The Great Tit Weekend  – Part II – A Tale of Two Seabirds

We had the most wonderful weekend in Wales at The Great Tit Weekend.

 

Cath and Kath do a ton of stuff together. By the very nature of being business partners our daily lives are entwined. We share values, experiences and thoughts on an almost daily basis. More recently we have been told that we look alike and asked if we are sisters, (what parent would call both their daughters Katharine/Catherine?).  It would seem, to the onlooker, we are morphing into the same person. But we couldn’t be more different. So this week’s blog is written by both of us about our shared experience of the Great Tit Weekend from our differing perspectives.

13 Salty Seabirds went to Wales for a weekend of sea swimming.

 

Kath’s Story

I was really looking forward to swimming in Wales, I have visited Pembrokeshire a few times before at different stages of my life but not since being a Salty Seabird. So exploring the beautiful quiet coves in the water rather than from a cliff top or harbour wall was really appealing. But as the day to depart drew ever closer I began to get anxious. I manage my mental health by balancing my life with regular downtime which includes swimming. But the other tools in my box are sleeping, reading, walking – all of which I do in solitude and silence.

I have learnt that, although I enjoy the company of others, after a while I need time away. This is for lots of reasons, the main ones being;  i) I am deaf on one side and the constant white noise of crowds being filtered out so I can actually engage in a conversation is really tiring. So is lip reading and my eyes are constantly darting around trying to keep up with the conversation ii) when you have anxiety, as I do in groups, particularly in groups I don’t know, suppressing the urge to run out of a room or finding the strength to enter a room is exhausting. The idea of bunk house accommodation, with nowhere to hide, a definite lack of sleep and meeting new people is my worst nightmare. But the fresh air, beautiful countryside, like-minded lovely people and new places to swim and explore are a dream come true. I can’t stop the waves but I can swim in them!

So how was it? It was wonderful. I had my moments of silent screams but they came and went. When Cath went to the room early on Saturday night every part of me wanted to follow her but I didn’t, I stayed and I danced and I laughed and I wasn’t just OK I was happy. Sunday morning I went down to breakfast on my own, saw Laura in the queue and devoured a full fry content with her charismatic company. On the way back from Abercastle swim I struck up a conversation with a stranger and we didn’t stop talking until we go back to our cars. I sat blissfully at peace, quietly with Claudine on the pebbles after a morning swim. I jumped naked into the Blue lagoon to a rapturous round of applause with Sam and Kelly.

All of this was possible because of the sisterhood of swimmers. The brilliant Blue Tits that organised the weekend and the Salty Seabirds, some of whom I had never met, that joined me for a weekend away. The sense of connection and community amongst us was strong and the smiles never stopped. The post swim highs continued into the follow week as I remembered more moments of joy and fun. Naked women in cow troughs, freezing foofs and questionable dancing. People helping others into or out of the water. People sharing stories, advice and friendship. Not once were the memorable moment’s ones of fear or stomach knots.

I’m never going to be able to approach new faces and places like Cath. She has a rare gift of being able to talk to anybody, I watch her with people in awe. She is naturally warm and friendly and brings an energy to social situations that can’t be described. I can jump off a 12 metre cliff naked but I struggle to talk to strangers. Which is why two C/Kaths are better than one.

Cath’s Story

I was really excited about the Blue Tit Weekender. I haven’t done much wild swimming away from home and Brighton and had seen so many beautiful photos. I was looking forward to meeting the Blue Tits too. They seemed like our gang. Lairy women embracing the cold with two fingers up at ‘middle age’.

I did manage to mess up my foot 5 days before we went so I was worried about not being able to get about. Extra footwear in the bag and off we went. 4 of us in the car up the motorway. A long old journey punctured with essential (and usually slightly overdue!) wee stops and lots of chat. It was a good laugh – like weekends away when we were younger. Lots of laughs and singing along to shit old songs on the radio. Hannah commented as we nearly arrived that “I had nearly forgotten that this wasn’t the fun bit” we had such a good time. Of course Kath was driving so I can’t speak for how much she enjoyed the journey up! (Thanks Kath!)

On arrival there was a lovely smiley Blue Tit in a dryrobe pointing out the way down to the reception and more smiley women waiting in the canteen as people gradually arrived.  I felt comfortable amongst these people – they were our gang and we fitted straight in.  One of the smiley woman waved and pointed at her ‘SaltyAF’ Seabirds hoodie – this was Loz, Lorraine in our Salty Seabird Group. Hadn’t managed to meet us at a swim yet but had signed up and come along to join us. Brilliant! She and husband Andy fitted right in with us and we fitted in with all the others.

