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

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.

Seasoned With Salt

It is not only in the sea the women of a ‘certain age’ are swimming against the current. But it is in the sea that we gain the confidence and increased self-esteem so we can continue to be strong, significant and visible on dry land no matter what age and gender we are.

Over the last couple of years I have watched the Salty Seabird flock grow in number and more importantly in strength. Changes, subtle over time, can go unnoticed. As autumn turns to winter, the days grow shorter and the sea temperature drops, transformations take place. Women are finding a new place in the world, a place where they are strong. We draw our strength from the sea and each other.

When we set up the Salty Seabird’s Swimming community group we had no idea what we were doing or indeed, what it would become. We just knew that we loved swimming in the sea, all year round, and that it made us feel happy. People, mainly women, began to gravitate towards our group and find solidarity as well as solace, What I have come to realise is that swimming in the sea also makes me feel strong, significant and visible. All words that are not usually associated with women of a certain age. And my fellow female swimmers feel the same.

As a woman enters her forties and fifties her body changes considerably. This has a significant impact of how she views herself and how others view her. This is unique to females. It can be a very difficult time, for a number of years, plagued by low self-esteem, and dwindling confidence. No longer seen as sirens of the sea luring sailors to their death by the sweetness of our songs.  How are others supposed to recognise our worth when we struggle to recognise it ourselves. So we take to the sea where we remain our real selves. Youthful, relevant and defiant.

People’s perception of you changes when you say you swim in the sea all year round.  Too many women don’t swim at all, at any age, let alone in a big mass of salty water in the depths of winter. By doing something out of the ordinary, that some would say is brave and bold, blasts stereotypes out of the water. Quite literally. And as these positive affirmations continue the perception others have of you becomes yours. You are what they see. You find the real you. You become the person you were before you were defined by your role as a mother, a carer, a worker, etc.

Over the last few weeks, our company Seabirds have been running Introduction to Sea Swimming Taster sessions. They are not aimed specially at women, but 100% of the participants have been female. We have commissioned two new swimming coaches, Emma and Christine, to keep up with demand. At the beginning of each session we ask the women to introduce themselves and their swimming experience and ability. Without fail they all claim not to be swimmers even though they refer to time spent in the water.. Phrases like “I only dip really” and “ I used to swim all the time when I was young” are all too common. We reassure them that they are swimmers regardless of how far, or long or deep they swim and that the person that used to swim “all the time” is still there and we will help to find her.

It is not by accident, that all of our coaches, including myself, are women ‘of a certain age’. Our youngest is 48 and our oldest is 60 but you would be hard pushed to guess which one of us is which, as the sea keeps us young. We’ve been that woman that claims not to be a swimmer, I still am sometimes. We can relate to their anxieties but are proof that you can overcome them. It is incredible to see, how, with the right encouragement, these swimmers morph in a matter of minutes into smiling and laughing women proud of their achievements. It is an absolute privilege to be a part of their journey of rediscovering their self-worth.

We recently had a group of women from Girls Alive in Surrey, visiting our shores to experience the sea as part of their channel swim relay preparations. Girls Alive is a collective of encouraging, all-female, non-competitive activity groups for women of all ages and abilities. As we knew we would, we had a wonderful morning with them talking all things tides, waves and weather conditions before a social swim. During the talk a couple of fishermen set up close by and struck up a very loud conversation. It was so loud many of the participants were unable to hear and so I asked our 17 year old lifeguard to ask them to keep it down as but as we were running a session. Their initial reaction was slightly aggressive, possibly because a young female was asking them to move away from the session. It then turned to complete surprise that our group was even there, as even although they had walked passed us we were clearly invisible to them. The result of that session was that a bunch of women, some significantly nervous of the sea, smashed out a swim against the current, and a young woman had the confidence to ask members of the public to pipe down.

