Swimming through 2020

Laura has been swimming with the Salty Seabirds for 3 years and is always up for an adventure. But when we asked our swimming community to share their best swim of 2020 to lift our collective spirits, she struggled to find one…..because there wasn’t just one……there were many and they all gave her something different….. in the moment. Her musings about her struggle to choose just one reduced us to tears, joyful, in the moment, belonging and connected tears. Thank you Laura.

There’s been an invitation to choose the best swim of 2020.
It’s been responded to by many, many beautiful posts & memories.
It’s such an honour to be able to read each personal journey.
But I’ve struggled to post myself.
And I couldn’t put my finger on why.

2020 has been described by many, and for good reason, a terrible year.
But I heard on women’s hour on Christmas day, whilst driving a 5hr round trip to the New forest to see my loved ones (Covid tests negative), a suggestion that we see beyond just thinking of it as terrible. Not in a way to be insensitivily, ignorant, bulldozing through the horrors of others; but to not see the space of time of the year as inately bad. This may then stop one from seeing the joy in any of it or the joy that might come tomorrow or anything within that “year”.
I’m not sure I’ve summarised it well but the theme was Joy, and the idea as I saw it, that no matter what, joy might come, even in the darkest times.
What then ensued was a conversation about the fact that the interviewee was a swimmer, infact many of the guests were, including Rev Kate Bottley (swam every day with her lowest swim minus 3) and writer Tonia Buxton who sits in her freezer for 3 mins every morning (she’s a food writer so I’m guessing she might have access to a walk in one because there’s sod all room in mine even if I chopped a hand off!)
And that’s it, there it is again in 2020 (and before*).
The swimming.

The immersion in the cold that has allowed us to feel joy in what has been a difficult year.

And it’s hard to pin it down, that Joy.
I have photos but which one was the most joyous?

Not because they weren’t full or good enough. Or because it may be crass to spout about good when others may be struggling.
Infact it’s so important to share.
I shared the amazing story of Katie Wotton with a client recently. If you haven’t seen the story Katie has lipoedema and the psychological and physical pain of getting into a swimsuit and bring active has been such a struggle but she knew she loved it, and now she’s “got her smile back”.
It’s been so touching to see her journey on FB and to be able to personally encourage her I’ve seen so many other Seabirds give her the encouragement and love she deserved. (Here’s a little clip to watch)

And those of us in the know get it. That joy.
I am openly evangelical about it.

And now the joke has changed from: How do you know if someone’s a vegan to, How do you know someone cold water swims?
Because they’ll tell you, over and over again.

And it’s true.

I’m asked regularly why and it’s hard to sum up.

I’m a Dramatherapist and there’s a similar dilemma, I can tell you in theory what it is and how it works but the spark comes in doing it.

And so I tell people, just try it, it really isn’t that cold…
And many have this year.

And if I’m honest, it was a little bit of a shock to see so many people swim this year, and for a time I felt a little bit overwhelmed.

Suddenly Kingston beach in Shoreham, our* little respite from the storm, was now suddenly packed that you couldn’t get into the car park.

That took some getting use to. But then I quickly got over myself because of course they’re swimming, because its fucking fantastic.

And the Sea is big enough for us all, that’s the beauty.
It’s all of ours. It belongs only to itself.

And if people in one room studio flats in the city need to access it, move aside and let them through because it’s not mine just because I have the luxury of being able to walk down.

It’s life enhancing.
It’s saved us all.
It’s listened to our woes, it’s held our weaknesses. It’s given strength and courage.
It’s tickles our senses & enlivened our spirit and it’s washed away what we don’t need to hold.

And so now I’m obsessed.

If I’m not in it, I’m next to it, scouring it’s shores, cleaning it. Taking 3 for the sea and more.
Because we have a duty to look after it.

And if I can’t be near it I’m reading more about it.

For Christmas my work Secret Santa gave me the book Gift from the Sea.
I devoured it in one sitting and sat emotional, awestruck and understood.
Anne Morrow Lindbergh wrote it in 1955 and it’s still so relevant in so many ways.
I could quote so much of it now but I’ll let you find the nuggets that might resonate. Or not. Because we’re all different (thank goodness).

But what it made me realise is I can’t find my most memorable swim because I needed each one in so many different ways this year.
The fierce ridiculously large storm waves on my first crawl swim lesson with the amazing Christine who was so calmly unflappable as we spluttered and inelegantly forth with our breathing, the waves and the jellyfish flying by us!
The times when we pilcharded on the shoreline, getting gravelly knickers, peb-jazzled nether regions, and exerting exhilarating Cackles.
The early morning quieter meets, that start with a few nods and end in dressing while singing je t’aime.
The swims to let go, to mark losses.
The swims where we curse and cackle and turn the air bluer than the sea and sky with our language.
The swims where the world is put to rights, and we remembered what we used to know but have forgotten.
The river swim where I swam furthest I ever have and practised my crawl, with pride and trepidation that I might be swallowing cow pee, but just loving the glorious beauty of it all.
The night swim with my youngest on a deserted beach.
The many many many Groans, Huff’s, Grunts, swearing, cursing, gutteral release of almost every one.
The letting go of the Rona, Boris, building work, relationships, work, hormones, perimenopausal angst, life
Just letting go.

And the moment in every swim where I float on my back, breathe, silent and look up into the sky.

And none of that could have happen without a Seabird by my side.
To quote Anne:

My Island selects for me people who are very different from me-the strangers who turns out to be, in the frame of sufficient time and space, invariably interesting and enriching…life chose them for us.

