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!

 

 

January doesn’t have to be Blue!

A guest blog by Salty Seabird Claudine – how to beat the blues whatever time of the year it is!

Guest blog by Salty Seabird Claudine

January, hey?  It gets a bad rap.  “New year, new you”, Dry January, Blue Monday.   Not much fun and joy contained in those words.  But it doesn’t have to be that way.

A couple of years ago when I first discovered the body positive movement, it became so much more than a transformation of how I see myself when I look in the mirror.  I did an exercise called “taking the blinkers off”, and it opened my eyes to the nonsense I’d been fed by the media for so long.  Not only the societal ideal of beauty which for the most part was airbrushed, unrealistic and certainly not what I was ever going to look like, but also to other media bias.  I mean, I had of course known about this and been somewhat mindful of what I chose to read and watch, but suddenly I saw through the lies I’d been blind to before.

One of them was about how depressing January is, and in particular the concept of Blue Monday, the third Monday of the year.  As well as being a song of my youth, it is a concept apparently made up by the travel industry to make people feel particularly low so they book a holiday to escape the grey drudgery of a British winter.  This is despite being “depressed” (obviously, some people actually suffering depression and others just feeling pretty down for a while) and having the Christmas bills coming in whilst waiting desperately for January pay day.

But it doesn’t have to be all bad, does it?  I have the joy of seeing my girl turn another year older each January, always scraping together a party for her after the madness of Christmas.  Although I haven’t made new year resolutions for years, I like to use the start of a fresh year to take stock, think about what’s happened over the last 12 months and give some thought to the 12 months ahead – how I want to be, and how I can achieve that.  And now for the second year, I’m looking forward to swimming (or at the very least dipping on the coldest of days) in some of the lowest water temperatures of the year.  It’s a pleasure to have something to look forward to through winter, and for us cold water lovers and to the confusion of the rest of the population, the colder the better.

 

At the event I curated for iSWIM, entitled Reclaim Blue Monday, we heard from a range of panellists and experts in cold water immersion and blue space.  The discussion was about why and how we benefit from this crazy (as some people see it), pastime of wild swimming, in terms of socially, physiologically, psychologically, spiritually and environmentally.  What does the sea give us; and in return, what can we give the sea?

We heard about the stimulation of both the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, enabling us to cope better with stress – physically and mentally.  We heard about the transformative, connective and re-orientating power of a swim, especially a chilly one.  We heard about the power of awe, and how immersion in freezing water and being in nature contribute to positive wellbeing.  We heard of the value of the beach and the sea as a therapeutic landscape, and the idea that the more we use the ocean and gain some benefit from it, the more likely we are to care about its wellbeing and take action against water pollution.  It reminded me of the short film, Nature is Speaking, with Julia Roberts voicing “mother nature”, a powerful message about how nature doesn’t depend on us but we depend on it.  Nature has existed for billions of years before us, and will exist long after us, she will evolve no matter what our actions.  But we need to evolve as well if we want to carry on as a species.

All this means much more than the things we might be encouraged to do every new year: cutting out alcohol, stopping smoking, becoming fitter, faster and slimmer, or setting ourselves goals of achievement, smashing our PBs.  It means being mindful of what is around us, of separating the truly important things from those we are told to believe are important.  And for me, this begins in the sea.  It’s a place where I can be myself, get what I need, and take nothing away (apart from plastic I find on the beach).  The sea is a place I can feel free, forget the stresses of the day, week, month, and reset.

Every swim is different and gives me something the last one or the next one may not.  It could be a purely physical refresh, a wake up, a shock to the senses by the prickling of the cold water on my skin, bit by bit as I get in.  It could be the sense of achievement of getting in a bouncy sea, assessing from the shore when and where to get in, whether the waves are too big, how often they are breaking.  Watching the waves break with such power and force, working out where the shelf of the beach is, and how likely it is I’ll get “washing machined” by the shore break.   On these swims I barely notice the cold, too busy trying not to drown.  Once I’m in, I’ll enjoy the swim, but with a little part of me feeling anxious about how difficult it will be to get out, whether I’ll time it right or get knocked over by a wave, and pummelled by stones.

Once I’m out after a swim like this, I feel like I can take on the world!  Or it might be the conversation or uplifting support of fellow swimmers.  I’ve had such a vast range of conversations with people whilst bobbing along beside them, hearing and sharing such profound and personal stories with people I’ve just met, or sometimes sharing my own struggles and letting the overwhelm and anxiety wash away, with my tears, into the salty water.  Other times, it’s the hysterics of the after-drop, the not remembering exactly how to get dressed, the giggles about a risqué comment from another swimmer, or just the fits of laughter that come out of nowhere and are about nothing.