The whole gang (100 of us) mainly, but not solely, BlueTits shared a common love and a common purpose – to enjoy the water and enjoy the hell out of the weekend. Within that environment everyone was inclusive, friendly and chatty. We met two young women from Manchester (who we named the ‘Mancy Tits’) who had come along knowing nobody. They came and hung out with us when we went for a swim on Saturday afternoon. Someone joined us on that swim who had grown up 20 minutes from me and had headed up to Wales to swim without remembering the BlueTit Weekend was on! When in the waves together all barriers are down.

Saturday night and I was starting to feel tired and flagging a bit  – but Kath got the Salty gang in the mood with all over face tattoos courtesy of Hannah, Laura dished out beards and pirate accessories and we got in the swing of it enjoying the evening’s entertainment. There was a powerful sense of community and camaraderie in the songs and the room that really moved me.

The overall highlight for me was the Blue Lagoon swim on Sunday morning – as I limped round the path heading down to the water we were greeted by the sight of a great mass of women. Colourful swim hats, cosies and robes to naked fabulousness. It warmed my heart and made me glad to be alive. We are empowered, proud of what our body does not what it looks like. It really looked and felt like being in a fairy story or legend, I had rounded a corner and come upon the powerful women, Selkies or Swim Witches. Happy in their skin. Wonderful.

Now I am a bit shyer, and “British” about the nakedness. Not bothered at all if others want to, but a bit shy to get my own personal tits out. Not at the Blue Lagoon. Off it came and in I went and it felt amazing. Powerful. Joining the sea witchy coven! Then to look up and see Kath coasteering stark naked and jumping in from a high drop to great applause. Fan-bloody-tastic. So glad to have found my tribe I love them all. Yes, I can talk to strangers but I doubt very much I will ever be able to jump off a cliff naked (or otherwise!) like Kath, especially in front of over 100 people – legend! (and thanks again for driving all the way up and back and the extra bits to save my mashed up toe x)

Thank you to all that joined us in Wales from Brighton and to all the lovely Tits we met over the weekend. It really was a wonderful weekend. The magic of the sea cast it’s spell and strangers left as friends.

Next year Scotland. Who’s in?

We Came, We Swam, We Conquered

On World Mental Health Day, a reflection on our Women, Wellbeing and Water courses. We are all water warriors in our own way. Salty Seabirds swim group was set up as somewhere to signpost people that self identified as having mental health or wellbeing issues. A safe haven for them to enjoy the sea.

For as long as we have been swimming together, Catherine and I have talked of making the sea accessible to others. In the sea, where all the best ideas are borne, we came up with Women, Wellbeing and Water. A course aimed at giving women the confidence to get in the sea for respite and relaxation and to escape the day to day. 

With the help of a National Lottery grant and funding from Paddle Round the Pier Charity Festival, we have been able to turn our talk into action. We have the beaches of Brighton and Hove on our doorstep but it is still under-utilised by so many. The idea was to help women that wouldn’t normally have the confidence to don a swimsuit or wetsuit access the benefits of sea swimming that we have both experienced over the last few years. We know how much sea swimming has helped us and people around us, to get through some difficult times.

We ran a pilot session in September 2018 after funding was secured, which allowed us to try out our ideas and gain valuable feedback from participants. Then in June this year we launched our first course. All swimmers on the course were referred to us by Brighton Housing Trust’s Threshold Women’s Services. The service supports those with issues including anxiety, depression, self-harm, low self-esteem, suicidal thoughts, parenting issues, birth trauma and perinatal depression. The demand for the course was high and it was full within 24 hours.

We very much intended the course to be participant led, free from arbitrary goals. As part of the pre-course paperwork we asked them what they hoped to gain from the course. We knew our aims, what were theirs? Confidence was a reoccurring theme.

Greater confidence around other people and in the water particularly. More knowledge about being in the water and it’s benefits.”

“Confidence and resilience”

“Confidence and company”

“The confidence and momentum to swim regularly in the sea”

“Happiness, enjoyment, confidence”

And this aim really struck a chord as it echoed our reason for swimming in the sea!

