A webinar facilitated by Open Water Swimming Coach Kath Ferguson. An Introduction to Winter Sea swimming.
Laura has been swimming with the Salty Seabirds for 3 years and is always up for an adventure. But when we asked our swimming community to share their best swim of 2020 to lift our collective spirits, she struggled to find one…..because there wasn’t just one……there were many and they all gave her something different….. in the moment. Her musings about her struggle to choose just one reduced us to tears, joyful, in the moment, belonging and connected tears. Thank you Laura.
There’s been an invitation to choose the best swim of 2020.
It’s been responded to by many, many beautiful posts & memories.
It’s such an honour to be able to read each personal journey.
But I’ve struggled to post myself.
And I couldn’t put my finger on why.
2020 has been described by many, and for good reason, a terrible year.
But I heard on women’s hour on Christmas day, whilst driving a 5hr round trip to the New forest to see my loved ones (Covid tests negative), a suggestion that we see beyond just thinking of it as terrible. Not in a way to be insensitivily, ignorant, bulldozing through the horrors of others; but to not see the space of time of the year as inately bad. This may then stop one from seeing the joy in any of it or the joy that might come tomorrow or anything within that “year”.
I’m not sure I’ve summarised it well but the theme was Joy, and the idea as I saw it, that no matter what, joy might come, even in the darkest times.
What then ensued was a conversation about the fact that the interviewee was a swimmer, infact many of the guests were, including Rev Kate Bottley (swam every day with her lowest swim minus 3) and writer Tonia Buxton who sits in her freezer for 3 mins every morning (she’s a food writer so I’m guessing she might have access to a walk in one because there’s sod all room in mine even if I chopped a hand off!)
And that’s it, there it is again in 2020 (and before*).
The immersion in the cold that has allowed us to feel joy in what has been a difficult year.
And it’s hard to pin it down, that Joy.
I have photos but which one was the most joyous?
Not because they weren’t full or good enough. Or because it may be crass to spout about good when others may be struggling.
Infact it’s so important to share.
I shared the amazing story of Katie Wotton with a client recently. If you haven’t seen the story Katie has lipoedema and the psychological and physical pain of getting into a swimsuit and bring active has been such a struggle but she knew she loved it, and now she’s “got her smile back”.
It’s been so touching to see her journey on FB and to be able to personally encourage her I’ve seen so many other Seabirds give her the encouragement and love she deserved. (Here’s a little clip to watch)
And those of us in the know get it. That joy.
I am openly evangelical about it.
And now the joke has changed from: How do you know if someone’s a vegan to, How do you know someone cold water swims?
Because they’ll tell you, over and over again.
And it’s true.
I’m asked regularly why and it’s hard to sum up.
I’m a Dramatherapist and there’s a similar dilemma, I can tell you in theory what it is and how it works but the spark comes in doing it.
And so I tell people, just try it, it really isn’t that cold…
And many have this year.
And if I’m honest, it was a little bit of a shock to see so many people swim this year, and for a time I felt a little bit overwhelmed.
Suddenly Kingston beach in Shoreham, our* little respite from the storm, was now suddenly packed that you couldn’t get into the car park.
That took some getting use to. But then I quickly got over myself because of course they’re swimming, because its fucking fantastic.
And the Sea is big enough for us all, that’s the beauty.
It’s all of ours. It belongs only to itself.
And if people in one room studio flats in the city need to access it, move aside and let them through because it’s not mine just because I have the luxury of being able to walk down.
It’s life enhancing.
It’s saved us all.
It’s listened to our woes, it’s held our weaknesses. It’s given strength and courage.
It’s tickles our senses & enlivened our spirit and it’s washed away what we don’t need to hold.
And so now I’m obsessed.
If I’m not in it, I’m next to it, scouring it’s shores, cleaning it. Taking 3 for the sea and more.
Because we have a duty to look after it.
And if I can’t be near it I’m reading more about it.
For Christmas my work Secret Santa gave me the book Gift from the Sea.
I devoured it in one sitting and sat emotional, awestruck and understood.
Anne Morrow Lindbergh wrote it in 1955 and it’s still so relevant in so many ways.
I could quote so much of it now but I’ll let you find the nuggets that might resonate. Or not. Because we’re all different (thank goodness).
But what it made me realise is I can’t find my most memorable swim because I needed each one in so many different ways this year.
The fierce ridiculously large storm waves on my first crawl swim lesson with the amazing Christine who was so calmly unflappable as we spluttered and inelegantly forth with our breathing, the waves and the jellyfish flying by us!
The times when we pilcharded on the shoreline, getting gravelly knickers, peb-jazzled nether regions, and exerting exhilarating Cackles.
The early morning quieter meets, that start with a few nods and end in dressing while singing je t’aime.
The swims to let go, to mark losses.
The swims where we curse and cackle and turn the air bluer than the sea and sky with our language.
The swims where the world is put to rights, and we remembered what we used to know but have forgotten.
The river swim where I swam furthest I ever have and practised my crawl, with pride and trepidation that I might be swallowing cow pee, but just loving the glorious beauty of it all.
The night swim with my youngest on a deserted beach.
The many many many Groans, Huff’s, Grunts, swearing, cursing, gutteral release of almost every one.
The letting go of the Rona, Boris, building work, relationships, work, hormones, perimenopausal angst, life
Just letting go.
And the moment in every swim where I float on my back, breathe, silent and look up into the sky.
And none of that could have happen without a Seabird by my side.
To quote Anne:
My Island selects for me people who are very different from me-the strangers who turns out to be, in the frame of sufficient time and space, invariably interesting and enriching…life chose them for us.
And that’s partly why I can’t choose one swim this year.
Because in every swim there has been a different beauty and often a different seabird.
I can’t choose and miss one.
And also I realise that I can’t choose the best because the sensation of Joy is in the “now” moment of every swim.
I find it hard to feel that exactness again.
It’s being completely alone yet being completely held at the exact same time .
It is in being in the present so completely.
That is what gives me exactly what I need, and that’s what I hope you’ll find if you try it.
Here’s to being in the moment.
Thank you Saltys
The first question a fellow open water swimmers asks you is, skins or suit? Most people are a mixture of the two. Here is our guide to neoprene accessories, how they work, and how to look after them!