And that’s partly why I can’t choose one swim this year.

Because in every swim there has been a different beauty and often a different seabird.
I can’t choose and miss one.

And also I realise that I can’t choose the best because the sensation of Joy is in the “now” moment of every swim.
I find it hard to feel that exactness again.

It’s being completely alone yet being completely held at the exact same time .

It is in being in the present so completely.
That is what gives me exactly what I need, and that’s what I hope you’ll find if you try it.

Here’s to being in the moment.

Thank you Saltys
X

Winter Swimming; The Waiting Game

The skill you need for winter swimming is patience. During a season full of storms it’s a waiting game for safe swim conditions.

I am often asked what do you need to swim in the sea through the winter? Is it maintaining the frequency of your swims? Is it having all the kit? Is it a wetsuit? It is none of these. What you need to swim in the sea, through the winter, is patience.

Along with a drop in temperature comes an increase of storms and conditions that are unsafe for swimming in the sea. With less daylight hours, opportunities to swim can be scarce for days on end and there is quite literally nothing you can do but wait. I’m not very good at living in the present. I tend to live in the past, rehashing and overthinking every interactions, or the future, making an overwhelming amount of plans in the pursuit of happiness. Being present and being patient is very difficult for me. But if I don’t practice patience it can be detrimental to my mental health.

I am also asked how cold water sea swimming through the winter improves my mental health. Based on the above you could assume it would have negative connotations. But it doesn’t. The answer is, in lots of ways. The kindness of the community I swim with is uplifting. My time in the water is full of fun and innate joy. The cold water biting and burning my skin improves my resilience in my day to day. But, one of the most fundamental impacts it has had is it has taught me how to wait and appreciate the present and the swims no matter how scarce they are.

I learned that lesson, the hard way, some years back. About 8 years ago I attended a conference in Cornwall in the winter. I travelled with a couple of colleagues from the south coast. We took our surf boards and at the first opportunity during a free afternoon, we pulled on our neoprene and headed to the beach. The wind was cross shore and savage. There were blinding squalls. The waves were all over the place. And it was cold, bitterly exposed Atlantic cold. Undeterred we paddled out. Waves are rare on the South coast so anything is better than nothing right? Well no.

I spent a good hour being smashed about on frankly shit waves, every bash depleting what little energy I had left. I was tired, I was frustrated but I refused to get out. Soon, I was pretty much incapable of getting out past the waves, my arms were like jelly and my head dropped so far my cheek was practically stuck to my board. But then it happened. The happy ending to this tale, isn’t the perfect wave but the realisation that I needed to stop. What happened next I remember so intensely, when I think about it I am transported back to that moment. I sat on my board, finally past the breaking waves, exhausted, freezing while hail from another squall stung my face to the point of crying. I sat motionless, depleted and defeated. And I became acutely aware of my surroundings. I marvelled at the towering granite cliffs and watched the waves relentlessly pound at their foundations. The sky was full of fast moving grey, fully laden clouds, they were hypnotic to watch from my front row seat. I took immense pleasure at what was on offer, and that was not good surf conditions. And I was happy, content, in the illusive moment. I headed back to shore when my numb fingers reminded me I’d outstayed my welcome. Surfers have long since learned patience, finally so had I.

Cornwall in a squall in the winter

When I started swimming in the sea year round I was able to apply my new found approach of waiting for the right time. It is assumed that those that advocate the benefits of cold water swimming go in every day. But that simply isn’t true and just not possible. Even if you have the time and energy the sea will dictate whether it is safe to swim. Like good surf conditions, good swimming conditions are not guaranteed. You can only control how you respond. The world we live in is all about the immediate and instant gratification. We can sometimes sneer at the younger generation as they order food to be delivered by Uber in five minutes, buy the latest trendsetting item of clothing the day it launches, use of snapchat and TikTok counting the speedy likes. But are the middle aged (me included) not guilty of the same when we moan about our WIFI providers, in inability to get a next day delivery and, as is the case for a sea swimmer, when you cannot get your cold water fix because the sea is inaccessible? If your expectation is that you can get what you want when you want it you will always be disappointed. In my case I have applied this to swimming in the sea through the winter. I am swimming to improve my mental health but without the right mindset and approach, in my case setting the expectation that I won’t always be able to swim, it can actually have the adverse effect.

According to the OED patience is the capacity to accept or tolerate delay, problems, or suffering without becoming annoyed or anxious. Not much research has been done into patience and the link this personality trait has to mental health and wellbeing. A study published in the the Iranian Journal of Psychiatry and Behavioural Sciences in 2015 examined the relationship between patience and mental health “Conclusions: Patience is a unique predictor of mental well-being. It is suggested that long-term patience is more important for depression and general health, whereas short-term patience is more beneficial for hedonic well-being.” So while we seek the solace of the sea to improve our wellbeing it should go hand in hand with our ability to wait.

I see practicing patience as a powerful choice that suppresses the stress of modern day living. I don’t always achieve it but I try! According to Judith Orloff a practising Psychologist, “Practicing patience will help you dissipate stress and give you a choice about how you respond to disappointment and frustration. When you can stay calm, centered, and not act rashly out of frustration, all areas of your life will improve.” Whenever I go for a sea swim I am prepared to abandon it before or during the swim. This may be because the sea conditions are unsafe but it could also be because there is pollution, I’m too tired, it’s too busy. In beauty spots in rural parts of the UK people block roads, park in passing places, block access to farm land in their pursuit of a swim…… I always have a plan B so waiting for another opportunity to swim isn’t such a difficult decision.