“Positive mental and physical wellbeing and a return to who I truly am rather than the stressed version of my current self”

 

After our pilot session we were contacted by Dr Heather Massey from the University of Portsmouth. She and her colleagues are working on a research funding application to investigate the use of outdoor swimming for depression. As a result they need as much controlled quantitative data as possible relating to ‘new’ swimmers. If you ask an existing wild swimmer if they think it has a positive impact on their wellbeing they are liable to wax lyrical for what seems like forever. What Heather and her team need is data relating to swimmers that identified as having wellbeing issues and were ‘new’ to sea swimming. So our swimmers completed questionnaires before their first swim, after their first swim at at the end of the course to measure any changes in their levels of wellbeing, which we hope will provide more insight. Whilst we understand the need for this type of data collection in the world of academia, especially if you want to effect change, we were more drawn to the wonderful anecdotal comments………

How have you found outdoor swimming?

It was amazing experience, so freezing, joyful and hypnotising. Life giving and relaxing. Friendly atmosphere and felt so looked after.

Fantastic. It has been great learning about the sea, current, tides etc but the sense of a group experiencing the water together is lovely

Life affirming. It has lifted my mood and given  the confidence and encouragement to plan on making it a regular habit.

Will you swim in the outdoors again?

Definitely yes. It was life giving experience to feel nature,  waves and still feel safe as I was look after well in the water by Cathy. I loved sound and feel of the sea, which made me feel happy, relaxed and enthusiastic. I feel energetic, optimistic included and better to deal with problems and chronic pains in the future. Thank you for a great experience.

Yes. I’ve joined the seabirds and started swimming with others. Its life enhancing actually life changing. Thanks so much!

I will definitely swim outdoors again – in fact I have already ventured in a couple of times between lessons. I feel so grateful to have had the privilege of being amongst such kind and encouraging experienced swimmers and I would really like to start meeting up. I would also like to maybe learn how to do the crawl, and would like to hear of any lessons….

The reference to swimming with others, the sense of community and connection which provided the confidence to swim in the sea. This is at the heart of the Salty Seabird Sea Swimming group. So much so, that many of our group volunteered to join the new swimmers each week to swim, guide, assist, chat with them. And drink tea and eat cake with them at the end of every session of course. It is these swimmers that encouraged the new swimmers, happy to pass on their skills and experience, happy to welcome them into our flock. As the new swimmers gained confidence, the Salty Seabirds gained new members. That was our aim. And that was the new swimmers aim.

A huge thank you to Catherine, Mel, Alex, Claudine, Emma, Maria, Sam, Hannah and  Libby. And welcome to our new Salty Seabirds.

Right time to start planning the next course………..

Sharing the Swim Love – the Salty Seabird Way

What is the Salty Seabird sea swimming community group and how does it work?

“Sea swimming has become part of my regular routine now. It gives me equilibrium. It never fails to shift a black mood. I am outside in all weathers, enjoying life and feeling alive.”

Swimming with the Salty Seabirds has brought fun and laughter into my life on a daily basis. Having FUN and JOY as a routine part of my daily life is SO MUCH BETTER THAN BEFORE. This has made me realise how previously days/weeks/months could go by before, where life was mainly job and duty, no scheduled FUN, much less laughter and playfulness. I have re-discovered my inner child doing handstands in the cold water and found my tribe having a laugh about forgetting my pants again with other Salties drinking tea on the beach.  This is why we started Seabirds Ltd and then the Salty Seabirds. To share the swim love and enlarge the group of like minded folk who relish dicking about in the sea in all weathers! We all deserve fun and laughter and to play – it is the antidote to many, many things I have found.

So if you want to start, how does the Salty Seabird Swim Community work? Firstly it is SELF SERVICE so if you need a swim set up every Wednesday at 3pm for example – you can set one up. Our current regular swims are: Mondays 10:45, Fridays 13:30 and Saturday 9:45 (all Hove Lawns/Dolphin 5) were all set up to fit with our work/life routines.  Regular swims are in the events section in the Facebook group. So are event swims like the monthly full moon swims.

So there are the regular swims, and then the daily random/spontaneous swims posted in the group. This of course takes a bit more Facebook hovering. Anyone can post and if it is posted in the group any member is welcome and can turn up. Unless stated otherwise (ie the rare ‘who will come around the West Pier with me type invitations’) dipping and messing about, head out breaststroke or head down crawl swimming round the buoys all welcome. I for one am a parallel breaststroker and happy with that. You don’t need to be a confident or ‘strong’ swimmer to stay in the shallows and swim parallel to the shore. No wetsuit or wetsuit on. Whatever suits you best. No judgement, all welcome. The experienced Salties are all very friendly and kind, you will be welcomed and glad you came along.

