Meet the Flockers; Series 1, Rachel

The sixth in our ‘Meet the Flockers’ series of blogs where we bring salted wellbeing away from the beach and into your home. Bringing Series 1 to a close we meet Rachel. Grab yourself a cuppa and get to know the salty seabirds.

Hello, I’m Rachel and I’m in my mid forties. I’m a teacher, nature lover, artist, photographer, wannabe writer, swimmer, outdoor type and gardener (just only get paid for the first one!). Swimming is in my genes as my grandmother was a sea swimmer in the days when ladies weren’t supposed to swim (read Swell to find out more). I’ve lived in Brighton most of my adult life, but only got in the sea here for the first time about 10years ago! Although I’ve always been able to swim, I didn’t really swim in the way I do now until I got osteoarthritis in my foot from a climbing injury a few years ago and so had to start finding other activities to do instead of climbing and mountaineering. In fact, when swimming was suggested as a recovery strategy, I found it boring. But that was mainly because I couldn’t swim properly. So, I had front crawl lessons, went on a wonderful wild swimming workshop in Snowdonia, reminded myself I had always loved water and had lived by the sea since I was 19 and that was it – an otter I became! Instead of going up mountains, I found lakes and rivers. Around the same time, other health issues meant I had to leave full time teaching and re-evaluate the way I lived and swimming became more and more a part of my self care toolkit.

What is the earliest memory you have of swimming?

I learnt to swim underwater first strangely, at my local swimming pool, I think I was about 6. It took me longer to crack swimming with my head above the water! Then the usual school swimming lessons and family trips swimming on a Sunday morning to the pool with the wave machine.

What is the earliest memory you have of swimming in the sea?

Every summer we did big road trips around France and Spain which generally involved a lot of playing in big Atlantic waves. That’s probably why I’m not that concerned about getting washing machined now – had plenty of experience of it as a child! It also sparked my love of big dune backed sandy beaches.

What made you join the Salty Seabird Swimming Community Group?

Around the time the Seabirds started, I had learnt front crawl properly and swimming had become part of my life, seeking water instead of mountains. I’d joined online groups like the Outdoor Swimming Society and was really jealous of the community and comradery found in swim groups and lidos. Apparently I said to my boyfriend that I wanted to find my flock! I had tried another Brighton swim club, but it just wasn’t right for me. Then, one night in Brighton Sailing club, I saw a flyer for the Seabirds and I joined the Facebook group. A couple of weeks later in November, after returning from swimming in Sardinia and recruiting another recently made swim friend, we made the plunge and joined a seabird swim. And I knew I had found my flock.

Where is you favourite place to swim in Brighton and Hove and why?

Ooo, isn’t that like trying to choose a favourite child? I love D5 in Hove, because that’s where we meet most of the time as Seabirds. I also like being closer to the West Pier, by the sailing club (but obviously not too close!) as it’s a great backdrop for photos. I also swim a lot at Ovingdean as it’s close to home and work and a bit wilder. You can also get tea in a proper mug from the fabulous café. Just remember to check the tides unless you want a long, slippery, unsteady walk to the water! (you only do it once!)

Why do you swim in the sea?

Oh for so many reasons, which also change depending on what is happening in my life, or the swim experiences I’ve had. It’s my physical and emotional exercise. I’ve gone from just bobbing and dipping to wanting to build up stamina and distance. But overall – because it’s there, I live near the sea and unfortunately we don’t have much access to fresh water nearby (I am an otter – I do love fresh water just as much, especially if it’s up a mountain). But also, because it really calls to me. I often have to go and ‘check it’. Just being next to the sea soothes me especially if I’m feeling anxious. I love the line from the Alt J song, Dissolve me; She makes the sound, the sound the sea makes to calm me down”. I swim to have the wonderful sensation of being held and enveloped in the water, both physically and emotionally. Until I had swim lessons I couldn’t really float, and now it’s one of my favourite things. The sea brings so much joy, especially when it’s bouncy and wavy and we’re jumping and tumbling more than swimming. You can’t help but shriek and laugh. I also love the flat calm days when you can really stretch out for a swim and practice handstands. I enjoy the long warm swims in summer, when my fair-weather friends join me and we swim into the evening in clear seas. But now, having done my second winter, I love the tingly bitey rush of the cold water and the camaraderie of dancing, swearing and shrieking into the sea, knowing it will be ok and the benefits with outweigh the pain! The sea is always different yet always the same. It always anchors and revives me and it always comes with smiles.

