Guest Blog by Seabird Anne as we transition from summer to autumn
What is the Salty Seabird sea swimming community group and how does it work?
I’m all come swim with me until the summer when I have no desire to swim. Or is it because I have no need to swim?
It’s that time of year again when the inevitable summer swim slump occurs. Life gets busy and the beach gets busy. I find myself muttering under my breath about fair weather swimmers as I approach our increasingly crowded favourite spot of shingle in front of Hove Lawns. Hardly aligned with my belief that swimming is for all and everyone should give it a go. The warmer waters remove the temperature barrier that prevents so many from swimming in the sea. This is a good thing. But still it keeps me away from my sacred sea.
It’s not that I like solitude when I am swimming. I have written many times about the sense of community and connection I gain from swimming with others. But I also do not like crowds. Too many people, too much noise, bodies invading my fiercely protected personal space overwhelms my over sensitive brain. I also fiercely protect my swimming space and when I see plastic all over the pebbles I want to weep. Hardly my happy place in the summer months.
My swim squad also disperses across Europe on their holidays. They share images of Italian Lakes, Yorkshire Tarns, French Rivers and Greeks Seas. They have all found secret swim spots, a Salty Seabird haven away from our busy beaches. There really is nothing better than finding a swim spot with family and friends and there is no one else there. You’ve hit the wild swimming jackpot. This is impossible in Brighton and Hove as the beaches are always busy in the summer and good old Sussex by the sea is a wild swimmers dry spot. There are rivers and lakes in abundance but they are not accessible to the public. I scroll through neighbouring Surrey’s wild swim group in envy at the access they have to the Thames and the River Wey. The Wild Swim guide books offer no real alternative to the sea in Sussex.
The alternative would be getting up at sunrise before the beach gets busy. Not really a hard task for an early riser like me. What ever the season I will wake up between 5-5.30am every day. During the summer months it is light enough to head down to the beach for a swim. Seabird Christine runs the 6.15am club and most mornings partakes in a dawn dip so I would even have Salty company. But I just can’t seem to muster the enthusiasm during the hot months. I think I may be a cold water junkie. If the sea temperature is below double digits it seems to be more appealing. During the summer the sea is room temperature, which for me, is a bit bath like.
I am currently on holiday in France where they have a much more tolerant attitude towards swimming outdoors than we do in the England. There are Lakes and rivers in abundance close to where I am staying. But, in all honesty lakes just don’t do it for me, especially when they are 25 degrees. I class the Mediterranean as a Salty Lake – not a sea. The water level is low so the rivers near by are too shallow to swim in. With lots of research and driving around I could no doubt find a suitable deep bend in a river. But I came on holiday to relax and read not to swim. And I am just as happy to be dry for the duration.
So what happens to my mental health during these times of drought, when I am an advocate of outdoor swimming as a way of managing wellbeing. As I write this, with a glass on rosé sitting on a veranda in Provence in the cool outdoor air I am happy. I have in fact been happy all summer long, even with a reduction in regular swims. Life has been by no means smooth swimming, life isn’t for anyone, but I have experienced no significant episodes of anxiety or depression. Which has made me consider why. Don’t get me wrong I am glad not to be sad but I wonder why.
Cold water swimming is just one thing in my arsenal against my mental health demons. I have lots of other things that are working alongside regular sea swimming. They have been been doing their thing in the background consistently as the dips have dwindled. Supplements, talking, rest, new experiences, good books, digital downtime, exercise, dog walks; are just some of the things in the mental health ammunition box that allow people to continue to cope. I am fortunate to have access to them all.
I have a husband and a business partner that keep me in check and tell me to slow down when I am accelerating at a rate of knots that is not necessary. Down time away from digital distractions is a necessary part of my mental maintenance but difficult to balance when you run your own business. Being disciplined with my down time and clever with scheduling has had a positive impact on my wellbeing.
I am currently well rested. Lots of early nights and saying no to too many evenings out has enabled me to manage and recover from numerous Seabird evening sessions, lessons and events. Now I am on holiday and the pace has definitely slowed to a crawl. If we are lucky, the kids may rise before lunchtime, so our excursions are mainly low key and local. I have entire mornings to read, write, think.
