Introduction to Winter Sea Swimming

A webinar facilitated by Open Water Swimming Coach Kath Ferguson. An Introduction to Winter Sea swimming.

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!

Swimming with a Flock in the Winter

How swimming into winter in a wild swim community ensures you are looking out for each other physically AND mentally.

There is a reason birds roost together, fly together, flock together. It’s for strength, safety and warmth. And this is also the reason the Salty Seabirds swim together. As we move into the cold winter months and a second lockdown in England, it is more important than ever that we look out for one other both physically and emotionally. In the immediate future, we may be swimming in pairs or not at all due to distance but we definitely need to come together for the winter.

We’ve had a huge increase in the number of swimmers joining our flock since September. A mixture of excitement and nerves as they look to swim through their first winter. Swimmers tend to focus on the practicalities of cold water swimming. Like what kit is required? How long should they stay in? How often should they go to build up acclimatisation? In reality you don’t need any kit at all. Yes it makes it more comfortable to have a sports robe and a woolly hat post swim but really to swim all you need is your cossie, and sometimes not even that. Instead what experience has shown me is, I need support to swim through winter. The support of a swimming community to look out for me both physically and emotionally.

How can we look out for each other emotionally?

Simply by bringing your swimming into your everyday. I don’t mean actually go swimming everyday but the sense of community, kindness and care you experience with your fellow swimmers shouldn’t be left at the beach, but bought into your everyday. Keep in touch with each other digitally with simple text message checking in on each other providing peer support. Particularly if you notice someone has been missing from swimming for a while or if you noticed a change in their behaviour when you last swam with them. Many swimmers live alone and a swimming community that they regularly interact with may be he first to notice if they are absent, if they are distracted, if they appear sad.

We can look at meeting other swimmers for a walk before or after our swims to be able to catch up with each other without our voices being drowned out by the sound of waves. You don’t even need to talk, just being with another person surrounded by the sound of the sea can provide a positive emotion response. Eating, particularly cake after a winter swim is pretty much compulsory so trying out new recipes and sharing baked goods or even stews and soups with one another can provide much needed routine and activity.

If you have been swimming in the sea year round for a while you are likely to have made some swimmy friends that you swim with regularly. You will have a good idea of swim routine and rituals. If you notice any changes to this it may be worth a quick check in with them. If they are normally okay in challenging (not dangerous) sea conditions but are choosing not to go in. Or if they are choosing to go in when the sea is challenging and/or dangerous and this is not a risk they would normally take. This change in behaviour could be due to changes in their wellbeing and someone asking them how they are could make all the difference.

Swimming with others makes winter swimming more pleasurable. It can provide you with the confidence needed to enter the water. If you are meeting someone for a swim it’s harder to back out and you know you never regret a swim! Other swimmers can also provide you with the reassurance that you don’t have to get in. If it’s too rough they’ll sit with you on the beach. You can get the same benefit from cold water swimming just by paddling. Just getting out of the house and being by the sea with a likeminded soul may be just what a swimmer needs! So invite someone to swim with you!

How can we look out for each other physically?

So to do this you need to know how cold water swimming can impact swimmers physically. Our body’s response to being in cold water can be both immediate and when we have exited the water. Knowing the signs and symptoms and what to do to help your fellow swimmers is a really important part of winter swimming.

Cold water shock

Happens in the water. Water does not have to be really cold for swimmers to experience cold water shock. It can occur in 15°C water and it can occur if you are wearing a wetsuit. Acclimatisation throughout the colder months and upon entry into the water as well as breathing exercises can help but they are not guaranteed to prevent it. When you immerse you body into cold water a couple of things happen. 1. You can gasp involuntarily which may result in you breathing in water. 2. Your blood arteries constrict and your blood flow increases to warm you up making the heart rate increase considerably as it works harder. These reactions to cold water can quickly turn into drowning and/or a heart attack. So watch out for your swim buddy(s) as you get into the water, keep an eye on each other, keep talking to regulate breathing. If your fellow swimmer is struggling to breathe and swim – get them out and warm them up!