What do you like most about swimming (insert chatting and eating cake) with the Salty Seabird Community?

I have found my flock! Seabirds have brought me so much more than people to swim with. It’s not about the physical safety of having someone to swim with, it’s the emotional support the flock bring, whether consciously or not. The seabirds are a broad church, differing backgrounds, jobs, experiences and interests, yet we are all brought together by the sea and that bonds us. From the start, meeting others was a part of the experience, I don’t make friends easily, I can be shy or feel awkward but I was happy in the flock, even if on the edge of it. Everyone is always friendly and I’ve been happy with everyone I’ve met and swum with. At first, I didn’t necessarily feel fully part of the ‘gang’, I hadn’t made what I’d deem ‘proper’ friends, but slowly slowly, probably because I started involving myself more and because I’m always taking photos, I realised, these wonderful wonderful women were my friends. Their hugs nurture me, even times when I haven’t thought I’ve needed it. Their smiles, laughter and silliness has given me even more opportunities to bring out my inner child. The lovely conversations we have while treading water, when you sometimes aren’t even sure exactly who you are talking to because of googles and hats, we are connected. It’s given me a place where I can help people too, give them a hug, a lift to a swim, hold their hand getting into the sea, support them with a challenge or take a photo to remember a wonderful moment. The physical and emotional changes in my life over the last few years had narrowed my life and my friendships, but the seabirds have changed that and I know it’s only going to continue to grow. These friendships have gone from the water, to the beach to my life. I need the seabirds as much as I need the sea. Oh, and the cake… !

How often do you swim in the sea?

Not as much as I’d like, life gets in the way and I have to get over the need to have a nap after! But certainly 2 or 3 times a week. I usually have swim kit in the car, just in case! My house is always dotted with kit drying out over radiators and doors.

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What would you say to anyone thinking of starting wild swimming as a form of managing wellbeing?

There are so many reasons why wild swimming supports wellbeing, which is probably why it’s so hard to scientifically say why it does. At first, I thought for me, it was more about the people and community. I thought didn’t really get the same boost with a solo swim as when I was with a group. But now, when our flock are distanced from each other physically I’ve found I still have really really needed the water. This pandemic is a challenging time for mental health as well as the physical health crisis and there have been days when the other tools in my self care kit just haven’t worked and the sea is the only thing that has soothed and reset me. Even watching wild swimming films give me that sensation of the cool silky water on my skin. So my message would be – yes, give it a go, find someone to guide you and read the safety advice. Believe that what everyone thinks is the worse part – the cold, is actually the best part. Take a deep breath and remember to keep breathing calmly and go with the sensations. Bear with the first few minutes until your body adjusts and wait for the smile that will come. And if you come with the seabirds, there will be a supportive hand if you want it.

Where and when was your favourite swim? – details please and lots of them

Oh, so hard to choose! I’ve been lucky to swim in some amazingly beautiful places, all over the UK, including up to North Scotland, lakes in Snowdonia, aszure clear seas in Sardinia and glacier fed rivers in the Alps. Can I have two? Firstly, one of the first times we set out on a walk specifically to swim. It was when the osteoarthritis in my foot was getting worse and I couldn’t walk up mountains any more. We were in mid wales and my OH remembered a lake he’d seen from a mountain top on a previous trip. It was absolutely in the middle of nowhere, a long drive in on a windy single track road. We parked on a small layby and started heading up. Unfortunately, marsh land and my foot meant we didn’t reach the lake. But – I’d spotted pools on the river coming off the mountain and though they might be possible. They were mostly hidden from the path so when we rounded a large boulder to find a big pool under a waterfall, with further gentle bubbling falls below it, I thought I’d arrived in Mother Nature’s heaven. We now call it my jacuzzi as after swimming and floating in the main pool I then sat for ages in the lower falls with the water bubbling around me. In the photos I just have a look of pure joy. I’ve since taken friends there too and it was so wonderful to share it with them and have it induce the same joy.

