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.

Sink or Swim

What is achievement?

This blog had a very different working title when I started it and then I watched Channel 4’s Stand Up to Cancer series Sink or Swim. Keri-anne Payne and Ross Edgely have 12 weeks to get non-swimming celebrities ready to be in a relay team to cross the Channel. I was lucky enough to spend three days with Keri-anne, back in June, as she facilitated my Level 2 Open Water Coaching award course. Since then all of the participants and Keri-anne have stayed in touch providing each other with overwhelming levels of support. So when we knew the Keri-anne was involved in the SOS programme we naturally all tuned in.

 

I undertook the Open Water Coaching course so I would have the relevant skills, knowledge and qualifications to run courses to encourage other people to try wild swimming. I swim for my mental health and am an advocate of it’s wellbeing benefits. Doing something on my own, away from home, is something I am not always able to do. Sometimes my anxiety wins. Sometimes it is all I can do to leave the house to walk the dog. (This is the very reason I have a dog!) I am not even always able to to head down to the beach for a swim. Fortunately this is rare but it does happen. So turning up for the course was a massive achievement for me.

Initially I felt like a fish out of water amongst my fellow course mates. They were/are swimmers extraordinaire. But they soon had me at ease and we’ve all stayed in touch since the course providing each other with advice and support. Some of them have gone on to achieve incredible feats. One has relayed around the IOW, one has relayed across the channel and another has relayed there and back across the channel, to name but a few. Things I could never dream of achieving. But I have achieved, in my own way and their cheers were just as loud.

I’ve been thinking a lot about achievement lately. I am surrounded by people I admire who have achieved impressive feats of human endurance. But also other, smaller but just as significant achievements. Achievement is something very different for every individual. I can swim and I am relatively fit for my age yet I would never consider swimming the channel. Yet swimming without a wetsuit all year round in sea temperatures as low as 3 degrees with snow on the beach does not faze me. Entering a rough sea does not concern me (not life threateningly rough). Not knowing what lies beneath the surface and being touched by a creature of the sea does not bother me. My friends and family see this as an achievement and I brush it off. Not arrogantly, it’s just I know it’s within my limit and therefore I can achieve it.

I know that swimming the channel is not within my limits of attainment. I would not be able to swim in the dark, I would be distracted by jellyfish and try to catch them, and I would be risking my mental health by spending that much time alone in my head. So I stick to doing things that push my limits outside of my comfort zone but are achievable. And what that looks like for me is something very different to what it looks like for other people.

I watched Sink or Swim already in awe of the celebrities that had signed up to do it as I wouldn’t ever consider it. Some of them couldn’t swim, couldn’t float, had previous bad swimming experiences, had physical challenges and mental challenges. Yet they agreed to give it a go. What an achievement. They had just 3 months to learn to swim and train for it. Can you believe that? What an achievement. As I write this I have no idea if any or how many drop out, or if they make it, as the swim is scheduled for next month. But because even contemplating it is beyond my limit I already see them as achievers.

I have been able to achieve my year round skin swimmer status by getting to know my limits. This wasn’t initially a conscious decision, I just didn’t put my wetsuit on one year when the temperature began to drop. However, it did allow me to really reflect on what my body is capable of and get in tune with what it was telling me without words. In the sea you are able to really focus on yourself, your whole self,  and start to see what it can do. I soon knew I would be able to skin swim all year round –  my limit was how long I could last in the water. This I was able to push, within a limit of being safe, and soon my body just adapted to the cold.

It’s hard to see achievement when somethings are comfortably within your limits. I can run. I am one of those annoying people that can talk while they run and can run substantial distances with little training. I have done a couple of marathons and although one year I was plagued with IT band problems I didn’t find the training or event too arduous.  So I made the decision to never sponsor anyone, unless they were doing a marathon or more. If you wanted sponsoring for a 5km you could jog on. I completely failed to see that running a 5km could be a massive achievement for someone that had only started running 2 weeks ago, was recently bereaved, had no childcare, had agoraphobia, had heath issues, the list goes on. I wasn’t intentionally being unkind or  dismissive, but I was, because running is comfortably within my limit.

What was interesting on Sink or Swim were the number of athletes taking part. Linford Christie was was once, the fastest man in the planet, but he couldn’t swim for toffee (Sorry Linford). Then there is Greg Rutherford and Tessa Sanderson. All achieved huge accolades at the pinnacle of their careers but struggled to swim 500m in the open water. Yet they have signed up to swim the Channel. What an achievement. Georgia Kousoulou, is a reality TV star, who suffers from anxiety and panic attacks. She is on TV without make-up, in a swim hat and unflattering neoprene, which for me is no big deal, but for someone like her, who, by the nature of her fame needs to always be insta-ready this is an achievement. Her experience resonated with me in others ways though, as she struggled to regulate her breathing. Controlling your breathing is the best tool in your toolbox if you suffer with anxiety. It’s also the key to being able to swim front crawl. Having you face in the water means you cannot decide when you are going to breathe. Yet she still signed up to do it. What an achievement.

Since swimming in the sea with a huge variety of people, I no longer have a fixed idea of what an achievement is. We are all unique individuals so it makes sense that our achievements would also be unique. One individual’s 500m swim is another individual’s Channel swim.  According to the Oxford English Dictionary, achievement is; a thing done successfully with effort, skill, or courage. Using this definition,  many things individuals do in their day to day is an achievement. Some of the people I have coached with acute anxiety have turned up, that took effort and courage. Putting on a wetsuit for the first time, that took effort and skill. Swimming in the open water, that took effort, skill and courage. Therefore, by it’s very definition, it is an achievement.

The toughest battle most people face is with their own mind. We all have that voice that sometimes tells us we can’t do something. If the voice shouts loud enough, some people don’t even bother to try. I know there are a lot of things I do not do because my head tells me I can’t. But those that do, despite the internal dialogue, even if they ‘fail’, have achieved. They tried and sometimes this is the only way to push your limits to know if it something you can achieve. The difference between try and triumph is a little ‘umph’.

The all or nothing approach to achievement is something I always have to keep in check. I am, by nature a sink or swim person. I either swim 1km as planned or I have not achieved. This can be really detrimental to my wellbeing. So I have had to adjust the way I view and approach achievement. I now count every step forward towards my end goal as an achievement. I am still trying to achieve, but to remain positive and engaged in the process as I am able to celebrate each incremental step in the process. In this way I am able to maintain some semblance of resilience if things do not go according to plan as the smaller steps of goal setting allows more flexibility.

What I have learnt through my consideration of achievement is that I need to be kinder to myself and kinder to others and recognise achievement in all it’s forms.  I firmly believe that if at first you don’t achieve, try, try again. Being afraid is OK, but it shouldn’t stop you from striving to achieve. Just by trying, you have achieved.

Author: Seabird Kath

NB a significant achievement for me was being able to spell achievement by the time I had finished writing this blog! I before E.