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……..

Swimming after a Setback

I’ve accepted that my brain, can at times, be broken. But when my body lets me down, I’m not quite so accepting……

I write a lot about my mental health and how swimming in the sea with a supportive and kind community improves my wellbeing. What is less known about me, and until now not written about, is my physical health. I have gone back and forth about whether to put this into the public domain. Will I sound ‘poor me’? Do I want to reveal another layer of my vulnerability? At a time when happiness is hard to find is it the right time for me to share my frustration and anger? The decision was made for me when my physical health took a downward turn this week and I was unable to leave the house, let a lone swim. But the kindness of my swimming community kept me going. So here it is, my I can’t make do and I certainly won’t mend story.

15 years ago I slipped on some leaves and fractured my skull. I was unconscious for 2 days and in hospital for a week. As a result I am deaf in one ear and I have no sense of smell. Sounds manageable right? Just wear a hearing aid and really who needs smell? Well me. I do. We all do. Smell and more importantly scents are processed via the amygdala and hippocampus meaning scent can immediately trigger an intense emotion and/or memory.  Your amygdala enables you to feel, to process emotions and respond to situations but, in my case, part of its supply chain has been cut off. Which just leaves rage and anger.  And I can’t wear a bloody hearing aid in the sea, when I’m running, anywhere windy i.e. anywhere outdoors in the UK. But that’s ok I have another working ear. Well no actually it’s not. Due to the way sound waves travel, high-frequency sounds don’t make it round my head to my working ear, I am unable to judge distance by sound when crossing a road, and being in a busy pub, shop or room is totally unbearable at times.  And that’s not the worst of it……..

I have tinnitus – sometimes known as a ringing in the ears but actually it’s more like a whine, a constant never ending whine that fingers in the ears cannot block out. Imagine the sound of static searching for radio or TV station in the 1970s by turning a dial or the morning after a night stood by a speaker at a loud gig. It’s that, but it never goes away. And here’s the one head injury legacy that appears rarely but when it does it leaves me totally floored, Benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV). This wonderful condition is caused by the crystals that tell you which way is up in your semi-circular canals (inner ear) escape and go off on a little jolly. So they start sending your brain the wrong information about which way you’re facing or which way up your head is, which is complete contradiction to the messages your eyes are sending your brain. The symptoms are dizziness, headaches, nausea, vomiting and falling over. The only relief to be found is lying totally still with your eyes closed. In my case this can go on for days until those pesky crystals find their way home with the help of head manipulation.

If I sound angry, resentful and embittered it’s because I am. I have slowly, over time, come to accept my mental health and although there is no cure I can manage it via medication, rest and of course swimming in the sea. But for my physical health there is no cure, I will not hear or smell again, the tinnitus will never go away and every now and then, normally at the worst time possible, I am totally incapacitated by BPPV. And just to rub salt in the wound, being at logger heads with my physical health results in poor mental health.

I am often referred to (by my mum) as head strong. But I’m really not. My head is broken. I have shoulders of a Russian shot putter and legs that can run and walk for miles but my bloody head is bust. One of the things advocated for good mental health and wellbeing is self-care including time on the sofa, bed and bath. Read a book, watch a box set. But when that is your retreat when your mental health is bad, the irony is you feel worse. And when this is your only option because of BPPV, the accompanying low mood is inevitable. The way I deal with my physical disability is distraction. If I keep busy I can tune out from the tinnitus. If I swim in the sea everyone with me is hearing impaired due to the wind and the waves. If I play and perform the iconic Seabird handstand in the shallows my world is upside down, quite literally which then matches the messages in my brain. In the sea we are the same.

Upside down – an award winning headstand

The relationship you have with your body and it’s impact on your mental health is well researched  and written about. But it focuses more on the shape and size of our body. Body positivity and body confidence campaigns tend to concentrate on the appearance of the body rather than what the body is capable of. I don’t hate my body because of what it looks like. I hate the bit above the shoulders that is broken and stops me from doing the stuff I love and improves my mental health. Not being able to hear stops me from spending time in large groups and in noisy places like pubs and restaurants. I am constantly having to turn my head to be able to lip read which isn’t great for the dizziness and nausea symptoms associated with BPPV. It is also incredibly tiring lipreading and trying to process and filter out of the balance, hearing, sight activity going on in my brain that is in conflict with each other. When your ears say you are looking left but your eyes tell you you’re looking straight forward it’s exhausting.

The relationship between my physical health and my mental health is intrinsically linked. A symptom of my depression is tiredness and staying in bed and it is also a symptom of my BPPV, and impaired processing abilities. A symptom of my anxiety is not being able to face large groups of people and it is also a symptom of not being able to hear what people are saying. So the stuff my mental health stops me from doing is also the stuff my physical health stops me from doing. It’s hard to swim when you can’t turn your head to breathe without wanting to throw up or walk across the shingles without falling over.

But, my love for sea swimming  has been a life saver. Yes I need to use my head to make decisions and assess risks etc but I’m predominantly reliant on my arms and legs – my strength. I don’t need to do front crawl to swim, I can breast stroke, back stroke, float or sit in the shallows. It makes me feel good about myself. I can mask my disabilities in my swimming community. The details of my disability were, until this week, unknown to even my closest swimming friends. The Kath the see in the sea is not the person I have described in this blog. I’m not broken in the water and this is the Kath they know.  It was only because I could not get out of bed, let alone make it to the beach this week that the salty community became aware of my head injury legacy.