Then, a sea swim, one of the Seabird full moon swims near the West Pier. It was high summer, a glorious warm calm evening with the sun setting as we got in to the silky soft sea. Many of us had lights in our tow floats and that just added to the amazing light show. Some of us stayed in for ages, floating, chatting, smiling, swimming out to a buoy and for me – taking the most photos I’ve ever taken on a swim! It was just so beautiful and I was so glad to share it with my salties. We also shared it with a lot of onlookers from the beach but I didn’t mind, I was in a little bubble of happiness. The colours of the sky and our smiles are engrained in my mind whenever I want to bring up some joy.

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Meet The Flockers; Series 1, Hannah

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

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

george william - hannah

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Earliest memory of swimming

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

 

Earliest memory of sea swimming –

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

What do you like most about swimming in the sea?

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

Meet the Flockers: Series 1, Kath

Series 1, Kath. Each week we meet a different flocker, a member of the salty seabird wild swim community in Brighton and Hove and understand their relationship with wild swimming.

Tell us a bit about you.

I’m Kath, one of the founders of Seabirds Ltd Community Interest Company and the Salty Seabirds sea swimming community group. I’m in my late 40s and I’m a mother to two teenagers, a dog owner, a life partner, an over-thinker, a wild woman and a sea swimmer. I’ve always swum. My Godmother was a swimming teacher who taught me to swim and I spent every school holiday with my family in West Sussex at the seaside. I started swimming in the sea aged 2 or 3 (there are pictures of me sat in rock pools looking very happy) and I haven’t stopped since. Even when I was working full time in a busy corporate job I managed to find time to swim in the sea.

When I had children, I wanted them both to learn to swim too. My daughter really took to it and when she was 10 I found a Surf Lifesaving Club in Brighton for her to join. Around the same time I had a breakdown, I left my corporate job and begun volunteering at the Club too. It kept me going and got me out of the house. I’ve volunteered with Surf Life Saving for 8 years now and am a Trainer Assessor at the Hove Club.

I met Cath – with a C, the other founder – through our children and we started swimming in the sea together. We both had personal things we were working through and then, one day, we had a lightbulb moment – we realised how much better swimming in the sea made us feel and we wanted to spread the word and get other people involved. And so we founded Seabirds Ltd  – a not for profit company that raises funds for causes close to our hearts and the Salty Seabirds – a community of people in Brighton and Hove who swim together regularly.

What is the earliest memory you have of swimming?

I was raised in Farnham in Surrey and had swimming lessons with Farnham Swimming Club (because my God Mother was a swimming teacher not because I was good at it). In the winter it was in the local catholic school pool and in the summer it was in the town’s outdoor pool. I was a very thin child and the outdoor pool was a beautiful, but unheated lido! All I remember is being so cold I turned blue every week and the wonderful turnstile you went through to leave! Interesting that I would now welcome the cold…….. too late as the pool will filled in in the 80’s a blocks of flats where built o the site ..sigh.

What is the earliest memory you have of swimming in the sea?

So every school holiday, winter or summer, my family would stay in a converted railway carriage on the shingle shores of Selsey in West Sussex. At low tide there was a shallow lagoon that was sandy and safe and I would sit and splash in there from a very early age, maybe 2 or 3. As an awkward gangly teen I would spend hours perfecting my dives of the wooden breakwaters at East Beach at high tide. Away from prying eyes I didn’t need to conform to nonchalant sulky teen behaviour, I could just be me, with no fear of  reprimand from my cool mates. Very freeing when you are consumed by teenage angst.

Fascinating fact – the Desert Island Discs theme ‘Sleepy Lagoon’ was composed in Selsey and based on the lagoon I swam in.

Where is your favourite place to swim in Brighton and Hove and why?

It’s D5 – the beach just in front of Hove Lawns Café. Historically because my favourite council lifeguard used to exclusively work on this post and I’d share a cuppa with him and stash my clothes behind his windbreak. But now because I know it’s geography so well, it’s so familiar, it feels safe and secure like home. It can get super busy in the summer with uber Hove mums and families and then I migrate to other spots but for most of the year this is my swim spot. I’m very territorial about it and have left my wee scent there a lot!

Why do you swim in the sea?

