Swimming through 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And it’s true.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so now I’m obsessed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s to being in the moment.

Thank you Saltys
X

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!

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.

Swim and Tonic

I thought I was doing OK, and I am, but there is definitely a storm brewing in the distance. Low pressure is here and it relentlessly keeps coming. So one morning this week, I released the pressure with the flock on the beach and in the sea.
As I sit, days later, thinking about that morning I cannot help but smile. Better yet, the exhilaration, excitement and elated mood I experienced was shared. It was just the tonic!

We’re at the tail end of Storm Francis and the weather is changeable. Strong winds are keeping us on our toes and permanently glued to weather and sea forecast apps to identify swimming windows. We had a Seabird birthday to celebrate this week so opportunity was key. The birthday girl settled on an 8am swim at King Alfred Beach, the dog friendly side. I was also meeting a friend that morning, having a swimming lesson and generally galivanting about the beach between lessons and courses. So I agreed to the birthday swim but said I wouldn’t get in just come for the cake and the craic (the birthday girl is Irish).

Another Seabird spotted me as soon as I got out of the car. I don’t have particular, favourite or regular swim buddies. They all fill my cup in different ways. This bird is bloody funny and her quick wit and clumsiness have your sides splitting. So I knew I was in for a fun gathering of the flock. We wandered down to the beach watching birds come from different directions, drifting until they spotted the ever growing brood. There was lots of talk of the weather and the waves. The beauty of a westerly is you can see the squalls and the fronts coming over the sea and the sky has been putting on quite a show of late.

There was lots of pre-swim chatter. It’s the summer and we all naturally migrate in the warmer months, coming back together in September when school starts. And although this has been a strange summer of staycations, we have still not met in big groups or seen much of each other. So the chatter was excited, urgent, loud and bloody lovely. Two of the birds I’d seen the day before but there was still so much to say. One I hadn’t seen for months and was keen to hear about her freshwater swimming adventures. There have been house moves, holidays, exam results, illnesses that all needed airing. Most of the birds are parents and a child free hour means cramming conversation in.

Finally, they got in the sea. A couple of years ago, particularly on a wavy day, they would wait for me to lead the charge. That is not an arrogant statement, it is merely a fact. I am not the Queen of the Sea (I am) but I do have confidence when getting in the water. Looking to my left and right there would be lines of birds waiting for when I would make my move. Now they all nonchalantly stroll in and if a wave takes them out they laugh. From my strange, dry vantage point I feel like a proud mother hen. This is why we did this. These women were strangers to each other not so long ago. Now they are firmly established in each other’s lives. We may not venture far from the beach but we venture into each other’s experiences, worries and doubts and are welcomed like old friends. There’s screeching, laughing and wonderful rendition of Happy Birthday in a mermaid ring. A couple swim off to get some mileage in, others bob and chat, a few practice their strokes. Doing their own thing but doing it together. Then it was time for cake. The only reason for swimming in the sea year round other than connection is cake. And lots of it.

Before the birds even had their clothes back on the cake came out. Various varieties. You cannot have a swim and then be offered just one type of cake. The distance swimmers were back and needed warming up so cake was eaten in a stood upright shaky position. Others wrapped in robes hunkered down to get out of the growing wind. Positions swapped as conversations changed. Then finally, someone said “Right I must go now”. The reason for an 8am swim was so it didn’t eat into peoples day and we could prepare for the return of routine mornings. Inevitably, the first “Right I must go now” was responded to with “Yes, me too.” But no one left the beach. The chatter changed but continued. You just ended up talking to someone else further up the beach. I walked the neap high water line with another bird looking for sea glass and putting the world to rights, others picked up litter, some had another slice of cake. But no one actually left. When I go back from my slow dawdle, they were all still there, just in a different flight formation. Finally the first one left and gradually people began to leave. It was so gradual it was hardly noticeable and the “Right I must go now” was replaced with “I thought you were going” or “Are you still here?”.

I had no where to be other than the beach that morning. Something I had been fretting about as the TO DO list at home beckoned. But by now I’d been at the beach for well over an hour, almost two. Time had run away and relaxation had rushed into replace it. With a handful of us left, a sizeable piece of sea glass was found and that was it. We were going nowhere. Tales of legendary size finds were shared, shingle was over-turned in the search for fortune and shells offered in exchange for the gem. But the finder wasn’t to be parted with her treasure. Then she found another piece, even bigger, practically in the same spot. We swarmed around her plotting ways to relieve her of her burden of gems. Creating a sea glass colour and size hierarchy and beach currency to offer her as a trade deal. We were Sea Witches at their best.

