Connect 4 – The connections I make when Sea Swimming

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

We Came, We Swam, We Conquered

A reflection on our Women, Wellbeing and Water course

For as long as we have been swimming together, Catherine and I have talked of making the sea accessible to others. In the sea, where all the best ideas are borne, we came up with Women, Wellbeing and Water. A course aimed at giving women the confidence to get in the sea for respite and relaxation and to escape the day to day. 

With the help of a National Lottery grant and funding from Paddle Round the Pier Charity Festival, we have been able to turn our talk into action. We have the beaches of Brighton and Hove on our doorstep but it is still under-utilised by so many. The idea was to help women that wouldn’t normally have the confidence to don a swimsuit or wetsuit access the benefits of sea swimming that we have both experienced over the last few years. We know how much sea swimming has helped us and people around us, to get through some difficult times.

We ran a pilot session in September 2018 after funding was secured, which allowed us to try out our ideas and gain valuable feedback from participants. Then in June this year we launched our first course. All swimmers on the course were referred to us by Brighton Housing Trust’s Threshold Women’s Services. The service supports those with issues including anxiety, depression, self-harm, low self-esteem, suicidal thoughts, parenting issues, birth trauma and perinatal depression. The demand for the course was high and it was full within 24 hours.

We very much intended the course to be participant led, free from arbitrary goals. As part of the pre-course paperwork we asked them what they hoped to gain from the course. We knew our aims, what were theirs? Confidence was a reoccurring theme.

Greater confidence around other people and in the water particularly. More knowledge about being in the water and it’s benefits.”

“Confidence and resilience”

“Confidence and company”

“The confidence and momentum to swim regularly in the sea”

“Happiness, enjoyment, confidence”

And this aim really struck a chord as it echoed our reason for swimming in the sea!

“Positive mental and physical wellbeing and a return to who I truly am rather than the stressed version of my current self”

After our pilot session we were contacted by Dr Heather Massey from the University of Portsmouth. She and her colleagues are working on a research funding application to investigate the use of outdoor swimming for depression. As a result they need as much controlled quantitative data as possible relating to ‘new’ swimmers. If you ask an existing wild swimmer if they think it has a positive impact on their wellbeing they are liable to wax lyrical for what seems like forever. What Heather and her team need is data relating to swimmers that identified as having wellbeing issues and were ‘new’ to sea swimming. So our swimmers completed questionnaires before their first swim, after their first swim at at the end of the course to measure any changes in their levels of wellbeing, which we hope will provide more insight. Whilst we understand the need for this type of data collection in the world of academia, especially if you want to effect change, we were more drawn to the wonderful anecdotal comments………

How have you found outdoor swimming?

It was amazing experience, so freezing, joyful and hypnotising. Life giving and relaxing. Friendly atmosphere and felt so looked after.

Fantastic. It has been great learning about the sea, current, tides etc but the sense of a group experiencing the water together is lovely

Life affirming. It has lifted my mood and given  the confidence and encouragement to plan on making it a regular habit.

Will you swim in the outdoors again?

Definitely yes. It was life giving experience to feel nature,  waves and still feel safe as I was look after well in the water by Cathy. I loved sound and feel of the sea, which made me feel happy, relaxed and enthusiastic. I feel energetic, optimistic included and better to deal with problems and chronic pains in the future. Thank you for a great experience.

Yes. I’ve joined the seabirds and started swimming with others. Its life enhancing actually life changing. Thanks so much!

I will definitely swim outdoors again – in fact I have already ventured in a couple of times between lessons. I feel so grateful to have had the privilege of being amongst such kind and encouraging experienced swimmers and I would really like to start meeting up. I would also like to maybe learn how to do the crawl, and would like to hear of any lessons….

The reference to swimming with others, the sense of community and connection which provided the confidence to swim in the sea. This is at the heart of the Salty Seabird Sea Swimming group. So much so, that many of our group volunteered to join the new swimmers each week to swim, guide, assist, chat with them. And drink tea and eat cake with them at the end of every session of course. It is these swimmers that encouraged the new swimmers, happy to pass on their skills and experience, happy to welcome them into our flock. As the new swimmers gained confidence, the Salty Seabirds gained new members. That was our aim. And that was the new swimmers aim.

A huge thank you to Catherine, Mel, Alex, Claudine, Emma, Maria, Sam, Hannah and  Libby. And welcome to our new Salty Seabirds.

Right time to start planning the next course………..

A Seabird out of her depth

My experience of completing the STA Open Water Swimming Coaching award in the midst of anxiety.

And I was, I really was. Although I was treading water, on a STA Open Water Swimming Coaching Course, I was definitely a Seabird out of her depth.