Once aware the kindness of community was incredible. I was inundated with offers to drive me places, help me onto the beach and supportive messages of love. The sea was stormy this week, big waves and wind. My BPPV began to improve throughout the week and by Thursday I was ready to give swimming a go. And on Friday I went again. Both swims were wonderfully warm and full of smiling seabirds. I’m always the first into the sea and this was no different.  I love to stride with purpose when I get in. After being knocked over by waves so many times I kinda don’t care if it happens. In fact it is part of the joy, the thrill the exhilaration. And I like this version of me. The capable me.  They say the view you get from the sea is like no other. For me the view I have of myself in the sea is like no other.

Water is a real leveller. Long term the physical damage to by brain is permanent. And there will be times when I cannot swim. But, the sea will always be there, ready, for when I can. And so will the collective consciousness of kindness that is the salty seabirds. And swimming after a setback is oh so so sweet!

Stormy Waters

It’s World Mental Health Day. This year’s theme is ‘mental health for all’ because we’ve all taken a battering lately. I’m fortunate to have a supportive partner and swimming in the sea, and more recently the lochs and rivers of Scotland to keep me on an even keel. But it’s not been easy. Our mostly water tight marriage has been weathering some significant storms…….

There are lots of things I do to manage my mental heath. Medication. Rest. Swimming in the sea. I also never give up on searching for the feeling of happiness. But I can’t do this on my own. Whilst depression steals my happiness anxiety robs me of the ability to do new things, meet new people and visit new places. Despite my anxiety, I love finding new swim spots and experiencing new adventures. They bring me so much joy. Fortunately, for the last 33 years I’ve had Ferg, my husband, who makes all of this possible.

When lockdown happened everybody was affected. Not being able to move freely, explore and travel impacted the whole world. My husband, who normally travels for work, was now in the house 24/7. Initially this was a blessing. Unable to leave the house due to the sheer number of people walking in my once out-of-the-way footpaths and swimming on my once quiet secluded beaches, he walked the dog, went to the supermarket and ran the errands. Sounds great right? And it was initially. But here’s the thing about anxiety and depression, to function you have to face them. Not without help and never alone but you have to push through the anxiety and go outside to remind your battered brain that you will come to no harm. Once outside, you will experience the happiness and joy that only the natural world can bring. The problem was, we were now in a pattern. And not a healthy one. One that caused resentment, frustration and a lot of anger. We were navigating stormy waters.

Like any couple, we’ve weathered a lot of storms over the past 3 decades. Life’s monumental moments, marriage, having kids and buying a home, bring a lot of joy, but also a lot of stress. I don’t deal with stress very well and Ferg takes the brunt of my mental health moods. We’ve had times in the past when we have co-existed and tolerated each other rather than supported one another and said sorry. But in more recent years he has tried to understand my mind more, created a safe space for me to just be and been the entire support crew for every decision, idea, and plan I come up with. He is unable to sit and be still, he needs to be doing and so is happy to go where my plans take him. He enables me to find happiness and that makes him happy. That was until my decisions, ideas and plans were all put in jeopardy by a bloody pandemic. Lock down was challenging my marriage.

During the last 6 months the even keel that he and I have worked so hard to achieve was listing. There are too many to mention reasons for this, some are circumstantial, some are my fault, some are his. But suffice to say my mental health was taking a battering and therefore so was he. Our usual time away trips provide an opportunity for us to really check in with each other but these were cancelled. The only trip on the horizon was the Swim Wild UK Highland Gathering weekend in Scotland. He was only coming to keep me company and provide me with the confidence to join in with a swimming weekend. At home he doesn’t swim with me, but when we are away he indulges me. But this was altogether the next level. A whole weekend with cold water swimmers. He was coming to make me happy. And then, that too, was cancelled.

As my mental health deteriorated and my mood continued to spiral downward I didn’t go to the Doctors. Far be it for a trained professional to tell me that I probably needed to up my medication. I was self-medicating with wine instead because of course that’s a real mood lifter! My marriage and me were in the doldrums.

It’s hard to pinpoint when the tide turned. A sequence of events, a conscious effort, small adaptations. I think it was all of these. We stopped drinking and began to go outside again together. To the beach and the sea. On Saturdays we’d go for long walks with picnic lunches. As lock down lessened we moved further afield. There isn’t a beach in Sussex we haven’t visited over the summer months. We, like most couples, are at our best when we leave our responsibilities behind and really spend time together. So, we still went to Scotland. The event was cancelled but we still had our accommodation booked.

We spent three blissful days out of range and undisturbed in a Shepherd’s Hut in the Cairngorms. The River Spey’s fast flow could be heard from our cosy raised bed and we spent time easily together in a breathtaking part of the world. We have been north of the border many times but this trip was more than much needed. It was the piece of the puzzle we didn’t know was missing.

It’s an easier task for him to find my happy when we are away from the world and I am near water. He spends a lot of time watching me in the sea or searching beaches for treasure. In Scotland, we walked around deep dark lochs, found lochans of lily pads and clambered over rocks on the edge of fast flowing gorges and waterfalls. We spent our evenings in the river. I’ve never known cold like it and this was summer! Although this is my natural habitat, being submerged in cold water, it is not his. But he does it to find my happy. (We found his happy on a big beach break in the North Sea. As long as there is a warm wave, there is a smile on his face.)