Living in Sussex can be a challenge when you want to swim outdoors. There is a distinct lack of inland waterways or sheltered coves. There is one ugly industrial port you can access when the sea is just too rough to swim in but frankly it is like swimming in used dishwater and the back drop is like something out of a dystopian novel. Being a coastal county all of our rivers are tidal meaning the safe slack tides may not be at a time when you are able to swim or in fact during daylight hours. The porous chalk of the South Downs prevents lakes from forming and any there are tend to be privately owned or privately run. Pells Pool, a beautiful spring fed freshwater outdoor pool remained open until November this year but has now closed for the winter. Saltdean Lido only opens it’s heated outdoor pool for the summer season. So when relentless storms arrive on our shores at the start of the winter season, there really is no option for me but to wait.

Finding other things to do other than swim in the sea is a good way to wait it out and can still provide the cold water therapy and blue space that your wellbeing requires. Reframe your winter sea swimming as a small part of the holistic experience. Part of the adventure could be looking through maps for new swim spots and a coastal walk with friends. Even if you are unable to swim you will have found a new swim spot for a future date and enjoyed the journey. If the sea is not safe to swim in it may still be okay to play in the shallows. Sit on the shingle and let the waves roll over you, known locally as pilcharding or wave bathing. It’s a really good way to watch the behaviour of waves and understand their strength and gain the experience and expertise needed to swim another day. Beachcombing or beach cleaning are really mindful pastimes and a really good way to understand the topography of your local beach as well being a guardian for your swim spot. After the recent storms there is a huge amount of plastic in the strandline and it you feel like you have done something positive as you place it in the bin. On a recent beach clean a particularly wet weather front arrived very suddenly after blue sky. I was soaked though to the skin, resistance was futile and I found myself laughing uncontrollably at the situation – pretty much the same experience as swimming in the sea! And the reward was a hot bath afterwards.

Even if the sea provides the perfect swimming conditions I may not be physically or mentally capable of a swim. During the colder months people are more prone to illnesses and this year a significant number of people will have contracted C19 which entails a slow recovery. Physical injuries like sprain and strains also put a stop to swimming. I suffer from BPPV which kept me out of the water and in bed for quite a while this month. Experience reassures me that my ability to enter the cold water again, when I am ready, will always be there. I can understand the fear of those new to winter swimming that they will lose the cold adaptation they have built up to combat a drop in sea temperature and nurtured since the summer, if they do not swim regularly. This simply isn’t true. Yes getting in regularly helps, I hardly have a gasp reflex at all after 4 years of skin swimming but it isn’t the be all and end all. Don’t worry so much about cold adaptation, it’s the acclimatisation you do before each individual swim and entering the water safely each time you swim. that is important. Not how often you swim. A couple of years ago I was unable to swim for 3 weeks. When I was finally back in the sea it was no different to any of my other dips. So if you can’t get in for days or even weeks, don’t sweat it. And trust me when I say, that first swim after a setback is oh so sweet!

Above all remember, all good things come to those that wait!

The Great Neoprene Debate

The first question a fellow open water swimmers asks you is, skins or suit? Most people are a mixture of the two. Here is our guide to neoprene accessories, how they work, and how to look after them!

Are you skins or suit is pretty much the first question fellow outdoor swimmers will ask you. And my answer is both. I have been swimming in the sea, year round, for 10 years. The first 6 in a very thick 5mm wetsuit, gloves, boots and hood and skins for 4 years, the last one forgoing boots and gloves too. I choose what to wear depending on my swim. I have a 5mm watersports wetsuit for teaching children in, when I can be in the water for up to 2 hours in the middle of winter. I even wear my swimming wetsuit when I am coaching in the summer a lot of the time so I am warm and prepared to deal with emergencies should they arise. I also wear it when I swim alone for long distances, again for the same reason, I want to be safe. But most of the time I swim in skins. And it isn’t because of the faff. After decades of putting wetsuits on and taking them off I’m pretty quick at it and I have plenty of space to dry them. It’s just because now I associate my wetsuit with work or a work out and I associate skins with fun!

IT DOESN’T MATTER WHAT YOU WEAR AS ALONG AS YOU GET IN

Wetsuits

Wetsuits work by trapping a thin layer of water between your body and the suit, that your body warms up, so you need to get wet! Wetsuit wearers tend to gasp when the water finally trickles from the neck down the back. So you see, it does not protect you from cold water shock and you still get that initial ‘getting in’ screeching feeling, but you will be kept warmer over all by the neoprene. Neoprene is made of small closed cells that are filled with air which provide insulation against cold water by trapping heat in. The thing that they do need to be is tight. It will loosen a wee bit in the water, as it expands, but it does need to be close fitting without constricting the movement of your swim. Can you wave your arms about and do some squats is a good way to test it out for size. Too big and it will just fill-up with too much water to warm up, so pretty much pointless. If your core is kept warm by a wetsuit, a noticeable difference will be you hands, feet and head stay warmer for longer and so you may be able to swim head in and without the faff of socks and gloves as temperatures decline.

