Hello, I’m Rachel and I’m in my mid forties. I’m a teacher, nature lover, artist, photographer, wannabe writer, swimmer, outdoor type and gardener (just only get paid for the first one!). Swimming is in my genes as my grandmother was a sea swimmer in the days when ladies weren’t supposed to swim (read Swell to find out more). I’ve lived in Brighton most of my adult life, but only got in the sea here for the first time about 10years ago! Although I’ve always been able to swim, I didn’t really swim in the way I do now until I got osteoarthritis in my foot from a climbing injury a few years ago and so had to start finding other activities to do instead of climbing and mountaineering. In fact, when swimming was suggested as a recovery strategy, I found it boring. But that was mainly because I couldn’t swim properly. So, I had front crawl lessons, went on a wonderful wild swimming workshop in Snowdonia, reminded myself I had always loved water and had lived by the sea since I was 19 and that was it – an otter I became! Instead of going up mountains, I found lakes and rivers. Around the same time, other health issues meant I had to leave full time teaching and re-evaluate the way I lived and swimming became more and more a part of my self care toolkit.
What is the earliest memory you have of swimming?
I learnt to swim underwater first strangely, at my local swimming pool, I think I was about 6. It took me longer to crack swimming with my head above the water! Then the usual school swimming lessons and family trips swimming on a Sunday morning to the pool with the wave machine.
What is the earliest memory you have of swimming in the sea?
Every summer we did big road trips around France and Spain which generally involved a lot of playing in big Atlantic waves. That’s probably why I’m not that concerned about getting washing machined now – had plenty of experience of it as a child! It also sparked my love of big dune backed sandy beaches.
What made you join the Salty Seabird Swimming Community Group?
Around the time the Seabirds started, I had learnt front crawl properly and swimming had become part of my life, seeking water instead of mountains. I’d joined online groups like the Outdoor Swimming Society and was really jealous of the community and comradery found in swim groups and lidos. Apparently I said to my boyfriend that I wanted to find my flock! I had tried another Brighton swim club, but it just wasn’t right for me. Then, one night in Brighton Sailing club, I saw a flyer for the Seabirds and I joined the Facebook group. A couple of weeks later in November, after returning from swimming in Sardinia and recruiting another recently made swim friend, we made the plunge and joined a seabird swim. And I knew I had found my flock.
Where is you favourite place to swim in Brighton and Hove and why?
Ooo, isn’t that like trying to choose a favourite child? I love D5 in Hove, because that’s where we meet most of the time as Seabirds. I also like being closer to the West Pier, by the sailing club (but obviously not too close!) as it’s a great backdrop for photos. I also swim a lot at Ovingdean as it’s close to home and work and a bit wilder. You can also get tea in a proper mug from the fabulous café. Just remember to check the tides unless you want a long, slippery, unsteady walk to the water! (you only do it once!)
Why do you swim in the sea?
Oh for so many reasons, which also change depending on what is happening in my life, or the swim experiences I’ve had. It’s my physical and emotional exercise. I’ve gone from just bobbing and dipping to wanting to build up stamina and distance. But overall – because it’s there, I live near the sea and unfortunately we don’t have much access to fresh water nearby (I am an otter – I do love fresh water just as much, especially if it’s up a mountain). But also, because it really calls to me. I often have to go and ‘check it’. Just being next to the sea soothes me especially if I’m feeling anxious. I love the line from the Alt J song, Dissolve me; “She makes the sound, the sound the sea makes to calm me down”. I swim to have the wonderful sensation of being held and enveloped in the water, both physically and emotionally. Until I had swim lessons I couldn’t really float, and now it’s one of my favourite things. The sea brings so much joy, especially when it’s bouncy and wavy and we’re jumping and tumbling more than swimming. You can’t help but shriek and laugh. I also love the flat calm days when you can really stretch out for a swim and practice handstands. I enjoy the long warm swims in summer, when my fair-weather friends join me and we swim into the evening in clear seas. But now, having done my second winter, I love the tingly bitey rush of the cold water and the camaraderie of dancing, swearing and shrieking into the sea, knowing it will be ok and the benefits with outweigh the pain! The sea is always different yet always the same. It always anchors and revives me and it always comes with smiles.
What do you like most about swimming (insert chatting and eating cake) with the Salty Seabird Community?