So how did I end up here? The rhetorical answer is, I was hoping to gain a qualification that would enable me to be the lead coach for our Women Wellbeing and Water sessions and any future Seabird sea swimming courses. The literal answer is by train from Brighton to Welwyn Garden City.

The timing of the course could not have been worse. My husband was working away at the same time. We are trying to sell our house and buy a new one. And my 16 year old was embarking on her first trip abroad, to France to watch the Women’s World Cup with her mate. Plus June is a busy month on the Seabird calendar with lots of events, sessions and get togethers.

The days before were challenging. My anxiety was spiralling out of control and the internal chatter telling me to withdraw was relentless. Flicking through the pre-course material did nothing to quieten the hard time my brain was giving me. Buoy turns! I float at the buoy and take smiling snaps. Drafting! I draft more people into the sea by providing them with encouragement and a safe environment. Pack swimming! We forget to pack our knickers and laugh about it over tea and cake. The manual had very different descriptions of these open water swimming skills. I quickly flicked to page 99 on the skills section entitled ‘ Acclimatisation and Overcoming Panic’ desperate to ease the worry.

Is it possible for one human to produce an infinite amount of cortisol? In constant fight or flight mode for days I was hanging on by my finger nails and exhausted. And the course hadn’t even started yet. I busied myself with helicopter parenting of two very capable teens and left packing and considering train times until the last minute. Classic avoidance. So it was no surprise that I ended up on the wrong bloody train! Cue the first fighting back of tears. I even remained on the wrong train until a minute before it’s departure, frozen in fear with my M&S nuts and wine. Finally I plucked up the courage to retrieve my kit bag and suitcase and made my way to the correct platform to board the correct train.

The rest of the train journey was uneventful but provided a lot of time to think with little to distract. Cue more more tear fighting and a ridiculous amount of texts to my husband who was waiting in a German airport for his flight home. As the train pulled into Welwyn Garden City I was very ready for a walk to my hotel and some fresh air. Living my best life I was curled up in a Premier Inn bed, in a town I suspected was the set of Stepford Wives, watching Netflix on the iPad by 9pm.

You’d think I had never swum in open water, put on a wetsuit or coached/trained groups of people in the water before. But I actually have a ton of experience in all three. But the impostor syndrome persisted into the next morning when I woke up at 4.30am. Thankfully breakfast started at 6.30am so just 2 hours of worry time between me and a full fry up! My depression and anxiety have never come between me and a meal.

By 8am I had received a lifeline call from Will. Will and I know each other from a previous course and he too lives in Brighton. He is an incredible swimmer, but his best quality is his infectious enthusiasm and capacity for kindness. He was travelling back and forth from his parents house rather than experiencing the delights of the Premier Inn on the outskirts of a purpose built town. He had arrived early and was trying to find the course facility. With his clear directions I set off to start the course.

I know, I know. It makes no sense to be nervous about completing a course when there is a familiar friendly face there to greet you. And it was a huge relief to see his smiling face when I arrived. But that is what anxiety does. It robs you of your ability to reason. Gradually the room began to fill up. I scanned their faces, looked at their physiques, considered their kit backs – trying to ascertain their swim ability. We then did a round table introduction starting with me. Stories of swim teaching experience decades long, huge endurance feats completed or about to be completed, our coach was Keri-anne Payne, Olympic silver medallist for goodness sake. Any respite Will’s welcome had provided was very short lived.

The course is 3 days long, mainly classroom based, with coaching practice in a lake. Keri-anne created a wonderfully inclusive learning environment which set the tone for the next few days. Her stories were inspirational but not because of the phenomenal feats, medals and wins she has achieved. They were inspirational because they were relatable. She too has been spooked in the water – by a twig of all things.  But I was still apprehensive about getting in the water. Yep, you heard it right. Me, nervous about getting wet. But wet I did get. And it was fine as everyone except for me knew it would be.

The next day was more of the same but better. By now we were all getting to know each other and I was able to appreciate what a wonderfully warm group of people I was with. Our backgrounds, swimming experiences and goals couldn’t have been more different but our passion for swimming, in all it’s different guises, had bought us together. I swim for community and connection (and cake) and it was still here, in a lake in Hertfordshire with a bunch of strangers that were fast becoming my support network.