That 17 year old lifeguard happens to be my daughter. I swim with her when she will let me although she leaves me for dust. I regularly coach at a Surf Life Saving Club with her. And she is often my lifeguard at Seabird sessions. I feel strongly that she should never be judged by her gender or age or lose any of her self-worth as she grows older. My aim is to demonstrate that I am not ready to be put out to pasture, that I can skin swim throughout the bitterness of winter, that I am strong, I am significant and I am relevant. And she can be too, now, and as she inevitably ages. Charlotte Runcie put it perfectly in her book Salt on your Tongue.  ” The call of the sea is the call to the absolute strength of women telling their stories and making music of beauty and imagination, and eternal mothers and grandmothers making eternal daughters and rocking them in the night as they sing while the tide comes and goes. And the power of women is to do all of this, to follow art and the moon, and to absorb it all and go on. ”

We are still swimming against the current but one day the tide will turn. Until then we will continue to encourage others to feel strong, significant and relevant by providing them with the confidence needed to swim in the sea. A confidence they can take with them in dry land.

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.

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.

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

george william 2

george william 3

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!

Unprecedented Times

A Guest Blog by Seabird Claudine

It was a clear, crisp day.  Filled with sunshine, then rain, then sun, then hail, all within 5 minutes.  A typical spring day then.  Perhaps not typical as in regular, but typical as in we’ve seen it all before, weather-wise.  Four seasons in one day.  It’s one of those days where we don’t go out.  Is that because we can’t be bothered?  Because it’s the weekend and getting the children dressed and out of the house is more effort than it’s worth?  Or is it because we are on lock-down, the pandemic of Covid 19 wreaking havoc on the world?  The entire world.

As I sit in the sunshine whilst the heavens aren’t opening, I wonder if there are parts of the world unaffected, remote and cut off from others in a way that is protecting them from all that is going on.  I wonder what it would be like to live in those communities.  Before this, as well as now, I sometimes dream of the ideal “getting away from it all” lifestyle change, as many do I’m sure.  A log cabin on the coast in a remote part of Canada, on the Sunshine Coast, maybe near Sechelt, away from people, near bears, (but friendly ones), with a glorious sea to swim in literally on my doorstep.  Or in another daydream fantasy, one of those houses the characters live in on Big Little Lies; a modern mansion on the beach with a luxurious expansive deck, with sofas bigger than my entire living room, and a roaring fire-pit, overlooking the waves, and a little wooden boardwalk down to the golden sand.  Anyway, I digress.

“It is unprecedented” is the phrase of the week/ fortnight/ month – who knows?  We have all lost track of time.  It’s like something from a Sci-fi film.  People in hazmat suits (a term I wasn’t even aware of until the virus hit) all over the news, looking like they are treating people who are radioactive, or taking evidence from a crime scene.  Who knew the world could be put on hold in this way?  For some it has all come to a standstill. No-one needs certain products and services right now, maybe they never really did.  I have always looked at certain jobs and industries and wondered if they really needed to exist.  Occasionally even my own.  But for some it isn’t like that.

Simultaneously other people’s worlds have gone from high pressure to incredibly intense.  People working night and day to adapt, to change to find a need and meet it.  For some that means profiteering: opening a shop especially to sell overpriced toilet roll and hand sanitizer.  For others that means thinking how they can use their skills to provide a slightly different service and continue to make a living; restaurants offering take away service, coffee delivered to your door, everything possible being offered online, even the things that “couldn’t possibly” be done online before.  Whilst others do their best with the limited resources they have to take care of others.  People risking their lives working in hospitals with the most sick, trying to reduce the death toll and slow the spread.  People have made the sacrifice of leaving their own homes and families so they don’t take the virus home to their loved ones or from their loved ones to the workplace where the most vulnerable are.

I miss things.  I know I am privileged to have a nice house, large garden, family members to keep me company, the tech I need to stay connected.  I still have the ability to go down to the seafront occasionally, get in the sea, as long as I do it alone.  But I’m not sure if I should. It isn’t as much fun as going with a few others, or the big social swims when I am in the right mood for them, but it is still glorious to get into the shimmering sea and feel the bitey cold on my body.

I’ve realised, or remembered, that I am the kind of person who manages with a new situation, and doesn’t really notice how much I miss something until I get it back again.  It sounds a bit contradictory, but I just plod along, feeling not quite right but OK, and dealing with the challenges that “home schooling” and struggling children bring.  Some days are a battle, calming down the children who show their angst in ways that are difficult for the rest of us to be around.