So what type of wetsuit? Oh and there are so many. So work out what kind of swimming you want it for and how you deal with cold temperatures. So you can opt for a swimming wetsuit or a watersports wetsuit. A swimming wetsuit is specifically designed for front crawl, lots of shoulder and arm flexibility, a smooth surface and it makes your bum buoyant to achieve correct body position. They can rip and tear easily so you need to be very careful when putting it on and it can make your neck and shoulders ache if you are wearing it to do head up breaststroke as you are fighting against a floating derriere. (There are also tri-suits which are specifically design for triathlons and transitions ). A watersports wetsuit is more robust but much less flexible making front crawl a lot of hard work. It is perfect for bobbing and head up chatting swimming though.

How thick should my wetsuit be? The thicker the suit’s neoprene, the warmer the suit will be because it has more heat-trapping insulation. However it is a trade off so the thicker the neoprene the less flexible and more constricting your suit will be. The normal range of thickness for swimming outdoors in the UK goes from 2mm in the summer to 5mm in the winter. The thickness various across the suit as it is thicker on the torso to aid with body position and keeping the core warm and thinner on the limbs for freedom of movement. You can of course opt for sleeveless, shortie, vest, cossie, zip up jacket, leggings….the list is endless. All aimed at keeping your core warm the difference is simply down to personal choice.

Accessories

Gloves
Many skin swimmers opt for neoprene accessories, like gloves when temperatures really begin to drop. Some swimmers suffer from Raynaud’s Syndrome, Cold water Urticaria and chilblains. For them gloves are a game changer and allow them to continue enjoying cold water swims. Indeed it allows most skin swimmers to continue as the hands feel the cold strongly and after a prolonged period in the water warm blood is redirected away from them to keep your core warm making them colder still. Much like your choice of wetsuit or neoprene core warmer the right gloves for you will depend on what kind of swimmer you are or swim you plan to do. If you wish to continue head in front crawl throughout the year then you need a thinner glove with good flexibility so you can continue to feel the water and adjust your stroke accordingly. It you plan on a head out breast stroke you may be happier with a thicker choice. What ever you choose the advantage of wearing gloves is that you are able to get dressed and warm quicker after your swim than someone with numb lobster claws.

Socks/Boots/Shoes
These are all slightly different and again should be selected for the swim you want to do or the swimmer you are. The purpose of neoprene shoes is to protect the sole of your foot but not keep your feet warm. The purpose of the neoprene sock is to keep your feet warm but not protect the soles of your feet. The purpose of a neoprene boot is to do both. Both the shoe and the boot will affect your ability to swim as they will make your feet too buoyant but a good sock should allow you to swim normally regardless of which stroke you are doing. Again they need to be tight fitting or they will end up full of water some have additional fasteners to keep them flush to your skin. The boots can be awful to get on and off but there are some that have zips to make it easier. All offer some form of protection, for example, allowing you to enter and exit the water safely if it is a steep shingle beach and stopping shar objects from cutting your feet. So some form of neoprene on your feet is a good option for swimming year round!

Hats/Headbands/Caps
It is a bit of an old wives tale that your body loses a lot of its heat out through the head. However as normally the only bit of your body that experiences the sea temperature, air temperature and wind chill while swimming outdoors it is a good idea to keep it warm. Again there are few options for swimmers to chose from. Whatever you wear cover your ears, they definitely need protecting from the cold water and ear infections and swimmers ear can keep you out of the water for long periods of time, so cover them up with some neoprene.

Aftercare
Neoprene is not cheap, and it goes through more stress than normal fabric, constantly being submerged in water, which in my case is salty. It is held together by a mixture of glue and stitching which don’t take kindly to be roughly treated. So look after it. Turn them inside out if you can and give them a rinse in fresh clean water. I put my watersports wetsuit on a gently rinse cycle in the washing machine, my swimming wetsuit I do not, it’s too fragile. If they really pong you can add a bit of specialist gentle detergent. To dry them, inside out again if possible, remembering to turn them the right way when they are dry to the touch and allow them to dry again. Outside in the wind is always best. Don’t use a coat hanger on your wetsuit – it will stretch and damage the shoulders. Radiators can be used but they can damage the seals and glue! Gloves and boots should be dried allowing the evaporating water to escape – so not upside down or they will remain wet. You can use newspaper or kitchen towel to absorb the stubborn moisture from the finger and toe area but remove it after a short amount of time, remaining in there wet and damp just hinders the drying!

So the choice is yours! Wear whatever you want as long as you swim safe and have fun! You can always strip back to just a cossie just as you are about to exit the water if you want to feel the water on your skin. And look after your kit so your kit continues to look after you.

Different Folks, Different Strokes. Post swim smiles are still the same!

Meet the Flockers; Series 1, Rachel

The sixth in our ‘Meet the Flockers’ series of blogs where we bring salted wellbeing away from the beach and into your home. Bringing Series 1 to a close we meet Rachel. Grab yourself a cuppa and get to know the salty seabirds.

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.

Rachel2

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.

Rachel4

Meet the Flockers; Series 1, Ellie

The forth in our ‘Meet the Flockers’ series of blogs where we bring salted wellbeing away from the beach and into your home. Grab yourself a cuppa and get to know the salty seabirds.

I’m Ellie, I live in Hove with my husband and 2 kids exactly 15 mins walk from the Seafront! I’ve lived by the sea all my life and cannot imagine living inland at all. I lived first near the beautiful sandy beaches that give Sandbanks in Dorset its name. Not the posh peninsula, but still just a swift stroll to the sea. When I was choosing a university it was a choice only between places near the channel.

 

I really struck gold when I first arrived in Hove – a 1 min stroll to the beach and a glimpse of the sea from our huge bay windows. Shame the flat was so tiny!