Then it happened. The tears. On day 2. Holding it together for prolonged periods of time can only end one way . Day to day functioning is, for me, the hardest part of my mental illness. I can do it, but I need to factor in rest, relaxation and respite. The days leading up to this course, the lack of sleep and unfamiliar faces and surroundings were fast eroding my game face. It happened when we were split into groups of 3 to practice coaching an OWS skill with each other. Rob, 34 years in the armed forces, was tasked with coaching myself and Christine on pack swimming. My biggest barrier is swimming in confined spaces. In indoor pools, in close proximity with other people I have experienced my one, and thankfully only, panic attack. To say I was going outside of my comfort zone was an under statement. But I did it. Part of the coaching methodology is for it to be swimmer led, asking questions to consider their needs. Poor Rob asked me how I found it. The response was initially a whimper and then a full on sob. I quickly reassured him that his coaching had been all the things it needed to be to get me to do something I didn’t want to do and the tears were because I was beyond chuffed that I had done it. I think everyone saw, I am not a quiet crier.  The compassion with which my tears were met made me cry harder. I was caught in a crying loop.

That night I felt well enough to have dinner with some of the others at the local Beefeater – living the dream. May be the release of crying was just what the doctor ordered. I certainly felt less uptight and restless. And now that the others had seen the real me, the vulnerable me, the over-thinking me, the crying me, the worst had happened. The mask hadn’t slipped, it had totally fallen off and I was OK. My crying had been met with kindness. Sleep was still evading me and we still had to be assessed the next day, so I wasn’t out of the woods yet. But pretending to be confident in my abilities was one less thing I had to worry about. That floodgate was well and truly open and there was absolutely no point in trying to close it again.

The next morning, Will picked me up and we arrived early as we had to complete our written assessment too. This is where depression makes his appearance after being pushed to the back of my mind by anxiety. Where anxiety tells me I can’t do something, depression physically stops me from doing it. The thought of doing something, anything, is met with lethargy and avoidance. On the outside it looks like you can’t be bothered, but in reality you don’t know where to start and feel totally overwhelmed. We’d had plenty of time to complete it in  the evenings, mornings, breaks but I just hadn’t done it. Sometimes the only way round this is a deadline. I needed to complete it, I needed to pass the course, the Seabirds Women, Wellbeing and Water project was relying on it. So I started.

What was reassuring was that everyone was nervous that last day. Everyone had questions about the written assessment. Everyone had worries about the practical assessment. We were connected in our concern and we were community in the comfort we provided to each another. I wasn’t alone. I was with a group of Seabirds.

So day 3, the last day,  started. We had a round table discussion on what we had learnt and what we would take away from the course. A really positive way to start the day as we shared our stories. Then it was time to be assessed in the water. We were split into 2 groups and had been given a skill to coach the night before. There would be pack swimming in a group of 9 at the end. My mind started searching for the fear, but it just wasn’t there. The whole group had witnessed me at my worst, they knew I hated it and Will who was coaching the pack swimming session was able to adapt it. I was at ease. So we did it, with me right on the furthest edge obviously. Christine, a very gentle woman positioned herself right beside me to ensure I was OK. And never left my side reassuring me with her calm presence. But then Will asked the question. Did anyone want to change position? And I did. I wanted to know what it felt like to be in the middle, amongst melee. He shouted go from he other end and I swam. It wasn’t long before I was kicked hard in the leg (still bruised now), swallowed a gob full of water and was left behind by the faster swimmers. This time there was a smile, not sobbing. I’d done it.

It was with heavy hearts that we all said good bye to each other and swapped details at the end of the course. But we were all really excited to get home and put our new coaching skills into practice. It’s an incredible course and one which  would thoroughly recommend. And I will, in another blog………

My mental health is the biggest challenge I face on a daily basis. It tells me I can’t do things, when I can. It tells me I don’t need to do things when I do. But the sense of achievement of when I can and when I do in the context of my anxiety and depression is my Olympic medal. And as my mum always said, a smooth sea never made a good sailor. Or in this case a skilled Open Water Swimming Coach.

Author: Seabird Kath

Note: The featured image is a coaching session on pack swimming before we lined up at the start line. As Denise says – “we’re all friends here, until someone says go!” And my goodness did she go – I quite literally ate her bubbles. I managed to keep up with them for at least 2 strokes and I survived the washing machine it created. I put myself right in the middle and I survived.

Big thanks to Will, Rob, Christine, Amanda, Julie, Ellen, Lisa, Denise and of course Keri-anne for spending an amazing three days with me. 

 

Swimming for cakes and connection OR competition?

Back to trying to balance swimming in events and swimming for fun. Or can they be the same thing?

Last summer, after completing 12 months of skin swimming I decided I needed a new goal. I do this a lot. Set myself goals and then begin to loose the love of the thing I was doing just for fun because I think I need a goal to do something. It’s a complicated place inside my noggin.

Last summer I had some beautiful swims. My two favourites were, a swim in the Lake District with my daughter to celebrate the end of her GCSEs and a swim in Glen Nevis with my son in literally, the most beautiful place in the world. I’d also completed a year of skin swimming and set up Seabirds Ltd with some swimming friends. On a post swimming summer heaven high, I entered a ton of events for the following year. Because obviously I needed an arbitrary goal to enhance the joys of swimming. Didn’t I?