But last week we had a zoom call (again, an app I was unaware of until the corona virus hit) with salty seabirds, most of us getting in a cold bath as a substitute for the sea.  And I realised how much I miss them.  I miss the whoops and squeals as we get in the sea.  I miss the chatter and banter when we are in.  I miss the giggles.  I miss the dialogue: sometimes ridiculous and hilarious and sometimes profound.  I miss the support when I need a moan.  I miss the empathy when I have a cry.  I miss the hugs when a fellow seabird just knows I need one.  I miss touch.  I miss conversations about something other than my family, school work, and C19.  I miss the wide open space.  I miss the horizon, I look at and enjoy its endlessness, it represents infinite possibilities.

But this too shall pass.  Many people are in far more difficult situations than me.  Many people won’t make it through.  Many people will be living with the financial, emotional and physical fall out of this for years.  I am lucky, but that doesn’t mean I’m not struggling.  It doesn’t mean I’m not allowed to feel low.

For many, life will go back to normal, soon enough, and we’ll be back to rushing around, cramming too much in, getting stressed, spending money.  But at least then we will be back with our wider tribes, we will have the freedom to come and go as we please, we will have the sea and we will have the horizon, where anything is possible.

Author: Seabird Claudine

 

Sea Sick

Sea Sick – when you cannot “Accept and Continue”

Not the motion sea sick, but the not going through the motions sea sick. My normal daily going through the motions will inevitably involve the sea or beach. But at the moment it does not. So I am sea sick. Much like being home sick,  I have preoccupying thoughts of the sights and sounds of the sea. I am finding it difficult to think about anything else and being away from he beach for such a long period of time is causing me distress.

It’s not just the swimming that I am longing for. It’s this time of year swims. Time of year swims only happen once a year. As a year round skin swimmer it is a time when the sea is pleasantly cold rather than uncomfortably so. Well, to the acclimatised winter swimmer it’s pleasant. The beaches are still quiet enough to be secluded and your kit bag is a lot lighter to carry. You can lie on the shingle and soak up the sun in just a jumper. You can actually swim head in without pain searing across your skull. The cold water kick and high is gone for another year but the cold contentment of a spring swim brings an altogether different joy.

It’s also the beach that I long for. There is something about clambering over the pebbles, catching your first sight of the shoreline and your shoulders just drop. Everything becomes muffled and muted. The harsh sounds of traffic, sirens and seabirds are all made to sing in more gentle tones accompanied by the sound of the shingle. Especially early in the mornings before the sea breeze has got up, there’s a stillness to the beach, any beach, like no other.

My longing isn’t just for my local beach. Visiting different beaches a couple of times a year, particularly in the South West and Wales has been a family tradition forever. Never in the height of summer, but normally in the spring we will rent a small cottage, pack up the car and head for a new horizon. It’s part of the winning formula for managing my mental health. I can only really rest away from home.

Our sea from sea holidays always follow the same pattern. I still get up early in the morning and  walk the dog on the beach with a flask of tea. That stillness is ever present on every beach as the sun rises.  Days are spent on long clifftop walks on the SW or Pembrokeshire coastal paths to find secret beaches. The harder to find and clamber down to, the better. The evenings are spent in or on the water. Depending on the nature of our holiday beach we head down when the madding crowds have disappeared. The kids will carry or drag surf boards, SUPs or kayaks. We will carry BBQ or a camping cooking stove, booze and lots of blankets. We will make pebble patterns, decorate rocks, look for sea glass, swim, play cricket….. until it’s dark. Rinse and repeat.

Today we are meant to be in Cornwall, for what was our last time with Libby, my eldest,  before she heads to the USA for four years (or forever) and our family becomes the Fab Four instead of the Famous Five. That makes me sick to my stomach. The loss of this particular time by the sea, the last time with my daughter, is felt as pain. The type of physical pain caused by grief. Instead of listening to her laughing in the waves I am experiencing waves of gut wrenching pain.  And there is no abating it. I am grieving.

As an antidote to my ever increasing anxiety that my daughter will soon be flying the nest, my husband and I planned a lot of trips to give me something to focus on and look forward to in 2020. C19 has had other ideas. So far the virus has robbed me of a trip to Ireland and planned swims at Greystones and the Forty Foot. And now, like so many others, a family Easter holiday. I am not hopeful that our annual extended family (cousins, aunts, grand parents and siblings) holiday will go ahead at the end of May. This year a house, called The Beach House, had been booked in Dorset for the duration. Daily sea swims on my doorstep and the prospect of encouraging family members to join me. They always do, as they know how much it means to me. They do it for me which makes me all kinds of happy.