I have found my flock! Seabirds have brought me so much more than people to swim with. It’s not about the physical safety of having someone to swim with, it’s the emotional support the flock bring, whether consciously or not. The seabirds are a broad church, differing backgrounds, jobs, experiences and interests, yet we are all brought together by the sea and that bonds us. From the start, meeting others was a part of the experience, I don’t make friends easily, I can be shy or feel awkward but I was happy in the flock, even if on the edge of it. Everyone is always friendly and I’ve been happy with everyone I’ve met and swum with. At first, I didn’t necessarily feel fully part of the ‘gang’, I hadn’t made what I’d deem ‘proper’ friends, but slowly slowly, probably because I started involving myself more and because I’m always taking photos, I realised, these wonderful wonderful women were my friends. Their hugs nurture me, even times when I haven’t thought I’ve needed it. Their smiles, laughter and silliness has given me even more opportunities to bring out my inner child. The lovely conversations we have while treading water, when you sometimes aren’t even sure exactly who you are talking to because of googles and hats, we are connected. It’s given me a place where I can help people too, give them a hug, a lift to a swim, hold their hand getting into the sea, support them with a challenge or take a photo to remember a wonderful moment. The physical and emotional changes in my life over the last few years had narrowed my life and my friendships, but the seabirds have changed that and I know it’s only going to continue to grow. These friendships have gone from the water, to the beach to my life. I need the seabirds as much as I need the sea. Oh, and the cake… !
How often do you swim in the sea?
Not as much as I’d like, life gets in the way and I have to get over the need to have a nap after! But certainly 2 or 3 times a week. I usually have swim kit in the car, just in case! My house is always dotted with kit drying out over radiators and doors.
What would you say to anyone thinking of starting wild swimming as a form of managing wellbeing?
There are so many reasons why wild swimming supports wellbeing, which is probably why it’s so hard to scientifically say why it does. At first, I thought for me, it was more about the people and community. I thought didn’t really get the same boost with a solo swim as when I was with a group. But now, when our flock are distanced from each other physically I’ve found I still have really really needed the water. This pandemic is a challenging time for mental health as well as the physical health crisis and there have been days when the other tools in my self care kit just haven’t worked and the sea is the only thing that has soothed and reset me. Even watching wild swimming films give me that sensation of the cool silky water on my skin. So my message would be – yes, give it a go, find someone to guide you and read the safety advice. Believe that what everyone thinks is the worse part – the cold, is actually the best part. Take a deep breath and remember to keep breathing calmly and go with the sensations. Bear with the first few minutes until your body adjusts and wait for the smile that will come. And if you come with the seabirds, there will be a supportive hand if you want it.
Where and when was your favourite swim? – details please and lots of them
Oh, so hard to choose! I’ve been lucky to swim in some amazingly beautiful places, all over the UK, including up to North Scotland, lakes in Snowdonia, aszure clear seas in Sardinia and glacier fed rivers in the Alps. Can I have two? Firstly, one of the first times we set out on a walk specifically to swim. It was when the osteoarthritis in my foot was getting worse and I couldn’t walk up mountains any more. We were in mid wales and my OH remembered a lake he’d seen from a mountain top on a previous trip. It was absolutely in the middle of nowhere, a long drive in on a windy single track road. We parked on a small layby and started heading up. Unfortunately, marsh land and my foot meant we didn’t reach the lake. But – I’d spotted pools on the river coming off the mountain and though they might be possible. They were mostly hidden from the path so when we rounded a large boulder to find a big pool under a waterfall, with further gentle bubbling falls below it, I thought I’d arrived in Mother Nature’s heaven. We now call it my jacuzzi as after swimming and floating in the main pool I then sat for ages in the lower falls with the water bubbling around me. In the photos I just have a look of pure joy. I’ve since taken friends there too and it was so wonderful to share it with them and have it induce the same joy.
Then, a sea swim, one of the Seabird full moon swims near the West Pier. It was high summer, a glorious warm calm evening with the sun setting as we got in to the silky soft sea. Many of us had lights in our tow floats and that just added to the amazing light show. Some of us stayed in for ages, floating, chatting, smiling, swimming out to a buoy and for me – taking the most photos I’ve ever taken on a swim! It was just so beautiful and I was so glad to share it with my salties. We also shared it with a lot of onlookers from the beach but I didn’t mind, I was in a little bubble of happiness. The colours of the sky and our smiles are engrained in my mind whenever I want to bring up some joy.