We left Scotland with heavy hearts but a lightened load. Spending time together is something we’d stopped doing whilst we were forced under one roof. Unable to escape each others sighs. Unable to hear what the other was saying. Unable to see past our our situations. But being at our worst as a couple makes you appreciate each other when you are at your best. We are at our best when it’s just the two of us, wide open space and of course water. And Ferg makes this possible.

A Permission of Seabirds

Finding a flock where you belong, where you are accepted, where you are at ease is a thing to be treasured. It gives you permission to be you. And that was evident in abundance during a weekend away with the Seabirds in Suffolk.

Last weekend, a flock of Seabirds and I headed to Suffolk for a weekend of swimming. It is a beautiful part of the country and we became enamoured by her quiet beaches, meandering rivers and tidal creeks. We’d done something similar the year before when we spent a few days in a bunkhouse in Pembrokeshire. As soon as we had unpacked from that weekend in Wales we had booked this years Seabird tour to Suffolk. It’s hard to imagine that a group, like ours, where many of us suffer with mental illnesses, wellbeing issues and physical difficulties would want to spend a weekend away with a big noisy group doing physical activities. But it is what bought us together, these flaws of ours. We accept that everyone in this group has a back story. More importantly we accept ourselves. So whilst the scenic swims and adventures in new places is a big draw, giving ourselves permission and being granted permission, to just be, was an even bigger draw.

Right up until the day of departure our flock was dwindling. Covid has not been kind to anyone and many circumstances have changed that meant a few of the flock had to stay at home. But with an itinerary of swims, a YHA Hostel booked, a silent disco at the ready and enough food to feed an army we were Suffolk bound. Cath and I left early to spend the day ‘working’ offsite which included a visit to Dunwich beach. The rest of the flock were travelling after work so we were the first to arrive at the hostel. Gradually the birds began to arrive in dribs and drabs. Every car load a wondrous surprise of which birds had travelled with which. The success of this community evident in friendships that had formed in the sea, only a few months ago, but now away from the beach, arriving together.

Once we’d all arrived, dumped our belongings, had nana naps, been to the loo, we headed out to find a tidal creek to swim in. 18 women walking along a narrow footpath with tow floats and swim robes trying to find a suitable spot to get in was more than a local bird watcher could believe. With eyes like saucers she asked if she could stay and watch. After investigating a jetty and a floating pontoon it was deemed too muddy to get in and out without getting stuck. So we headed to the sea and the familiar feel of shingle under foot in Aldeburgh. A convoy of cars in the dark soon lost each other but we all made it to the beach and were content to swim in car loads scattered along the shore. Tow floats illuminated with bike lights or being buff on the beach. Swims in different stretches but all experiencing the magic of being in the sea after the sun had set and the light had left for the day. Almost brackish to the taste, silky to the touch and quiet apart from our cackling. It was a wonderful way to start the weekend

Saturday, and the plan was to swim 1.5 miles along the River Stour from Dedham Mill to Flatford Mill. This wonderful part of the world was captured in Constable’s The Hay Wain and it did not disappoint. Two of the flock needed rest rather than a swim and set off for a beach stroll and lunch instead so down to 16 we set off to walk between the two mills before swimming back. It was an incredible swim through chocolate box countryside. The water was clear and void of litter, wonderful underwater woodlands of aquatic plants grew in abundance, shallow gravel bends meant sighting fish was easy and there were Constable painting worthy lily pads in the shade. A few walked the first section and got in later. A few got out early. Some hopped in and out as the mood took them. We ended up back at the starting meadow in different groups to the ones we had set off in, at various different times. Once the swan and her cygnets at the exit bridge were negotiated, we picnicked on the grass by the river. Cake is the most suitable way to celebrate a swim safari. Then it was back to the hostel to dry our kit while we read books, snoozed or sunbathed on the beach.

The next swim was an early evening dip at Thorpeness. Again the birds opted in or out depending on their mood. Some stayed behind to cook. Others were already on the beach. I opted for the beach but went for a wander along the shoreline to look for treasure before jumping in the big blue. There is a lot of tidal erosion in this part of the world but also a wealth of wildlife and nature reserves. It is a beach combers paradise. As I returned to the fold some were getting out of the sea, some were getting dressed, some where still in the water. As I slipped into the cooling waters, doing my own thing, I realised so was everyone else.

That evening we were treated by the culinary skills of the group and had a feast of curries, followed by meringues and lemon curd. A firepit was built in the back garden and we danced to a Silent Disco. (Silent it wasn’t with lots of singing). Again the group came and went – some danced all night (well til 11pm), some opted for an early turn in, others went straight to bed after dinner. We didn’t care, we didn’t mind. If they were happy, we were happy.

The next morning and more food. Also, aching bodies and ailments taking their toll. So instead of the planned long river swim in Cambridge we opted for salt and the sea once more. Over breakfast some of the group made an early start home with work and family commitments to attend to. Simple shouts of goodbye and waves whilst the rest of us remained at the breakfast table were enough. With beds stripped and the kitchen empty the remainder birds headed for Covehithe beach with the contents of the fridge in a cool box. Covehithe is a beach at the end of a lane and was a stunning place to spend a sunny morning. Sat Navs took us various ways and when we arrived there were birds already bobbing and bathing. Clear blue skies and warm winds meant a morning of sunbathing, swimming and strolling. More left after a quick dip as they needed the rest and respite of home and again farewell shouts from the shore to the sea were sufficient. Lunch was eaten, sea glass was searched for and final wees were had in the sea before it was time to go home.