No one mentioned leaving for quite a while again. Instead, we joked and teased each other relentlessly. They were the kind of jokes that made you feel like you belonged but weren’t exclusive. Yes you could be the brunt of them but not in a mean girl way. The jokes were based on joyful, jubilant times together. Childlike (some would say immature) innocent pure fun. Which continued long into the day via messages and concluded with another Seabird classic evaluation of our time together. “ I didn’t know how much I needed that”. Finally, It was just two of us left and we went our separate ways eventually because I was meeting a friend.

I stayed on the beach for another three hours after they had all gone. I met a close friend on a bench on the prom. We watched as Seabird swim coaches worked their magic with nervous new sea swimmers. Christine was running an introduction to sea swimming session and Emma was teaching a Breast Stroke to Front Crawl lesson. A lesson which Co-Flounder Cath was in. We were meant to go for a walk, my friend and I. Instead we sat and chatted about our kids, our lives and our goings on. All the while watching the sea and the ever expanding flock. Cath came to say hello after her lesson. Her sense of achievement radiated from her happiness more infectious than normal. Then it was my time to get in.

I’ve been swimming a lot in the summer but not swimming. I usually reduce my sea time in high season as I hate the crowds and despair at the litter but this year has been different. Having to meet in smaller groups has meant more salt on my skin. Outdoor swimmers are growing in numbers and so the Seabird, lessons, sessions and courses are thriving. My hair constantly has seaweed in it and there is always a cossie drying somewhere. But I haven’t been swimming swimming. My usual early morning buoy loops just haven’t happened. No point to points with the tide. No circumnavigations of either of the piers. I’ve been getting in and bobbing but I have replaced longer swims with cake, runs with crisps and gym classes with chocolate. I’m in the midst of a body moving funk and not the kind that gets your body moving. So I signed up to have technique lessons with Emma. Having a set times and place and someone telling me what to do in the hope that it would reboot my body.

It was wonderful. Moving my body with purpose. Recalling it’s hidden strength. Not thinking about anything else other than what Emma was telling me to do. Meeting the other swimmers, some of whom were just at the start of their sea swimming adventures. And Emma does everything with humour, putting the participants at ease. I lost my goggles on the first wave and did the rest of the lesson in a kids snorkel mask. Towards the end of the lesson one of the swimmers knocked against something in the shore dump. Poking out from the shingle, only visible every 5th wave or so, was a metal ladder. Only the first two rungs were not buried. With a lot of pulling, falling over and face planting I manage, with the help of two other swimmers to dig/pull it out. I proudly marched the 10ft ladder up the beach to the lifeguard post. Best beach clean find ever! And in that Amazonian moment my body and I made friends again.

tonic4

I remained on the beach for while longer to catch Christine after she completed her last Introduction Session of the season. She asked me how things were going. And I moaned and moaned a bit more and then for good measure a grumble. We’ve not been able to run the Women Wellbeing and Water free community courses for people that identify as having mental health issues. We’ve been running these for two years and this would have been our third summer. Cath and I are both huge advocates of the benefits year round swimming can have on wellbeing. This is our raison d’etre. In her calm, quiet way Christine helped me to see we’d achieved so much this summer. We’d run numerous tasters, lessons and courses to give others the confidence to get in the sea. This small part of Hove seafront had been full to overflowing with Seabirds seeking solace by the sea all morning. Reinforcing her wise words I turned to see a bobble hat and another bird I’d not seen for a while. She’d popped down for a solo dip. We chatted about how cold it was that morning and I realised I was cold because I’d been in the sea and on the beach for five hours now. I realised I was really looking forward to cold, skin biting swims again. I realised that this wasn’t the summer I had planned but it had been a brilliant one nonetheless.

My buoyant happy mood continued for the rest of the day. I finally walked back through my front door at 2pm. My hair resembled the seaweed it had been dragged through. I was starving and cold but I was warm and full. This best bird morning was topped off by an indulgent day time bubbly bath. As I finally slipped my cossie off at 3pm, the sound of shingle leaving my gusset and landing on the tiled floor and the sight of wine red seaweed stuck to my body, I smiled. Being salty all day, on the beach teeming with swimming Seabirds was just the tonic I didn’t know I needed.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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

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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.

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.

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Meet the Flockers; Series 1, Ellie

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

Meet The Flockers; Series 1, Hannah

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

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

george william - hannah

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Earliest memory of swimming

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

 

Earliest memory of sea swimming –

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

What do you like most about swimming in the sea?

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