cold water incapacitation

Happens in the water. While your body is immersed in cold water it works to adapt to this change in circumstances and survive. Blood is redirected to your core and vital organs leaving your limbs and digits without blood and unable to move and function as they should – i.e. you will not be able to swim which can obviously lead to drowning. Whilst you are swimming watch your swim buddy’s stroke, are they slowing down, disorientated, finding it difficult to propel themselves through the water. Talk to each other as you swim asking how your bodies are coping, which bits of them are cold, are they beginning to tire. If you are concerned about a fellow swimmer actually ask them if they are ok to keep swimming – they may well answer yes – so ask them other questions to gauge their cognitive processing like what they watched on TV last night or who their favourite Spice Girl is. If you feel their cognition is impaired its time to leave the water, you may need to lead by example or be quite straight with them about the risk of staying in.

After drop

Happens out of the water. All of that blood that left your limbs to keep your core and vital organs warm now heads back out to your cold limbs and extremities cooling back down as it does so. As it is cooled down by your cold body it makes you even colder for a while. You though your were cold when you got out of the water when in reality you will be at your coldest about ten minutes later. Which is why it is important to get out of cold wet swimming attire and into dry warm layers as soon as possible. If you see your swim buddy faffing, taking photos or chatting before they’ve got dressed tell them off! Help them if they need help pulling on layers, now is not a time for dignity and grace. Get sipping that tea and scoffing that cake whilst moving around. It’s also a great excuse for a post swim hug!

hypothermia

Happens in and out of the water Hypothermia occurs when the bodies core temperature falls below 35°C – fortunately the onset is slow so if you spot the signs early enough you have time to take appropriate action. The first one being – GET OUT OF THE WATER. Mild hypothermia: uncontrollable shivering and numbness, loss of simple coordination. Probably more noticeable out of the water than in but again regularly check in with your swim buddy and get out if in doubt. Out of the water, the signs are similar to the After Drop but remember this time the core is cold so moving around will not help warm them up. Get them into layers and lots of them. Get them into a warm shelter, off the cold ground, in a car with the heaters on full will suffice. Don’t put hot things like hot water bottles and mugs of hot drinks near their skin. Moderate hypothermia: confusion and strange inebriated-like behaviour, slurred speech it’s like they are drunk. Get them out of the water now! And if you are on land post swim get them warm with layers, hats, towels, coats, gloves and follow the advice above. Keep them talking and keep monitoring them. Ask them to count from 10 backwards or other more challenging mental tasks and keep a note of how they answered to assess if they are improving or deteriorating. If they deteriorate call 999. Severe hypothermia: blue-grey skin, slow or halted breathing, loss of consciousness. Do all of the above and call 999 immediately!

I am lucky to be a part of the Salty Seabird community. This community has, at times, carried me into the water and now I look to them to carry me through another winter. It’s strange because I don’t usually thrive in a group, but in this one I do. Let’s keep looking out for one other both physically and emotionally so we both thrive and survive! Together we will get through another winter……..

Coming soon the Seabird’s winter swimming webinar with tips on kit, acclimatisation, safety, weather, sea conditions……..

Nothing says summer like a jellyfish sting!

Hers in Brighton and Hove our seasonal swimming friends the jellyfish have arrived in abundance. In this blog you will learn how to identify the common types and what do do if you are stung.

Once the May Bloom begins to die back the jellyfish appear on the south coast of England.  We had a sunfish sighting off Brighton’s beach last week which meant the jellyfish were imminent. It is their staple diet as it is for leatherback turtles. So what visitors can we expect each year from May to October? (Also included are a couple of creatures that are technically not jellyfish but kinda look and act like them so they get a mention.)