If you would like a bit more information and advice starting to sea swim or are thinking about trying to go through the winter for the first time we are putting on some introductory sessions in October. More information available on the Seabirds website.

Author: Seabird Cath
N.B. To join the Salty Seabird closed Facebook group you will be asked a couple of questions to ensure you have read about us and understand how our group works and if it is the right group for you. Happy Swimming!

Like Mother Like Daughter

An extract from a Seabird mum’s diary from 1980 – wild swimming is not a new thing!

The Diary of Ann Steward

This week I received a letter in the post from my mum. There is nothing unusual in that. I often receive letters, cards, newspaper cuttings and books in the post from my mum. She is fierce in her protection of the analogue and unless I put pen to paper, literally, she will never read any of these blogs. Which is a shame as this one is about her!

So the letter I received was short and to the point. That is my mum in a nutshell. “Dear Katharine, Looking thro’ my many ‘diaries’ I came across “A Selsey Summer” written in the 80’s? I thought you might enjoy this extract. Obviously you have inherited your love of the sea and swimming from your Sainted Mother! Lots of Love.”

To put the extract in context – my mum was a school teacher – and every school holiday we would relocate to Selsey, West Sussex and live in a converted railway carriage on the beach, called Nutshell, with all manner of foster siblings, cousins and anyone else that my parents swept up into their very un-nuclear family.

“We’d swum everyday – to begin with there was time to get in two swims – one before lunch and one after, but for the rest of this week we’d have to wait until 6/7 o/c for deep water unless we cared to try for a swim early morning. 

I was better than ever at ‘getting in’. I still needed that preliminary paddle up and down to knee height, then up to the middle and a pause before a step or two to reach my armpits when I could bob down and launch into my school girls breast stroke.

It was always worth it – even if on a chill, sunless day you didn’t stay in too long. What a feeling of wellbeing – superiority and freshness it gave. Half a dozen strokes towards the breakwater – half a dozen back, bob up and down and repeat. 

The most important purpose of the daily swim was to timetable the day. It set an immovable hour in the day – for it took that time on a chill day and twice that on a hot one, to follow the ritual of gathering the party – pulling on costumes, finding towels and in the case of adults forcing feet into still damp plimsolls as protection from the shingle. 

What time’s high tide? Then we must have breakfast/lunch by such and such. before our swim we could do this and after the swim we’ll do that. And so our day was mapped.”

I remember my mum wrote diaries. I remember our endless summers swimming in the sea. I remember days dictated by tides. I remember how bloody long it took her to get in – but she always did – eventually. And still does. But, I’d forgotten that this life that I live is not new to me. It’s always been my life, me and the sea. All I’ve done is remember and come home.

Author: Seabird Kath

3 generations of Seabirds

mum2

The extract goes on to say ” A couple came to look over ‘The Summer House’ next door which is for sale. They have left their large expensive motor outside Nutshell while they have the guided tour around the quite extensive grounds. How well I remember it years ago when the old gentleman lived there as a recluse. The garden overgrown – little of the house visible, fruit trees laden in the Autumn, banks of primroses in the Spring. We’d dreamed of it being ours.” It never ended up being theirs but they have a beach hut and home on the Isle of Wight now – which I am sure comes a close second.

 

 

Just Breathe…………..

We take to the sea to breathe – so why can;t we do it when we swim?

This year, Seabirds have expanded their offerings to include talks, events and courses. For the last 4 weeks we have provided some salties with beginner or intermediate swim technique sessions at the idyllic and iconic Pells Pool. From Breaststroke to Breathing….

We’ve been swimming in the sea as a group for sometime now and many salty swimmers wanted to improve their front crawl technique. Cue the Pells Pool sessions. 4 weeks of 30 minutes sessions in the 50yd (46m) freshwater pool. It is unheated and spring fed keeping it at type of temperatures we are used too. And with no shelter we were still able to experience the elements with every swim. A satisfactory compromise!

The majority of swimmers hadn’t had a lesson since they were children, which for most was the 1970s or 1980s. So we went back to basics and really focused on their body position and breathing. The body position was a quick fix for most, nailed with a few push and glide exercises. As for the breathing……….it was everyone’s brick wall.

