I have been swimming in the sea for as long as I can remember. My mother likes to take credit for my love of the sea as I spent a huge part of my childhood in, on or near the sea. I won’t even consider a holiday that isn’t near water. My happy place and happy times are shared with my husband and kids. Sharing time in the water with them is my favourite thing to do.
My biggest swimming achievement this year was swimming solo around the buoys off Brighton’s beach. It wasn’t my best swim of the year. Yet it was memorable as it was a first for me. Although I am confident swimmer I can get spooked by what lies beneath and am known to chant’ just keep swimming’, a la Dory, in my head. I regularly swim round the buoys with the Salty Seabirds and out to the West Pier Marker Buoy with the local Surf Life Saving Club but never solo. On my own it was a very different swim. There was no stopping and chatting at the buoys, silly photo taking, buoy climbing or floating and admiring the shoreline view. This got me thinking. I can swim around the buoys on my own, but I don’t and not because I can’t, it’s because I don’t want to. I like sharing my swims.
There has been lots of research on the benefits of cold water swimming and the positive impact it can have on physical and mental wellbeing. Here in Brighton there is a large beach community of swimmers that swim all year round. Many of these swimmers also spend their time out of the water researching the benefits of sea swimming. They hope to gain funding to enable more people to get in the sea. Open Water Swimming is becoming popular with people from all walks of life, all readiness levels, shapes and sizes all keen to experience benefits that are so widely talked about. The post swim ‘high’ is promoted as the new drug of choice to beat depression and for me personally it is. But the positive impact can be as much about the cold water physical effect as being about the community and the sense of belonging.
The Outdoor Swimming Society is a brilliant organisation with really useful information for swimmers. One of the things they advocate is swimming with others as part of their tips for safe swimming. But for me, I do not swim with others for safety (although this is also a consideration). I swim with others as part of a shared experience and shared love of the sea. I get the same benefits from being with a bunch of like minded Seabirds during the getting changed faff and the mandatory tea and cake as I do from sharing the sea with them. The Seabirds are my sanctuary, my safe space, my solace. My community.
What is remarkable is that I did not know many of the Seabirds a year, month or week ago. Some I am yet to even meet. They have grown so rapidly in their numbers and organise swims as a self service. Attracted to the inclusive community, they post where and when they are swimming and if that suits, others will join. You can enter the sea as strangers and exit the sea as friends. It has been amazing to watch this growth over the summer months and into the autumn. They are a bunch of people who take to the sea for self care and wish to do it with companions. They have become a community.
There are a number of books I have read about the swim community. But as fictional novels or a collection of personal journal entries. Some of my favourite books resonate with me because they are centred around a group of people that draw strength from each other in the water. I don’t think these books were written with the intention of of promoting the positive impact of belonging to a swim community. But they have. ‘I found my Tribe‘, ‘The Whistable High Tide swimming Club‘ and ‘The Lido‘ to name but a few all have a swimming community as a theme.
Whether it be Lido’s, Lake or Lochs, the outdoor swimming community provides a sense of belonging in a very fragmented society. Swimming groups provide each other with confidence and friendship unified by a love of being outdoors and in the water. Unlike many other outdoor activities it straddles age groups, gender and socio-economic status. You don’t need to be fit to do it, it’s free or relatively cheap and in certain circumstances you don’t really need to be able to swim – as long as you get wet it counts.
In Brighton, there is a swim community group or club to suit all. Brighton Swimming Club founded in 1860 has a long tradition of sea swimming and has changing facilities east of the Palace Pier. iSWIM is a newly formed club that operates organised swims and events from Brighton Sailing Club by the West Pier. The Brighton Tri Club and Brighton Tri Race Series run training sessions in the sea over the summer months. We have our fingers crossed that Sea Lanes will receive planning approval to build an outdoor pool on the sea front creating a sea swimming community hub. There are lots of smaller community groups too that are more fluid in terms of their swims and facilities. Salty Seabirds is one of these.
The Salty Seabirds community aren’t concerned with swimming times or distances. Depending on who joins us on the day will dictate whether it’s a disciplined swim around the buoys or a leisurely social swim, parallel to the pebbles, counting the concrete groynes. You can chose your stroke. Some do front crawl, others breaststroke and a few back stroke. We are yet to spot a butterflying seabird. We understand that there are points in people’s lives where they need support; to build resilience and make improvements to their well being. The sea dipping and swimming seabird community provides company and respite from day to day challenges and worries.
So strong is the sense of community that we three founding members of Salty Seabirds set up a business together. In 2017, we experienced significant changes in our lives, resulting in daily sea swims. We all needed solace from the rat race and some life-changing curve balls and we found this in the sea and from each other. The simple joy of meeting, getting in the cold water together, being outside and doing something playful had a really powerful effect on all of us. Whilst chatting, bobbing, changing, faffing and drinking tea, Seabirds Ltd was formed; in the sea, where all the best ideas are born! We decided to build a business with a moral code; ethical trading, organic, anti-waste and pro-people business, with a trading arm generating alternative funding for charities and local community groups.
Alongside this, the Salty Seabird swimming community was ever present and grew from us three to over 100 swimmers organising up to three different swims in different locations in a single day. We’ve all noticed the huge benefits that being in, on, or near the sea has had on both our physical and mental health and well being. Creating a way for others to experience these benefits was a natural next step. In 2019 we plan to run confidence courses to encourage women into the sea . The course will act as a foundation for women to join the already established swimming community group providing them with respite from daily worries, a support network and a regular activity and meet up.
We recognised the need for salted wellbeing. We recognised the need for community.
Author: Kath Seabird