Fast forward a few years; 2 kids, a stressful and emotionally demanding job as a primary school teacher and then management in a large school and my visits to the seafront to swim had all but dried up! Discovering the Seabirds has changed that in a big way.

Thinking back to my earliest swimming experience  it wasn’t in the sea at all. We had swimming lessons in the local Pool in Poole and I was awarded a certificate for swimming 5 metres! I think my mum’s still got it somewhere. I’ve never really liked swimming in indoor pools and that one was particularly noisy and smelly! I much prefer to remember my early swimming experiences as being back on that beach at Sandbanks. We often spent whole days (or that’s how it felt) building sandcastles in the white sand and collecting shells at the water’s edge. I’d often just run in and out of the shallow water watching my older brother but the competitive side of me couldn’t resist a challenge. Lifting my feet off the sandy sea floor and splashing along behind the rubber dingy dragged by my dad was a wondrous moment. The smell of sea is still one of my favourites even the algae that’s lurking around at the moment!

 

At the beginning of last year I’d resigned from my teaching job following increased anxiety and the return of my depression. I thought hard about why I’d suffered again with my mental health and concluded I needed to find a new community of people, to join something (I’m not a joiner!) and hopefully feel happier in myself.  I’ve not been disappointed!  The encouragement and support from the seabirds has been a huge part of my recovery and their companionship has been so powerful.

 

Just as I found the Seabirds wild swimming community on Facebook, I heard about the Women, Wellbeing and Water course they were running and joined the 4 weekly sessions. I loved hearing Kath wax lyrical about the tides and currents and it gave me great confidence and resilience in swimming more frequently in the sea. (The tea and cake after each dip helped too!)

I took the plunge and joined my first Seabird Swim on 1st May last year and could not have imagined how amazing it would feel. A year on and I was disappointed to spend only 5 minutes in the sea on my ‘Salty swimversary’. Although much more confident in the water than I was a year ago – big seas still scare me and the lack of Seabird laughter and screeching during this time has made the sea swimming experience a serious and almost silent one!

 

The great thing about swimming with the Seabirds is that you can just post a swim if you fancy one, no need to organise weeks in advance, and see who rocks up. Sometimes it’s just 1 other person sometimes 20. I’m still shy in big groups and often hover on the edge of a Monday Mass if I manage to get there at all. But at every single swim whatever I am  feeling when I turn up, the sea and the salty flock always make me feel welcome and part of the community and that is after all why I joined! Thanks to all you amazing people who’ve chatted, shared cake, swimming hats, laughter,  tears, lifts to Shoreham and companionship with me over the last year I’m so looking forward to being back with  the flock soon.

Meet The Flockers; Series 1, Hannah

The third in the series of blogs that get to know the salty seabirds and understand why they swim in the sea. This week it is the talented and witty Hannah we get to know.

A bit about me –  I’ve lived in Brighton for 12 years, am an artist and graphic novelist and work with children and young people. I have always swum in the sea; when I was little I was very close to my grandad, and  my brother and I loved his seafaring tales. He is immortalised in these comic strips (attached). I have swum in the sea with all the people I love most.

george william - hannah

george william 2

george william 3

Earliest memory of swimming

The ‘baby pool’ at Harrow Leisure Centre with my best friend Jayne, aged about four, singing a dirge-like song called ‘Bobbing Corks’. Blowing up orange armbands, getting chlorine in our eyes (it was 1980: goggles were for welders) -afterwards, Highland Toffee bars (5p!) out of the vending machines. Female friendship and refined carbohydrates…I sense the beginning of a pattern.

 

Earliest memory of sea swimming –

My grandad borrowed a red and white rowing boat from his mate Malcolm and took me and my brother cockle picking from Portland one August…I think it was the Fleet lagoon, between Chesil Beach and the mainland. I was five or six. I remember standing thigh-deep in the shallows, staring at flashes of sunlight on the water and the underwater shadows on the sand, and suddenly being overwhelmed by a total understanding of this hymn we sang at school that went ‘Glad that I live am I/That the sky is blue’. It was, and I was. But the cockles, boiled that night by my nana in a giant saucepan and soused in vinegar, were disgusting.

 

Why did you join the Salty Seabirds – (including ‘what do you like most about the SS (haha)’

I’ve always found groups difficult. I joined a sea swimming club about 10 years ago, but despite some nice people and great swims, ended up addicted to exercise, a bit joyless and full of self-flagellation and anxiety if I hadn’t achieved a certain distance, which the club’s sporty ethos exacerbated. Then my lovely friend Cath introduced me to her lovely friend Kath at the inception of the Seabirds, followed by a steady stream of amazing, inspirational, honest, hilarious, thoughtful, joyful and crotchety women (and the odd man). They (we) swim for companionship with the sea and with each other, to wrestle with devils, to frolic, handstand and sob into the waves, and not once has anyone asked me how far I have swum and judged my response or my fitness. I have found my merpeople! It’s also great that it’s a shifting group, because just as each swim is different because of the tide, weather, moon or mood, so is the social experience you have.

Cath has an amazing gift for being alongside people and casts a magic circle on the shingle wherein all sorts of people can be alongside each other, contented and alive, with cake and tea and without an ounce of competition. And her witchy prancing is a joy.

Kath, as well as being a seasoned sea-dog of infinite wisdom, has an amazing gift for acceptance of others (but she would say she doesn’t) – I and my abrasive, uncomfortable, melancholy edges are very grateful to her for welcoming us.