The thing about breathing is, you have to do it to stay alive and humans don’t like it when they cannot do it freely. But in order for you to get the correct body position to swim crawl efficiently your head had to be in the water which restricts your breathing. So here are our top tips for beginners breathing.

Warm Up – As with any type of exercise the warm up is really important. With swimming it’s a really good time to regulate your breathing. For me my most relaxed swims are after I have done another type of exercise. You can’t beat a seafront run and then a swim, but a brisk walk or cycle to the beach will do.  My heart and lungs have regulated to the rhythm of my exertion and and that flows into the water. If I haven’t done any exercise I do a good deal of head up breaststroke before I start. Again my breathing acclimatises along with the rest of my body and once it is back into a relaxed rhythm I start front crawl. So Top Tip #1 is warm up until your breathing is regular.

Stop explosive breathing – the old fashioned lessons have a lot to answer for, and old habits die hard! All of the swimmers were filling their lungs to capacity and fully emptying them them on every cycle. That’s about 3 litres of breath or 6 pints in old money. When would you normally breath like that? (keep your answers clean!) I can’t really think of any instance when I would need that much oxygen in my body and the results can be dizziness and lightheadedness – hardly conducive to being able to relax! Normal breathing – which is all you need to do for Seabird swimming  – uses only about 20% of your total lung capacity AND it’s called Tidal breathing! Top Tip #2 Tidal Breathing

Try Trickle Breathing – As well as filling up their lungs to maximum capacity our salty swimmers were also trying to breath out and in in the short amount of time that their heads were out of the water. Even if you are practising tidal breathing it is hard to breath in and out at the same time. The result removes your relaxed state and promptly returns you to explosive breathing. The reason kids are taught to blow bubbles is to encourage them to trickle breathe  – i.e. gradually breathing out while your head is underwater and only inhale when you turn your head to breathe. Again this is easier said than done when you have spent decades taking huge gulps of air but you can practice in the bath, or while walking, or anywhere really. I swim with my mouth open (for those that know me my mouth is always open) and sing or count as I exhale. Top Tip #3 Trickle Breathing

RELAX – don’t over think it, just relax. If you are struggling and getting frustrated then stop. Nothing should get in the way of you having a good swim. Revert to your head out breast stroke or flip onto your back to float and only return to front crawl when you are ready. Play around with your breathing. Do you prefer to breath bilaterally – on both sides in a regular pattern every 3, 5 or 7 strokes? Or unilaterally – ie one side only so every 2, 4 or 6 strokes. I don’t breathe for my first 8 strokes and then I breathe every 2, 3, 4 or 5 depending on the sea conditions and how hard I am having to swim against the current. Because I am relaxed I am able to change it around and even if I take in a mouthful of water I can maintain my stroke and just breathe at the next opportunity. However, if hair gets in my face it is a very different story – all relaxed breathing goes out of the window – which is why I always wear a swim cap! And if you make me swim in a pool, even Pells I am explosive breathing with the best of them. Top Tip #4 Relax.

We’ve loved doing the Swim Technique sessions and we have loved being at Pells Pool. We are always looking at ways to introduce more people, regardless of age, ability or gender to enjoy outdoor swimming. AND, we are always looking or ways to raise funds to provide opportunities for people less fortunate than ourselves to swim themselves happy. So, if you are local to Sussex, please join us at Pells Pool on July 12th for our Summer Take Over. All profits will go towards future FREE sea swimming confidence for people struggling with their wellbeing – THANK YOU

Author: Seabird Kath

NB – We are looking at running more technique sessions in the future so it would be really good to know what people would like to gain from sessions in the sea or pool. Please leave your thoughts in the comments section. THANK YOU

 

 

A Seabird out of her depth

My experience of completing the STA Open Water Swimming Coaching award in the midst of anxiety.

And I was, I really was. Although I was treading water, on a STA Open Water Swimming Coaching Course, I was definitely a Seabird out of her depth.

So how did I end up here? The rhetorical answer is, I was hoping to gain a qualification that would enable me to be the lead coach for our Women Wellbeing and Water sessions and any future Seabird sea swimming courses. The literal answer is by train from Brighton to Welwyn Garden City.

The timing of the course could not have been worse. My husband was working away at the same time. We are trying to sell our house and buy a new one. And my 16 year old was embarking on her first trip abroad, to France to watch the Women’s World Cup with her mate. Plus June is a busy month on the Seabird calendar with lots of events, sessions and get togethers.

