Not the motion sea sick, but the not going through the motions sea sick. My normal daily going through the motions will inevitably involve the sea or beach. But at the moment it does not. So I am sea sick. Much like being home sick, I have preoccupying thoughts of the sights and sounds of the sea. I am finding it difficult to think about anything else and being away from he beach for such a long period of time is causing me distress.
It’s not just the swimming that I am longing for. It’s this time of year swims. Time of year swims only happen once a year. As a year round skin swimmer it is a time when the sea is pleasantly cold rather than uncomfortably so. Well, to the acclimatised winter swimmer it’s pleasant. The beaches are still quiet enough to be secluded and your kit bag is a lot lighter to carry. You can lie on the shingle and soak up the sun in just a jumper. You can actually swim head in without pain searing across your skull. The cold water kick and high is gone for another year but the cold contentment of a spring swim brings an altogether different joy.
It’s also the beach that I long for. There is something about clambering over the pebbles, catching your first sight of the shoreline and your shoulders just drop. Everything becomes muffled and muted. The harsh sounds of traffic, sirens and seabirds are all made to sing in more gentle tones accompanied by the sound of the shingle. Especially early in the mornings before the sea breeze has got up, there’s a stillness to the beach, any beach, like no other.
My longing isn’t just for my local beach. Visiting different beaches a couple of times a year, particularly in the South West and Wales has been a family tradition forever. Never in the height of summer, but normally in the spring we will rent a small cottage, pack up the car and head for a new horizon. It’s part of the winning formula for managing my mental health. I can only really rest away from home.
Our sea from sea holidays always follow the same pattern. I still get up early in the morning and walk the dog on the beach with a flask of tea. That stillness is ever present on every beach as the sun rises. Days are spent on long clifftop walks on the SW or Pembrokeshire coastal paths to find secret beaches. The harder to find and clamber down to, the better. The evenings are spent in or on the water. Depending on the nature of our holiday beach we head down when the madding crowds have disappeared. The kids will carry or drag surf boards, SUPs or kayaks. We will carry BBQ or a camping cooking stove, booze and lots of blankets. We will make pebble patterns, decorate rocks, look for sea glass, swim, play cricket….. until it’s dark. Rinse and repeat.
Today we are meant to be in Cornwall, for what was our last time with Libby, my eldest, before she heads to the USA for four years (or forever) and our family becomes the Fab Four instead of the Famous Five. That makes me sick to my stomach. The loss of this particular time by the sea, the last time with my daughter, is felt as pain. The type of physical pain caused by grief. Instead of listening to her laughing in the waves I am experiencing waves of gut wrenching pain. And there is no abating it. I am grieving.
As an antidote to my ever increasing anxiety that my daughter will soon be flying the nest, my husband and I planned a lot of trips to give me something to focus on and look forward to in 2020. C19 has had other ideas. So far the virus has robbed me of a trip to Ireland and planned swims at Greystones and the Forty Foot. And now, like so many others, a family Easter holiday. I am not hopeful that our annual extended family (cousins, aunts, grand parents and siblings) holiday will go ahead at the end of May. This year a house, called The Beach House, had been booked in Dorset for the duration. Daily sea swims on my doorstep and the prospect of encouraging family members to join me. They always do, as they know how much it means to me. They do it for me which makes me all kinds of happy.
I know I need to accept the things I cannot control. The wise ones on social media have all shared their Venn diagrams, 12 steps to recovery and ways to change your mindset. I’ve had enough Acceptance Commitment CBT to last a lifetime. Acceptance will most likely cure the sea sickness. But acceptance isn’t something that I find easy. It took me long enough to accept that my wiring is rigged differently causing a frazzled brain – but when my freedom is compromised – asking me to accept under the constraints of the current situation – it’s asking too much. So grieving continues, and I know it will subside with time, but I won’t be rushed into it by trying to accept, to me, the unacceptable. I accept no swimming in the sea. I accept no pints in the pub. I do not accept my stolen family time, away from home, by the sea.
Instead of acceptance, I go for swims in my mind. I really realise how that sounds. Like the wise words of someone on social media! But I’m going anyway and you are very welcome to come with me.
With April comes warmer seas and the end to winter storms. In theory. Things don’t always go according to plan as Mother Nature has firmly shown us over the last few weeks. But what is always true is that when April arrives, the sea temperature begins to rise quite rapidly. The prevailing wind swings back from NW to SW bringing warmer air over the Atlantic. After the prolonged sunshine of recent weeks I would estimate the sea temperature is now a comfortable 12 degrees – warm enough for head in swimming.
So my swim bag includes goggles again and footwear is flip flops. I cycle down to the seafront armed just with a towel , flask of tea, a book, hat, goggles and my cossie. I make my way across the shingle, towards the sea, winter apprehension replaced by a spring in my step. I am on the look out for a spot, flat, sheltered from the wind but in the sunshine, away from people. There’s space by the breakwater. One of the wooden ones, I prefer. I love the colour they bleach to over time and the how smooth the sea has made them. There are always posts and knots that can be used to hang towels and perch cups of tea. Sheltered from the wind.
It’s mid tide, so deep enough to swim but enough beach exposed to not be busy. Course sand and small shingle are at the shore line. I settle in front of a shingle bank, by the breakwater and begin to spread out my things, claiming my spot. As I begin to strip off I watch the sea. I should be watching to work out which way to swim and where to get in. But I’m not, I’m just quietly watching. The swim has started.
I have a unique way of entering the water. I just walk until I have to swim. No fuss, and at this time of the year no swearing. The winter frantic first strokes and floating on my back have been replaced with a gentle glide. The current is strong pulling me west so I swim east toward the West Pier. The sun is in my face making it hard to sea but there is a sunlit trail of sparkle to swim in. After a while I slip into an easy head in freestyle. My face, hands and feet are cold but I am able to find a rhythm. I haven’t seen the seabed for months but now I am able to follow the lines in the sand again.
I don’t want to stay in for too long. Not because I am afraid of the cold but because I want to stay on the beach for a while post swim. I turn and float with the current – occasional strokes but really letting the sea do all the work. I swim until my knees scrap the shingle and stand up. I stay near the shore for a while, diving under the water again and again. I don’t feel I’ve had a dip unless I have fully immersed myself and the pointy toe perfection of a handstand does not come without practice.
Back on the beach I throw on a towel and face the sun. The wind is warm and I close my eyes for a few moments. There’s no post swim high, fuelling a fierce need to get dry and dressed fast. There’s a slow sedate contentment that the sea was cold enough to still feel it on the shore and will remain for a while. I am not high, I am content. I stay until the comfortable chill tells me it’s time to go.
When home, I hang my things out to dry in the garden. Radiator drying is no longer required. My feet are still cold, slippers are donned and shingle is still caught between my toes. It makes me smile. Hours later I can still taste the salt on my face and the skin on my shins begins to crack. In the hot sun of the summer this can be unbearable, but in the spring it’s a welcome reminder of my swim. I stay salty all day.
So until the sea sickness subsides I will continue to head to the beach in my head. Next time I may step over that shingle to find a bunch of seabirds there. I imagine the new dawn when Seabirds reassemble will be something quite spectacular.
Author: Seabirds Kath