Seasoned With Salt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

 

Meet The Flockers; A Salty Seabird Introduction

Introducing a new series of blogs focusing on individual Salty Seabirds, providing an insight into their sea swimming story.

Welcome to Pass the Salt Seabird Blog’s newest addition. Meet the Flockers is a series of blogs that focuses on a different Salty Seabird each month.

One of the best things (and there are lots of best things) about being a Salty Seabird is, you never know who you are going to end up swimming with. We arrive at the beach in dribs and drabs and then faff, swim and chat to whoever happens to be there. The things we hardly share with each other are our names and occupations. In that moment the person faffing, swimming or chatting next to you is your companion, your confidant, your compeer. And we require no more than that.

What binds us together and keeps us coming back for more is a shared love of the sea and the beach and the positive impact it has on our individual and collective wellbeing. We don’t know why our fellow Salties swim in the sea and we don’t pry. That is until now. We are putting together a series of blogs to introduce you to some of our fellow swimmers and bring ‘Salted Wellbeing’ away from the beach and into our homes.

If you would like to feature as a ‘flocker’ do get in touch. It will involve no more than an hour of your time, some honest dialogue over a hot brew (preferably post swim) and a donation of a couple of your favourite swim smile images to accompany your story. As our flock continues to grow we have found that other swimmers benefit from hearing (read reading) the stories behind the swim smiles. So much can resonate and adds to the feeling of belonging. It is a way to #sharetheswimlove

In the past, we have been lucky enough to be gifted with some wonderful guest blogs written buy our swimming flock. Here are the links to them all. So this weekend click on the links and get to know some of your fellow sea swimmers and consider becoming a flocker!

Kim – A Cold Water Love Affair

Amy – Finding My Inner Mermaid

Sally – How to Surf the Urge

Didi – For the Love of Swimming

Charlotte – Marine Life

Rowena – The Cure for Anything is Salt Water

Anne – A Birds Eye View

Lorraine – A Seabird Song

Claudine – January doesn’t have to be Blue

Eloise – Mama and the Sea