I love jellyfish. I think they are mesmerising to watch and I can often while a way a few minutes (read hours) watching the Monterey Bay Aquarium jellyfish dance on their jellycam.  They don’t really swim but instead are carried by tides and currents around the UK waters. They all sting but to varying degrees and are essential in the marine food chain so I feel we can forgive them if they accidentally leave some nematocysts stinging cells on our limbs. For me summer has only truly arrived once I feel a slight skin irritation after a shower and know it’s because I’ve been stung by a jellyfish.

sea goosberry

Sea Gooseberry – The first to appear in the summer are sea gooseberries, which are not actually jellyfish, but they are my favourite. They are so named for obvious reasons but are sometimes called comb jellies or ctenophore. Due to their almost transparent nature they can be hard to see but you feel their cilia, which they use for swimming or their two long trailing tentacles as a soft tickle. Their shadows on your skin are sometimes easier to spot than the actual creature itself.  They vertically migrate throughout the day so are most common near the surface in the mornings or evenings.

moon

Moon – this jelly has an umbrella shaped transparent bell with 4 very distinct purple or white rings in the centre and gets up to around 40cm. These are the jellyfish gonads! It has very short hair like tentacles which release the mildest of stings. So mild you may not even realise you have been stung.

compass

Compass – this is the jellyfish we draw or see in drawings. It has a typical umbrella top and lovely long tentacles and frilled arms and grows to around 30cm. It is identifiable by the markings on it’s bell, which resemble a compass and are reddy brown in colour. If you feel you have been stung by a jellyfish on the south coast this is likely to be the culprit. It is sometimes called a nettle jellyfish as it’s sting feels similar to that of a nettle.

blue

Blue – This jelly fish has a dome shaped bell and lots and lots of stinging tentacles and is around 30cm. Although it is named ‘Blue Jellyfish’ it doesn’t actually turn blue until it is at full maturity. It gradually changes from a pale yellow to a blueish purple. During it’s paler phase it can commonly be mistaken for a Lion’s Mane Jelly. He’s stinger!

Largelionsmanejellyfish

Lion’s Mane Jellyfish – quite obvious how it got it’s name. A very elaborate orange jellyfish which can grow quite large (50cm – 2m) with This is the worst stinger but fortunately for those of us that swim off the south coast they are usually found in northern waters. The problem with these is they sting A LOT because they have such A LOT of tentacles which easily break off. These are worth seeking medical attention for.

barrel

Barrel – sometimes called dustbin lid jellyfish as this is typically their size so you’ll know of you see one. They can get up to 1m. You can often spot them in the deep water of Shoreham port when they get stuck in the locks there. They are incredible to look at. The good news is they do not have tentacles but rather frills and if they sting you they re very mild.

mauve

Mauve Stinger – does what it says on the tin. It’s mauve and it stings. It’s much smaller than the others only getting up to about 10cm and it has a deep bell, pinky purple in colour. It have 8 stinging tentacles that can leave you with skin irritation, blisters, hives and scabs.

Portuguese_Man-O-War_(Physalia_physalis)

Portuguese man-of-war or bluebottles are not actually a jellyfish and don’t just exist in Portugal. It is in fact a siphonophore which in layman’s terms is a whole host of colonies of genetically identical creatures!  It gets its name from the uppermost polyp, a gas-filled bladder, or pneumatophore, which is blue-purple in colour and  sits above the water and somewhat resembles an old warship at full sail. It has incredibly long fishing polyps, up to 10 metres long and although rare in UK waters is has a powerful and dangerous sting. Get to the doctor!

by the wind

By the wind sailor – sometimes confused with the Portuguese man-of-war as it too has a sail like structure that sits above the water line and they are blueish purple in colour. Again it is not a jellyfish but it does have stinging tentacles that are harmless to humans. The tend to appear in huge swarms.

STINGS – what to do!

Jellyfish can sting whether they are dead or alive and if a part of the tentacle is broken off it can still sting you. Stinging cells, normally intended for their food prey,  basically attach themselves to your skin and well sting. How much they hurt and how dangerous the sting can be all depends on the type of jellyfish, how much you have been stung and how you react to stings. For example, if you are the type of person that blows up when bitten by a mosquito because your body produces an excess of histamine, the likelihood is you will react the same way to a jellyfish sting. Certain types of stings will always require medical attention as per the description above. The more mild stings can be treated in the following ways;

  • Remove all traces of the stinging cells from your skin with a bank card by scraping it along the surface.
  • The sting reacts to changes in temperature and PH levels so keeping both of these consistent for as long as possible will reduce pain and redness. So it sounders counterproductive and probably not very inviting but stay in the salty cold water of the sea for as long as possible.
  • Do not clean the area with fresh water as this will do both of the above (change in temperature and PH) and boy will you know it if it is a significant sting. As previously said I sometimes only realise I have been stung when have a shower – a good reason to avoid them and stay salty.
  • Treat with heat not a cold compress
  • Take paracetamol and/or antihistamine
  • A newly discovered favourite is put shaving foam on the affected area as it apparently prevents the spread of toxins. Who knew!