So the weekend was a success. Not because we managed to squeeze it in before ever changing Covid regulations. Not because the beaches and rivers were idyllic and far from the madding crowd, unlike our home town. Not because the food was lush and the company was salty. But because we are a group that accept each other. A group that doesn’t judge how many eggs you’ve laid or even if you’ve ever laid any. It is a group that enables you to give yourself permission to be imperfect, permission to chose, permission to try new things, permission to take chances. Permission to come and go as you chose. Words cannot express how freeing that is.

We speak the common language of permission to be happy. That is to say, we’ve all (to varying degrees) stopped looking for approval or seeking consent. We’ve realised it is pointless and we don’t need permission from others, we give ourselves permission, we chose to do things that make us happy. We’ve accepted our flaws and given ourselves permission to be imperfect. Perfection isn’t real and only serves to steal happiness. We permit ourselves time to step out of the day to day and try new things, visit new places, find new adventures. If we fail, we fail together but you’ll have a bunch of Seabirds cheering you on from the sidelines regardless. And in this safe environment we have permission to take a chance, take a risk, a leap of faith where the rewards make us happy. This is why the weekend was a success. We accept and are accepted.

When home at last, I was soaking in the bath reflecting on my gratitude for the flocks’ time, cooking,  enthusiasm, sense of adventure, sense of humour, quiet conversations, sea glass hunting and not forgetting swimming. My greatest love is seeking out new places by the sea,  but my biggest fear is the  loud and busy bustle of being around groups for extended periods of time. That weekend I was able to walk alone on the shoreline yet dance with friends. I was able to read on my own, yet join in the chatter in the kitchen. I was able to float in solitude yet be part of the flock as we headed downstream in idyllic settings. I was able to say loud rude sweary words where I wanted and whenever I needed. A place of permission and acceptance is a thing to be treasured.

Beachcombing

Searching in the strandline for heart shaped pebbles, pretty shells and sea glass is more than just a pastime. Finds symbolise happy times spent by the sea

Most people assume that when I see the sea, I get in it. But actually that is not always the case. Sometimes I stay dry and can be found just as happy scouring the strandline for pretty pebbles, shells and sea glass.

Every pot and shelf in my home is full of my finds. Moulted crab shells, wishing stones, hag stones, shells, drift wood, coral and my most prized possessions, sea glass. Each one reminds me of a beach I visited and happy times. Some people display photographs, I display my beach bounty.

Beachcombing is similar to sea swimming in lots of ways. It is another way I can relax, unwind and rest. I struggle to switch off and have had very little success at relaxation exercises and meditation. But by the sea, I am instantly soothed into a calm state and if you throw in a repetitive process that holds my attention without mental effort and there you have it. Mindfulness.

I started searching the shoreline when I was very young. I often collected huge quantities of shells from Selsey’s East Beach. Large scallop and oyster shells discarded by the large fishing fleet that was once there. And smaller spiral shells in the patches where the sand meets the shingle. The dull dark periwinkles thrown back into the sea but the pretty pink top shells hoarded.  I would then create pictures and patterns on large pebbles using clear nail varnish to attach the shells and show off their shine.  When my daughter was young, I bought her a shell collecting net bag and books to help her identify them all, only for her to show little interest and hurl herself into the water. They didn’t go unused as I assumed my shoreline position to keep a watchful eye on her and have snatched searches. She has now become the world’s best sea glass spotter so something must have rubbed off. My son has always been my magpie. Always finding shiny treasure, lost earrings and feathers, proudly bestowing them to me as boons.

As I’ve aged, my love for looking for beach booty hasn’t abated. Shingle beaches are often ignored in favour of sandy beach breaks or dramatic cliffs by the many. But I love a pebble. I look for unusual shapes and colours. My husband used to search for black round pebbles that would fit perfectly into my belly button. If he finds one now he still calls them belly button stones.  I am yet to find a piddock in a piddock hole but I certainly have enough large soft pebbles with evidence that they have been there. They are bi-valve shellfish that  seem to particularly like the local soft chalk to burrow into and there they stay, hiding away their bioluminescence. Once they are gone, they leave smooth large holes in their wake making the most attractive hag stones. They are abundant in clay and sandstone too. I also search for wishing stones. These are pebbles that have stripes of quartz through them or round them. The idea is for you to make a wish and throw or skim them back into the sea. The reason none of my wishes have come true is because they end up on a shelf, a surface or in a jar! I also love a grey basalt pebbles, flat round pieces of slate and banded metamorphic stones all made by hot lava.

You can also find sea gems, some of which are semi-precious stones like amethyst. Milky quartz is another preferred pebble. There is the famous Whitby Jet, Amber to be found in Suffolk and Red Garnets on the aptly names Ruby Bay in Scotland. Regardless of its status I treasure the pieces of shingle that evoke a reaction in me, that fascinate me and provide a lasting memory of happy times spent on a beach.

The best time to go beachcombing is after storms when the sea has spat out more of her contents. My preference is for shingle beaches, as like finds like and smooth pebble shaped and sized sea glass can be found by the most observant. I follow the spring tide strandline on a receding tide walking from west to east on the south coast. This is the direction of the prevailing wind and the tidal flow at home, so I feel as  if I am following in the footsteps of the treasures I find.