I know these things, amongst others, are working on my wellbeing. They are the hidden cogs that aren’t as visible as my sea swimming. My shoulder was injured for months preventing me from doing any swimming of substance. Yes I was frustrated but I accepted it. The busy beaches have reduced my swim time to once a week but I don’t mind. I am on holiday and the main focus isn’t finding a swim spot and that’s OK.
Don’t get me wrong the desire to jump into any body of water I happen to stumble across is still there. And I cannot wait to get back to the pebble, waves and community of my favourite Hove beach. But for now I am just as happy out of the water
Author: Seabird Kath
A couple of months ago, Seabirds hosted a wellbeing talk led by Dr Catherine Kelly who wears many hats, one of which is super supportive Salty Seabird! She also has decades of experience as a wellbeing practitioner, more qualifications than anyone I have ever met and an incredible passion and enthusiasm for helping others find their happy place. Hers, like mine, is on the beach or in the sea.
Recently, Catherine facilitated a free Wellbeing and Water presentation – which was booked up within 24 hours! The 3 speakers, all academics, shared some of their research work on how being in or near the sea can make us feel well. The theory of water and wellness that has stayed with me, resonated with me, made me consider me, was Catherine’s reference to connection. Our connection to others (1), ourselves (2), the sea (3) and environment (4) are all made possible by sea swimming.
I have talked and written at length about the sense of connection I experience from swimming with a group. In a fragmented world, the need for connection, collaboration and community has never been more necessary. The Salty Seabirds have grown from a few to the many, some I have never met, some have names I don’t know, some swim in different spots, some swim long distances and some dip. But I am connected to them. So incredibly diverse and different but connected. Connected by a shared passion for the sea. Connected by a shared belief in it’s healing properties. Connected by the shared need for respite and rest and the ability to find it by the sea. Connected by sharing cake and tea post swim.
I have considered my adult relationships over the last few years, as many of my close friends have drifted away. My aunt always says “friends for a reason, friends for a season and friends for life”. Whether you connect for a reason, season or for life, as long as there is human connection it will enhance your wellbeing. Connection with the Salty Seabirds gives me a sense of belonging to a group, a sense of identity, a great support system, and reason not to feel lonely when I am overwhelmed. I have learned so much from the Salty Seabird awareness and acumen, and we have learned together by sea swimming alongside those we connect with in the group.
I also feel more connected with myself by the sea. As much as I love the company of others I tend to keep my connecting conversations on the beach. Once I enter the water I search for solitude. Even if we are all swimming together in a group I will swim head down for lengths of time or distance only lifting my head to check everyone is still together or to wait for people. Like many other swimmers, I get into a rhythm while all of my senses experience the water. Strangely this distraction makes me feel most connected to myself. I can have a conversation with myself. Check in with myself. The self that I can only be when I have prioritised self care.
I love being on a beach and again even if I am with a group, I am not. A family walk on cliff tops, a sunbed snooze, a cosy cup of tea hidden in dunes, I am still very much in the moment in my mind, which I am unable to do anywhere else. Or rather I do not allow myself to be in the moment in my mind anywhere else. Here my mind is allowed to drift, noise of others talking, playing, arguing fades into the background. This is my mindfulness.
“So that the monotonous fall of the waves on the beach, which for the most part beat a measured and soothing tattoo to her thoughts seemed consolingly to repeat over and over again.”Virginia Woolf
My mind creates its own connections during these rare times when it is not taking self awareness into the realms of anxious fantasy, causing a riot of ridiculous, but to me very real thoughts. I always thought with a free reign my mind would continue to negatively overthink every situation, encounter, experience, But quite the opposite. It seems to find self awareness solutions and solace. The sea’s assault on my senses works as a trigger for me to subconsciously re-connect with myself. According to Dr. Wallace Nichols, science shows that being by the sea (he says ocean), we become more self-referential, more thoughtful, with greater insight, creativity, and awe. I have my best thoughts by the sea. I make my best decisions by the sea. I have the best ideas by the sea.
When I swim in the sea, I feel part of it, connected to it at a fundamental level. It is very different to the other ways humans connect with nature. When you walk in the countryside you are not really in it, just an observer. When you cycle across mountains or climb to the summit you are aided or propelled by your equipment. But when you are swimming, you are in it. Not on it, or around it, but immersed in it. And you need no equipment other than yourself. When you enter the water you do just that, you enter it become part of it it, connect with it. You connect with the sea in a way like no other. And it provides you with perspective. We are insignificant in terms or our size and strength. It’s a thing of wonder, which allows you to wonder.