Are you skins or suit is pretty much the first question fellow outdoor swimmers will ask you. And my answer is both. I have been swimming in the sea, year round, for 10 years. The first 6 in a very thick 5mm wetsuit, gloves, boots and hood and skins for 4 years, the last one forgoing boots and gloves too. I choose what to wear depending on my swim. I have a 5mm watersports wetsuit for teaching children in, when I can be in the water for up to 2 hours in the middle of winter. I even wear my swimming wetsuit when I am coaching in the summer a lot of the time so I am warm and prepared to deal with emergencies should they arise. I also wear it when I swim alone for long distances, again for the same reason, I want to be safe. But most of the time I swim in skins. And it isn’t because of the faff. After decades of putting wetsuits on and taking them off I’m pretty quick at it and I have plenty of space to dry them. It’s just because now I associate my wetsuit with work or a work out and I associate skins with fun!
IT DOESN’T MATTER WHAT YOU WEAR AS ALONG AS YOU GET IN
Wetsuits work by trapping a thin layer of water between your body and the suit, that your body warms up, so you need to get wet! Wetsuit wearers tend to gasp when the water finally trickles from the neck down the back. So you see, it does not protect you from cold water shock and you still get that initial ‘getting in’ screeching feeling, but you will be kept warmer over all by the neoprene. Neoprene is made of small closed cells that are filled with air which provide insulation against cold water by trapping heat in. The thing that they do need to be is tight. It will loosen a wee bit in the water, as it expands, but it does need to be close fitting without constricting the movement of your swim. Can you wave your arms about and do some squats is a good way to test it out for size. Too big and it will just fill-up with too much water to warm up, so pretty much pointless. If your core is kept warm by a wetsuit, a noticeable difference will be you hands, feet and head stay warmer for longer and so you may be able to swim head in and without the faff of socks and gloves as temperatures decline.
So what type of wetsuit? Oh and there are so many. So work out what kind of swimming you want it for and how you deal with cold temperatures. So you can opt for a swimming wetsuit or a watersports wetsuit. A swimming wetsuit is specifically designed for front crawl, lots of shoulder and arm flexibility, a smooth surface and it makes your bum buoyant to achieve correct body position. They can rip and tear easily so you need to be very careful when putting it on and it can make your neck and shoulders ache if you are wearing it to do head up breaststroke as you are fighting against a floating derriere. (There are also tri-suits which are specifically design for triathlons and transitions ). A watersports wetsuit is more robust but much less flexible making front crawl a lot of hard work. It is perfect for bobbing and head up chatting swimming though.
How thick should my wetsuit be? The thicker the suit’s neoprene, the warmer the suit will be because it has more heat-trapping insulation. However it is a trade off so the thicker the neoprene the less flexible and more constricting your suit will be. The normal range of thickness for swimming outdoors in the UK goes from 2mm in the summer to 5mm in the winter. The thickness various across the suit as it is thicker on the torso to aid with body position and keeping the core warm and thinner on the limbs for freedom of movement. You can of course opt for sleeveless, shortie, vest, cossie, zip up jacket, leggings….the list is endless. All aimed at keeping your core warm the difference is simply down to personal choice.
Many skin swimmers opt for neoprene accessories, like gloves when temperatures really begin to drop. Some swimmers suffer from Raynaud’s Syndrome, Cold water Urticaria and chilblains. For them gloves are a game changer and allow them to continue enjoying cold water swims. Indeed it allows most skin swimmers to continue as the hands feel the cold strongly and after a prolonged period in the water warm blood is redirected away from them to keep your core warm making them colder still. Much like your choice of wetsuit or neoprene core warmer the right gloves for you will depend on what kind of swimmer you are or swim you plan to do. If you wish to continue head in front crawl throughout the year then you need a thinner glove with good flexibility so you can continue to feel the water and adjust your stroke accordingly. It you plan on a head out breast stroke you may be happier with a thicker choice. What ever you choose the advantage of wearing gloves is that you are able to get dressed and warm quicker after your swim than someone with numb lobster claws.
These are all slightly different and again should be selected for the swim you want to do or the swimmer you are. The purpose of neoprene shoes is to protect the sole of your foot but not keep your feet warm. The purpose of the neoprene sock is to keep your feet warm but not protect the soles of your feet. The purpose of a neoprene boot is to do both. Both the shoe and the boot will affect your ability to swim as they will make your feet too buoyant but a good sock should allow you to swim normally regardless of which stroke you are doing. Again they need to be tight fitting or they will end up full of water some have additional fasteners to keep them flush to your skin. The boots can be awful to get on and off but there are some that have zips to make it easier. All offer some form of protection, for example, allowing you to enter and exit the water safely if it is a steep shingle beach and stopping shar objects from cutting your feet. So some form of neoprene on your feet is a good option for swimming year round!
It is a bit of an old wives tale that your body loses a lot of its heat out through the head. However as normally the only bit of your body that experiences the sea temperature, air temperature and wind chill while swimming outdoors it is a good idea to keep it warm. Again there are few options for swimmers to chose from. Whatever you wear cover your ears, they definitely need protecting from the cold water and ear infections and swimmers ear can keep you out of the water for long periods of time, so cover them up with some neoprene.
Neoprene is not cheap, and it goes through more stress than normal fabric, constantly being submerged in water, which in my case is salty. It is held together by a mixture of glue and stitching which don’t take kindly to be roughly treated. So look after it. Turn them inside out if you can and give them a rinse in fresh clean water. I put my watersports wetsuit on a gently rinse cycle in the washing machine, my swimming wetsuit I do not, it’s too fragile. If they really pong you can add a bit of specialist gentle detergent. To dry them, inside out again if possible, remembering to turn them the right way when they are dry to the touch and allow them to dry again. Outside in the wind is always best. Don’t use a coat hanger on your wetsuit – it will stretch and damage the shoulders. Radiators can be used but they can damage the seals and glue! Gloves and boots should be dried allowing the evaporating water to escape – so not upside down or they will remain wet. You can use newspaper or kitchen towel to absorb the stubborn moisture from the finger and toe area but remove it after a short amount of time, remaining in there wet and damp just hinders the drying!