 

The gooseberry, moon, compass and barrel are the most common in the English channel. I have never seen the others in Brighton and Hove but that’s not to say they have never occurred, just that they are rare. If you wish to continue swimming in the sea over the summer months you are going to have to put up with these fascinating residents. Rash vests and swim leggings can be worn to prevent stings but it won’t prevent you from encountering them. Hopefully, learning about how important they are to the marine food chain and knowing that the sting from the most commonly occurring types is harmless won’t stop you from getting in the water.

Lots of organisations are interested in tracking jellyfish populations. The Marine Conservation Society record which jellyfish get washed up and where so please report whatever you see. The Wildlife Trust also asks for public volunteers to record wildlife on our shores.

Favourite jellyfish fact: Groups of jellyfish are called swarms, blooms or my favourite smacks!

NB: All image are taken from Wikipedia – there will be better and beautiful  examples of the jellyfish on the internet but so as not to breach copyright they have not been shared here.

Just keep swimming!

The Buoys are Back in Town

The summer season is here in Brighton and Hove. The Swim Area Buoys and lifeguards have returned to our beaches but there have been a lot of changes to their service. This blog explains the 2020 Lifeguard Service and advice on swimming safely through the summer.

The much anticipated arrival of the iconic yellow ‘SWIM AREA’ buoys is finally here. They are safely anchored off Brighton and Hove’s beaches but they aren’t quite the same………

As a group, we try to encourage all local residents of all swim abilities to join us in the sea. Our aim is to create a community space for people to enjoy the water and provide a way for swimmers to manage their mental health and wellbeing. The summer is great time to start and as we re-opened the group to new members this week we have already seen lots of new Salties joining our flock. So as a warm welcome to warmer seas we’d like to share the story of our swims, the iconic Brighton Buoys and our summer season lifeguard service. Particularly as C19 has meant significant changes to the Seafront service and we want our flock to swim safely.

As the waters warm, our numbers inevitably grow. This year we are unable to share our swims with more than 5 other Salties. The beauty of the bigger regular swims is you will find someone that meets your swim needs. They swim the same stroke as you, the same speed as you, the same distance as you and eats the same cake as you. Some of us will swim out and round the buoys, some won’t. Some will paddle, some will float, some will swim for long distances. Whatever works for you. But in the spirit of inclusivity we swim at the speed and to the distance of our most relaxed swimmer if we meet as a group, and we ask our swimmers to be mindful of this as new Salties join us.

Normally the SWIM AREA buoys would arrive in early May ready for the lifeguard season to start on Brighton and Hove’s beaches over the May Half Term. Due to C19 there has been a delay. Brighton and Hove normally has 14 lifeguarded beaches  and the swim area buoys mark out an area that is safe to swim in if the yellow and red flags are flying and a lifeguard is on duty.  They are not there for swimmers to swim round although many use them as markers to swim too and roughly measure the distance of their swim. If you were to see a bird’s eye view of them you would see they are never parallel and move around quite a bit in bad weather so it is a very rough measurement .

The season normally runs from May to September with the outer posts of Saltdean, Rottingdean, Ovingdean and Hove Lagoon opening from July to September, as the schools break up. There can be between 1-3 lifeguards per post depending on how busy that particular beach is. The more popular touristy beaches by the Palace Pier have more lifeguards. All the beach lifeguards are supported by a lifeguarded boat that patrols daily and the Seafront staff and co-ordinators (the staff on the quad bikes).