The only way we will protect our seas reverse the damage already done is to connect with the sea and the beach environment. It is only when humans connect with their environment that they will become it’s protector and custodian. Think of the projects that have been successful in inner cities where crime and antisocial behaviour was high. They encourage young people to take pride in their locality and create safe spaces. As a direct consequence vandalism and littering is reduced. I feel fiercely protective of my playground, the lungs of the earth, the sea. My heart breaks when I see the state of the beach after the summer crowds have left for the day. They haven’t connected to it, it isn’t their happy place, they feel no responsibility for keeping it clean. It is only when you feel connected to your environment that pollution, at an individual level, can be tackled.
Connect 4, the four ways I can connect by swimming in the sea. I connect with my community, myself, the sea, my environment. It is only when we connect that things really work!
Author: Seabird Kath
The weather and tides can change in an instant but so does the seascape. What colour is the sea?
The question everyone asks me is “What is the temperature of the sea?” The question I always ask myself is “What colour is the sea?”
When I swim off Brighton’s beaches, with a flock of Seabirds there is a lot of routine to what we do. We find a sheltered spot to change. But this spot can change depending on the state of the beach and the direction of the wind. We check our phones to make sure we haven’t missed any stragglers or welcome fledgling swimmers as we always swim in company. But it is never the same group of people. We look at the tides and conditions and consider the direction of the flow and which way to swim. But we don’t always get it right. We shout, scream and sing on entry into the cold water and gradually split into smaller groups to chat while we swim. But it’s not always the same person you end up swimming with each time and sometimes there is a bit of silence.
It’s in these moments of silence that I always, without fail, consider the colour of the sea. No But. There will always be a point during the swim that I focus on my hands in the water and look at the colour. The seascape changes all of the time. Sometimes the shingle is up on the prom, sometimes you can walk across sand to the pier, sometimes, just sometimes you get lovely lines of surf. Twice a day there is a high and a low tide. All of these changes are obvious to all. But how many people notice the change in colour of the sea?
We all use the term ‘Sky blue’…but what is sea green? I have rarely swum in the sea when it is green. But there is a palate of colours it has been and will be throughout the year.
A the sea warms up and the season moves from Spring to Summer, May bloom appears. May Bloom, is an algae bloom that is caused by increased sunlight and water temperature. This causes a massive growth in plankton, which colours up the waters. In 2018 it lasted longer and reached further across the sea surface than I have ever known. It not only changed the colour of the sea to a rusty orange, but gave it the consistency of a really yeasty beer. You literally had to wade through froth to find clearer water to swim in and you left the water with a slimy film on your skin. At high tide the water was too deep to wade through and we ended up with dirty Father Christmas beards. In the magic of one swim as the tide turned to push you could clearly see the plankton in the strong current and swimming through it, head immersed, it was like being in an episode of Stranger Things and swimming through the ‘Upside Down’
In the winter months, storms that sweep across the Atlantic create large swells and the colour of the sea couldn’t be more different from the warm water bloom. It is a dark foreboding pewter in colour, almost metallic. It’s dark colour is almost warning you not to get in. This colour is normally accompanied by large waves that sharply break just before the shingle known as shore dump. And the colour warning should be heeded when the tide is high and the waves are big. It creates a striking contrast against a normally light grey sky and coloured pebbles but it is my least favourite colour for swimming in.
Every now and then there are summer days when the wind is offshore but not cold and the water turns a Mediterranean turquoise. It is so clear you can see the seabed right up until the end of the Pier. As well as being crystal clear, it is a flat as a millpond and the sunlight reflecting on the surface creates mesmerising shimmers and sparkles. This is when the sea is at it’s most inviting and unfortunately in Brighton it’s most busy. There will be days like this over the colder months that ensure the tranquillity of the water can enjoyed with less company but the pay off is ice cream brain as you submerge your face to experience the water clarity.
Aqua green waves are my favourite colour. Again this is a rarity and seems to accompany clean swell that has managed to make it’s way round the Isle of White without finishing at the Witterings. The waves come in regular sets and don’t churn up the seabed leaving the water awash with sand. Instead the sun catches the wave face and creates a shade between green and blue. Like the aquamarine gem it glistens. The colour is just as wonderful experienced from above as it is below the waves.