Now don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with goals. There is nothing wrong with entering and competing in events. There is nothing wrong with striving to be the best that you can be at something – in fact it’s blooming admirable and a lot of my friends have achieved massive milestones in the disciplines of their choice and the joy it yields is wonderful.  But I need to be in the right head space for it and right now I am not. My world is a bit busy with family stuff and I need to be it’s heartbeat. There is not a lot of time, energy or inclination left for training swims, only time out swims.

I can swim for miles and for ages, not the fastest fish in the sea but I have stamina. I could still do the events I have entered, which are in beautiful parts of the country with my head up taking in the view and breathing in my surroundings. It’s the type of swimming I advocate and encourage. And I can practice what I preach, most of the time, unless it it an event. Then I seem to turn into competitive Kath. Not competing with other competitors but with myself which is a competition I have absolutely no chance of winning. I am never going to have trained enough, fuelled enough, rested enough, stretched enough. I struggle with being enough, with balance.

I did start to train for the events I have entered. It’s hard to get longer swims in over the winter unless you go to the pool. I had my one and only ever panic attack in a pool and it took me over a year to get back in. If I do it has to be crowd free, a lane to myself and preferably outdoors, which is a challenge in itself.  My plan was, as the sea got warmer to don my wetsuit and do some distance swims at dawn but frankly life got in the way as it sometimes does. I even went so far as to have technique lessons in the tank at SeaLanes. They were amazing and I would recommend Andy to anyone that wants to  really focus on their individual areas for improvement. But I didn’t practice the drills between sessions so the old habits kept creeping back in. And before I knew it my first event was only a couple of weeks away and my old mate anxiety decided to to come for an extended stay!

Making a decision about whether to do the first event gave me sleepless nights. Not just because I was making the decision for myself but the impact it would have on others. The first swim was The Big Bala Swim in Snowdonia. A part of the country I was really looking forward to exploring and you got to the start line in a steam train. I was doing the 4.5km swim across a lake with my daughter and my mate. My shoulder has something going on with it that I am in total denial about but I am in pain even after resting and when it’s not in use. Decision made! I told Libby I was dropping out which made her promptly decide she didn’t want to do it either without me. So I opted back in and decided to do a slow breaststroke swim – there are no deferrals or refunds anyway. Finally at peace with my decision. So we set off from Cornwall the day before the swim. We hadn’t even got to Somerset after 6 hours in the car. By the M4, two teens and a dog squashed in the back, had lost the will to live and we headed south for home instead. The post half term holiday traffic had actually made my decision. An easier pill to swallow.

So I have two more events to go. The River Arun still hangs in the balance. Again a scenic swim, this time a river and you are helped by an out going tide. A couple of the Salty Seabirds are doing this one as well and chips in Littlehampton afterwards  is very appealing. Also the salt water and finishing in the sea is familiar to me so less daunting.  But I have decided not to do the Castle Tri Series swim in Hever in September. Again a beautifully scenic swim (bit of a theme with me) in a moat around a castle. Not because I don’t want to but because I want to do something else instead. I have swapped the Castle Swim for The Great Tit Weekend. A weekend of wild swims and walks with the famous Blue Tits and some Salty Seabirds. How’s that for balance!

I am going to do more organised events but there has to be a balance between mass wetsuit clad swims and solace swims. And I need to accept that some things don’t go to plan like training and traffic and then we change our plans. I was able to help with the first session at Hove Surf Life Saving Club, a newly formed club in the city, as I wasn’t in Snowdonia. So I still got wet, just with a bunch of excited kids rather than fellow competitors and that was just as much of an achievement as swimming 3 miles in a cold lake. Just a different sort of achievement.

So what are my goals now? Well I am in the process of putting together 5 swims before I am 50. A set of swims I can do over the next 3 years that are in locations and with wild swim groups I really want to visit. They include the Lake District which I want to do again before my daughter leaves home but this time with the expert guide that is Suzanna Swims. And I am set on getting to Snowdonia and getting in the water with Vivenne Rickman Poole. But I am also cognisant that if time and tide do not allow then I am OK with that. There will be plenty of swims before I am 50 and some of the swims that are not in my goals turnout to be the best swims.

Goals need to be adjusted in order to be achieved sometimes. Readjusting the swim goals I set myself means goal achievement of a different kind. The goal of be kinder to myself, finding a balance and knowing that what I have is enough. Although a swim with fins in the River Adur looks very tempting………………………

Author: Seabird (competitive) Kath