Different beaches provide different finds depending on the direction they face, their geography, sea currents, the local sea bed and also the local industries. When I am away I always search and love that I find things in other places that I wouldn’t come across at home. The North Cornish coast is home to many a ship wreck due to its rugged coast line. Wrecking, an opportunist activity of coastal communities, regularly takes place there when a ship has the misfortune of failing to avoid the granite outcrops. The cargo becomes fair game. This part of the country also has visitors from afar washing up on the shore. The gulf stream regularly provides beach treasures, from cowrie shells to coconuts,  all up and down the west of the UK that have travelled all the way from the Caribbean.

Local industry, either past or current, can also play a big part in what you find on the beach. Mudlarking on Tower Beach on the River Thames is now illegal but the river has been used as a dumping ground from Neolithic times to the modern day. The finds there range from Roman coins to children’s toys. Sea pottery, also known as beach pottery, sea porcelain or sea china, sources are usually local to where they are found. And likely to have been thrown into the sea as waste. Much of the sea pottery found in Ireland and the UK dates back to the 19th and even 18th centuries. Seaham beach, in the North East,  is famous for sea glass. Londonderry Bottleworks was based there, which operated from the 1850s to 1921. Waste from the glass making process was regularly dumped into the water and has spent over 100 years be worn smooth by the North Sea.

My best ever sea glass haul was along the shores of the river Fal. I like to think of the merchant navy  and pirates in tall ships flinging bottles of rum into the sea or shanty singing fishermen swigging beer and discarding their empties over the side. I found a undamaged black glass bottle stopper there. The best spot to find it in Brighton is along the stretch from Shoreham Port to Hove. Again in close proximity to a harbour. Much of our local Sea glass is not as smooth as that of Seaham. It takes at least 40 years to create the milky smooth surface and sadly much of our glass comes from recent litter louts.

Wombling the West Pier has been a popular pastime for locals. Particularly after big storms. The shelf in my bathroom is a pier floorboard and I have other remnants of drift wood dotted around the house. We also get a considerable amount of fishing waste washing up on our shores.  Both from commercial fishermen and anglers. Lots of thin fishing line tangled in the strandline seaweed is all too common along with cast off and cut off pieces of plastic coated rope and net. Finds like this can be repurposed. A fishing tray I rescued from Shoreham is now home to beetroot, lettuce and tomatoes in my back garden. I love the colours of the fishing rope and hang it like bunting. Local artist and ocean activist, Kitty Kipper weaves and sculpts using ghost nets and marine plastic. Establishing an emotional connection with a place, like the beach, makes you passionate about its protection. Beachcombers inevitably become beach guardians.

Whatever the type of beach you find yourself on to forage through the flotsam, you will find joy. Walking slowly, taking in the sea air, being curious is a respite from the real world for a few minutes. Or in my case hours. When I recently threatened to take my sons Xbox away from him, he retaliated by threatening to take the beach away from me. Even he appreciates  the emotional connection I have to the shore. Spending time beachcombing in a salty outdoor setting is a wonderful way to reduce stress.It doesn’t matter if you don’t find what you have come to the beach to search for, the actual practice of beachcombing is restorative and relaxing enough to be its own reward.

 

Beachcombing DOs and DON’Ts

The strandline is in fact a place of food and shelter for small creatures. Collect things sparingly and try not to disturb the lines of seaweed too much.

Make sure you know what the tide is doing. While your eyes are looking down you may not notice how much the tide is racing in. You can’t take your treasures home if you are stuck at the bottom of a cliff.

Likewise the sky- incoming weather fronts likes squalls and fog can appear suddenly.

Go in the winter, early in the morning, when the beaches are empty.

Always take an extra bag or two to pick up the litter you will inevitably find.

Many of our shingle beaches are man-made and are actually there as part of our coastal defence. If you are going to take, doing it sparingly and pay the price by collecting some litter.

Make sure you stretch afterwards, walking with your eyes down, neck bent an back stooped can result in aches and pains.

Make something with your finds or at least display them. But don’t try and drill through sea glass unless you have specialist tools. This was an experiment that went badly wrong in my house and I now have a hag stone hole in my desk!

Best find – gold shell bracelet. Worst find – false teeth

Anxiety, the Sea and Me

How an ever worrying, anxious, brain can be soothed by the sea.

Anxiety and the sea have been two constants in my life. Always there. Not always at the forefront consuming me and dictating my daily activities. Sometimes simmering in the background. But ever present. They are intertwined as one balances out the other. The pull of anxiety is heavy but fortunately the pull of the sea is stronger.

Lots of people are aware of depression but it’s close ally anxiety, is lesser known. Much like depression, anxiety can occur during certain phases of life or as a response to a situation/experience. It can also be a life long companion. It can be a very valid response to a given situation. Everyone, at times will feel anxious, uneasy, worry or nervous, as a response to the new or uncertain. But, when these feelings are disproportionate to the situation and/or dictate your everyday life you are suffering with anxiety rather than feeling anxious.

Like many, my first experience of anxiety was as a teenager. The teenage brain is particularly vulnerable to anxiety. During puberty and adolescence, it isn’t just the body that grows rapidly. The brain does too. As the brain function moves from one structure to another, as it transitions from childhood to adulthood, it has to recreate all the connections it had made previously and relearn responses to the external environment. This makes teens especially vulnerable to stress and anxiety. Being female you get to experience times in your life when anxiety can come to visit. Perinatal anxiety is anxiety experienced any time from becoming pregnant to around a year after giving birth. And my current state due jour, the peri-Menopause. When you are totally unable to string a sentence together, remember what you were going to say and not be able to concentrate on the flow of a conversation you are naturally going to be anxious about going out and seeing people.