I know I need to accept the things I cannot control. The wise ones on social media have all shared their Venn diagrams, 12 steps to recovery and ways to change your mindset. I’ve had enough Acceptance Commitment CBT to last a lifetime. Acceptance will most likely cure the sea sickness. But acceptance isn’t something that I find easy. It took me long enough to accept that my wiring is rigged differently causing a frazzled brain  – but when my freedom is compromised – asking me to accept under the constraints of the current situation –  it’s asking too much. So grieving continues, and I know it will subside with time, but I won’t be rushed into it by trying to accept, to me, the unacceptable. I accept no swimming in the sea. I accept no pints in the pub. I do not accept my stolen family time, away from home, by the sea.

Instead of acceptance, I go for swims in my mind. I really realise how that sounds. Like the wise words of someone on social media!  But I’m going anyway and you are very welcome to come with me.

With April comes warmer seas and the end to winter storms. In theory. Things don’t always go according to plan as Mother Nature has firmly shown us over the last few weeks. But what is always true is that when April arrives, the sea temperature begins to rise quite rapidly. The  prevailing wind swings back from NW to SW bringing warmer air over the Atlantic. After the prolonged sunshine of recent weeks I would estimate the sea temperature is now a comfortable 12 degrees – warm enough for head in swimming.  

So my swim bag includes goggles again and footwear is flip flops. I cycle down to the seafront armed just with a towel , flask of tea, a book, hat, goggles and my cossie. I make my way across the shingle, towards  the sea, winter apprehension replaced by a spring in my step. I am on the look out for a spot, flat, sheltered from the wind but in the sunshine, away from people. There’s space by the breakwater. One of the wooden ones, I prefer. I love the colour they bleach to over time and the how smooth the sea has made them. There are always posts and knots that can be used to hang towels and perch cups of tea. Sheltered from the wind.

It’s mid tide, so deep enough to swim but enough beach exposed to not be busy. Course sand and small shingle are at the shore line. I settle in front of a shingle bank, by the breakwater and begin to spread out my things, claiming my spot. As I begin to strip off I watch the sea. I should be watching to work out which way to swim and where to get in. But I’m not, I’m just quietly watching. The swim has started. 

I have a unique way of entering the water. I just walk until I have to swim. No fuss, and at this time of the year no swearing. The winter frantic first strokes and floating on my back have been replaced with a gentle glide. The current is strong pulling me west so I swim east toward the West Pier. The sun is in my face making it hard to sea but there is a sunlit trail of sparkle to swim in. After a while I slip into an easy head in freestyle. My face, hands and feet are cold but I am able to find a rhythm. I haven’t seen the seabed for months but now I am able to follow the lines in the sand again.

I don’t want to stay in for too long. Not because I am afraid of the cold but because I want to stay on the beach for a while post swim. I turn and float with the current – occasional strokes but really letting the sea do all the work. I swim until my knees scrap the shingle and stand up.  I stay near the shore for a while, diving under the water again and again. I don’t feel I’ve had a dip unless I have fully immersed myself and the pointy toe perfection of a handstand does not come without practice.

Back on the beach I throw on a towel and face the sun. The wind is warm and I close my eyes for a few moments. There’s no post swim high, fuelling a fierce need to get dry and dressed fast. There’s a slow sedate contentment that the sea was cold enough to still feel it on the shore and will remain for a while. I am not high, I am content. I stay until the comfortable chill tells me it’s time to go.

When home, I hang my things out to dry in the garden.  Radiator drying is no longer required. My feet are still cold, slippers are donned and shingle is still caught between my toes. It makes me smile. Hours later I can still taste the salt on my face and the skin on my shins begins to crack. In  the hot sun of the summer this can be unbearable, but in the spring it’s a welcome reminder of my swim. I stay salty all day.

So until the sea sickness subsides I will continue to head to the beach in my head. Next time I may step over that shingle to find a bunch of seabirds there. I imagine the new dawn when Seabirds reassemble will be something quite spectacular.

Author: Seabirds Kath