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.

Beachcombing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Beachcombing DOs and DON’Ts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anxiety, the Sea and Me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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