Then there is the global pandemic. If you have managed to navigate your way through life without experiencing anxiety, a worldwide virus has decided it’s time you had a taster. Lock down anxiety is a proportionate and very real response to having your choices taken away.  Rational worries about family and friends, jobs, food, home life are at the forefront of your mind. Usual coping mechanisms of physical activity, coffees with friends, for me, swimming in the sea became inaccessible overnight. Losing sleep, stewing over the future, chipping away at your resilience. The ever changing guidelines, public shaming and blaming, choice comparisons took no prisoners over the last 13 weeks. And now, anxiety about the loosening of lock-down just as we’ve got used to isolating. We don’t know what the new normal is going to be and anxiety comes with that.

As a life long anxiety sufferer I felt better equipped than most to deal with the last few months. I have a number of go to coping strategies and in all honesty, not having to come up with excuses from bailing on social arrangements at the last minute or spending the day before meeting friends in the pub with my stomach in knots was welcome respite. I’ve also had a pretty easy ride of it, no shielding, no ill family or friend, no jobs losses and kids that can home school themselves. As soon as you were allowed to the beach and to swim in the sea I was back on my even keel. My boats still heels from time to time but it is most definitely sea worthy and buoyant.

I first discovered the sea soothed my anxious brain when I walked out of my corporate job after 15 years of service. I’d worked full-time, part-time, condensed weeks, home flexi-working. I even took a sabbatical. I finally realised that no matter what adaptations I made to my working arrangements, my poor mental health followed me. Once I realised it wasn’t the hours of work, but rather it was that I was unable to balance the content and pressure of my work, I made the decision to leave that very day. I remember it so vividly. It was day one of a two day workshop and I was sat in a conference room in the Hotel Seattle looking out onto the pontoons of Brighton Marina. I was being told how some new reporting software would allow me to manage customer satisfaction levels even though it was not compatible with the product platform and we had no way of actually implementing it. I voiced my concerns.  It wouldn’t work. I was not heard. I was not in control. I was staring out to sea wishing I was anywhere else instead.

That evening I called my boss, a super bloke, and told him I wouldn’t be in the next day. He asked when I would be back and I said never. I then, through tears, explained to him about my mental health and that any resilience I’d had in this role had been worn away. He was surprised, I have a very confident outward persona, but he was incredibly supportive and orchestrated my exit.

The first thing I did was to scoop up my young family, load up the car and headed for the South West. For a week I slept a lot. Every time a picnic blanket was placed on the sand, I’d be curled up asleep on it within minutes. My husband would care for and play with the kids in the day and work in the evenings so I could begin my recovery. I’d been so busy running from the internal conversations, too afraid to let them in but actually that is exactly what I needed to do. So I let the loop of anxious narrative and internal chatter have a voice. In the sea swimming and on the beaches in the still of morning I took the time to listen, challenging the thoughts when I needed to and accepting them at other times. A week by the sea allowed me to be honest with myself for the first time probably in forever. I was tuning into my gut feelings, not always liking what they told me but facing them none the less.

I often wonder, if I had listened earlier would I have made this life changing decision to leave work and take steps to manage my mental health sooner. But I think it wasn’t just the right time, I was in the right place. I was with the people that I loved in a place that I loved, by the sea. I would while away the hours walking on clifftops, snoozing on the shore and swimming in the sea. This allowed my broken brain the subconscious space to figure stuff out and fit stuff together. I realised I was working hard for all the wrong reasons. By keeping busy I was trying to keep the mental monkeys at bay. I was also afraid of failing in the workplace and I wanted to equally contribute to the household income, but this was all at the expense of my happiness and wellbeing. My ‘aha’ moment happened where all my ‘aha’ moments have happened since, within he sight, sound and smell of the sea. I need to take some time away from the workplace to rest.

Since then my choice of work has been mainly voluntary and pretty much all third sector. I do appreciate how fortunate I am that my family circumstances allow me this choice (read exceptionally kind and compassionate husband and self-sufficient kids). I have never returned to full-time work and most of what I do is local, focuses on improving community wellbeing and takes place on the beach or in the sea. I resemble a leather handbag have briny bleached hair and have the most amazing network of supportive and encouraging beach bums you are every likely to meet.

It’s not all been plain sailing. There have been significant challenges and set backs along the way. But the introduction of regular me time, in other words sea time has allowed me to make quick and significant decisions to maintain my mental health equilibrium rather than wait until it’s sometimes too late.

How does it work, this relationship between anxiety, the sea and me? Well I’m no neuroscientist and I’m certainly not an academic but I have spent a lot of time, swimming and floating in the sea and snoozing and starring by the sea thinking about how it helps me. So if you want a salty charlatan’s take on it all, here goes;

Anxiety is a human response to potential threat and uncertain outcomes. So in the context of swimming in the sea, which at times can be risky to be in or on, it’s actually a reasonable reaction. Cold winter seas can quite literally take you breath away and your brain becomes occupied with pacifying the flight impulse and staying aware of your environment. This leaves little room for overthinking your day-to-day worries. The more you expose yourself to the freezing sea and a huge deep expanse of water and not only survive but come to enjoy the experience you are encouraging your brain to re-wire the anxiety hard wire. Sort of like CBT in the sea.