The days before were challenging. My anxiety was spiralling out of control and the internal chatter telling me to withdraw was relentless. Flicking through the pre-course material did nothing to quieten the hard time my brain was giving me. Buoy turns! I float at the buoy and take smiling snaps. Drafting! I draft more people into the sea by providing them with encouragement and a safe environment. Pack swimming! We forget to pack our knickers and laugh about it over tea and cake. The manual had very different descriptions of these open water swimming skills. I quickly flicked to page 99 on the skills section entitled ‘ Acclimatisation and Overcoming Panic’ desperate to ease the worry.

Is it possible for one human to produce an infinite amount of cortisol? In constant fight or flight mode for days I was hanging on by my finger nails and exhausted. And the course hadn’t even started yet. I busied myself with helicopter parenting of two very capable teens and left packing and considering train times until the last minute. Classic avoidance. So it was no surprise that I ended up on the wrong bloody train! Cue the first fighting back of tears. I even remained on the wrong train until a minute before it’s departure, frozen in fear with my M&S nuts and wine. Finally I plucked up the courage to retrieve my kit bag and suitcase and made my way to the correct platform to board the correct train.

The rest of the train journey was uneventful but provided a lot of time to think with little to distract. Cue more more tear fighting and a ridiculous amount of texts to my husband who was waiting in a German airport for his flight home. As the train pulled into Welwyn Garden City I was very ready for a walk to my hotel and some fresh air. Living my best life I was curled up in a Premier Inn bed, in a town I suspected was the set of Stepford Wives, watching Netflix on the iPad by 9pm.

You’d think I had never swum in open water, put on a wetsuit or coached/trained groups of people in the water before. But I actually have a ton of experience in all three. But the impostor syndrome persisted into the next morning when I woke up at 4.30am. Thankfully breakfast started at 6.30am so just 2 hours of worry time between me and a full fry up! My depression and anxiety have never come between me and a meal.

By 8am I had received a lifeline call from Will. Will and I know each other from a previous course and he too lives in Brighton. He is an incredible swimmer, but his best quality is his infectious enthusiasm and capacity for kindness. He was travelling back and forth from his parents house rather than experiencing the delights of the Premier Inn on the outskirts of a purpose built town. He had arrived early and was trying to find the course facility. With his clear directions I set off to start the course.

I know, I know. It makes no sense to be nervous about completing a course when there is a familiar friendly face there to greet you. And it was a huge relief to see his smiling face when I arrived. But that is what anxiety does. It robs you of your ability to reason. Gradually the room began to fill up. I scanned their faces, looked at their physiques, considered their kit backs – trying to ascertain their swim ability. We then did a round table introduction starting with me. Stories of swim teaching experience decades long, huge endurance feats completed or about to be completed, our coach was Keri-anne Payne, Olympic silver medallist for goodness sake. Any respite Will’s welcome had provided was very short lived.

The course is 3 days long, mainly classroom based, with coaching practice in a lake. Keri-anne created a wonderfully inclusive learning environment which set the tone for the next few days. Her stories were inspirational but not because of the phenomenal feats, medals and wins she has achieved. They were inspirational because they were relatable. She too has been spooked in the water – by a twig of all things.  But I was still apprehensive about getting in the water. Yep, you heard it right. Me, nervous about getting wet. But wet I did get. And it was fine as everyone except for me knew it would be.

The next day was more of the same but better. By now we were all getting to know each other and I was able to appreciate what a wonderfully warm group of people I was with. Our backgrounds, swimming experiences and goals couldn’t have been more different but our passion for swimming, in all it’s different guises, had bought us together. I swim for community and connection (and cake) and it was still here, in a lake in Hertfordshire with a bunch of strangers that were fast becoming my support network.

Then it happened. The tears. On day 2. Holding it together for prolonged periods of time can only end one way . Day to day functioning is, for me, the hardest part of my mental illness. I can do it, but I need to factor in rest, relaxation and respite. The days leading up to this course, the lack of sleep and unfamiliar faces and surroundings were fast eroding my game face. It happened when we were split into groups of 3 to practice coaching an OWS skill with each other. Rob, 34 years in the armed forces, was tasked with coaching myself and Christine on pack swimming. My biggest barrier is swimming in confined spaces. In indoor pools, in close proximity with other people I have experienced my one, and thankfully only, panic attack. To say I was going outside of my comfort zone was an under statement. But I did it. Part of the coaching methodology is for it to be swimmer led, asking questions to consider their needs. Poor Rob asked me how I found it. The response was initially a whimper and then a full on sob. I quickly reassured him that his coaching had been all the things it needed to be to get me to do something I didn’t want to do and the tears were because I was beyond chuffed that I had done it. I think everyone saw, I am not a quiet crier.  The compassion with which my tears were met made me cry harder. I was caught in a crying loop.