For all sorts of reasons that are all about my wellbeing. I have suffered with depression and anxiety for as long as I can remember and I have enjoyed being at the beach or in the sea, again, for as long as I can remember. Swimming in the sea simply makes me feel better. I could wax lyrical long and hard about the how’s and why but basically when you are a malcontent person you spend a disproportionate amount of time under a thick, heavy dark cloud yet are expected to act as if it is a day filled with sunshine. It’s exhausting. For a few moments, most days, submerged in the sea I feel joy. Pure, innocent, childish joy. And rested. No amount of medication, therapy or counselling has ever achieved that!

 

What do you like most about swimming (insert chatting and eating cake) with the Salty Seabird Community?

This is such a weird one for me. I am so uncomfortable around people. I am deaf on one side so have to lip read which makes me nervous with new people or anyone who speaks English as a second language. I am awkward around anyone with mental health issues, particularly if they are manic or unable to mask it, as it’s like holding up a mirror. I am more at ease in the company of men, probably because I am a massive flirt. Yet somehow I love love love swimming with a bunch of mainly women, that I haven’t known very long, some have migrated to Sussex from all over the world, many of whom have mental health issues and are swimming to aid their emotional wellbeing. In theory this should be my absolute worst nightmare. But it isn’t. I have never met a more inclusive, kind, considerate community with whom I share a deep connection. So what I love most about swimming with the Salty Seabirds is how comfortable I am in their company.

How often do you swim in the sea?

Again a big misconception is that I swim in the sea every day. But it is around 3 times a week – very rarely at weekends and mostly in the mornings. In the summer I swim much less because the damn fair-weather swimmers invade my space and the beaches are super busy, even at dawn!

Where and when was your favourite swim?

I’m as territorial about this swim spot as I am D5 but there is a place that we go back to every year when we visit the South West that holds such intense happy memories. My heart aches for it as I write this. Watching your children come alive with excitement, amplified chatter and bright eyes, as we make our way across the rocks. It’s hard to find and even harder to get to, but by the power of the internet and middle class gentrification, it is getting busier each year. But there is still a quiet spot in the rocky cove to the west on a disused fishing slipway that no one sits on. We hide painted pebbles in  the gaps to find the following year. You can jump off the rocks and cliffs even at low tide and the water is aqua and crystal clear. Even on the roughest day it is swimmable. We bring wet-suits, snorkels and flippers so look like we are staying for a week as we walk down the hidden path to the cove. We scoff pasties from the local bakery that only opens for a couple of hours every morning. There are grooves in the rocks from old cart wheels that carried smuggled brandy and huge holes where winches were once housed. Every swim there, every year, is my favourite swim.

What’s been the biggest barrier you’ve had to overcome to regularly swim in the sea?

Fear – which I think will surprise my salty flock as they see me as a fearless jelly fish catcher that it happiest the far side of the pier. But actually I’ve had a few near misses and been involved in a failed rescue attempt and I can get regularly spooked in the sea. I have swum in the sea, year round for over a decade now but much of that was encased in a wet-suit. I would take bigger risks knowing the wet-suit would help me float, keep me warm and more importantly protect by body when it got slammed on the shingle as I mis-timed by exit. I remember once having to wait 20 minutes trying to swim in but then having to duck dive back out and under wave upon wave upon wave. I was finally able to exit a few hundred metres further up the beach. I wore a wet-suit to one of the starling swims so I could float under their mumurations for longer. It was low tide but big seas causing a strong rip by the pier. I got caught in it quite early on but managed to get out. I then stupidly got caught in it again as I was floating and not paying any attention to where the current was taking me. I then did all the wrong things and tried to swim out of it against it before coming to my senses. Again I was spat out further up the beach, exhausted. But like riding a bike or a horse I make sure I go back in. And I am more risk averse when swimming in skins.

My biggest fear is my beloved buoys. Happy to swim out and round them – but I give them a wide berth because their anchor chains totally spook me!

Nice to meet you!

Next week it is time to meet Co-Founder Cath

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

 

Seabird Sanctuary

looking for solace during strange times

Now, more than ever I need the sea to save me.  Certainty helps me survive, but those sands have shifted under my feet. The sanctuary of the Seabirds has also been stolen as the flock scatters across different shores. But what’s really making me anxious?

 

My Social Media stream is full of advice on how to weather this storm. Get outside-check. Swim – check.  Run – check. And there are so many silver linings to this cloud. The world slowing down has already had such a positive impact on the environment. People are picking up the phone to check on family, friends and neighbours. Communities are pulling together to provide practical solutions to problems we never foresaw. But my anxiety is still brewing behind closed doors.

