Swim and Tonic

I thought I was doing OK, and I am, but there is definitely a storm brewing in the distance. Low pressure is here and it relentlessly keeps coming. So one morning this week, I released the pressure with the flock on the beach and in the sea.
As I sit, days later, thinking about that morning I cannot help but smile. Better yet, the exhilaration, excitement and elated mood I experienced was shared. It was just the tonic!

We’re at the tail end of Storm Francis and the weather is changeable. Strong winds are keeping us on our toes and permanently glued to weather and sea forecast apps to identify swimming windows. We had a Seabird birthday to celebrate this week so opportunity was key. The birthday girl settled on an 8am swim at King Alfred Beach, the dog friendly side. I was also meeting a friend that morning, having a swimming lesson and generally galivanting about the beach between lessons and courses. So I agreed to the birthday swim but said I wouldn’t get in just come for the cake and the craic (the birthday girl is Irish).

Another Seabird spotted me as soon as I got out of the car. I don’t have particular, favourite or regular swim buddies. They all fill my cup in different ways. This bird is bloody funny and her quick wit and clumsiness have your sides splitting. So I knew I was in for a fun gathering of the flock. We wandered down to the beach watching birds come from different directions, drifting until they spotted the ever growing brood. There was lots of talk of the weather and the waves. The beauty of a westerly is you can see the squalls and the fronts coming over the sea and the sky has been putting on quite a show of late.

There was lots of pre-swim chatter. It’s the summer and we all naturally migrate in the warmer months, coming back together in September when school starts. And although this has been a strange summer of staycations, we have still not met in big groups or seen much of each other. So the chatter was excited, urgent, loud and bloody lovely. Two of the birds I’d seen the day before but there was still so much to say. One I hadn’t seen for months and was keen to hear about her freshwater swimming adventures. There have been house moves, holidays, exam results, illnesses that all needed airing. Most of the birds are parents and a child free hour means cramming conversation in.

Finally, they got in the sea. A couple of years ago, particularly on a wavy day, they would wait for me to lead the charge. That is not an arrogant statement, it is merely a fact. I am not the Queen of the Sea (I am) but I do have confidence when getting in the water. Looking to my left and right there would be lines of birds waiting for when I would make my move. Now they all nonchalantly stroll in and if a wave takes them out they laugh. From my strange, dry vantage point I feel like a proud mother hen. This is why we did this. These women were strangers to each other not so long ago. Now they are firmly established in each other’s lives. We may not venture far from the beach but we venture into each other’s experiences, worries and doubts and are welcomed like old friends. There’s screeching, laughing and wonderful rendition of Happy Birthday in a mermaid ring. A couple swim off to get some mileage in, others bob and chat, a few practice their strokes. Doing their own thing but doing it together. Then it was time for cake. The only reason for swimming in the sea year round other than connection is cake. And lots of it.

Before the birds even had their clothes back on the cake came out. Various varieties. You cannot have a swim and then be offered just one type of cake. The distance swimmers were back and needed warming up so cake was eaten in a stood upright shaky position. Others wrapped in robes hunkered down to get out of the growing wind. Positions swapped as conversations changed. Then finally, someone said “Right I must go now”. The reason for an 8am swim was so it didn’t eat into peoples day and we could prepare for the return of routine mornings. Inevitably, the first “Right I must go now” was responded to with “Yes, me too.” But no one left the beach. The chatter changed but continued. You just ended up talking to someone else further up the beach. I walked the neap high water line with another bird looking for sea glass and putting the world to rights, others picked up litter, some had another slice of cake. But no one actually left. When I go back from my slow dawdle, they were all still there, just in a different flight formation. Finally the first one left and gradually people began to leave. It was so gradual it was hardly noticeable and the “Right I must go now” was replaced with “I thought you were going” or “Are you still here?”.

I had no where to be other than the beach that morning. Something I had been fretting about as the TO DO list at home beckoned. But by now I’d been at the beach for well over an hour, almost two. Time had run away and relaxation had rushed into replace it. With a handful of us left, a sizeable piece of sea glass was found and that was it. We were going nowhere. Tales of legendary size finds were shared, shingle was over-turned in the search for fortune and shells offered in exchange for the gem. But the finder wasn’t to be parted with her treasure. Then she found another piece, even bigger, practically in the same spot. We swarmed around her plotting ways to relieve her of her burden of gems. Creating a sea glass colour and size hierarchy and beach currency to offer her as a trade deal. We were Sea Witches at their best.