So the choice is yours! Wear whatever you want as long as you swim safe and have fun! You can always strip back to just a cossie just as you are about to exit the water if you want to feel the water on your skin. And look after your kit so your kit continues to look after you.
How swimming into winter in a wild swim community ensures you are looking out for each other physically AND mentally.
There is a reason birds roost together, fly together, flock together. It’s for strength, safety and warmth. And this is also the reason the Salty Seabirds swim together. As we move into the cold winter months and a second lockdown in England, it is more important than ever that we look out for one other both physically and emotionally. In the immediate future, we may be swimming in pairs or not at all due to distance but we definitely need to come together for the winter.
We’ve had a huge increase in the number of swimmers joining our flock since September. A mixture of excitement and nerves as they look to swim through their first winter. Swimmers tend to focus on the practicalities of cold water swimming. Like what kit is required? How long should they stay in? How often should they go to build up acclimatisation? In reality you don’t need any kit at all. Yes it makes it more comfortable to have a sports robe and a woolly hat post swim but really to swim all you need is your cossie, and sometimes not even that. Instead what experience has shown me is, I need support to swim through winter. The support of a swimming community to look out for me both physically and emotionally.
How can we look out for each other emotionally?
Simply by bringing your swimming into your everyday. I don’t mean actually go swimming everyday but the sense of community, kindness and care you experience with your fellow swimmers shouldn’t be left at the beach, but bought into your everyday. Keep in touch with each other digitally with simple text message checking in on each other providing peer support. Particularly if you notice someone has been missing from swimming for a while or if you noticed a change in their behaviour when you last swam with them. Many swimmers live alone and a swimming community that they regularly interact with may be he first to notice if they are absent, if they are distracted, if they appear sad.
We can look at meeting other swimmers for a walk before or after our swims to be able to catch up with each other without our voices being drowned out by the sound of waves. You don’t even need to talk, just being with another person surrounded by the sound of the sea can provide a positive emotion response. Eating, particularly cake after a winter swim is pretty much compulsory so trying out new recipes and sharing baked goods or even stews and soups with one another can provide much needed routine and activity.
If you have been swimming in the sea year round for a while you are likely to have made some swimmy friends that you swim with regularly. You will have a good idea of swim routine and rituals. If you notice any changes to this it may be worth a quick check in with them. If they are normally okay in challenging (not dangerous) sea conditions but are choosing not to go in. Or if they are choosing to go in when the sea is challenging and/or dangerous and this is not a risk they would normally take. This change in behaviour could be due to changes in their wellbeing and someone asking them how they are could make all the difference.
Swimming with others makes winter swimming more pleasurable. It can provide you with the confidence needed to enter the water. If you are meeting someone for a swim it’s harder to back out and you know you never regret a swim! Other swimmers can also provide you with the reassurance that you don’t have to get in. If it’s too rough they’ll sit with you on the beach. You can get the same benefit from cold water swimming just by paddling. Just getting out of the house and being by the sea with a likeminded soul may be just what a swimmer needs! So invite someone to swim with you!
How can we look out for each other physically?
So to do this you need to know how cold water swimming can impact swimmers physically. Our body’s response to being in cold water can be both immediate and when we have exited the water. Knowing the signs and symptoms and what to do to help your fellow swimmers is a really important part of winter swimming.
Cold water shock
Happens in the water. Water does not have to be really cold for swimmers to experience cold water shock. It can occur in 15°C water and it can occur if you are wearing a wetsuit. Acclimatisation throughout the colder months and upon entry into the water as well as breathing exercises can help but they are not guaranteed to prevent it. When you immerse you body into cold water a couple of things happen. 1. You can gasp involuntarily which may result in you breathing in water. 2. Your blood arteries constrict and your blood flow increases to warm you up making the heart rate increase considerably as it works harder. These reactions to cold water can quickly turn into drowning and/or a heart attack. So watch out for your swim buddy(s) as you get into the water, keep an eye on each other, keep talking to regulate breathing. If your fellow swimmer is struggling to breathe and swim – get them out and warm them up!
cold water incapacitation
Happens in the water. While your body is immersed in cold water it works to adapt to this change in circumstances and survive. Blood is redirected to your core and vital organs leaving your limbs and digits without blood and unable to move and function as they should – i.e. you will not be able to swim which can obviously lead to drowning. Whilst you are swimming watch your swim buddy’s stroke, are they slowing down, disorientated, finding it difficult to propel themselves through the water. Talk to each other as you swim asking how your bodies are coping, which bits of them are cold, are they beginning to tire. If you are concerned about a fellow swimmer actually ask them if they are ok to keep swimming – they may well answer yes – so ask them other questions to gauge their cognitive processing like what they watched on TV last night or who their favourite Spice Girl is. If you feel their cognition is impaired its time to leave the water, you may need to lead by example or be quite straight with them about the risk of staying in.
Happens out of the water. All of that blood that left your limbs to keep your core and vital organs warm now heads back out to your cold limbs and extremities cooling back down as it does so. As it is cooled down by your cold body it makes you even colder for a while. You though your were cold when you got out of the water when in reality you will be at your coldest about ten minutes later. Which is why it is important to get out of cold wet swimming attire and into dry warm layers as soon as possible. If you see your swim buddy faffing, taking photos or chatting before they’ve got dressed tell them off! Help them if they need help pulling on layers, now is not a time for dignity and grace. Get sipping that tea and scoffing that cake whilst moving around. It’s also a great excuse for a post swim hug!
Happens in and out of the water Hypothermia occurs when the bodies core temperature falls below 35°C – fortunately the onset is slow so if you spot the signs early enough you have time to take appropriate action. The first one being – GET OUT OF THE WATER. Mild hypothermia: uncontrollable shivering and numbness, loss of simple coordination. Probably more noticeable out of the water than in but again regularly check in with your swim buddy and get out if in doubt. Out of the water, the signs are similar to the After Drop but remember this time the core is cold so moving around will not help warm them up. Get them into layers and lots of them. Get them into a warm shelter, off the cold ground, in a car with the heaters on full will suffice. Don’t put hot things like hot water bottles and mugs of hot drinks near their skin. Moderate hypothermia: confusion and strange inebriated-like behaviour, slurred speech it’s like they are drunk. Get them out of the water now! And if you are on land post swim get them warm with layers, hats, towels, coats, gloves and follow the advice above. Keep them talking and keep monitoring them. Ask them to count from 10 backwards or other more challenging mental tasks and keep a note of how they answered to assess if they are improving or deteriorating. If they deteriorate call 999. Severe hypothermia: blue-grey skin, slow or halted breathing, loss of consciousness. Do all of the above and call 999 immediately!