And it’s the closed doors that are the problem. I’m not worried about a crippled economy, friends and family falling ill and the end of the world as we know it. Well I am. But I worry about that shit ALL OF THE TIME and I take to the beach and the sea to get back balance and continue operating as a ‘normal’ human being. The anxiety that is brewing is all about changes to my small insignificant ( but not to me) world.

I control my small world to the enth degree. I am Captain of my ship. My First Mate is normally exploring uncharted seas across the European continent  returning late into the evenings or at weekends. The Bosun is either at college or playing football. And the Cabin Boy is usually at school, playing football, out on his skateboard or locked below deck on his Xbox. I know where they need to be and when. I also know with a degree of certainty that I will have the Mother Ship to myself from 8.30am to 4pm every day. But now I don’t!

I don’t like change. I like routine, plans and lists. This year, at Christmas time,  the First Mate decided to take 2 weeks annual leave so the whole crew could all be together at home. This was all good while there were presents flowing but then it was crap. No structure to our days, shitty weather confining us to our quarters, we got cabin fever. Well I did. I longed for them to return to work, school and college and for the reappearance of my routine. A routine that is filled with numerous but solitary activities.

When I am home alone I can be the real me not the Oscar winning performance me. Acting ‘normal’ can be knackering but I have self care solutions. My version of self care can be staying in pyjamas til lunchtime and pottering. And it can be an early morning run on the seafront followed by a swim with the Salty Seabirds. It all depends on my mood and workload. But I only have think about me – not 3 other people. My small insignificant world is expanding when everyone else’s is shrinking.

These self-care strategies have been honed to perfection over years of suffering from depression and more recently anxiety. I have the luxury of part time flexible working from home to put them into practice. But these interlopers, formally known as my family, are now invading my physical space and my head space.

I fully appreciate how this sounds. My biggest fear is something akin to not being able to have a bath whilst watching shit telly in the middle of the day in peace and quiet. While the world is waking up to a pandemic the size and scale of which has never been heard of, I sound like a self-indulgent you know what. But activities like daytime baths, alongside the more well regarded ones like quietly reading, walking the dog alone are how I silence the mental monkeys. Without adequate alone time I don’t get to recharge my batteries and I will not make it to the evening – the time when the whole crew are on board and they need a fully functioning Captain.

My swims with the Salty Seabirds have taken a battering too. My swimming schedule looks something like this; On Monday I attend the biggest swim of the week as it is the start of the week and it’s after a yoga and gym class so my head is able to handle a crowd. Tuesday I’ll opt for an intimate one. Thursday I go with the crowd post run – again after some fresh air, exercise and calming chat with my fellow seabird runners, lots of people don’t faze me. And I may again dip on Fridays with one or two others. If I go to any of the larger swims I tend to get there early and chill on the beach a few groynes over before everyone arrives. This is my schedule. This is my sanctuary. But sensible social distancing is changing the schedule.

When I can handle the big swims they are the best. There’s always laughter and love. But now we are having to sort out smaller swims at different times and places. The community we worked so hard to build is suffering at the hands of unwashed hands. The cold water high is still possible, the respite from day to day worries is still very much achievable but the community that is at it’s core is dispersing. My worry is that people will form smaller exclusive groups and not come back together when the time comes. My worry is our strong bond will be broken. My worry is that some of the seabirds will stop swimming.  I worry.

So what’s the solution? I love my self-enforced self-isolation but I also love my Salty community. I am a bird of paradox.

For my crew we need a family meeting and a timetable of when mum needs to be left the f@?k alone. Especially when I am writing, another form of self-care for me. I need complete silence and solitude when I write as it is one of the few times I allow my brain the freedom to think and it responds at a speed it is hard to keep up with. I have vacated the office to allow the First Mate to work there so I need to build a nook in our bedroom with views over the sea and place a big no entry sign on the door.

For my community I need to look to the community for solutions, which they are already providing in abundance. The challenge  is moving away from social media to maintain your sanity versus remaining connected to your community. So we’re going to look at staring some on-line groups and virtual swims so we can continue to share the swim love.

Whatever my worries are, small or big, self-indulgent or survival, the sea will remain a constant in my life, as will the sanctuary of the seabirds. As for my crew, well, time will tell!

