Woman cannot live on Swims alone

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

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………..

Come and join us in the sea, you know you want to!

Come and join the Salty Seabirds for a swim on Wednesday evenings!

I watched my partner sea swimming for years thinking he was a bit bonkers (while seeing clearly how good it was for him) before I took the plunge and discovered it was for me too. You can see how it benefits the smiley swimmers in the pictures but you still feel hesitant about actually taking the plunge…

As part of Mental Health Awareness week this week the Salty Seabirds have come together to put together various events – one is our new Wednesday Evening Swim – the first one very much aimed at encouraging newbie swimmers to come and try a dip with us.

We are a friendly, inclusive bunch, open to ALL who want to swim/splash/dip/bathe with us. Visible female bias in the shared photos and chat we know but men very welcome, honest!

So, to practicalities. Now it is a bit warmer, what do we actually need to get in the water apart from our swimsuit (not expecting anyone to skinny dip for their first swim!).  The real answer is nothing. Warm layers for afterwards are essential so that you don’t suffer from the cold you will inevitably (it’s the good bit, I promise!) feel. There are also a few other bits of kit that make it much more do-able – you can do it without them as some choose to but it can be the difference between putting you off and you getting in and enjoying yourself so I have tried to pare it down to the basics:

  1. Swim hat; to limit the ice-cream head effect, support pain free handstands and keep hair (relatively) dry to protect against wind chill on wet hair. Having said that some of us insist on dunking the head before getting out for the full cold rush/re-boot effect.
  2. Large towel or changing robe; as we change on the beach these can protect against wind chill and flashing your arse to passers by. We have had a few dressing gowns recently which do the trick nicely.
  3. Warm layers for afterwards; woolly hat, thick sweater etc. Easy to put on dampish skin.
  4. Neoprene socks/boots and gloves. Many of us have ditched the gloves by now but not the boots. Decathlon have them or you can find them online (Some folk are fine without them it has to be said.
  5. Hot drink: not totally essential but very helpful; (using a cup as a hand warmer great tip)

Any other tips please feel free to comment below. If you want to try before you buy gear message us in the event page and we can see about lendings…people may have spares hanging around…

For more tips and information about beating the cold and keeping warm post-swim see our older blogs here and here.

I will bring the biscuits – see you next Wednesday!

Author: Seabird Cath

The change of life or life changing?

Have the sea swim your dry vagina deserves!

The menopause usually occurs between 45 and 55 years of age, when a woman’s oestrogen levels lower. And it has some ‘oh so lovely’ side affects to accompany it. Night sweats, hot flushes, low mood or anxiety and memory problems. A woman’s sex life may also be affected, with decreased sex drive, vaginal dryness and discomfort during sex. Lucky us! But there is also something quite positive about being an old bird.

When we started Seabirds Ltd and brainstorming names for our Community Interest Company,  Director Catherine came up with the perfect one. Seabirds. And there is a story behind the name. When her two eldest daughters we preschool age she moved back to the UK and settled in Hove after many years living abroad. She would walk regularly along the prom with initially two and then three small children in tow or in a buggy. She often saw women who were older than her swimming in the sea at all times of the year displaying so much confidence and strength. She admired those old birds from afar and named them Seabirds. A few months into her sea swimming journey a decade later she realised she had become one of these Seabirds that she admired all those years ago. When a few months later we started a wild swim group to encourage more people to get in the sea we added salt and the Salty Seabirds were formed.

Preserved in salt the seabird flock has grown rapidly. Not sure whether this 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 regularly forget our knickers.

The menopause is rarely talked about, even among groups of women that are living through it. There is a mass exodus from the workplace when women reach 30-40 and begin families, but there is also a mass exodus at 45-55 when women begin their journey through the menopause. As women are having families later in life, the gap between post natal and peri-menopause is very small. Unable to concentrate, distracted by hot flushes, the inability to retain even the simplest pieces of information make it, for some, impossible to carry on.  They are unable to work in the environment or pace that they were once proficient at.

Some women realise early on that these symptoms are hormonal and that they are not losing their marbles, Some take longer. Some never make the connection. Whatever your awareness is, the impact of the physical and cognitive changes is low mood, low confidence and increased anxiety.  As if the sweats and memory loss weren’t enough to deal with! The solution for many is Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) but GPs can be slow to prescribe as the weaning off process is difficult to manage and many women have been slapping on patches for decades with no monitoring which isn’t ideal. For some of the Salty Seabirds a plunge in the cold sea has been a great way to deal with the symptoms and I’m not just talking about dowsing the flames of the hot flushes!

But there are positive changes that occur during this time. As a response to feeling inadequate in the workplace many women leave and find alternative employment.  It may be their long talked about dream job or have better working hours and conditions.  Many start their own businesses and as entrepreneurs they can dictate their own working environment.