I am lucky to be a part of the Salty Seabird community. This community has, at times, carried me into the water and now I look to them to carry me through another winter. It’s strange because I don’t usually thrive in a group, but in this one I do. Let’s keep looking out for one other both physically and emotionally so we both thrive and survive! Together we will get through another winter……..
Coming soon the Seabird’s winter swimming webinar with tips on kit, acclimatisation, safety, weather, sea conditions……..
I’ve accepted that my brain, can at times, be broken. But when my body lets me down, I’m not quite so accepting……
I write a lot about my mental health and how swimming in the sea with a supportive and kind community improves my wellbeing. What is less known about me, and until now not written about, is my physical health. I have gone back and forth about whether to put this into the public domain. Will I sound ‘poor me’? Do I want to reveal another layer of my vulnerability? At a time when happiness is hard to find is it the right time for me to share my frustration and anger? The decision was made for me when my physical health took a downward turn this week and I was unable to leave the house, let a lone swim. But the kindness of my swimming community kept me going. So here it is, my I can’t make do and I certainly won’t mend story.
15 years ago I slipped on some leaves and fractured my skull. I was unconscious for 2 days and in hospital for a week. As a result I am deaf in one ear and I have no sense of smell. Sounds manageable right? Just wear a hearing aid and really who needs smell? Well me. I do. We all do. Smell and more importantly scents are processed via the amygdala and hippocampus meaning scent can immediately trigger an intense emotion and/or memory. Your amygdala enables you to feel, to process emotions and respond to situations but, in my case, part of its supply chain has been cut off. Which just leaves rage and anger. And I can’t wear a bloody hearing aid in the sea, when I’m running, anywhere windy i.e. anywhere outdoors in the UK. But that’s ok I have another working ear. Well no actually it’s not. Due to the way sound waves travel, high-frequency sounds don’t make it round my head to my working ear, I am unable to judge distance by sound when crossing a road, and being in a busy pub, shop or room is totally unbearable at times. And that’s not the worst of it……..
I have tinnitus – sometimes known as a ringing in the ears but actually it’s more like a whine, a constant never ending whine that fingers in the ears cannot block out. Imagine the sound of static searching for radio or TV station in the 1970s by turning a dial or the morning after a night stood by a speaker at a loud gig. It’s that, but it never goes away. And here’s the one head injury legacy that appears rarely but when it does it leaves me totally floored, Benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV). This wonderful condition is caused by the crystals that tell you which way is up in your semi-circular canals (inner ear) escape and go off on a little jolly. So they start sending your brain the wrong information about which way you’re facing or which way up your head is, which is complete contradiction to the messages your eyes are sending your brain. The symptoms are dizziness, headaches, nausea, vomiting and falling over. The only relief to be found is lying totally still with your eyes closed. In my case this can go on for days until those pesky crystals find their way home with the help of head manipulation.
If I sound angry, resentful and embittered it’s because I am. I have slowly, over time, come to accept my mental health and although there is no cure I can manage it via medication, rest and of course swimming in the sea. But for my physical health there is no cure, I will not hear or smell again, the tinnitus will never go away and every now and then, normally at the worst time possible, I am totally incapacitated by BPPV. And just to rub salt in the wound, being at logger heads with my physical health results in poor mental health.
I am often referred to (by my mum) as head strong. But I’m really not. My head is broken. I have shoulders of a Russian shot putter and legs that can run and walk for miles but my bloody head is bust. One of the things advocated for good mental health and wellbeing is self-care including time on the sofa, bed and bath. Read a book, watch a box set. But when that is your retreat when your mental health is bad, the irony is you feel worse. And when this is your only option because of BPPV, the accompanying low mood is inevitable. The way I deal with my physical disability is distraction. If I keep busy I can tune out from the tinnitus. If I swim in the sea everyone with me is hearing impaired due to the wind and the waves. If I play and perform the iconic Seabird handstand in the shallows my world is upside down, quite literally which then matches the messages in my brain. In the sea we are the same.
The relationship you have with your body and it’s impact on your mental health is well researched and written about. But it focuses more on the shape and size of our body. Body positivity and body confidence campaigns tend to concentrate on the appearance of the body rather than what the body is capable of. I don’t hate my body because of what it looks like. I hate the bit above the shoulders that is broken and stops me from doing the stuff I love and improves my mental health. Not being able to hear stops me from spending time in large groups and in noisy places like pubs and restaurants. I am constantly having to turn my head to be able to lip read which isn’t great for the dizziness and nausea symptoms associated with BPPV. It is also incredibly tiring lipreading and trying to process and filter out of the balance, hearing, sight activity going on in my brain that is in conflict with each other. When your ears say you are looking left but your eyes tell you you’re looking straight forward it’s exhausting.
The relationship between my physical health and my mental health is intrinsically linked. A symptom of my depression is tiredness and staying in bed and it is also a symptom of my BPPV, and impaired processing abilities. A symptom of my anxiety is not being able to face large groups of people and it is also a symptom of not being able to hear what people are saying. So the stuff my mental health stops me from doing is also the stuff my physical health stops me from doing. It’s hard to swim when you can’t turn your head to breathe without wanting to throw up or walk across the shingles without falling over.
But, my love for sea swimming has been a life saver. Yes I need to use my head to make decisions and assess risks etc but I’m predominantly reliant on my arms and legs – my strength. I don’t need to do front crawl to swim, I can breast stroke, back stroke, float or sit in the shallows. It makes me feel good about myself. I can mask my disabilities in my swimming community. The details of my disability were, until this week, unknown to even my closest swimming friends. The Kath the see in the sea is not the person I have described in this blog. I’m not broken in the water and this is the Kath they know. It was only because I could not get out of bed, let alone make it to the beach this week that the salty community became aware of my head injury legacy.