Author: Seabird Kath

Sending you all a shit ton of love  – stay well and stay salty! If you have any suggestion on how to stay connected please get in touch.

Community ideas!

Seabirds Rowena has set up a Women and Nature Book Club that will start on-line until we are able to stop social distancing. There is a small fee to join that will be donated to the Seabirds Women Wellbeing and Water projects.

There will be writing workshops online too hosted by Seabird Sam – we are just going to need to practice with zoom first!

I’m really keen to get the ‘Meet the Flockers’ series of blogs ready to publish. Please get in touch if you would be happy for us to share your story so other Seabirds can get to know each other a bit better. Spaces for 3 more! Can be done over the phone or face to face at a safe distance!

There are lots of opportunities to get involved in the blogs too. We have another three series in  the concept stage.  1. Brighton Beach Community will be a series of interviews with people that live or earn a living by our beaches here in the city. 2. Britain’s Beach Review will be exactly that – when you swim on different beaches in the UK we want to hear all about it from the cafes, to the cliffs and everything in between. 3. Seabirds on Tour – if you have visited or swim in another part of the country or world in lakes, rivers or waterfalls we want to hear about it. I did have trips planned in Ireland and Jersey this year, fingers crossed they will still happen. Where will your swimming take you?

Record sound bites and videos of your smaller swims and share them in the group.  Snippets of your post swim chitter chatter. Descriptions of the sea. Time lapse videos of swims

Positive Pebble Project – get out your sharpies and start writing on pebbles and then leave them in places you know others swim. Positive affirmations, meaningful messages, drawings, whatever you want. If you find one take a picture of it, post it in the group and put it back for the next person to find it.

 

The Anthropology of Salty Ornithology

How does community connect in the modern world? By Social Media and Swimming!

As a social introvert I am fascinated by human interaction. Envious of those that seemingly find conversation and connection easy.  Over the festive period the Salty Seabird flock grew to record numbers but I am not always able to face new faces. I observed from afar (social media screen) but was still able to share in their joy and happiness at experiencing a cold water sea swim. I still felt part of the flock.

Being part of a community is not a new thing. Nor is swimming in the sea. But doing it as a community activity arranged via social media is. But what fundamental components of being part of a community remain unchanged?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a Community is; a group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common. The internet and social media platforms have meant that I can watch someone else’s swim live, from the comfort of my own home. Watching their face erupt into a smile, breathe in the beautiful scenery and converse with them via comments. It’s not that same as actually being there. Only two of your senses are engaged and there is no real replacement for physical presence but I do still feel part of a community, albeit virtually. We don’t necessarily live in the same place but we do live in the same space.

We also have a particular characteristic in common. The Outdoor Swimming Society have claimed the characteristic ‘stoic’ for the virtual Zeno’s Swim Club. The ability to just keep going – or in this case just keep swimming.  This is true of my local Salty Seabird community and my virtual outdoor swimming community. The impact cold water immersion has on our physical and mental health, has been researched and written about, both anecdotally and academically.  What we all seem to agree on is that in that moment, in the water, we have escaped the day to day. We know it will be there once we’ve dried off but we will be better equipped to deal with it. We are testing our resilience. Why would you enter freezing water willingly? Its takes your breath away and it burns your limbs. Because, you know, once you’ve had a swim you will feel like you can keep going.

I have talked and written at length about the sense of connection I experience from swimming with a group. In a fragmented world, and during times of austerity, the need for connection 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. 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. Connected by a rediscovery of childlike joy and the ability to play in the water. For me, connection is at the heart of the community.

Recently the Salty Seabird community has demonstrated the strength of the connection at its heart.  A new Salty wanted to raise some funds for a paediatric study into treatment for Alkaptonuria, the genetic condition her son has. So she posted a call to arms for swimmers join her swimming in the sea through the 12 days of Christmas. The response was overwhelming with incredible numbers of swimmers joining her on a daily basis, donating and sharing the fundraiser. This community, didn’t know her, or her son, when she asked for support, but because a bunch of people have a sense of belonging or connection they answered her call.