These really are just a few of the colours the sea can be. There are peaty browns, bright blues and pea greens. It’s all to do with the colour of the light and how it is absorbed by the water and the depth of the water….or so I am told. Not sure I really care how or why the colour if the sea changes, I just love that it does meaning no two swims are ever the same.
Author: Seabird Kath
Footnote 1: The regency iron railings along the promenade in Brighton are ‘Brighton Blue’ a kind of aqua/turquoise colour. It changes colour from Brighton Blue to Hove Green at the Peace Statue marking the boundary between the once two separate towns.
Footnote 2: 100 Flags and Colour Wheel. Over several weeks throughout 2010 Finch observed the ever changing tone and colour of the English Channel. He then selected a pantone colour swatch for each moment observed resulting in a palette of 100 variants of sea colour, which was used to dye 100 flags. The four existing flagpoles at Christchurch Gardens were used to hoist a different sea-coloured flag every day. The colour of each monochrome flag was determined by an observer of the sea every day of the Triennial following Finch’s swatch. The flag hoister chose the corresponding flags and raised them at midday
Last Year’s Summer Swim Slump
Long hot days and warm sea temperatures have created idyllic sea swimming conditions from as early as May this year in Brighton. The offshore breeze that just wouldn’t shift for two months meant flat seas inviting longer safer swims. Lots of visitors including jellyfish, seals and even a shark added to the swim excitement and anticipation. Clear aqua water creating a picture postcard seaside setting enticing normal swim aversive beach-goers into the water in their droves. So why did this seabird stop swimming?
With the summer brings increased social commitments and the kids school holidays. Every weekend is packed with BBQs, weddings, parties, camping trips, weekends away. Summer family holidays are taken and weekdays are spent juggling child care and cramming in work. Life is full to over-flowing. And it’s great. The endless summer we dared to dream of is a reality. Especially this year, when the weather has been so kind to the British masses.
But it’s only great for a while. This summer hedonism is not sustainable and the inevitable summer slump arrives, for me, in July. This year the summer started early. Early because of the weather and sea temperatures got into double digits in April. Early because my eldest did her GCSEs and her endless summer started mid June with festivals, parties and prom. Early because I returned to teaching life-saving to school children on the beach and gained a permanent shorts tan at the start of the season. So by July I was kind over it!
With the slump came a ‘can’t be bothered’ attitude and an unshakeable fatigue. This was clearly visible to the naked eye. My normal priorities of sea swimming and being outdoors resided on the back burner and mundane non-urgent errands and tasks took poll position. These errands and tasks included watching season 1-4 of Poldark. I have literally been swimming off Brighton Beach maybe 5 times in the last 2 months. And when I say swimming I mean a dip, a couple of groynes breast stroke, catching up with a willing seabird,that due to the crammed calendar, I probably haven’t seen for a few weeks. I looked on with envy on social media as our flock of seabirds grew over the summer but I am conspicuous in my absence.
I truly believe that outdoor swimming, open water swimming, wild swimming, what ever you want to call it, should be free from arbitrary goals. You can float in a pond, jump waves in the sea, swim lengths in a lido or smash out kilometres down a river. Yet my summer slump was gradually stealing this belief from me. By August I found myself in the wonderful cycle of self loathing. Loathing my body and mood that had changed due to a food and drink over indulgence. Loathing that I wasn’t going round the buoys at least once a week. Loathing that I still haven’t been around the West Pier this year. This slump was gaining momentum. (Not sure how slump can gain momentum as a heavy non-moving thing but you know what I mean).
So it’s September 1st. I declare summer to be officially over. For me anyway. The kids return to school and college and routine returns. I have cleared the calendar and cancelled camping. The warm weather is welcome to hang around but not for too long. Poldark season 5 hasn’t started yet. So this week I have been in 3 times. Once for a dawnie and met two new wonderful seabirds. Once for a sunset swim post brilliant Swim Talk at Sea Lanes. And once for a regular swim spot swim followed by tea and cake. The later catching up with summer lost seabirds who had also had summer slumps. Now it is Autumn, I am planning to go back to my routine 3 swims a week. One early bird swim, one Fun Friday swim with tea and cake and one Saturday Social swim. Sod the slump let’s swim!