This year, the most noticeable change is the late arrival of the SWIM AREA buoys and their position in the water. They are not in sets of 5 in front of lifeguard posts (Pic 1). Instead they are dotted along the shoreline, roughly (and only roughly see pic 2) parallel with each other from the Palace Pier to Hove Lagoon. There are no buoys east of the Palace Pier. Instead of indicating lifeguard posts the buoys are to prevent jet skis and boats from coming to close to shore to protect water users.

 

These buoys are not to be confused with the boat lane buoys. These too are yellow but a different shape. However, from a distance, and now the buoys are in a parallel line alongside the boat buoys, it is hard to see the difference. These buoys look like the picture below and are there to indicate where boats can approach to and from the shore. If you don’t want to get hit by a boat – don’t swim in these lanes. The boat lane buoys line up with yellow posts on the beach as per the picture below. This one to the west of King Alfred is by the boat winches and normally has kayaks locked to it. So if you can’t see the shape of the buoy from the shore – look for a post.

As there are no inner buoys yet this year and a limited lifeguard service the Sea Front Office have requested that swimmers do not swim out to the buoys to reduce the number of rescues they have to perform and the risk to their lives from the sea and C19 infection from swimmers. This is the most common rescue they perform. Swimmers head out for the buoys and when they get there can be too tired to swim back, not realise they made it there on a tidal current or offshore wind and don’t have the ability to get back, or get there and realise how far they are from shore and freeze both in temperature and ability to move.

We’ve had a few ‘hold your breath’ moments within our flock. Last summer, on the first day of the lifeguard seasons a new Salty asked another swimmer if they thought she’d be able to swim out to the buoy. The other swimmer, innocently replied yes and so a group set out on her maiden voyage. When the new swimmer got to the buoy it was clear this wasn’t the right decision, the lifeguard was attracted and a board rescue ensued. The lesson here is you need to take responsibility for your own assessment of the conditions and your capability. If you are asking someone else the question can I swim that far, or for that long etc the answer is no. We’ve also had a new swimmer not only to the group but to Brighton join a group swimming around the West Pier. The swimming group had made it clear on the swim invitation that is wasn’t a usual group dip of handstand performing, cake and a natter afterwards but a long swim around the pier.  The new swimmer still joined and  got into significant difficulty as she wasn’t used to the cold temperatures, the strong currents and also put the lives of the others swimmers in danger as they stayed in the water to help her back to shore.

We understand, that for some swimmers having goals and targets gives you something to strive towards but this must be done safely. If you wish to increase your time in the water, build up to it slowly and stay close to the shore so you can exit quickly.  Another way to measure your swim distance is to move parallel to the shore and count the groynes. These are roughly 100 metres apart and allow you to stay in shallower water and closer to a safe exit point. If you wish to swim to the buoys consider going at slack tide on a spring low with no wind. Don’t forget to wear a tow float and a bright coloured hat, preferably orange or pink.

So as to changes to the Lifeguard Service. They start today! (Saturday 13th June) Hooray. They will operating on the beaches by King Alfred and between the Palace and West Pier only to begin with. If and when this changes we will publish updated information in the group. Opening up additional posts and putting out buoys closer to shore and to mark out swim areas are under discussion. The current lifeguard posts are larger and will have 6 lifeguards per post – 3 operating each half of the post. They will be working a reduced day from 11am-5pm.  We will no longer be able to leave our bags and belongings with them as it would pose a cross contamination risk. However, they are still happy to answer any of your questions of give you advice, just be mindful to stay 2ms or they will have to put on their face masks.   They will have boards close to their posts indicating tide times and sea conditions. There will be increased water patrols on boards and the boat will be joined by volunteer crew on Surf Lifesaving Club boats at the weekends.

To me the buoys mean summer, clear seas and double dip days. Yes I swim to them, round them, under them, photograph them. One of these years I’m going to clean them. But I do it when the conditions are right, I am in the right frame of mind and  I have the energy. Sometimes I don’t know if all the buoys are aligned to mean a swim to them is an option until I get to the beach, see who else is there and see if the sea is playing ball. I’m quite happy to change my plans to perfecting my handstands, searching for crabs on the sea bottom or just floating. The sea is most definitely my mistress and dictates my swim!

