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!

 

 

Meet the Flockers: Series 1, Kath

Series 1, Kath. Each week we meet a different flocker, a member of the salty seabird wild swim community in Brighton and Hove and understand their relationship with wild swimming.

Tell us a bit about you.

I’m Kath, one of the founders of Seabirds Ltd Community Interest Company and the Salty Seabirds sea swimming community group. I’m in my late 40s and I’m a mother to two teenagers, a dog owner, a life partner, an over-thinker, a wild woman and a sea swimmer. I’ve always swum. My Godmother was a swimming teacher who taught me to swim and I spent every school holiday with my family in West Sussex at the seaside. I started swimming in the sea aged 2 or 3 (there are pictures of me sat in rock pools looking very happy) and I haven’t stopped since. Even when I was working full time in a busy corporate job I managed to find time to swim in the sea.

When I had children, I wanted them both to learn to swim too. My daughter really took to it and when she was 10 I found a Surf Lifesaving Club in Brighton for her to join. Around the same time I had a breakdown, I left my corporate job and begun volunteering at the Club too. It kept me going and got me out of the house. I’ve volunteered with Surf Life Saving for 8 years now and am a Trainer Assessor at the Hove Club.

I met Cath – with a C, the other founder – through our children and we started swimming in the sea together. We both had personal things we were working through and then, one day, we had a lightbulb moment – we realised how much better swimming in the sea made us feel and we wanted to spread the word and get other people involved. And so we founded Seabirds Ltd  – a not for profit company that raises funds for causes close to our hearts and the Salty Seabirds – a community of people in Brighton and Hove who swim together regularly.

What is the earliest memory you have of swimming?

I was raised in Farnham in Surrey and had swimming lessons with Farnham Swimming Club (because my God Mother was a swimming teacher not because I was good at it). In the winter it was in the local catholic school pool and in the summer it was in the town’s outdoor pool. I was a very thin child and the outdoor pool was a beautiful, but unheated lido! All I remember is being so cold I turned blue every week and the wonderful turnstile you went through to leave! Interesting that I would now welcome the cold…….. too late as the pool will filled in in the 80’s a blocks of flats where built o the site ..sigh.

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

So every school holiday, winter or summer, my family would stay in a converted railway carriage on the shingle shores of Selsey in West Sussex. At low tide there was a shallow lagoon that was sandy and safe and I would sit and splash in there from a very early age, maybe 2 or 3. As an awkward gangly teen I would spend hours perfecting my dives of the wooden breakwaters at East Beach at high tide. Away from prying eyes I didn’t need to conform to nonchalant sulky teen behaviour, I could just be me, with no fear of  reprimand from my cool mates. Very freeing when you are consumed by teenage angst.

Fascinating fact – the Desert Island Discs theme ‘Sleepy Lagoon’ was composed in Selsey and based on the lagoon I swam in.

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

It’s D5 – the beach just in front of Hove Lawns Café. Historically because my favourite council lifeguard used to exclusively work on this post and I’d share a cuppa with him and stash my clothes behind his windbreak. But now because I know it’s geography so well, it’s so familiar, it feels safe and secure like home. It can get super busy in the summer with uber Hove mums and families and then I migrate to other spots but for most of the year this is my swim spot. I’m very territorial about it and have left my wee scent there a lot!

Why do you swim in the sea?

For all sorts of reasons that are all about my wellbeing. I have suffered with depression and anxiety for as long as I can remember and I have enjoyed being at the beach or in the sea, again, for as long as I can remember. Swimming in the sea simply makes me feel better. I could wax lyrical long and hard about the how’s and why but basically when you are a malcontent person you spend a disproportionate amount of time under a thick, heavy dark cloud yet are expected to act as if it is a day filled with sunshine. It’s exhausting. For a few moments, most days, submerged in the sea I feel joy. Pure, innocent, childish joy. And rested. No amount of medication, therapy or counselling has ever achieved that!

 

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

This is such a weird one for me. I am so uncomfortable around people. I am deaf on one side so have to lip read which makes me nervous with new people or anyone who speaks English as a second language. I am awkward around anyone with mental health issues, particularly if they are manic or unable to mask it, as it’s like holding up a mirror. I am more at ease in the company of men, probably because I am a massive flirt. Yet somehow I love love love swimming with a bunch of mainly women, that I haven’t known very long, some have migrated to Sussex from all over the world, many of whom have mental health issues and are swimming to aid their emotional wellbeing. In theory this should be my absolute worst nightmare. But it isn’t. I have never met a more inclusive, kind, considerate community with whom I share a deep connection. So what I love most about swimming with the Salty Seabirds is how comfortable I am in their company.

How often do you swim in the sea?

Again a big misconception is that I swim in the sea every day. But it is around 3 times a week – very rarely at weekends and mostly in the mornings. In the summer I swim much less because the damn fair-weather swimmers invade my space and the beaches are super busy, even at dawn!

Where and when was your favourite swim?