With a light but sweary touch and a flash or two of arse, they have created something incredible. I will always remember about seven of us sitting on the beach drinking tea and talking frankly about our vaginas, freezing but not wanting to leave the conversation, because nothing like it had happened before.

 

What do you like most about swimming in the sea?

I like feeling small and part of nature. I like being suspended – out of, but also very much in, my slightly creaky (on the land) middle aged body, the weight and lightness of water at every extremity. Moving through it, I feel like some big, streamlined water mammal. I got called ‘sea cow’ by my Year 8 class after we watched a documentary about manatees, and I reclaim it now as my superhero name!

Introducing the Turtleback Bag for Wild Swimmers

This week we are proud to announce a collaboration with Swim Feral, makers of the Turtleback Bag. We are an official affiliate, selling their TurtleBack bags via our Seabirds Wild Swim Shop. We first noticed the name of their company – Swim Feral, we love it! 

This week we are proud to announce a collaboration with Swim Feral, makers of the Turtleback Bag. We are an official affiliate, selling their TurtleBack bags via our Seabirds Wild Swim Shop. We first noticed the name of their company – Swim Feral, we love it! 

swim feral banner

Swim Feral was founded by Jamima Latimer and Sonya Moorhead. They are both artists with a cold water habit and made friends swimming together in a dam on top of a blustery hill in the Yorkshire moors. They designed the Turtleback bag to make the outdoor changing experience a bit more comfortable for those of us who like our swims feral.  Lets meet them…

 Jamima:

“I started outdoor swimming about 3 years ago. I go pretty much everyday, all year round. I love it, its kept me sane through some tough times and brought me plenty of brilliantly bizarre and joy filled times.

Nearly three years ago Sonya had the idea to do #januarydailydip – swimming everyday in January to raise money for displaced and homeless people. We raised a lot of money and had a lot of (freezing and challenging) fun doing it. We were amazed how many people supported us and how many people wanted to join in.

As well as raising money for a great cause the experience inspired two things in me:

  • to encourage more people to connect with the natural world and experience how incredible it feels and the benefits it brings.
  • to make a wild swim bag I could get changed in!

Swim Feral is the result.

If you swim outdoors you will know there are practicalities around getting changed – especially in winter.

All too often I found myself balancing on a plastic bag while trying not stand on the freezing cold ground attempting to pull a stubborn swim sock off with slightly numb hands! This got me thinking – I need a bag that I can stand on, get changed in and that is big enough to fit all my clothes in. I checked if any already existed, I found wetsuit mats but they weren’t ideal; I have to walk to my swim regular swim place and didn’t want to carry more stuff. I needed a bag/mat combo which is comfy to carry as well.

I design and make inflatable sculptures in my other life. So I just did what I always do, I got on with it and made myself a bag. Then my swimming mates wanted one and the feedback was great! I showed my triathlon friends and they were very enthusiastic too.

The result is the The Turtleback Bag.

I’ve spent the last year testing it out and adapting the design. It resembles a big protective shell, it takes care of all your gear and even acts as an extra layer against the elements across your back. (… also turtles are incredible swimmers and live till they are ancient!).

There isn’t another bag like this.”

 

Sonya:

“I grew up beside the sea and spent most weekends and long summer holidays mooching around on beaches with my sisters and friends. I was always the one who got in the water first. I absolutely love salt in my hair and pretending to do synchronised swimming. I’ve swum in lots of beautiful places over the years, I’m a strong swimmer but I am not wild. I’m probably overly cautious about depth and the “get out” plan. I’m also not a mad fan of seaweed or jellyfish.

Since moving to West Yorkshire and finding my swimming tribe, I’ve pushed against my comfortable limits and now do all sorts of feral swims I never thought possible. I even won the local outdoor swimming race last year – The Lee Dam Dash!

I came up with the #januarydailydip in 2018 to relieve my increasing anxiety about the UK’s homelessness crisis and the humanitarian suffering I could see on all my news feeds. I’m really proud of the totals we have raised so far and how the JDD team has grown, but there is still plenty to do.

In my other work I do a lot of project management, marketing and communicating. Jamima and I have talked a lot about Swim Feral as a vehicle to support the outdoor swimming movement with a really good product. We also want to champion the health benefits, especially for women, of immersing yourself in cold watery landscapes.

I also love my own Turtleback bag; it’s the original ruc sack prototype.

The Turtleback Bag – Bringing comfort to the uncomfortable!”

So they sound like Seabirds don’t they? Supporting them was a no brainer for us at Seabirds HQ. You can also support Seabirds if you decide to buy from Swim Feral by going through our blog site here or via our website.  Thank you!

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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

Unprecedented Times

A Guest Blog by Seabird Claudine

It was a clear, crisp day.  Filled with sunshine, then rain, then sun, then hail, all within 5 minutes.  A typical spring day then.  Perhaps not typical as in regular, but typical as in we’ve seen it all before, weather-wise.  Four seasons in one day.  It’s one of those days where we don’t go out.  Is that because we can’t be bothered?  Because it’s the weekend and getting the children dressed and out of the house is more effort than it’s worth?  Or is it because we are on lock-down, the pandemic of Covid 19 wreaking havoc on the world?  The entire world.