However you decide to swim with, however long you stay in, wherever you swim to and from, do it safely and have a wonderful summer of sea swims

Useful Resources

  • How to read sea condition forecasts – this blog written by local Sea swimmer Freja and explains how to read the Magic Seaweed App
  • Other useful apps are windguru, buoyweather and Imray
  • The seafront has a number of webcams to get an idea of the sea conditions before you leave home. They can change quickly though so be prepared to change you plans.
  • How to swim in cold water safely – this blog focuses on mitigating the risks of swimming in cold water. Even in the summer the sea can be cold!
  • Water quality is measured by various organisation around Brighton and Hove. Surfers Against Sewage have a Safer Seas app that provides warnings if the water quality is low.
  • Seafront Office are happy to give advice. They cannot give you individual advice on whether it is safe for you to swim but can provide answers to general queries around water quality, sea temperature events etc. Their contact details are; 01273 292716.
  • Statement from Brighton and Hove City Council regarding the service in the seafront.

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, Claudine

The fifth 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.

Tell us a bit about you?

I’m Claudine, a 43 year old mum of two, wife, business owner and Seabird.  I have always loved swimming.  It was the sport I was “least bad at”, at school!  We also had swimming lessons outside of school and I remember it being one of the few extra curricular activities I enjoyed.  I continued to swim, on and off, throughout my adult life, it has generally been my go-to exercise.

I have always loved the sea and for years I was unable to visit a beach without going for a paddle.  I have lived in Hove for 13 years but it took me nearly 10 to actually swim in the sea here.

I discovered proper sea swimming two years ago now (my swimmiversary being 20th April).  In March, I was running on the seafront and saw some swimmers come out of the sea, I decided to walk over to and chat to them.  As I got closer, I realised one was Rachael, who my children had had some swimming lessons with.  As I spoke to her and her two friends, I said wistfully “I wish I could do that”, and they all looked at me, puzzled, and said “why can’t you?”.  Good question.  So a month later, I did.  I met Rachael and another of her friends, (now one of mine), and went in the freezing April ocean (why not start in more or less the coldest sea temperature of the year?), wetsuited up.  It was joyous!  I felt the buzz.  Two years on and I have done two winters, mostly without a wetsuit, and it is now “my thing”.

What made you join the Salty Seabird Swimming Community Group?

I did a few swims with a colleague I was working with in Portsmouth, and then with another Brighton swimming club.  One day I picked up a flyer for the Seabirds.  I liked the sound of them, swimming for wellbeing.  I went along to Lagoonfest where they had a stall, met them and bought some of their wares.  Then decided to join them for a swim.  I loved the community feel of the group, even though it was much smaller then than it is now.  It felt casual, there were a few who would swim off and get some distance covered, but others who would bob and chat.  It was nice to have the choice to do either.  I have since swam regularly with the Seabirds, several times a week, either in the large group swims, or when I am feeling less able socially, I’ll message one or two of them and see if they’d like to meet. With the Seabirds, there are people who completely get me.  I feel that amongst the Seabirds, I’ve found my tribe.

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

I’m not sure I have a favourite spot.  Anywhere along the beach at Hove is good with me.  Anywhere there are not too many people.  I don’t mind Shoreham when it’s too rough at Hove.  It’s not the prettiest but it’s good knowing you’re right next to the RNLI station, although it would be quite embarrassing to have to be rescued a few metres away from it!

Why do you swim in the sea and when did you start?

I’m interested in the research and the findings about the positive impact of cold water on mental health, and in particular depression and anxiety.  I struggle with these two unwelcome visitors at times, and take medication for it.  I would love swimming to be a way of reducing or getting off medication for me.  I would love it to be socially prescribed so I “have” to go, (although that might take the fun out of it)!  I know there is research going on to prove its impact so that it can be prescribed.

Does swimming in cold water itself impact positively my mental health?  Yes, I think it does. I no longer get the rush and buzz I got when I first started.  I rarely get the hysterical giggles after a cold swim any more.  I wonder if the impact in that sense has warn off over time.  I haven’t since got the child-like rush of excitement I got after swimming 30 meters in 2 degree water at the Cold Water Swimming Championships.  Dr Mark Harper suggests the cold water swimming high replicates a cocaine high.  Well, I have developed a tolerance to the effects of my drug of choice.