You are strengthening and maintaining your resilience by swimming in the sea. The sea is uncertain and it cannot be controlled and is constantly changing. Experiencing the changing seascape, which you are unable to influence encourages the brain to stop worrying about things it cannot sway.

Many treatments for anxiety are easy to practice in the sea. Meditation; part of the cold water acclimatisation process is to float on your back until you have regulated your breathing. Swimming regular strokes and slowing your breathing to match your stroke is necessary as humans have yet to earn how to breath underwater. Mindfulness; repetitive strokes and a focus on the hear and now encourages you to remain in the present. Physical activity; regardless of ability anyone can splash about in the sea and moving your body helps you keep warm. Self-Care; you cannot take your phone into the sea and no one can contact you. Away from screen scrolling total rest and relaxation is possible.

Connection; This for me over the last couple of years has had a profoundly positive impact on my wellbeing. The human experience of belonging increases confidence and self-esteem and can eradicate anxiety. And most certainly feel I belong with the group I swim with. Within this group being vulnerable is your strength. Talking; A nurturing open environment has formed on Brighton and Hove’s beaches where you are able to talk about your worries and concerns. And eat cake.

I will always have anxiety, but I will also always have the sea. And while the two remain as constants in my life, I’ll be OK.

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

A Salty Reflection

Seabirds Community Interest Company celebrated it’s 2nd birthday this week. A time to reflect on how far we have come and how we have shared salted wellbeing.

It’s been two years since Seabirds Community Interest Company started trading. And it has been far from plain swimming. But we wouldn’t change it for the world.

The story so far……….

Our aim was to operate a small social enterprise that made a difference. Made a difference to us, working for ourselves, choosing our hours, and providing autonomy of role. Made a difference to our customers, giving them the option to give back whilst buying their wild swim kit. Made a difference to our partners, other small start up business and ethical family firms. Made a difference to the environment by offering alternative products and donating to Surfers Against Sewage. Made a difference to our local community by providing people with a means to manage their wellbeing and a safe and inclusive swimming group.

The Story of the Shop

It was all done on a budget and without a bank loan. Instead we launched a Crowd Funder in April 2018 to raise enough funds to start the business, buy inventory and donate to Surf Solace. We did no market research other than we knew what worked for us when we swam in the sea.  There have been sleepless nights and differing directions but two years on we are finally where we want to be. A Wild Swim Shop. We still have much to learn and a long list of things we want to do. But we balance that with our time, making sure we still have time to swim in the sea, Social Media marketing can wait! We still suffer from Impostor Syndrome yet are fiercely protective of our company.

The story of the Social Enterprise

In our first year of trading we donated unrestricted funds to Surf Solace and Hove Surf Life Saving Club – both charities that focus on using the sea safely and health and wellbeing. In our second year of trading we received National Lottery and Paddle Round the Pier funding to run Women Wellbeing and Water (WWW) free community courses. WWW’s aim is to provide a way for local people to manage their wellbeing by using sea swimming and friendship. Our aim is to give participants the skills, confidence and self-belief they need to enjoy sea swimming, no matter what additional challenges they face.

The story of the Salty Seabirds

This is our ever growing kind and inclusive swimming community. This wasn’t in the plan but it has become a massive part of who we are and what we do. We needed somewhere to signpost local swimmers who wanted to join us, swimmers who participated in WWW or our Sea Swimming Taster sessions and Confidence Swimming Lessons. So we set up a closed community group, fed and watered it, and it flourished. We have regular weekly swim meets and ad-hoc smaller ones. We have organised events like Moon Swims, Starling Swims and International Women’s Day celebrations. Firm friendships have been formed with members spending Christmas together, trips away together and working together. It is an incredible community and something we are very proud of.

The story of our highlights

We launched our Women, Water and Wellbeing free community course. This has been a real highlight for us. We know how much being part of a nurturing group and swimming in the sea has helped us through some challenging times and has such a positive impact on our wellbeing. We have been fortunate enough to be able to share that with others.

❤️
We have raised nearly £2000 for Thousand 4 £1000 Covid Emergency Fund Thank you to everyone that bought a donation gift or bought a raffle ticket to the weekly art auction. Both are still running until the end of June so still plenty of time to make a difference.

❤️

We ran film nights, safe swim talks and wellbeing talks all to raise funds for causes close to our hearts. Beneficiaries included Cal Major’s Vitamin Sea project and hosted an evening with her. Hove Life Saving Club’s Training Officer gave a series of safe swim talks at Sea Lanes as a fundraiser. We created the extinction rebellion symbol in the sea. Spelled out words with our bodies on the beach. We also joined the Surfers Against Sewage 250 Club as our birthday present to ourselves!

❤️
We have featured on the radio, TV (This Morning) , podcasts (Mother of all Movement and Growing Wild FM) and in magazines (Coast, Health and Fitness and Outdoor Swimmer). We write our only weekly blogs to share stories of the sea and our experiences of mental health. (This is this weeks :-)) We have been guinea pigs for a lot of research into cold water swimming and subjects for university students.