Once aware the kindness of community was incredible. I was inundated with offers to drive me places, help me onto the beach and supportive messages of love. The sea was stormy this week, big waves and wind. My BPPV began to improve throughout the week and by Thursday I was ready to give swimming a go. And on Friday I went again. Both swims were wonderfully warm and full of smiling seabirds. I’m always the first into the sea and this was no different. I love to stride with purpose when I get in. After being knocked over by waves so many times I kinda don’t care if it happens. In fact it is part of the joy, the thrill the exhilaration. And I like this version of me. The capable me. They say the view you get from the sea is like no other. For me the view I have of myself in the sea is like no other.
Water is a real leveller. Long term the physical damage to by brain is permanent. And there will be times when I cannot swim. But, the sea will always be there, ready, for when I can. And so will the collective consciousness of kindness that is the salty seabirds. And swimming after a setback is oh so so sweet!
It’s World Mental Health Day. This year’s theme is ‘mental health for all’ because we’ve all taken a battering lately. I’m fortunate to have a supportive partner and swimming in the sea, and more recently the lochs and rivers of Scotland to keep me on an even keel. But it’s not been easy. Our mostly water tight marriage has been weathering some significant storms…….
There are lots of things I do to manage my mental heath. Medication. Rest. Swimming in the sea. I also never give up on searching for the feeling of happiness. But I can’t do this on my own. Whilst depression steals my happiness anxiety robs me of the ability to do new things, meet new people and visit new places. Despite my anxiety, I love finding new swim spots and experiencing new adventures. They bring me so much joy. Fortunately, for the last 33 years I’ve had Ferg, my husband, who makes all of this possible.
When lockdown happened everybody was affected. Not being able to move freely, explore and travel impacted the whole world. My husband, who normally travels for work, was now in the house 24/7. Initially this was a blessing. Unable to leave the house due to the sheer number of people walking in my once out-of-the-way footpaths and swimming on my once quiet secluded beaches, he walked the dog, went to the supermarket and ran the errands. Sounds great right? And it was initially. But here’s the thing about anxiety and depression, to function you have to face them. Not without help and never alone but you have to push through the anxiety and go outside to remind your battered brain that you will come to no harm. Once outside, you will experience the happiness and joy that only the natural world can bring. The problem was, we were now in a pattern. And not a healthy one. One that caused resentment, frustration and a lot of anger. We were navigating stormy waters.
Like any couple, we’ve weathered a lot of storms over the past 3 decades. Life’s monumental moments, marriage, having kids and buying a home, bring a lot of joy, but also a lot of stress. I don’t deal with stress very well and Ferg takes the brunt of my mental health moods. We’ve had times in the past when we have co-existed and tolerated each other rather than supported one another and said sorry. But in more recent years he has tried to understand my mind more, created a safe space for me to just be and been the entire support crew for every decision, idea, and plan I come up with. He is unable to sit and be still, he needs to be doing and so is happy to go where my plans take him. He enables me to find happiness and that makes him happy. That was until my decisions, ideas and plans were all put in jeopardy by a bloody pandemic. Lock down was challenging my marriage.
During the last 6 months the even keel that he and I have worked so hard to achieve was listing. There are too many to mention reasons for this, some are circumstantial, some are my fault, some are his. But suffice to say my mental health was taking a battering and therefore so was he. Our usual time away trips provide an opportunity for us to really check in with each other but these were cancelled. The only trip on the horizon was the Swim Wild UK Highland Gathering weekend in Scotland. He was only coming to keep me company and provide me with the confidence to join in with a swimming weekend. At home he doesn’t swim with me, but when we are away he indulges me. But this was altogether the next level. A whole weekend with cold water swimmers. He was coming to make me happy. And then, that too, was cancelled.
As my mental health deteriorated and my mood continued to spiral downward I didn’t go to the Doctors. Far be it for a trained professional to tell me that I probably needed to up my medication. I was self-medicating with wine instead because of course that’s a real mood lifter! My marriage and me were in the doldrums.
It’s hard to pinpoint when the tide turned. A sequence of events, a conscious effort, small adaptations. I think it was all of these. We stopped drinking and began to go outside again together. To the beach and the sea. On Saturdays we’d go for long walks with picnic lunches. As lock down lessened we moved further afield. There isn’t a beach in Sussex we haven’t visited over the summer months. We, like most couples, are at our best when we leave our responsibilities behind and really spend time together. So, we still went to Scotland. The event was cancelled but we still had our accommodation booked.
We spent three blissful days out of range and undisturbed in a Shepherd’s Hut in the Cairngorms. The River Spey’s fast flow could be heard from our cosy raised bed and we spent time easily together in a breathtaking part of the world. We have been north of the border many times but this trip was more than much needed. It was the piece of the puzzle we didn’t know was missing.
It’s an easier task for him to find my happy when we are away from the world and I am near water. He spends a lot of time watching me in the sea or searching beaches for treasure. In Scotland, we walked around deep dark lochs, found lochans of lily pads and clambered over rocks on the edge of fast flowing gorges and waterfalls. We spent our evenings in the river. I’ve never known cold like it and this was summer! Although this is my natural habitat, being submerged in cold water, it is not his. But he does it to find my happy. (We found his happy on a big beach break in the North Sea. As long as there is a warm wave, there is a smile on his face.)
We left Scotland with heavy hearts but a lightened load. Spending time together is something we’d stopped doing whilst we were forced under one roof. Unable to escape each others sighs. Unable to hear what the other was saying. Unable to see past our our situations. But being at our worst as a couple makes you appreciate each other when you are at your best. We are at our best when it’s just the two of us, wide open space and of course water. And Ferg makes this possible.
Swimming in the sea at the start of the day is cemented in my self-care. It doesn’t need to be every day and it will always be worth it.
I am an early bird. Silly and ridiculously early. Nothing really affects it. A late night, alcohol or jet lag do nothing to change the hour I wake. This is both a curse and a blessing. Alongside medication, I manage my mental health with a self-care package that includes enough sleep and swimming in the sea. Getting enough sleep when you always wake before first light is a challenge. However, it means I get some solitude in the still cool morning air to enjoy my first cuppa alone to collect my thoughts. And a swim, as the sun is rising, is the best way to start the day.