As a Salty Seabird I have witnesses the positive changes in our swim group. Many of the women now work for themselves or have changed careers in their 40s and 50s. Many have arrived for their first swim consumed with anxiety about their swimming ability and what lies beneath. After weeks of bathing with us they have become confident water warriors. They have exercised their brain keeping it young by learning new skills like how to read tragic seaweed forecasts and how to exit the sea safely. They 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! They have become more body confident. Confident in it’s strength and capability in the water. One Salty Seabird has recently bought her first bikini after realising half of Brighton have seen her in the all together getting changed on the beach and if not now, when? Seabird Cath summarises the positive impact of getting older very succinctly. “We give less of a fuck”.

Whatever way it works, the water seems to keep the mental menopause monkeys that like to invade our brain with negative thoughts, at bay. So whilst the menopause is the ‘change of life’ it can also be ‘life changing’ in many positive ways. Swimming in the sea is preserving us with salt. We are the Seabirds.

As a closing note I have to share this amazing strap line with you that the visiting Southsea Mermaids shared with us when discussing the joys of the menopause. “Have the sea swim your dry vagina deserves!”

Author: Seabird Kath

p.s. Has anyone else forgotten they are boiling their moon cup on the stove and let it boil dry until the damn thing melted leaving the smell of burning rubber in the house? At least we know the periods will stop soon – always seeing the positive!

 

 

Safe harbour when you’re swimming for your life

Many of the Seabird blogs focus on the positive impact sea swimming has had on the wellbeing of some of our salty swimming group. Whether it be depression, anxiety, chronic illness or a difficult period in life, there are points in people’s lives where they need support to build resilience and to make improvements to their wellbeing. Again whether it be the sense of community, the respite from day-to-day or the cold water immersion that brings relief something about sea swimming seems to be part of the solution for many.

I have spoken and written about my personal mental health experiences many times. It’s not an easy thing to do. I am a talker. It’s how I deal with ‘stuff’. But admitting you  struggle at times is a challenge. For me, the challenge isn’t only the ability to open up it’s getting people to believe me. When I am at my worst, you won’t see me. I retreat to the confines of my castle and wait for it to pass before venturing out again. You may feel the warning shots being fired over the parapet as my depression marches at an attack force and shows itself as a sharp snapping tongue or an unmasked facial expression. But most will interpret this as me just being a moody bitch. And sometimes that is all it is –  but not always. If hot oil is poured over the castle walls and then a siege ensues you can be sure depression has won that battle. Especially when anxiety joins the fight.

So sea swimming has become my drug of choice. I think about why it works for me a lot. Logically someone with depression who can struggle to leave the house shouldn’t be  found striding across the shingle to meet up with people they have never met to swim in the sea. Again when we add anxiety into the mix, and in my case social anxiety, surely swimming in the sea with a bunch of strangers isn’t conceivable. But it is possible and I do do it. Whilst I love the cold water high and the break from ‘real life’ that’s not what draws me to the beach. It’s experience. My experience overrides my frazzled brain and reminds it that not only will it be okay, but that I will experience joy and happiness, calm and respite.

Never ever have I experienced a bad swim. They are different every day but they are not bad. Never ever have I regretted a swim. The deadline may have been missed and the kids ate pizza again but no regrets. Never ever have I met an unfriendly outdoor swimmer or Salty Seabird. Eccentric or reserved yes, but never unfriendly. Never ever have I ever felt more part of something, more of a sense of belonging, more acceptance and kindness. From borrowing gloves, sharing tea, crying, cuddles and throwing your head back guffawing – I am me and I swim in the sea.

Some of the Salty Seabirds have become friends – not just ones I swim with – but salt of the earth (or the sea) friends. I told one the other day she was my lighthouse – she is always there guiding me back to safety when I am in the midst of a storm. These are the people that see me regularly, because no matter what I will always swim. Their smiles, energy and strength are infectious. The feeling I get after a sea swim is as much to do with connecting with nature, the certain horizon and the lull of the waves as it is being with these people.

I will always come back to the harbour where the water is calm and there is a protective wall surrounding me. I am lucky to have many light houses that guide me back there when they can see I am struggling so I can continue to swim safely. And many anchors that keep me there when it’s rough. The best bit is, I get to swim with some of them and stay salty!

Author: Seabird Kath

A Tale of Two Swims

My first swim of the day was in the morning at Lifeguard Post Romeo 8 on Brighton Beach. This is just in front of the beautifully restored bandstand. It’s the spot the Seabirds swim from when we do early morning swims as it’s sort of midway between us all and you can avoid the extortionate parking fees at that time in the morning. There were due to be 3 of us on this particular day. It was a 10.30am meet, the tide was going out and it was like a mill pond, as it has been for much of the summer. Perfect conditions for going round the buoys.