However, I still get a lot from it.  I have a great sense of achievement when I’ve overcome the freezing-ness and got myself in, shoulder-deep and then dunked my head.  Once I catch my breath I always have a sense of “ahh, that’s better”.  I feel invincible when I’ve gone into deeper water and swam round the buoys, especially after overcoming a panic attack out there.  But most of all I have a great time when I swim with my salties,  I have the connection.  So for my wellbeing I think what I need is to swim, with a small group if that feels right, or a big one on other days.  To listen to myself and see whether I need to chat with newbies or stick to those who know me.  I always need to dunk my head and get my face in.  And above all just get in that damn sea!

What do you love most about swimming in the sea?

I love a cold day when the sea is still and the sun is sparkling off it.  I like being able to have a good swim and look at the sky, look at the sun sparkling on the water.  I love a calm day when I can float on my back, stare at the clouds and feel grateful for being able to do that.  I love the summer when the buoys are out and I can challenge myself to swim around them.  I love a bouncy day when the waves a just a little bit scary but fun to jump around in.  I love getting out and feeling the bitey cold of my skin, trying to dress quickly so I don’t start shivering, and then feeling the warm ribena slowly heating me up from the inside.

How often do you swim in the sea?

As often as I can.  It would be every day if I could.  Generally it is 3-4 times a week.  Last year I completed 200 swims, over 190 of which were in the sea!  This year’s target is 201 but Covid 19 has made that target look difficult to achieve.

How would you describe your experience of swimming with the Salty Seabirds?

Empowering, joyful, necessary.  I never regret a swim.  There are days when I’m not sure I feel like it, or can’t be bothered or am feeling socially awkward and don’t feel like seeing people.  Even on the crappiest day, in the lowest mood, and the trickiest swim, I come out feeling at the very least a little better than I went in, and very often hugely better.  I enjoy the long detailed conversations about tea after swims, and the hilarity that follows.  I enjoy giving penguin hugs to those who shake when they get out. I am one of the lucky ones who have enough natural neoprene (or “bioprene”) to offer insulation to the cold so I have rarely shivered, even after almost half an hour in under 10 degree water.   And one of my favourite seabirds moments, I stood on the shore at Shoreham contemplating going in the water, in tears, and felt a huge warm hug envelope me.  I didn’t know which Seabird it was holding me, and it didn’t matter.  Only when we eventually pulled away, I saw the huge smile of our own baltic mermaid.  She didn’t say anything, other than perhaps “come on”, and gently encouraged me to get in the water.  She had known exactly what I needed at that moment, a big bear hug and a freezing cold swim: the two best cures for most things.

What would you say to anyone thinking of starting wild swimming as a form of managing wellbeing?

Give it a try.  As long as you do it in a safe way, what have you got to lose?  I have taken a couple of friends in for their first cold swim and they have loved it.  It’s great to see the buzz on their face and then hear later on that they felt incredible for hours afterwards.  The sense of a achievement to accomplish what many people couldn’t (and admittedly many people have no interest in doing), is awesome.  So many friends and acquaintances say they really want to join me, one day…..

Where and when was your favourite swim? – details please and lots of them

One of my favourites was during the crazy weekend in Wales a few of us Seabirds went to, for the Bluetits weekend.  We drove a looooong way to get there, had a great Friday night, dipped at a lovely couple of beaches on the Saturday, a rather crazy Saturday night in the cow shed, followed by a magical swim on Sunday.  I’d seen idyllic pictures of the Blue Lagoon and was thrilled to be swimming there.  It is the sea but in an almost enclosed pool so it would be possible to swim even when the waves are too big.  It did not disappoint.  Surrounded by smooth black rocks that some swimmers climbed up and dived off.  We knew that as honorary Bluetits for the weekend, we would collect a muffeteer badge for going in naked.  So I was up for the challenge.  Not one to rush into getting my kit off in Hove, I was happy to strip amongst this wonderful group of crazy (mostly) women.  It was liberating.  It was a gorgeous location, a lot of fun doing it naked, watching the brave ones cliff jumping without putting pressure on myself to have a go.  And someone said there was a seal.  I didn’t see her pop her head up but later saw an incredible video of one of the group having a little chat with the seal.