When I wake up, whatever time that is, there is just no going back to sleep. My busy brain engages and an incredibly messy amount of thoughts rush in to replace my dreams. I don’t fight it anymore. I’ve learned to go with it. I get up and allow the crazy chatter some room while the kettle boils and I unload the dishwasher. Like the waves in the sea, fierce and full of energy, left to their own devices they form into sets and swells. If left to organize themselves I gain quiet clarity.
Being alone with my thoughts is something I actively avoid throughout the day. But there is something about the stillness of the morning, particularly on the beach or in the sea, that makes them more manageable. I’m rested and ready to face the maelstrom of my mind. I know I’ll be done by midday, exhausted and ready to retreat so it’s now or never. It is the calm before the storm.
Before the sun takes control of the wind there is often a gentle off shore breeze on the beach in the mornings. Only the tops of the trees know that the wind is there. It is enough to muffle and mute the sounds of the land. And it allows the sea some space to sing to the shingle. Everything appears gentler, even the way I enter the sea and swim in the mornings is ethereal.
I leave home before the kids get up and the house stirs and I am never more alone in the mornings on the beach or in the sea. Conversely, this time of much treasured solitude, is when I feel most connected. Being alone, in the damp air, on a deserted beach, at dawn I am connected to myself. I am connected to the natural rhythm of the sea. My world is still spinning but my axis is still.
There is something fresh about the mornings, and not just the bite of the wind and the water before the sun has had the chance to warm them. Every day is a fresh start. Yesterday is in the past. Your possibilities for the day are endless. There is hope. “So fine was the morning except for a streak of wind here and there that the sea and sky looked all one fabric, as if sails were stuck high up in the sky, or the clouds had dropped down into the sea.” Virginia Woolf.
On wild windy mornings you feel alive. And it’s good to be alive! You feel every part of your body. The cold and the waves of the vast winter seas is mother nature as her best. Your worries float away on a calm sea, but in a choppy chill waters in January, he sea renders them insignificant.
Routine is a key component to managing my mental health. Throughout the day the decisions we make increase, causing fatigue, so having a morning routine that requires no decision making keeps the tiredness at bay. The brains resources and my resilience is limited, but my morning swims, cemented in my every day, keep it topped up. This healthy routine helps me maintain physical, emotional, and mental health during stressful times.
Morning swims are different to those later in the day. You are waking your mind and your body. Swimming is a great form of exercise that is low impact and really gives your body a great stretch and work out. Even if the sea is too rough to swim in I will head to the beach to walk on the shore or run on the promenade. Just being by the sea.
My solo morning swims differ from those I share with my swimming community. They are full of chatter, laughter and cake. Whereas my morning swims are meditative and mindful. I find a calm flow of repetitive strokes. Again this is a time when my thoughts come and go and requires little effort to practice. As the winter draws in the and the sea temperature drops and dawn distance swims are no longer possible, quick cold dips replace them. Instead the cold water resets by brain and shocks my body into morning mode.
Once I’ve had a swim, combed the beach or I have sat and watched the waves come and go and I have quite literally collected my thoughts, the tone is set for the day. Without this morning ritual, the day can take quite a dark turn. Up with the larks I am grateful that it provides me with a natural coping mechanism for my anxiety and depression. Left alone with my thoughts I am able to plan rather than procrastinate.
I couldn’t not live by the sea. I couldn’t live without my mornings in the sea.
Finding a flock where you belong, where you are accepted, where you are at ease is a thing to be treasured. It gives you permission to be you. And that was evident in abundance during a weekend away with the Seabirds in Suffolk.
Last weekend, a flock of Seabirds and I headed to Suffolk for a weekend of swimming. It is a beautiful part of the country and we became enamoured by her quiet beaches, meandering rivers and tidal creeks. We’d done something similar the year before when we spent a few days in a bunkhouse in Pembrokeshire. As soon as we had unpacked from that weekend in Wales we had booked this years Seabird tour to Suffolk. It’s hard to imagine that a group, like ours, where many of us suffer with mental illnesses, wellbeing issues and physical difficulties would want to spend a weekend away with a big noisy group doing physical activities. But it is what bought us together, these flaws of ours. We accept that everyone in this group has a back story. More importantly we accept ourselves. So whilst the scenic swims and adventures in new places is a big draw, giving ourselves permission and being granted permission, to just be, was an even bigger draw.
Right up until the day of departure our flock was dwindling. Covid has not been kind to anyone and many circumstances have changed that meant a few of the flock had to stay at home. But with an itinerary of swims, a YHA Hostel booked, a silent disco at the ready and enough food to feed an army we were Suffolk bound. Cath and I left early to spend the day ‘working’ offsite which included a visit to Dunwich beach. The rest of the flock were travelling after work so we were the first to arrive at the hostel. Gradually the birds began to arrive in dribs and drabs. Every car load a wondrous surprise of which birds had travelled with which. The success of this community evident in friendships that had formed in the sea, only a few months ago, but now away from the beach, arriving together.
Once we’d all arrived, dumped our belongings, had nana naps, been to the loo, we headed out to find a tidal creek to swim in. 18 women walking along a narrow footpath with tow floats and swim robes trying to find a suitable spot to get in was more than a local bird watcher could believe. With eyes like saucers she asked if she could stay and watch. After investigating a jetty and a floating pontoon it was deemed too muddy to get in and out without getting stuck. So we headed to the sea and the familiar feel of shingle under foot in Aldeburgh. A convoy of cars in the dark soon lost each other but we all made it to the beach and were content to swim in car loads scattered along the shore. Tow floats illuminated with bike lights or being buff on the beach. Swims in different stretches but all experiencing the magic of being in the sea after the sun had set and the light had left for the day. Almost brackish to the taste, silky to the touch and quiet apart from our cackling. It was a wonderful way to start the weekend
Saturday, and the plan was to swim 1.5 miles along the River Stour from Dedham Mill to Flatford Mill. This wonderful part of the world was captured in Constable’s The Hay Wain and it did not disappoint. Two of the flock needed rest rather than a swim and set off for a beach stroll and lunch instead so down to 16 we set off to walk between the two mills before swimming back. It was an incredible swim through chocolate box countryside. The water was clear and void of litter, wonderful underwater woodlands of aquatic plants grew in abundance, shallow gravel bends meant sighting fish was easy and there were Constable painting worthy lily pads in the shade. A few walked the first section and got in later. A few got out early. Some hopped in and out as the mood took them. We ended up back at the starting meadow in different groups to the ones we had set off in, at various different times. Once the swan and her cygnets at the exit bridge were negotiated, we picnicked on the grass by the river. Cake is the most suitable way to celebrate a swim safari. Then it was back to the hostel to dry our kit while we read books, snoozed or sunbathed on the beach.