❤️
We have completed a year of moon swims and collaborated with Salt Images on a photographic exhibition that was due to be revealed on the Onca Barge. We were devastated when Covid 19 meant its postponement as part of the Brighton Fringe Festival. As well as the exhibition we had planned beach cleans with The Deans Beach and Environmental Volunteers, guided swims, yoga sessions and short films and talks to share over the course of the festival. For now we have memories of monumental monthly swims under the full moon, watching her rise as we floated in the sea, howling as a group. Starlings at sunset and 4am winter blood moons to name but a few.

❤️

We joined the Blue-tits in Wales for the Great Tit Weekend. We shared an unforgettable few days in Pembrokeshire, constantly wet and smiling. We swam, we sang, we danced. We jumped off cliffs naked into crystal clear waters. We made friends and memories galore.

❤️


We have run Sea Swimming Tasters and pool based swimming lessons all with the emphasis on confidence building and swimming for wellbeing. We are lucky to be supported by local coaches, trainer and teachers that meet the needs of our nervous swimmers.

❤️
We currently have 1719 members of our supportive Salty Seabirds Community Swim Group! We’ve swum in rivers and lakes and of course the sea, across Sussex together but we’ve also shared lots of love, support and kindness. We draw on each other’s bottoms with lipstick, whilst others swim wearing lipstick. We make up songs and sing them with real gusto. We don a fancy dress costume at the drop of a hat. Some of us, take all our clothes off at the drop of a hat. We have handstand competitions regularly. Fire-pits and food on the beach in the evenings. We regularly rally together for good causes close to our hearts. Our flock have run taster sessions for mental health awareness week providing a range of free activities including body positive workshops, yoga, meditation and beach school. We lend and borrow and gift each other with books, plants, recipes, sourdough starters and secret swim spots. We share lifts, laughter, love and lots of cake! And sometimes we even swim!

❤️

We’ve had a lot of headaches but a lot of fun. We are super grateful for all of the support we have received from the Salty community. None of this would have been possible if it were not for our incredible flock! Here’s to more exciting adventure in the future and an abundance of salted wellbeing.

Lots of salty love

Cath & Kath

birthday6

Kindness; The Salty Kind

The kindness of a south coast sea swimming community knows no bounds. It’s an incredible privilege to be part of it. Kindness really does taste sweeter when it’s salty.

All humans are worthy of love, belonging and joy. When we set up the Salty Seabirds sea swimming group, our aim was to create an inclusive community. A group that provided the isolated, the new, the anxious, the self-conscious, would be sea swimmers with love, belonging and joy. And this has been achieved through kindness.

Seabirds asking others to dog sit and babysit while they swim. Seabirds asking for lifts to swim spots they cannot reach otherwise. Seabirds asking for help getting in and out of the sea when they are afraid. These Seabird’s are able to receive kindness. It is that vulnerability that makes being kind such an intrinsic part of being a seabird. The kindness is visible to all in the community, as our dialogue is purposefully kept in a closed social media group. The daily discussions and conversations demonstrate that anyone can participate and ask for assistance and advice. And will be met with kindness.

In the ‘real’ world, self-worth is sought and found in ‘never asking for help.’ In our group it is quite the opposite. Kindness isn’t just about giving. Being kind to ourselves is where it should always start. By being open to receiving love and support and of course kindness from others is definitely top of my self-care list. Recently a new Seabird asked for advice on the safety of the nudist beach, information on jellyfish, and if anyone would swim with her. She was met with offers and advice from many. The kindness of strangers.

There is an element of anonymity within the group.  We know each other’s names and faces (Well I don’t retain names but I do recognise faces), but not what bought them to the group and the sea. It makes asking for help easier when there is no preconceptions or fear of judgement. Remove the machismo of measured activities and you also remove the standard definitions of people by their jobs, family status and postcode. As Hannah so perfectly put in her ‘Meet the Flockers’ Blog; “They (we) swim for companionship with the sea and with each other, to wrestle with devils, to frolic, handstand and sob into the waves, and not once has anyone asked me how far I have swum and judged my response or my fitness

One of the best ways of being kind to yourself is feeling useful. So providing another with kindness actually becomes mutual and reciprocal. The person requiring the kindness from others receives it. The person providing the kindness is, in fact, also being kind to themselves. Affording another kindness provides you with feelings of purpose and usefulness. Rick Hanson wrote an article called “Kindness to you is kindness to me; Kindness to me is kindness to you.” Quite a tongue twister but his article writes about cyclical kindness. Our salty community has cultivated a collective consciousness of kindness. (Another tongue twister). The group has created an environment where approaching strangers to help or be helped is the norm. Kindness is our normal and has become a working practice of the group.

Practising the mindset of caring and compassion leads to continued kind behaviour. Our community provides regular opportunities to practice the skill of kindness. It doesn’t need to be a grand gesture. Something as simple as cake sharing after a swim. We do it unintentionally but with intent. In Ellie’s ‘Meet the Flockers’ Blog, she revealed she was searching for a community of like minded kind people, swimming in the sea was just an added bonus.

The last couple of months has been a challenge for us all, to varying degrees for sure, but still a challenge. As the outdoor swimming community became divided on whether to swim wild or stay at home, we feared the same would happen with our group. The fear was unfounded. The kindness has continued. Personal choices respected. Micro-flocks began to form, reaching out to those self-isolating or living alone. Once the Seabirds were just the salt of the sea. Now they very much are the salt of the earth.

And you thought our group was all about Sea Swimming. Turns out it is so much more than this. It is a kind community.

Until we all swim together again.

community3

 

 

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.