No one mentioned leaving for quite a while again. Instead, we joked and teased each other relentlessly. They were the kind of jokes that made you feel like you belonged but weren’t exclusive. Yes you could be the brunt of them but not in a mean girl way. The jokes were based on joyful, jubilant times together. Childlike (some would say immature) innocent pure fun. Which continued long into the day via messages and concluded with another Seabird classic evaluation of our time together. “ I didn’t know how much I needed that”. Finally, It was just two of us left and we went our separate ways eventually because I was meeting a friend.

I stayed on the beach for another three hours after they had all gone. I met a close friend on a bench on the prom. We watched as Seabird swim coaches worked their magic with nervous new sea swimmers. Christine was running an introduction to sea swimming session and Emma was teaching a Breast Stroke to Front Crawl lesson. A lesson which Co-Flounder Cath was in. We were meant to go for a walk, my friend and I. Instead we sat and chatted about our kids, our lives and our goings on. All the while watching the sea and the ever expanding flock. Cath came to say hello after her lesson. Her sense of achievement radiated from her happiness more infectious than normal. Then it was my time to get in.

I’ve been swimming a lot in the summer but not swimming. I usually reduce my sea time in high season as I hate the crowds and despair at the litter but this year has been different. Having to meet in smaller groups has meant more salt on my skin. Outdoor swimmers are growing in numbers and so the Seabird, lessons, sessions and courses are thriving. My hair constantly has seaweed in it and there is always a cossie drying somewhere. But I haven’t been swimming swimming. My usual early morning buoy loops just haven’t happened. No point to points with the tide. No circumnavigations of either of the piers. I’ve been getting in and bobbing but I have replaced longer swims with cake, runs with crisps and gym classes with chocolate. I’m in the midst of a body moving funk and not the kind that gets your body moving. So I signed up to have technique lessons with Emma. Having a set times and place and someone telling me what to do in the hope that it would reboot my body.

It was wonderful. Moving my body with purpose. Recalling it’s hidden strength. Not thinking about anything else other than what Emma was telling me to do. Meeting the other swimmers, some of whom were just at the start of their sea swimming adventures. And Emma does everything with humour, putting the participants at ease. I lost my goggles on the first wave and did the rest of the lesson in a kids snorkel mask. Towards the end of the lesson one of the swimmers knocked against something in the shore dump. Poking out from the shingle, only visible every 5th wave or so, was a metal ladder. Only the first two rungs were not buried. With a lot of pulling, falling over and face planting I manage, with the help of two other swimmers to dig/pull it out. I proudly marched the 10ft ladder up the beach to the lifeguard post. Best beach clean find ever! And in that Amazonian moment my body and I made friends again.

tonic4

I remained on the beach for while longer to catch Christine after she completed her last Introduction Session of the season. She asked me how things were going. And I moaned and moaned a bit more and then for good measure a grumble. We’ve not been able to run the Women Wellbeing and Water free community courses for people that identify as having mental health issues. We’ve been running these for two years and this would have been our third summer. Cath and I are both huge advocates of the benefits year round swimming can have on wellbeing. This is our raison d’etre. In her calm, quiet way Christine helped me to see we’d achieved so much this summer. We’d run numerous tasters, lessons and courses to give others the confidence to get in the sea. This small part of Hove seafront had been full to overflowing with Seabirds seeking solace by the sea all morning. Reinforcing her wise words I turned to see a bobble hat and another bird I’d not seen for a while. She’d popped down for a solo dip. We chatted about how cold it was that morning and I realised I was cold because I’d been in the sea and on the beach for five hours now. I realised I was really looking forward to cold, skin biting swims again. I realised that this wasn’t the summer I had planned but it had been a brilliant one nonetheless.

My buoyant happy mood continued for the rest of the day. I finally walked back through my front door at 2pm. My hair resembled the seaweed it had been dragged through. I was starving and cold but I was warm and full. This best bird morning was topped off by an indulgent day time bubbly bath. As I finally slipped my cossie off at 3pm, the sound of shingle leaving my gusset and landing on the tiled floor and the sight of wine red seaweed stuck to my body, I smiled. Being salty all day, on the beach teeming with swimming Seabirds was just the tonic I didn’t know I needed.

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!