The next swim was an early evening dip at Thorpeness. Again the birds opted in or out depending on their mood. Some stayed behind to cook. Others were already on the beach. I opted for the beach but went for a wander along the shoreline to look for treasure before jumping in the big blue. There is a lot of tidal erosion in this part of the world but also a wealth of wildlife and nature reserves. It is a beach combers paradise. As I returned to the fold some were getting out of the sea, some were getting dressed, some where still in the water. As I slipped into the cooling waters, doing my own thing, I realised so was everyone else.
That evening we were treated by the culinary skills of the group and had a feast of curries, followed by meringues and lemon curd. A firepit was built in the back garden and we danced to a Silent Disco. (Silent it wasn’t with lots of singing). Again the group came and went – some danced all night (well til 11pm), some opted for an early turn in, others went straight to bed after dinner. We didn’t care, we didn’t mind. If they were happy, we were happy.
The next morning and more food. Also, aching bodies and ailments taking their toll. So instead of the planned long river swim in Cambridge we opted for salt and the sea once more. Over breakfast some of the group made an early start home with work and family commitments to attend to. Simple shouts of goodbye and waves whilst the rest of us remained at the breakfast table were enough. With beds stripped and the kitchen empty the remainder birds headed for Covehithe beach with the contents of the fridge in a cool box. Covehithe is a beach at the end of a lane and was a stunning place to spend a sunny morning. Sat Navs took us various ways and when we arrived there were birds already bobbing and bathing. Clear blue skies and warm winds meant a morning of sunbathing, swimming and strolling. More left after a quick dip as they needed the rest and respite of home and again farewell shouts from the shore to the sea were sufficient. Lunch was eaten, sea glass was searched for and final wees were had in the sea before it was time to go home.
So the weekend was a success. Not because we managed to squeeze it in before ever changing Covid regulations. Not because the beaches and rivers were idyllic and far from the madding crowd, unlike our home town. Not because the food was lush and the company was salty. But because we are a group that accept each other. A group that doesn’t judge how many eggs you’ve laid or even if you’ve ever laid any. It is a group that enables you to give yourself permission to be imperfect, permission to chose, permission to try new things, permission to take chances. Permission to come and go as you chose. Words cannot express how freeing that is.
We speak the common language of permission to be happy. That is to say, we’ve all (to varying degrees) stopped looking for approval or seeking consent. We’ve realised it is pointless and we don’t need permission from others, we give ourselves permission, we chose to do things that make us happy. We’ve accepted our flaws and given ourselves permission to be imperfect. Perfection isn’t real and only serves to steal happiness. We permit ourselves time to step out of the day to day and try new things, visit new places, find new adventures. If we fail, we fail together but you’ll have a bunch of Seabirds cheering you on from the sidelines regardless. And in this safe environment we have permission to take a chance, take a risk, a leap of faith where the rewards make us happy. This is why the weekend was a success. We accept and are accepted.
When home at last, I was soaking in the bath reflecting on my gratitude for the flocks’ time, cooking, enthusiasm, sense of adventure, sense of humour, quiet conversations, sea glass hunting and not forgetting swimming. My greatest love is seeking out new places by the sea, but my biggest fear is the loud and busy bustle of being around groups for extended periods of time. That weekend I was able to walk alone on the shoreline yet dance with friends. I was able to read on my own, yet join in the chatter in the kitchen. I was able to float in solitude yet be part of the flock as we headed downstream in idyllic settings. I was able to say loud rude sweary words where I wanted and whenever I needed. A place of permission and acceptance is a thing to be treasured.
I thought I was doing OK, and I am, but there is definitely a storm brewing in the distance. Low pressure is here and it relentlessly keeps coming. So one morning this week, I released the pressure with the flock on the beach and in the sea.
As I sit, days later, thinking about that morning I cannot help but smile. Better yet, the exhilaration, excitement and elated mood I experienced was shared. It was just the tonic!
We’re at the tail end of Storm Francis and the weather is changeable. Strong winds are keeping us on our toes and permanently glued to weather and sea forecast apps to identify swimming windows. We had a Seabird birthday to celebrate this week so opportunity was key. The birthday girl settled on an 8am swim at King Alfred Beach, the dog friendly side. I was also meeting a friend that morning, having a swimming lesson and generally galivanting about the beach between lessons and courses. So I agreed to the birthday swim but said I wouldn’t get in just come for the cake and the craic (the birthday girl is Irish).
Another Seabird spotted me as soon as I got out of the car. I don’t have particular, favourite or regular swim buddies. They all fill my cup in different ways. This bird is bloody funny and her quick wit and clumsiness have your sides splitting. So I knew I was in for a fun gathering of the flock. We wandered down to the beach watching birds come from different directions, drifting until they spotted the ever growing brood. There was lots of talk of the weather and the waves. The beauty of a westerly is you can see the squalls and the fronts coming over the sea and the sky has been putting on quite a show of late.
There was lots of pre-swim chatter. It’s the summer and we all naturally migrate in the warmer months, coming back together in September when school starts. And although this has been a strange summer of staycations, we have still not met in big groups or seen much of each other. So the chatter was excited, urgent, loud and bloody lovely. Two of the birds I’d seen the day before but there was still so much to say. One I hadn’t seen for months and was keen to hear about her freshwater swimming adventures. There have been house moves, holidays, exam results, illnesses that all needed airing. Most of the birds are parents and a child free hour means cramming conversation in.
Finally, they got in the sea. A couple of years ago, particularly on a wavy day, they would wait for me to lead the charge. That is not an arrogant statement, it is merely a fact. I am not the Queen of the Sea (I am) but I do have confidence when getting in the water. Looking to my left and right there would be lines of birds waiting for when I would make my move. Now they all nonchalantly stroll in and if a wave takes them out they laugh. From my strange, dry vantage point I feel like a proud mother hen. This is why we did this. These women were strangers to each other not so long ago. Now they are firmly established in each other’s lives. We may not venture far from the beach but we venture into each other’s experiences, worries and doubts and are welcomed like old friends. There’s screeching, laughing and wonderful rendition of Happy Birthday in a mermaid ring. A couple swim off to get some mileage in, others bob and chat, a few practice their strokes. Doing their own thing but doing it together. Then it was time for cake. The only reason for swimming in the sea year round other than connection is cake. And lots of it.