Floating – an essential pastime!
All I have done is float for the last couple of months. With trapped nerves caused by knotty and gnarly trapezius muscle I can’t do much else. Whilst I love to float by choice, when it is enforced, it’s not only my nerves that are trapped – I feel trapped!
I have never been good at resting for recovery. Being active is my therapist couch. As the seas began to warm, and after some technique coaching at Sea Lanes I was looking forward to a summer of long lazy point to point sea swims. But it just wasn’t to be. Instead I have been coaching our Women Wellbeing and Water courses and reading for relaxation. A good distraction but it all keeps coming back to floating. On our confidence courses I have been encouraging participants to relax and float on their backs. My relaxing reads have included re-reading “Floating – A Life Regained” by Joe Minihane. I cannot get away from floating………..
Teaching people, new to open water swimming, to float allows them to experience the buoyancy of their wet-suits or their body and the salt water. It provides them with reassurance that if they feel scared, panicked, unsure, they can flip onto their back and take some timeout to adjust to their surroundings and situation. We create, what I like to call, a Selkie Circle or a Mermaid Ring, where we all float in a round at the beginning of the session. It’s a really good way for the swimmers to become comfortable with each other, with me and their environment. It also looks pretty cool.
Floating is a vital life saving skill. Drowning can be prevented in lots of instances if the swimmer relaxes to conserve energy and float on their back as per the RNLI Float to Live campaign. As the sea warms up and the sun continues to shine the masses are flocking to the beach. Unfamiliar water and not being used to sea temperatures can result in poor choices and people getting into difficulty. In Brighton and Hove we have a number of drownings every year. The RNLI advice is;
5 steps to float
1. If you fall into water, fight your instinct to swim until cold water shock passes
2. Lean back, extend your arms and legs
3. If you need to, gently move them around to help you float
4. Float until you can control your breathing
5. Only then, call for help or swim to safety
Floating on your back is also a really good way to acclimatise to prevent cold water shock. Nothing like that first trickle down your back! If you spend time floating before you start your swim you are able to acclimatise, regulate your breathing and get used to your environment in controlled way so hopefully the RNLI advice will not be needed. I include it as part of the warm up. There are stretches on the beach first before entry, then a few dolphins dives and front crawl stroke before flipping onto your back to catch your breath and get ready for the swim ahead.
Floating is a great way to feel the tidal flow, experience the impact of wind strength and direction, find a static sighting point and consider which direction you need to swim in. I am famous for swimming in the wrong direction even after studying the various apps that tell me which way the flow should be going. I blame mother nature and the moon. Although it could be my sighting as I aim for one buoy and arrive at a completely different one on a regular basis. After doing everything at pace and being particularly crap at going slow I have learned, the hard way, to take my time and float before I set off on a swim. Having earned the Salty Seabird nickname of Tidal Bore due to my obsession with tides and flows, floating allows me to practice what I preach.
Finally floating is the best way to be one with your salty environment. Ears just below the surface and eyes to the sky you become part of the sea in tune with its sights and sounds. Taking time to really appreciate being in the sea, looking at the colour or the water, feeling the energy of the swell and listening to the shingle being dragged around on the seabed. All of these experiences write your swim story and wouldn’t be possibly without floating.
And the best thing is….everyone can float!
Author: Seabird Kath
A little farewell note on floating.
“And out floated Eeyore.
“Eeyore!” cried everybody.
Looking very calm, very dignified, with his legs in the air, came Eeyore from beneath the bridge.
“It’s Eeyore!” cried Roo, terribly excited.
“Is that so?” said Eeyore, getting caught up by a little eddy, and turning slowly round three times. “I wondered.”
“I didn’t know you were playing,” said Roo.
“I’m not,” said Eeyore.
“Eeyore, what are you doing there?” said Rabbit.
“I’ll give you three guesses, Rabbit. Digging holes in the ground? Wrong. Leaping from branch to branch of a young oak-tree? Wrong. Waiting for somebody to help me out of the river? Right. Give Rabbit time, and he’ll always get the answer.”
“But, Eeyore,” said Pooh in distress, “what can we–I mean, how shall we–do you think if we–“
“Yes,” said Eeyore. “One of those would be just the thing. Thank you, Pooh.”