As I sit in the sunshine whilst the heavens aren’t opening, I wonder if there are parts of the world unaffected, remote and cut off from others in a way that is protecting them from all that is going on.  I wonder what it would be like to live in those communities.  Before this, as well as now, I sometimes dream of the ideal “getting away from it all” lifestyle change, as many do I’m sure.  A log cabin on the coast in a remote part of Canada, on the Sunshine Coast, maybe near Sechelt, away from people, near bears, (but friendly ones), with a glorious sea to swim in literally on my doorstep.  Or in another daydream fantasy, one of those houses the characters live in on Big Little Lies; a modern mansion on the beach with a luxurious expansive deck, with sofas bigger than my entire living room, and a roaring fire-pit, overlooking the waves, and a little wooden boardwalk down to the golden sand.  Anyway, I digress.

“It is unprecedented” is the phrase of the week/ fortnight/ month – who knows?  We have all lost track of time.  It’s like something from a Sci-fi film.  People in hazmat suits (a term I wasn’t even aware of until the virus hit) all over the news, looking like they are treating people who are radioactive, or taking evidence from a crime scene.  Who knew the world could be put on hold in this way?  For some it has all come to a standstill. No-one needs certain products and services right now, maybe they never really did.  I have always looked at certain jobs and industries and wondered if they really needed to exist.  Occasionally even my own.  But for some it isn’t like that.

Simultaneously other people’s worlds have gone from high pressure to incredibly intense.  People working night and day to adapt, to change to find a need and meet it.  For some that means profiteering: opening a shop especially to sell overpriced toilet roll and hand sanitizer.  For others that means thinking how they can use their skills to provide a slightly different service and continue to make a living; restaurants offering take away service, coffee delivered to your door, everything possible being offered online, even the things that “couldn’t possibly” be done online before.  Whilst others do their best with the limited resources they have to take care of others.  People risking their lives working in hospitals with the most sick, trying to reduce the death toll and slow the spread.  People have made the sacrifice of leaving their own homes and families so they don’t take the virus home to their loved ones or from their loved ones to the workplace where the most vulnerable are.

I miss things.  I know I am privileged to have a nice house, large garden, family members to keep me company, the tech I need to stay connected.  I still have the ability to go down to the seafront occasionally, get in the sea, as long as I do it alone.  But I’m not sure if I should. It isn’t as much fun as going with a few others, or the big social swims when I am in the right mood for them, but it is still glorious to get into the shimmering sea and feel the bitey cold on my body.

I’ve realised, or remembered, that I am the kind of person who manages with a new situation, and doesn’t really notice how much I miss something until I get it back again.  It sounds a bit contradictory, but I just plod along, feeling not quite right but OK, and dealing with the challenges that “home schooling” and struggling children bring.  Some days are a battle, calming down the children who show their angst in ways that are difficult for the rest of us to be around.

But last week we had a zoom call (again, an app I was unaware of until the corona virus hit) with salty seabirds, most of us getting in a cold bath as a substitute for the sea.  And I realised how much I miss them.  I miss the whoops and squeals as we get in the sea.  I miss the chatter and banter when we are in.  I miss the giggles.  I miss the dialogue: sometimes ridiculous and hilarious and sometimes profound.  I miss the support when I need a moan.  I miss the empathy when I have a cry.  I miss the hugs when a fellow seabird just knows I need one.  I miss touch.  I miss conversations about something other than my family, school work, and C19.  I miss the wide open space.  I miss the horizon, I look at and enjoy its endlessness, it represents infinite possibilities.

But this too shall pass.  Many people are in far more difficult situations than me.  Many people won’t make it through.  Many people will be living with the financial, emotional and physical fall out of this for years.  I am lucky, but that doesn’t mean I’m not struggling.  It doesn’t mean I’m not allowed to feel low.

For many, life will go back to normal, soon enough, and we’ll be back to rushing around, cramming too much in, getting stressed, spending money.  But at least then we will be back with our wider tribes, we will have the freedom to come and go as we please, we will have the sea and we will have the horizon, where anything is possible.

Author: Seabird Claudine

 

Swim Wild and Free

Swimming in the outdoors is free, BUT not everyone has equal access, availability or awareness.

If your social media accounts are anything like mine, you will be bombarded on a daily basis with beautiful images of the outdoors encouraging you to spend time in nature. Many are accompanied by the hashtag #free. The outdoors is free but is it accessible?

Spending time in nature, appears on the surface, (or below the waves), to be free. But having the luxury of free time to spend anywhere is a exorbitance many cannot afford. I recently read Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett’s article in the Guardian about the masses of white middle class women claiming the new craze of Wild Swimming as their own when people have been doing it since time began. At first, my heckles went up. How dare she assume that I am part of the urban elite romanticising swimming in the outdoors! But the fact that I had bought and read the article in the Guardian in itself showed me to be the privileged white middle class woman that I am. And swimming in the sea on a regular basis to manage my mental health is free and accessible for me, but not everyone has equal access. Gallingly, Rhiannon has a point.

Brighton and Hove is a very bohemian place to live. It’s a very popular place for artists, writers musicians and the like to reside. We differ from the political landscape that surrounds us but like any city there are still pockets of significant social deprivation. There are a substantial number of Brightonians that have never been to the beach let alone swim in the sea. Quite a different story to the front page of the tabloids of packed beaches in the summer and historical Victorian seaside spa town built for the middle classes.

I made ‘wild’ swimming my job. I work with the other Seabird Cath, and we choose when and where we work (to a degree). My kids are teenagers and pretty self sufficient. I am financially stable thanks to a long suffering and hard working husband. I am confident in the water after a lifetime of swimming in the sea. I can swim pretty much when I want to, or at least when the sea is suitable for swimming. So it is free, to me.