Before the birds even had their clothes back on the cake came out. Various varieties. You cannot have a swim and then be offered just one type of cake. The distance swimmers were back and needed warming up so cake was eaten in a stood upright shaky position. Others wrapped in robes hunkered down to get out of the growing wind. Positions swapped as conversations changed. Then finally, someone said “Right I must go now”. The reason for an 8am swim was so it didn’t eat into peoples day and we could prepare for the return of routine mornings. Inevitably, the first “Right I must go now” was responded to with “Yes, me too.” But no one left the beach. The chatter changed but continued. You just ended up talking to someone else further up the beach. I walked the neap high water line with another bird looking for sea glass and putting the world to rights, others picked up litter, some had another slice of cake. But no one actually left. When I go back from my slow dawdle, they were all still there, just in a different flight formation. Finally the first one left and gradually people began to leave. It was so gradual it was hardly noticeable and the “Right I must go now” was replaced with “I thought you were going” or “Are you still here?”.
I had no where to be other than the beach that morning. Something I had been fretting about as the TO DO list at home beckoned. But by now I’d been at the beach for well over an hour, almost two. Time had run away and relaxation had rushed into replace it. With a handful of us left, a sizeable piece of sea glass was found and that was it. We were going nowhere. Tales of legendary size finds were shared, shingle was over-turned in the search for fortune and shells offered in exchange for the gem. But the finder wasn’t to be parted with her treasure. Then she found another piece, even bigger, practically in the same spot. We swarmed around her plotting ways to relieve her of her burden of gems. Creating a sea glass colour and size hierarchy and beach currency to offer her as a trade deal. We were Sea Witches at their best.
No one mentioned leaving for quite a while again. Instead, we joked and teased each other relentlessly. They were the kind of jokes that made you feel like you belonged but weren’t exclusive. Yes you could be the brunt of them but not in a mean girl way. The jokes were based on joyful, jubilant times together. Childlike (some would say immature) innocent pure fun. Which continued long into the day via messages and concluded with another Seabird classic evaluation of our time together. “ I didn’t know how much I needed that”. Finally, It was just two of us left and we went our separate ways eventually because I was meeting a friend.
I stayed on the beach for another three hours after they had all gone. I met a close friend on a bench on the prom. We watched as Seabird swim coaches worked their magic with nervous new sea swimmers. Christine was running an introduction to sea swimming session and Emma was teaching a Breast Stroke to Front Crawl lesson. A lesson which Co-Flounder Cath was in. We were meant to go for a walk, my friend and I. Instead we sat and chatted about our kids, our lives and our goings on. All the while watching the sea and the ever expanding flock. Cath came to say hello after her lesson. Her sense of achievement radiated from her happiness more infectious than normal. Then it was my time to get in.
I’ve been swimming a lot in the summer but not swimming. I usually reduce my sea time in high season as I hate the crowds and despair at the litter but this year has been different. Having to meet in smaller groups has meant more salt on my skin. Outdoor swimmers are growing in numbers and so the Seabird, lessons, sessions and courses are thriving. My hair constantly has seaweed in it and there is always a cossie drying somewhere. But I haven’t been swimming swimming. My usual early morning buoy loops just haven’t happened. No point to points with the tide. No circumnavigations of either of the piers. I’ve been getting in and bobbing but I have replaced longer swims with cake, runs with crisps and gym classes with chocolate. I’m in the midst of a body moving funk and not the kind that gets your body moving. So I signed up to have technique lessons with Emma. Having a set times and place and someone telling me what to do in the hope that it would reboot my body.
It was wonderful. Moving my body with purpose. Recalling it’s hidden strength. Not thinking about anything else other than what Emma was telling me to do. Meeting the other swimmers, some of whom were just at the start of their sea swimming adventures. And Emma does everything with humour, putting the participants at ease. I lost my goggles on the first wave and did the rest of the lesson in a kids snorkel mask. Towards the end of the lesson one of the swimmers knocked against something in the shore dump. Poking out from the shingle, only visible every 5th wave or so, was a metal ladder. Only the first two rungs were not buried. With a lot of pulling, falling over and face planting I manage, with the help of two other swimmers to dig/pull it out. I proudly marched the 10ft ladder up the beach to the lifeguard post. Best beach clean find ever! And in that Amazonian moment my body and I made friends again.
I remained on the beach for while longer to catch Christine after she completed her last Introduction Session of the season. She asked me how things were going. And I moaned and moaned a bit more and then for good measure a grumble. We’ve not been able to run the Women Wellbeing and Water free community courses for people that identify as having mental health issues. We’ve been running these for two years and this would have been our third summer. Cath and I are both huge advocates of the benefits year round swimming can have on wellbeing. This is our raison d’etre. In her calm, quiet way Christine helped me to see we’d achieved so much this summer. We’d run numerous tasters, lessons and courses to give others the confidence to get in the sea. This small part of Hove seafront had been full to overflowing with Seabirds seeking solace by the sea all morning. Reinforcing her wise words I turned to see a bobble hat and another bird I’d not seen for a while. She’d popped down for a solo dip. We chatted about how cold it was that morning and I realised I was cold because I’d been in the sea and on the beach for five hours now. I realised I was really looking forward to cold, skin biting swims again. I realised that this wasn’t the summer I had planned but it had been a brilliant one nonetheless.
My buoyant happy mood continued for the rest of the day. I finally walked back through my front door at 2pm. My hair resembled the seaweed it had been dragged through. I was starving and cold but I was warm and full. This best bird morning was topped off by an indulgent day time bubbly bath. As I finally slipped my cossie off at 3pm, the sound of shingle leaving my gusset and landing on the tiled floor and the sight of wine red seaweed stuck to my body, I smiled. Being salty all day, on the beach teeming with swimming Seabirds was just the tonic I didn’t know I needed.
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.