Connection is prevalent throughout the virtual outdoor swimming community just as much as it is locally. ‘Tits to the Wind’ organised by 3 wild swimmers via social media was supported by swimmers the length and breadth of the country. The idea was to swim topless and raise money for Mind a mental health charity and raise awareness for Coppafeel which encourages people to check for lumps to ensure early diagnosis of breast cancer. Instagram was full of wonderful images of people exposing their “Tits to the Wind” and sharing the experience. All the topless swimmers are alike in some way, they feel a sense of belonging with each other even though they’ve never met.

Whenever Lindsey ‘Stompy’ Cole puts a shout out for people to join her for a swim or for a bed for the night she is never disappointed. In 2018 she swam the length of River Thames as  mermaid to raise awareness of plastic pollution. Since then she has cycled and swum around the UK instantly recognisable by her infectious grin. Again, via social media, she posts shout outs for swim buddies and place to stay which are answered by the supportive  community she is part of.

Lindsey is not the only one to swim with strangers. Salties join us from all over the world to experience the sea on the South Coast of England. In addition to the wild swimmers individual and group social media accounts, there is a Wild Swim Map and the Outdoor Society FB group. So many way for swimmers to connect with one another. Whenever I go on my holidays I will find a local swimmer or group to swim with. And you know that when you do eventually make it to that waterfall, lake, tarn, you will be made to feel very welcome and very much part of that local community.

The Oxford English Dictionary goes on to say; the condition of sharing or having certain attitudes and interests in common. Again by wild swimming virtual connections when posted words or an image resonate you instantly feel part of a community. I frequently comment on other people’s posts and have regular dialogue with people I have never met, but I know they are my people. Some of these may be sea swimmers local to Brighton and Hove, who swim in the same spots as me yet we have not met. Some of these sea swimmers may in fact be part of the same Salty Seabird community group but we are yet to swim at the same time and place. This is the beauty of these leaderless, self-regulating communities glued together by sharing the swim love.

Watching my own community of Salty Seabirds thrive brings me joy on a daily basis. Every week new swimmers join us, entering the sea as strangers and leaving the beach as friends.. The local connection of community is incredible. We’ve had single Salties spend Christmas day together. Poorly Salties spend their birthdays on the beach with us even when they are too ill to swim. They fundraise and volunteer for Seabirds, provide lifts to Shoreham Port, swap stories, give warm welcome and advice to new swimmers…….the list goes on. They are the salt of the earth – or in this case salt of the sea.

This is what community looks like – it hasn’t changed – just the way we connect has.

 

Preserved in Salt

We don’t stop playing because we get old; we get old because we stop playing – George Bernard Shaw

“Forty is the old age of youth; fifty is the youth of old age.” Victor Hugo

Since its conception, the Salty Seabird Sea swimming community flock has grown rapidly.  Not sure whether it is due to the group name, the times we swim or because of the community aspect but the majority of our flock are female. And not just female, but females of a certain age. Most of us fall into the 45-55 age group and we regularly forget our knickers. But we feel a lot younger! 

As the sea temperature drops our numbers continue to grow. Swimmers who have been bathing regularly  over the summer are keen to continue, with company, into the winter months. Many arrive for their first swim consumed with anxiety about their swimming ability, what to wear and stormy seas. After weeks of bathing with us they are becoming confident water warriors. It’s good to do something you are afraid of. Swimming in the cold sea, when the waves threaten to knock you off your feet provides reason for a very real fear. It would be so much easier to go home. But what the flock have found is, it is a fear worth facing because the other side of it is a feeling like no other. It’s recapturing the feelings associated with our younger selves, having adventures, experiencing pure joy. We are preserving ourselves in salt!

Regularly swimming in the sea exercises our brain, keeping it young by learning new skills like how to read sea forecasts and how to exit the sea safely. Swimmers have learnt by experience that their fears can be overcome. This neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to form new neural pathways and synaptic connections in response to learning, having new experiences or healing from an injury, keeps us young!

We are also exercising our bodies – but in a playful, kind way. Free from distraction, in the sea, we can tune into how our body feels (which is bloody cold most of the time). We begin to understand it in a way that is just not possible on dry land. Every part of your body immersed in cold water is talking to you and you have time to listen. We are weightless. We are soothing aching limbs. But we are moving. Anybody can get in the sea regardless of their swim abilities – and just move. This joyful movement has the added benefit of improving memory, focus and motivation. We really are preserving our youth.