Whatever I get from a swim, whether it’s the things I consciously feel and think, and whatever unconsciously going on in my brain and my body, I always get something good.  Even on the very rare occasion I feel like it wasn’t much fun, I didn’t really enjoy it, felt rubbish as I went in and far from ecstatic coming out, and I got battered with wind and rain trying to get dressed, I’m still convinced I come out feeling better than if I hadn’t gone in.  It’s sometimes hard to put into words what I get from it.  But every time I get in, once I get over the breathlessness of cold shock, I find myself taking a deep inhale, and as I exhale, I always find myself saying, “ahh, that’s better”.  Discovering cold water swimming and meeting the incredible community of i-swimmers and seabirds has certainly cured anything blue about January for me.

Note on the Author; The life-changing film Embrace is being screened again by BoPoFitCo – Christine Chessman and Claudine Nightingill-Rane – a body image coaching duo from Hove. For both of us, and for many more who have seen our previous screenings, it has been a catalyst for a hugely positive change in the way we see ourselves, treat ourselves and the work we do to help others do the same

Preserved in Salt

We don’t stop playing because we get old; we get old because we stop playing – George Bernard Shaw

“Forty is the old age of youth; fifty is the youth of old age.” Victor Hugo

Since its conception, the Salty Seabird Sea swimming community flock has grown rapidly.  Not sure whether it is due to the group name, the times we swim or because of the community aspect but the majority of our flock are female. And not just female, but females of a certain age. Most of us fall into the 45-55 age group and we regularly forget our knickers. But we feel a lot younger! 

As the sea temperature drops our numbers continue to grow. Swimmers who have been bathing regularly  over the summer are keen to continue, with company, into the winter months. Many arrive for their first swim consumed with anxiety about their swimming ability, what to wear and stormy seas. After weeks of bathing with us they are becoming confident water warriors. It’s good to do something you are afraid of. Swimming in the cold sea, when the waves threaten to knock you off your feet provides reason for a very real fear. It would be so much easier to go home. But what the flock have found is, it is a fear worth facing because the other side of it is a feeling like no other. It’s recapturing the feelings associated with our younger selves, having adventures, experiencing pure joy. We are preserving ourselves in salt!

Regularly swimming in the sea exercises our brain, keeping it young by learning new skills like how to read sea forecasts and how to exit the sea safely. Swimmers have learnt by experience that their fears can be overcome. This neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to form new neural pathways and synaptic connections in response to learning, having new experiences or healing from an injury, keeps us young!

We are also exercising our bodies – but in a playful, kind way. Free from distraction, in the sea, we can tune into how our body feels (which is bloody cold most of the time). We begin to understand it in a way that is just not possible on dry land. Every part of your body immersed in cold water is talking to you and you have time to listen. We are weightless. We are soothing aching limbs. But we are moving. Anybody can get in the sea regardless of their swim abilities – and just move. This joyful movement has the added benefit of improving memory, focus and motivation. We really are preserving our youth.

Mother of all Movement, Kathryn Meadows puts it perfectly. After starting a family, struggling with PND which lead to an unbalanced approach to exercise, she stopped all intense training. “Part of my knowledge growth in that time was learning to love moving again. Moving for the sake of feeling how awesome my body was, not because I “had” to lift heavier or go faster or prove I was still fit. I fell in love with exploring how it felt to use my muscles well, to improve how efficiently I could use them and how amazing it was when I asked my body to do something challenging and it could respond.” This is also true of our Salty swimmers.

Women who swim through winter have a lack of fuss about themselves. Day-to-day dressing, hair and makeup do not apply here. It’s all about getting warm, fast post swim. Underwear is foregone, layers are essential and showers or hair brushing are positively frowned upon.  Photographer Christian Doyle photographed the Salty Seabird Swimmers as part of her ‘Against the Tide’ project.  She said, at the time “Getting your subject to relax in soft flattering light is the aim of every portrait photographer. None of the rules apply here – rather it is saying ‘this is us, how we are now, makeup free, cold and wet and unbelievably happy‘. And its’s true. We give less of a f@?k about what we look like. As long as we’re cold in the water and warm afterwards we are happy.