The swim area buoys are the signal that it is summer in Brighton. They appear in-front of the 11 Lifeguard posts from Saltdean to Hove Lagoon in May and stay there until September. Unless there is a particularly strong storm where they can end up all over the place. They are placed 100m apart, going out and across 200m. With the growth in outdoor swimming and triathlon popularity they are used by locals to roughly measure the distance of their swims. A couple of the swim areas can resemble the M25 when clubs and groups meet there to clock up some kilometres.

On this particular day we had the swim area almost to ourselves as myself and Seabird Ruth headed out to the first buoy. Between the first and second buoy I was into the usual hypnotic rhythm when I began to hear something from under the water. It was different from the usual close to shore shingle song or the sound of the wake you create. It was a low level hum that just got louder and louder to the point of distraction. At that point I stopped swimming and looked up. I was a couple of metres from the furthest buoy and immediately saw the source of the noise. A speedboat going at a ridiculous speed practically in the swim area, no more than 5 metres from my swim capped head. As you can imagine the driver received the type of verbal assault that would make a salty sea dog blush. He proceeded further into Hove and dropped his anchor right in the middle of the quiet family beaches.

By this time seabird Ruth had caught up and was also using swear words we save for serious safety situations. And then another female swimmer. We proceeded to stop at the buoy to discuss, the proximity of losing my head, machismo, jet skis, idiots but most importantly swim safety. The swim community never ceases to amaze me. 3 women who have just met, sharing stories 200 metres out to sea. We concluded that even though we were within the swim area it would be sensible to wear a swim tow floatas well as our brightly coloured hats. Particularly as some seabird swims are parallel to the beach and leave the swim area although remain in close proximity to the shore.

It spooked me enough to head back in. I’d lost my swim mojo. We joined our third Seabird in the shallows for a frolic instead. We were met on the shoreline by a lovely lifeguard who advised us that she was keeping a careful eye on us and was also outraged at the idiot (insert other word here) driving the boat. She had reported it to the Seafront office and it was registered at the Marina. Unfortunately the Seafront boat hadn’t launched yet to intercept but they would be having a conversation later with the offender to hammer home that inappropriate speed, metres from the swim area was not only stupid and unnecessary but dangerous.

The good news was it was a double dip day and I was due to meet Ian, one of the beach lifeguards for a swim at Romeo 10 in front of the King Alfred swimming pool during his lunch break. Boy was it busy with swimmers. As we entered the water Ian proceeded to tell me that one of the Seafront Coordinators had seen a shark the day before. I laughed it off as a dog fish. We bumped into one of the Swim Trek directors finishing his lunchtime swim in the shallows as we were warming up. It was slack tide so we could swim either way around the buoys and chose to go west to east. At the first buoy Ian decided I needed to do swim drills. So we headed to the furthest buoy with me tapping my head with my hand, next buoy finger drags, next buoy arm pit tapping and so on until we’d completed a circuit.

From a fright to frollicking to swim drills all in one day.

I made the school girl error of enquiring more about the shark spotting. Turns out it was more than a bottom feeding dogfish. 5-6ft and definitely not a cetacean………

Modern Day Martha Gunns

To Brighton came he,
Came George III’s son.
To be bathed in the sea,
By famed Martha Gunn.

Today, March 8th 2019, is International Women’s Day and what better way to celebrate than to look back at local hero Martha Gunn!

Martha Gunn was  Brighton Dipper. That does not refer to her dipping in the sea but rather operating the bathing machines that allowed Victorian women to enter the sea without being seen by their male counterparts.

The Dipper would be standing in the water, take her client in her arms as she descended from the Bathing Machine, and “dip” her vigorously into the sea water and pushing her through the wavesThe Salty Seabirds have a gentler approach to entering the sea although we have been known to push each other through the waves.

The similarities are many though. Many people flocked to the seaside and particularly Brighton in the 18th Century to swim in the sea to improve their physical and mental wellbeing. In 1750, Dr Richard Russell published a book which detailed the health benefits of drinking sea water and highly recommended sea-bathing. He encouraged his patients to swim in the sea to cure a whole plethora of ailments. This is true of today as academics research the benefits of cold water swimming and wild swimming is the fastest growing ‘sport’ in the UK. The Salty Seabirds formed just over 6 months ago and we are nearly at 500 members.

Life for Martha was not easy – standing in the sea all day sounds idyllic but in reality it took a strong constitution.  From a young age she started her own business as a Dipper taking visitors into the sea. A strong female entrepreneur. The Morning Herald referred to her as ‘The Venerable Priestess of the Bath”. She died at the ripe old age of 89 – clearly the salt water preserved her. Martha was laid to rest in the graveyard of Brighton’s oldest building, St Nicholas Church. She is still remembered locally and has had buses and pubs named after her. The Seabird Arms – now there’s an idea….!

Seabirds want to maintain the sea swimming legacy that made Brighton what it is today. Modern day Martha Gunns. So come swim with us………….

Author: Seabird Kath