But…….my circumstances are not the norm. I am privileged. That’s not to say I don’t have mental health issues, but I have access to and time to partake in activities that benefit my wellbeing. My choice is to swim in the sea. And there it is. That word. Choice. I know it is an option and I choose to do it.

wild and free

Sea swimming is free and available to all, in theory. But there are many obstacles that people face getting in the water or even considering it an option. There are many residents of Brighton and Hove who never visit the beach and swimming in the sea is not in their line of sight. This is because, whilst being on the beach and in the sea (river or lake) doesn’t cost money, not everyone has equal access, availability or awareness.

Many groups and communities face a lot of barriers to outdoor activities which include wild swimming. Outdoor fun is a privilege some cannot afford. It is easy to overlook inequality when you are part of a community that has access and benefits. It is undeniable that there is a lack of diversity and inclusion in the outdoor swimming community. Not intentionally but still undeniably.

As part of the Salty Seabird community, I know how much the cold water, connecting with others and being in nature improves my mental health. As Seabirds CIC we want others to realise this too. Last year we received National Lottery funding to run our ‘Women, Water and Wellbeing’ (WWW) programme with local mental health charity Threshold Womens’ Services, who referred participants to us.

It was a huge success, with the majority of the participants still regularly swimming with us. It was an unexpected outcome to be part of a thriving flock of fellow sea swimmers. Without intention we created an inclusive community where all are welcome. However, we remain mainly middle class white women! And we can only assume why this is the case. Is it due to our name and the female association with the word bird? Is a group of semi naked women screeching on the beach intimidating to other potential swimmers, particularly men? Is it because the times we swim are when those with more traditional occupations are working? Is it because many residents of the city do not have childhoods or backgrounds that encouraged outdoor activities?

What is clear is that Society’s hierarchies of ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, body size, and economic class do not miraculously disappear in the sea.  And what is needed is an understanding of what is preventing certain communities in our city from accessing the sea and potentially improving their wellbeing. Particularly communities that are socially and economically deprived.

Although in principle all you need to swim is a swimming costume, there are certain pieces of equipment that make wild swimming more manageable. On our famous shingle beaches only the hardy go without footwear. And if you wish to swim year round, neoprene accessories such as gloves and hats make the experience a bit more enjoyable – which is the aim after all. Not everyone can afford these.

As said, in principle all you need is a swimming costume, which most people own, but some do not have the confidence to put on, let alone in public. A negative body image can prevent people, particularly women, from taking part in activities that requires them to wear forms of sportswear. And there is no where to hide in a wet-suit. Some people simply can’t swim. They have either never learnt or have a bad relationship with swimming based on previous experience. Our group is very keen to promote the notion that paddling, dipping, sitting in the shallows and just getting wet, is in fact outdoor swimming!

Wild swimming requires a certain level of knowledge. Knowing it is an option and recognising that there are ways to improve your wellbeing. Pockets of the population have limited time to have fun and are unaware of communities residing in their local area partaking in outdoor activities. In times of austerity people are working more than one job and longer hours just to make ends meet and when they are not working have responsibilities for young children or is more common now, caring for ageing parents. Or both. These potential swimmers may be completely unaware of outdoor swimming.

There is also a certain level of skill and confidence needed to swim outdoors. Although I am the co-founder of our Salty Seabird community group I personally wouldn’t rock up on my own to meet a group of people I don’t know to swim in the sea. I, like many others who suffer from anxiety, would need a more structured first session where others were in the same boat. I do not like meeting new people and although I have the physical skills to swim outdoors I do not have the confidence to swim with strangers. Knowing where to go and how to get there is knowledge born of experience. Not everyone lives by a large body of water and if they do is it safe to swim.

The list of why swimming in the outdoors is not accessible and available to all is lengthy. And not all of the obstacles can be overcome. But some can. In 2020 the WWW programme intends to work with an increased number of vulnerable people. Additional access to structured sea swimming sessions will transition non-swimming women into wild swimmers that will have a new way of improving their mental and physical health safely and confidently. Our approach will be to work with community development groups in the city that already have trusted relationships with women for whom, wild swimming is not even on their radar.

As a Community Interest Company, Seabird’s aim to provide a way for local people to manage their wellbeing by using sea swimming and friendship. The community courses we facilitate specifically focus on people that would not otherwise be able to access the sea/beach without guidance. We can provide the equipment, transport, childcare, flexible times and a nurturing community to encourage and teach the skills to provide the confidence to women. The sessions provide support to members with a wide range of issues, including anxiety, depression, stress, low self-esteem, loneliness and long term health conditions. Our aim is to give participants the skills, confidence and self-belief they need to enjoy sea swimming, no matter what additional challenges they face. We recognise that everyone person is different and each responds to challenges differently. But we believe that with the right assistance and support they can do it!

Author: Seabird Kath

N.B We recognise that there are men in the local community who would also benefit from swimming in the sea but we do not feel we are the right organisation to facilitate courses for male groups. The same can be said for communities that have come together based on shared experiences of race, gender identity and sexual orientation. We are also aware that the middle classes can be mentally ill too, just because they have greater access to free and paid for self-care doesn’t mean it is not needed. However, our 2020 aim is to encourage women, in areas of socio-economic deprivation, who would not normally easily access sea swimming as a tool to maintain wellbeing and yet are in great need of it, to give it a go.