It is not just how our body looks that we are confident about, it is a confidence in its strength and capability in the water. We may not have washboard stomachs, toned biceps and the tight arse of our youth (did we ever?), but we are strong.  Whatever shape or size, level of fitness or swim ability our bodies are up to the task of winter swimming. Every month ticked off on the calendar is a reminder of what our wonderful wobbly bodies have helped us achieve. And we need to nurture those wobbles with cake.

During a woman’s lifetime they will experience huge changes. During the menopause years alongside all the delightful symptoms many of us are experiencing varying forms of grief. We are saying goodbye to our youth symbolised by our inability to reproduce. We are saying goodbye to our fledglings and they begin to leave the nest. And many of us are saying goodbye to our parents.  It can be a very lonely time and a time of great sadness. But there is a cure for this loneliness and it is swimming in the sea with a bunch of women who have or will experience the same grief as you. Alongside laughter and fun there can also be tears when we swim. But there will also be a hug, some stoic advice and a piece of cake. The salt in the Seabirds preserves your sanity.

Swimming in the salty sea I am not sure if we are being cured, or being cured, but we are definitely having fun! And as Mae West said; “you are never too old to be younger!”

 

Cold Water Sea Swimming – Kill or Cure?

The clocks have gone back, it is officially Cold Water Swimming season. But how do you do it safely?

Many people believe in the healing power of cold water for both body and mind. But cold water does not come without it’s risks. Even in the summer months swimmers can experience cold water shock. So how do you make sure your cold water swim is the cure you are looking for? After 3 years of year round skin sea swimming in Brighton and Hove, this is what I’ve learnt.

Why do it?

There are lots or 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.  It’s time away from the fast pace of modern day living. 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 but sharing the experience with other swimmers is fun and you get to eat cake afterwards!

How to do it safely

The most important skill you need for cold water swimming is self-awareness. If you’re looking to push your limits do it gradually. This isn’t about your swim experience and abilities. This is how you feel on the day. Have you eaten, do you feel physically and mentally well, do you have an injury. All of these factors need to be considered before entering the water.

Swimming in groups is always a win. But do not rely on others to advise you whether it is safe to swim or if you are capable of a completing a swim. You are responsible for your own safety and your own swim as are your fellow swimmers.

Check conditions before AND during your swim. There are lots of apps that help you do this before your swim and when in the water be mindful of potentially changing sea, tide and weather. Regularly take a rest and check the environment. If you need to, change your swim, cut it short, do it a different day.

Knowing the temperature of the water can be useful but it should just one of your checks before you swim. There is no hard and fast rule about how long you can stay in for and when or if you should start wearing neoprene. This again comes back to self-awareness. Doing it regularly helps with adaptation.

Acclimatisation in the first few minutes is key to a safe swim. Your body’s response to cold water is fight or flight. Your heart rate increases and you will struggle to catch your breath. This in turn can cause swimmers to panic. The key is to immerse yourself slowly, control your breathing and float until you feel it pass. You are then set to start your swim.

Swimmers can also be overcome by the cold water temperatures during a swim so sticking close to a safe exit point i.e. the shore is a good choice and make sure you have the skills to get out via breaking waves.

Don’t be concerned with distance covered or time in the water. On a different day at the same temperature you may only manage half of what you usually do. There is still cake afterwards.

Wearing a wetsuit doesn’t remove cold water shock, cold water still needs to trickle in before it warms up,  but it does dull the pain. They are designed to keep you warmer for longer so can increase the time you spend in the water. They also help you float which is only ever a good thing. If you have decided skin swimming (cossie only) is for you then you can wear neoprene accessories to keep your extremities warm.

And as Dory says – “Just keep swimming”. As the sea temperature drops, face in freestyle may become less possible but movement is just as important. The less you move your body the quicker the cold will affect you. If you are struggling to keep moving, it could be the start of cold incapacitation and it is time to get out. Remember cold can overwhelm swimmers very suddenly.

How to get warm

Get dressed as quickly as possible. Lots of thin layers. I lay all of my clothes out in the order I will be putting them on and wrap the first few layers in a hot water bottle. Nothing tight fitting or fiddly. Fingers are too numb for bra fastening and I never remember my knickers.

Move around and keep moving long after your swim. It will take your body a while to warm up and it needs to do it from the inside out. Hot water bottles and blankets warm up your surface and trick the brain into thinking it no longer needs to focus or warming up your core. You may also experience the dreaded ‘after-drop’ as your core temperature can continue to drop after you have exited the water. Also try to avoid hot baths and showers for a while.

Drink something hot and eat cake!

Author: Seabird Kath (who drinks a lot of tea and eats a lot of cake)