swim long distances and some dip. But I am connected to them. So incredibly diverse and different but connected. Connected by a shared passion for the sea. Connected by a shared belief in it’s healing properties. Connected by the shared need for respite and rest and the ability to find it by the sea. Connected by sharing cake and tea post swim.
I have considered my adult relationships over the last few years, as many of my close friends have drifted away. My aunt always says “friends for a reason, friends for a season and friends for life”. Whether you connect for a reason, season or for life, as long as there is human connection it will enhance your wellbeing. Connection with the Salty Seabirds gives me a sense of belonging to a group, a sense of identity, a great support system, and reason not to feel lonely when I am overwhelmed. I have learned so much from the Salty Seabird awareness and acumen, and we have learned together by sea swimming alongside those we connect with in the group.
I also feel more connected with myself by the sea. As much as I love the company of others I tend to keep my connecting conversations on the beach. Once I enter the water I search for solitude. Even if we are all swimming together in a group I will swim head down for lengths of time or distance only lifting my head to check everyone is still together or to wait for people. Like many other swimmers, I get into a rhythm while all of my senses experience the water. Strangely this distraction makes me feel most connected to myself. I can have a conversation with myself. Check in with myself. The self that I can only be when I have prioritised self care.
I love being on a beach and again even if I am with a group, I am not. A family walk on cliff tops, a sunbed snooze, a cosy cup of tea hidden in dunes, I am still very much in the moment in my mind, which I am unable to do anywhere else. Or rather I do not allow myself to be in the moment in my mind anywhere else. Here my mind is allowed to drift, noise of others talking, playing, arguing fades into the background. This is my mindfulness.
“So that the monotonous fall of the waves on the beach, which for the most part beat a measured and soothing tattoo to her thoughts seemed consolingly to repeat over and over again.”Virginia Woolf
My mind creates its own connections during these rare times when it is not taking self awareness into the realms of anxious fantasy, causing a riot of ridiculous, but to me very real thoughts. I always thought with a free reign my mind would continue to negatively overthink every situation, encounter, experience, But quite the opposite. It seems to find self awareness solutions and solace. The sea’s assault on my senses works as a trigger for me to subconsciously re-connect with myself. According to Dr. Wallace Nichols, science shows that being by the sea (he says ocean), we become more self-referential, more thoughtful, with greater insight, creativity, and awe. I have my best thoughts by the sea. I make my best decisions by the sea. I have the best ideas by the sea.
When I swim in the sea, I feel part of it, connected to it at a fundamental level. It is very different to the other ways humans connect with nature. When you walk in the countryside you are not really in it, just an observer. When you cycle across mountains or climb to the summit you are aided or propelled by your equipment. But when you are swimming, you are in it. Not on it, or around it, but immersed in it. And you need no equipment other than yourself. When you enter the water you do just that, you enter it become part of it it, connect with it. You connect with the sea in a way like no other. And it provides you with perspective. We are insignificant in terms or our size and strength. It’s a thing of wonder, which allows you to wonder.
The only way we will protect our seas reverse the damage already done is to connect with the sea and the beach environment. It is only when humans connect with their environment that they will become it’s protector and custodian. Think of the projects that have been successful in inner cities where crime and antisocial behaviour was high. They encourage young people to take pride in their locality and create safe spaces. As a direct consequence vandalism and littering is reduced. I feel fiercely protective of my playground, the lungs of the earth, the sea. My heart breaks when I see the state of the beach after the summer crowds have left for the day. They haven’t connected to it, it isn’t their happy place, they feel no responsibility for keeping it clean. It is only when you feel connected to your environment that pollution, at an individual level, can be tackled.
Connect 4, the four ways I can connect by swimming in the sea. I connect with my community, myself, the sea, my environment. It is only when we connect that things really work!
Author: Seabird Kath
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?
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.
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
This months book is a book I was bought for my birthday by my mum. It was on my list of books to read so it was perfect timing when it arrived in the post. I haven’t actually read it yet – I am saving it for my summer holiday in France next week.
But look at it, just look at it. A 1980’s nostalgic snap on the front cover and the familiar penguin publishing orange is just inviting you in!
As my eldest child is preparing to leave home next year and we have lots of ‘last’ holidays this type of book could tip me over the edge. I have spent this summer wistfully looking back over old photos of both my children and photos of me as a child – an emotional trip back in time. All of our happy times are by the sea. We’re just back from a very quick trip to the Isle of Wight which still has early closing. Physically transporting me back in time. So I think it will be tissues at the ready when I read this book.
The author, Tom is the the youngest person to have ever swum the channel. It is a memoir that spans 4 years with a back drop of 80s music on mix tapes. Reading the reviews even made my eyes begin to sting. It is a book that captures the innocence of childhood, the determination of a man in the making and the relationship between swimmer and coach. I cannot wait to dive in!