I’m as territorial about this swim spot as I am D5 but there is a place that we go back to every year when we visit the South West that holds such intense happy memories. My heart aches for it as I write this. Watching your children come alive with excitement, amplified chatter and bright eyes, as we make our way across the rocks. It’s hard to find and even harder to get to, but by the power of the internet and middle class gentrification, it is getting busier each year. But there is still a quiet spot in the rocky cove to the west on a disused fishing slipway that no one sits on. We hide painted pebbles in  the gaps to find the following year. You can jump off the rocks and cliffs even at low tide and the water is aqua and crystal clear. Even on the roughest day it is swimmable. We bring wet-suits, snorkels and flippers so look like we are staying for a week as we walk down the hidden path to the cove. We scoff pasties from the local bakery that only opens for a couple of hours every morning. There are grooves in the rocks from old cart wheels that carried smuggled brandy and huge holes where winches were once housed. Every swim there, every year, is my favourite swim.

What’s been the biggest barrier you’ve had to overcome to regularly swim in the sea?

Fear – which I think will surprise my salty flock as they see me as a fearless jelly fish catcher that it happiest the far side of the pier. But actually I’ve had a few near misses and been involved in a failed rescue attempt and I can get regularly spooked in the sea. I have swum in the sea, year round for over a decade now but much of that was encased in a wet-suit. I would take bigger risks knowing the wet-suit would help me float, keep me warm and more importantly protect by body when it got slammed on the shingle as I mis-timed by exit. I remember once having to wait 20 minutes trying to swim in but then having to duck dive back out and under wave upon wave upon wave. I was finally able to exit a few hundred metres further up the beach. I wore a wet-suit to one of the starling swims so I could float under their mumurations for longer. It was low tide but big seas causing a strong rip by the pier. I got caught in it quite early on but managed to get out. I then stupidly got caught in it again as I was floating and not paying any attention to where the current was taking me. I then did all the wrong things and tried to swim out of it against it before coming to my senses. Again I was spat out further up the beach, exhausted. But like riding a bike or a horse I make sure I go back in. And I am more risk averse when swimming in skins.

My biggest fear is my beloved buoys. Happy to swim out and round them – but I give them a wide berth because their anchor chains totally spook me!

Nice to meet you!

Next week it is time to meet Co-Founder Cath

Salted Wellbeing – A seabird approach to Mental Health Awareness Week

A week of salted wellbeing!

When we started Seabirds and then the wild swim group Salty Seabirds, we never imaged the kind of energy and enthusiasm it would create. But it has. Who knew that a bunch of sea swimmers could create such contagious sense of belonging and infectious joy. But they have. This is apparent in their approach to Mental Health Awareness  (MHA)Week 13-19 May.

A few days ago, Seabird Catherine Kelly, was asked to do some media for Marine CoLab for MHA week in her own work/research capacity.  This got her wondering if we Seabirds might try to do something around watery wellbeing.  It’s what we are all about after all. So she asked the question in the wild swim group. The response was over whelming. This wonder became a call to arms for many and offers, ideas and suggestions flowed.

Our approach to wellbeing is simple. We meet, we swim, we chat, we drink tea, we eat cake, we breathe. We wanted our approach to MHA to be the same. Being part of this group has had a profound effect on many of it’s members and MHA week is an opportunity for us to invite those that have watched from the sidelines to join in, meet us, swim with us. It is an opportunity to show others how much can be gained from belonging, relaxing, playing in it’s simplest form.

So we plan to provide a week of swims, conversations, and experiences. Everything will be centred around the beach and seafront to align with our blue health ethos. We have sunrise fitness classes and early bird swims. We have swim story telling and yoga. We have meditation and a mindful body image session. We have new member swims and a talk on the tides. We have a Blue Moon swim and a beach clean. We have a kids swim and a kids wild beach school. We have a mindful swim and Parkrun takeover. There will be writing and guided swims. All provided by the Salty Seabirds – a group who didn’t know each other 8 months ago – but have pulled together a wonderful week in a matter of days.

They will take place in the mornings, evenings, weekends, after school and during school hours. They are all outdoors and if it rains then we will just get wet! They are free to participate but we ask for a small donation if you are able to Mind mental health charity. We are fortunate enough to have each other and our swims to provide us with respite, many do not, so we are keen to support charities that can be the only safety net for some.

So thank you to Catherine for wondering. Thank you to all the Seabirds that answered Catherine’s ‘wonder’. Thank you to all the Seabirds who are giving up their time and sharing their skills and experiences. Thank you to the Seabirds for your ideas and encouragement.  Thank you to all the Seabird swimmers that make everyone feel welcome and part of something special. We get compliments all of the time for starting the Salty Seabirds. We are just a sum of the parts that provided a conduit for communicating swim times and meets. The Seabirds that swim with each other and support one another made the Salty Seabirds what it is.  We planted the seed, the Seabirds allowed the group to grow in any direction that it wanted and it thrived without being pruned by the constraints of rules or regulations. I am a Seabird, you are a Seabird, we are Seabirds – swimming wild and free – but coming together as a flock in formation to create this wonderful week of wellbeing. A week of salted wellbeing!

Stay Salty xx