Possibly my favourite local swim was the sunset starling swim which was the last in the 12 moon swims series.  By the Palace pier, we gathered and swam, or at least jumped the waves, as the starlings did their beautiful murmuration above us. It was magical.  I have seen so many pictures and videos of the starlings making their shapes, but rarely seen them in reality, so to look up whilst being in the sea and watch was magical.

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

I have never been particularly nervous of a little dip in the shallows, but on a rough day it can scare me.  I have been in a number of situations where fellow swimmers have been tumbled or got into trouble quite a way out from shore.  I have kept my cool and helped those who needed it.  But confidence is certainly something that I have gained whilst swimming.

Time is always a barrier for many of us, and as a working mum running my own business, I can’t swim as often as I’d like.  I am often away for work and have yet to pluck up the courage to meet up with other wild swimming groups wherever I am staying.  When I’m not away I am based at home so some days have too much to do, to justify time out for a swim.  But when I can go, I go.  Sometimes for a long chill on the beach afterwards, and sometimes for a “dip and dash”.
Thirdly (although I know you said your biggest barrier, I have picked three!) I have a reputation amongst the Seabirds for being terrified of “creatures” in the sea.  I am not sure where it comes from, as i have willingly paid good money to swim with creatures in all sorts of parts of the world.  And yet if I feel something touch my leg or hand, my squeal can be heard for miles, and I jump 5 metres in the air.  I am particularly afraid of jellyfish,  to the extent that when I saw one last year during the 2.5km swim as part of the Paddle Round the Pier Festival, I could barely catch my breath an had to cling onto the surfboard of a young lifeguard who then stayed with me for the whole swim.  This slowed me down as I stopped the next two times I saw jellies, despite them being meters below me, and it resulted in me missing the cut off time for the swim and being pulled out by the safety boat.  Jellyfish 1,: Claudine 0!  This year I was planning on getting hypnotherapy to help with my irrational fear, and so I can conquer that 2.5km sea swim, but as yet it hasn’t been possible.

Is there anything else you want to add? 

One of the things I think about when I’m swimming is that the onlookers (and often there are many, pausing their walk along the prom to look at the group on the beach, particularly in the middle of winter) are thinking.  I reckon half are thinking “what a bunch of crazies, why on earth would they be going in the sea??  I’m cold and I have a hundred layers on – you wouldn’t catch me in there!” or words to that effect.  I think the other half are thinking “ooh, that looks fun and exhilarating, I wish I could join them” or perhaps “one day I will”.  This assumption is based on the fact that these are the two reactions I generally get when I chat to people about sea swimming in winter.  So many friends have said they’ll join me, but haven’t as yet.  I do feel pretty tough when I’ve got in past my shoulders and caught my breath.  But that’s not what I do it for.

The other benefit, and this is a big one, that I have gained from sea swimming is that it has helped me gain confidence in my body, in terms of it’s capability and the image I have of it.  I’ve had a fairly negative relationship with my body most of my life, until a couple of years ago when my eyes were opened to the idea that I didn’t have to conform to society’s one dimensional idea of thin = beautiful, thin = healthy, and that I can be large and beautiful, and large and healthy.  I now appreciate my body for what it can do, including entering cold water, swimming (nearly) 2.5km in the sea, swimming out beyond the west pier, carrying me 3.8km down the river Arun.  I have stopped beating myself up because my body doesn’t fit certain norms and I now feel far more comfortable changing on the beach, and even, as mentioned above, having the odd naked swim without worrying what judgements people are making about how I look.  The only judgement that matters is my own and that is gradually getting more positive.

Finally, I am so pleased to have found the Seabirds, and for the Seabirds to have found me.  During this time of lockdown, I am speaking to friends and family more often than I would otherwise, as many of us have more time on our hands.  But the ones reaching out to me most with hands (not literally) of support are my birds, the Seabirds.

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.