The Days of the Dawnie are numbered

Not only is winter approaching, fast cooling the sea and air temperature, but daylight is fading fast too. And shorter days mean less opportunity to swim particularly if you are an early bird like me.

My favourite time to swim is first thing in the morning. I regularly wake up at 5.30am without an alarm all year round no matter what time, and in what state, I have gone to bed. This is both a blessing and curse. The curse is quite obvious. I can’t stay awake past 9pm, most peoples lunchtime is when I want to be eating my evening meal and don’t even think about asking me to do anything that uses my brain or my body after 4pm.

The blessing of being up at the crack of dawn is no body else is. I can start my day at my own pace and chose solitude or a seabird swim.

Brighton Beach in the morning is a totally different place to the bustling tourist trap that is presented on the front page of the red tops every time we get a hot day. Most locals stay up late and get up late so the shops and cafes do the same. So you can head down to the beach and scarcely see a soul. There is a huge community of sea swimmers, cycling commuters and promenade runners, but not a tourist in sight. Sadly the remnants of their late night activities too often are.

As you approach the sea front road you see people strolling out of the flats, towels rolled under arm, and heading onto the shingle for their morning constitutional. Open water swimming is a very social pursuit and fosters strong communities but the early morning swimmer seeks solace and silence. Courteous nods are exchanged but little chatter as you find your own spot and sink into the sea. Even if you are in a group voices are muted to suit the situation.

I have been trying to put my finger on what is so special about swimming at dawn. For surfers they can catch clean waves before the air temperature rises and creates a sea breeze. With less people in the line up, they also get their pick of the waves. The same can be said for morning swimming. The still air can create mill pond conditions and you will always be able to find a quiet spot.

But it is more than that. Knowing you will leave the water feeling relaxed and ready to face the day is a particular draw for me. The calm before the storm. The stillness of the air and water literally gets absorbed into your soul. The light in the morning also carries a sweet peace. Grey or blue, bright or dull, cloudy or clear it has a special sort of light in the sky that steals the horizon creating an endless seascape. The sun is low in the sky gradually creeping upwards taking your mood with it.

But how many Dawn Patrols are their left before winter steals the sunlight? Well that all depends on how close you are to the equator. For the Seabirds in Brighton we’ve got light at 7am until the end of the October. When the clocks change and we leave British Summer Time we are given the gift of a few more early starts possibly into November. Much like last year we will just keep getting in the sea and see.

Winter is Coming – the anticipation of cold water

Last year, the Seabirds swam in the sea all year round. It wasn’t a conscious decision. It just sorta happened. We started meeting on the beach to swim in May and we just didn’t stop. We were/are just a bunch of ordinary people who began regularly sea swimming due to changes in our personal lives. These changes meant we had the time in our normally busy, modern day, lives to take to the water at short notice and during the working day. Every month going in was another notch on the bed post although we convinced ourselves we hadn’t set ourselves arbitrary goals. Making it to December and the end of 2017, was a real highlight. Making it through January, February and March, when the Beast from the East turned up, really tested our determination. Swimming in the snow and frozen shingle. Who knew that would be a thing.
We all agreed that we would make concessions for the cold to ensure we were still able to get in the sea. Even if it meant donning a wet-suit which we were very keen to avoid. But, if it meant the difference between getting in or not, we would wear a wet-suit. This never happened. We are not skin swimming purists. We don’t judge neoprene clad swimmers. We believe you should wear what you feel comfortable in to ensure you get in. If the cold is a barrier then neoprene is the key that unlocks that door. As long as you get in who cares what you wear! Skin swimming is, for us, a choice we made as we love the high we get from being cold and hate the restriction of a wet-suit. However, if you are swimming kilometres rather than Brighton buoys and groynes and aren’t blessed with a slight middle aged spread, get your seal skin on.
We do have some adaptations though. For me, the head stops going in when the sea temperature drops out of double digits. I revert to a shoulder aching, face out, breast stroke. This is when my collar bone gets cold, a painful burning cold, from being both in and out of the water and the inevitable wind chill. So I resort to a thermal vest over my swim suit. Neoprene boots/socks are also a must. Not just for traversing the shingle beach to enter the sea, but to get out. I need to know that when it is time to get out, I can get out and get out quickly and safely. We double hat to preserve heat and pull on gloves to stop gnarly hands. See, hardly skin swimming purists, more cold water swimming with reasonable adaptations!
Swimming safely is also a massive consideration. Most of our flock have links with Brighton Surf Life Saving Club and the Seafront Office. We know only too well what can happen if you get too cold in the water. More concessions are made in the colder months. In deepest darkest winter when the water temperature plummets our swims are no more than 10/15 minutes. We never swim alone. There are no Lifeguards on duty after September until May so no red and yellow flags and safe swim areas. So if it’s too rough we just don’t go in or we pilchard on the beach. (Pilcharding is lying down in the shallows on the shingle in a line allowing the cold waves to wash cold water over you.)