Mother of all Movement, Kathryn Meadows puts it perfectly. After starting a family, struggling with PND which lead to an unbalanced approach to exercise, she stopped all intense training. “Part of my knowledge growth in that time was learning to love moving again. Moving for the sake of feeling how awesome my body was, not because I “had” to lift heavier or go faster or prove I was still fit. I fell in love with exploring how it felt to use my muscles well, to improve how efficiently I could use them and how amazing it was when I asked my body to do something challenging and it could respond.” This is also true of our Salty swimmers.

Women who swim through winter have a lack of fuss about themselves. Day-to-day dressing, hair and makeup do not apply here. It’s all about getting warm, fast post swim. Underwear is foregone, layers are essential and showers or hair brushing are positively frowned upon.  Photographer Christian Doyle photographed the Salty Seabird Swimmers as part of her ‘Against the Tide’ project.  She said, at the time “Getting your subject to relax in soft flattering light is the aim of every portrait photographer. None of the rules apply here – rather it is saying ‘this is us, how we are now, makeup free, cold and wet and unbelievably happy‘. And its’s true. We give less of a f@?k about what we look like. As long as we’re cold in the water and warm afterwards we are happy.

It is not just how our body looks that we are confident about, it is a confidence in its strength and capability in the water. We may not have washboard stomachs, toned biceps and the tight arse of our youth (did we ever?), but we are strong.  Whatever shape or size, level of fitness or swim ability our bodies are up to the task of winter swimming. Every month ticked off on the calendar is a reminder of what our wonderful wobbly bodies have helped us achieve. And we need to nurture those wobbles with cake.

During a woman’s lifetime they will experience huge changes. During the menopause years alongside all the delightful symptoms many of us are experiencing varying forms of grief. We are saying goodbye to our youth symbolised by our inability to reproduce. We are saying goodbye to our fledglings and they begin to leave the nest. And many of us are saying goodbye to our parents.  It can be a very lonely time and a time of great sadness. But there is a cure for this loneliness and it is swimming in the sea with a bunch of women who have or will experience the same grief as you. Alongside laughter and fun there can also be tears when we swim. But there will also be a hug, some stoic advice and a piece of cake. The salt in the Seabirds preserves your sanity.

Swimming in the salty sea I am not sure if we are being cured, or being cured, but we are definitely having fun! And as Mae West said; “you are never too old to be younger!”

 

A Puffin for keeping Seabirds Safe

The Puffin Billy Eco15 Drybag Tow Float is one of our most popular products. Swim safe Seabirds!

Who are Seabirds? We are Kath and Cath, sea swimmers heading into our 3rd winter of cold water swimming. We loved the positive impact on our mental and physical health, the sense of community and the ‘play’ of cold water dipping. We wanted to spread the swim love but we didn’t want to be a charity reliant on the vagaries of grants and funding.  So we formed Seabirds Ltd and we opened our online Wild Swim Shop. The aim being that we sell high quality swim stuff and profits fund our ‘Wellbeing and Water” courses. Our swim group – Salty Seabirds‘ is currently at over a 1000 members (thankfully they do not all turn up for a swim at once!)

Safety while in the water is our top priority. Puffin therefore met both needs for us – a beautiful ethical product we can sell and promote while keeping our swimmers safer. We found Puffin on Instagram (and LOVED the logo – another Seabird!) Another small British company at the beginning of its journey, just like ourselves and as sea lovers trying to minimise our environmental impact the eco-Billy with its biodegradable material was a perfect match for us.

Puffin Billy Eco15 Drybag Tow Float is now one of our most popular products. Many of our swimmers have bought them and we make quite a sight swimming along the shoreline, fastest at the front, chatters at the back. Our favourite use for them is more aesthetic really than safety – we put bike lights in’em for our moon swims – we light up the surface of the sea – Salty Fabulous!

Love it! I take it each time I swim. I put my keys and phone in it and it also helps kite surfers and SUPs to avoid me. (And when I swim at dusk I put a flashing bike light inside it. Disco time!) ” (Salty Seabird Sally)

(Photo credits Seabirds and Rachel Goddard)

Since we started selling Puffin Tow Floats Puffin have developed a stronger attachment to the waist belt. This is on all recently sold products. If you have one of the original models from Seabirds and want the new stronger clasp please get in touch as Puffin have sent us a stash of replacements – info@seabirdsltd.com “