We also have the best selection of cold combating after wear, accessories and refreshments. Hot tea and cake is an absolute must. Along with a woolly hat, woolly socks and woolly gloves The brighter and more garish the better. A brisk walk is better than a bath afterwards….but a bath ….with wine is also good!

Lots of layers, it sounds obvious but we love our haramaki core warmers. A fleece lined sports cloak is brilliant to get changed under and indeed travel home in. And clothes to easily get on afterwards when your hands just do not function with the cold. Tights and skinny jeans are not part of an outdoor swimmers staple wardrobe. Nor are bras. And sometimes knickers when we forget to pack them. 
So we made it though last winter with our concessions and cold combating accessories. The positive impact on our well being being the driving force. In fact, we swam more regularly during he cold months than we have all summer, as the Seabirds migrated for their holidays. And now here we are, turning to face the changing season. Last time full of naive anticipation. This time full of nervous anticipation. While the sea has been warmer and our swims longer we are looking forward to the more social winter swims. With heads out we get more time to chat. The chat is a necessary part of the swim, not just for our well being. It also allows us to regulate our breathing as we adapt to the sudden drop in temperature and prevents cold water shock and panic. Sometimes we sing too.

We are all a year older and hopefully wiser. Wise enough to know that it gets cold. Really cold. But while there’s a Seabird that is willing to swim it will encourage the rest of the flock into the swimming formation. Of this we are sure. 

Birds get Big Lottery Grant

This week at Seabirds HQ we have received the wonderful news that we will receive a lottery grant. The grant will fund a 6 week course focusing on women’s confidence in the water. It is aimed at women who wish to improve their physical, emotional and mental well being.  There are lots of courses locally run to help people transition from the pool to the sea but many people are intimidated by these courses, and imagine the participants to be all fit die-hard triathletes. Whether this be true or not, there is definitely a demand for a female-centric course. Many women struggle to get into a swim suit, let alone a pool or the wide open sea. Yet it is exactly these women that would benefit so much from introducing open water swimming into their lives.

The course will run in June 2019 but we will be testing out the course content on some ‘willing’ volunteers in September 2018. Our working title is Women, Well being and Water. We will be working with other agencies, charities and local community groups to create a course framework that can easily be used by other groups and clubs.

There are points in people’s lives where they need support to build resilience and to make improvements to their wellbeing. We believe that outdoor swimming can improve outcomes for women experiencing mental health challenges from first-hand experience. Having an understanding of the benefits of getting in the sea all year round, the Seabirds want to help make sure more people have the opportunity. Their courses aim to reduce obstacles to sea swimming, empower more women to get in the sea and use this fabulous, free, local resource in a safe and confident way.

Many women that would benefit most from sport and physical activity are the very women who are least likely to participate for cultural, personal, practical, and economic reasons. Helping women to overcome these barriers and supporting them to engage in activity will provide them with many positive outcomes and ensure that access to sport and physical activity is equal for all.

Open water swimming benefits have been researched and written about a great deal over the last few years and is often referred to as Blue Science. In 2009, Prof Michael Depledge and Dr William Bird, from the European Centre for Environment and Health, based out of the University of Exeter Medical School, proposed a notion called the “Blue Gym” – the idea being that the sea can be used as motivation to exercise outdoors to influence health and wellbeing.

Various social factors put women at greater risk of poor mental health than men. However, women’s readiness to talk about their feelings and their strong social networks can help protect their mental health. Seabirds already have an established network of sea swimmers that gain confidence and happiness from being part of a community group. The course would act as a foundation for women to join the already established swimming community group providing them with respite from daily worries, a support network and a regular activity and meet up.

We literally cannot wait to get more women in the sea!

September Book Club Read

I am finding it hard to put into words my thoughts about the September Seabirds Virtual Book Club read. Just thinking about some of the emotions this book invokes starts the back of my eyes stinging and the laptop screen becomes a bit of a blur. It is also an impossible task as nothing I can even contemplate writing comes close to the authors wonderful way with words. I think the best thing to do is just read it, and read it again, and again and again and again.

Wild Woman Swimming is a collection of Lynne Roper’s diary entries about wild swimming. The entries were written over a five year period in which she was recovering from a double mastectomy until her passing. Lots of her thoughts, experiences and stories resonate with me as they will for anyone who has been fortunate enough to be part of an outdoor swimming community.

The book was edited by Tanya Shadrick, Pells Pool‘s writer in residence for the last couple of years. I was lucky enough to attend a Swim Talk event recently where Tanya was a participant speaker and heard her read extracts from the book. She has the kind of gentle brogue you could listen too forever, slightly hypnotic and incredibly soothing. And when the words she recites have such insight into the freedom and respite wild swimming can provide…… well you have the perfect partnership.

So here is a taster to wet your reading appetite. “It’s a spiritual experience, sliding through wild water. Worries dissolve, my mind is liberated; thoughts flow and glide and play like dolphins. My soul swims wild.”

Enjoy and may all of your souls swim wild.

**Disclaimer – This s a book to be read outside – may it go waterlogged, sun-buckled and wind-chapped.