That night I felt well enough to have dinner with some of the others at the local Beefeater – living the dream. May be the release of crying was just what the doctor ordered. I certainly felt less uptight and restless. And now that the others had seen the real me, the vulnerable me, the over-thinking me, the crying me, the worst had happened. The mask hadn’t slipped, it had totally fallen off and I was OK. My crying had been met with kindness. Sleep was still evading me and we still had to be assessed the next day, so I wasn’t out of the woods yet. But pretending to be confident in my abilities was one less thing I had to worry about. That floodgate was well and truly open and there was absolutely no point in trying to close it again.

The next morning, Will picked me up and we arrived early as we had to complete our written assessment too. This is where depression makes his appearance after being pushed to the back of my mind by anxiety. Where anxiety tells me I can’t do something, depression physically stops me from doing it. The thought of doing something, anything, is met with lethargy and avoidance. On the outside it looks like you can’t be bothered, but in reality you don’t know where to start and feel totally overwhelmed. We’d had plenty of time to complete it in  the evenings, mornings, breaks but I just hadn’t done it. Sometimes the only way round this is a deadline. I needed to complete it, I needed to pass the course, the Seabirds Women, Wellbeing and Water project was relying on it. So I started.

What was reassuring was that everyone was nervous that last day. Everyone had questions about the written assessment. Everyone had worries about the practical assessment. We were connected in our concern and we were community in the comfort we provided to each another. I wasn’t alone. I was with a group of Seabirds.

So day 3, the last day,  started. We had a round table discussion on what we had learnt and what we would take away from the course. A really positive way to start the day as we shared our stories. Then it was time to be assessed in the water. We were split into 2 groups and had been given a skill to coach the night before. There would be pack swimming in a group of 9 at the end. My mind started searching for the fear, but it just wasn’t there. The whole group had witnessed me at my worst, they knew I hated it and Will who was coaching the pack swimming session was able to adapt it. I was at ease. So we did it, with me right on the furthest edge obviously. Christine, a very gentle woman positioned herself right beside me to ensure I was OK. And never left my side reassuring me with her calm presence. But then Will asked the question. Did anyone want to change position? And I did. I wanted to know what it felt like to be in the middle, amongst melee. He shouted go from he other end and I swam. It wasn’t long before I was kicked hard in the leg (still bruised now), swallowed a gob full of water and was left behind by the faster swimmers. This time there was a smile, not sobbing. I’d done it.

It was with heavy hearts that we all said good bye to each other and swapped details at the end of the course. But we were all really excited to get home and put our new coaching skills into practice. It’s an incredible course and one which  would thoroughly recommend. And I will, in another blog………

My mental health is the biggest challenge I face on a daily basis. It tells me I can’t do things, when I can. It tells me I don’t need to do things when I do. But the sense of achievement of when I can and when I do in the context of my anxiety and depression is my Olympic medal. And as my mum always said, a smooth sea never made a good sailor. Or in this case a skilled Open Water Swimming Coach.

Author: Seabird Kath

Note: The featured image is a coaching session on pack swimming before we lined up at the start line. As Denise says – “we’re all friends here, until someone says go!” And my goodness did she go – I quite literally ate her bubbles. I managed to keep up with them for at least 2 strokes and I survived the washing machine it created. I put myself right in the middle and I survived.

Big thanks to Will, Rob, Christine, Amanda, Julie, Ellen, Lisa, Denise and of course Keri-anne for spending an amazing three days with me. 

 

Seabird flies the nest – to the South West

Every May Half Term we head for Kernow and it’s never ending coastline.

Every May half term as far back as forever we have over packed a car and sat on Bodmin Moor with no data signal for what feels like a lifetime. Only to be rewarded with a cosy cottage in some corner of Cornwall. It’s my favourite holiday of the year.

We have spent a fortune on holidays over the years. It is our biggest outgoing. Pre-kids we would just book plane tickets to somewhere new and wing it when we got there. Or find a deal on Ceefax! Post-kids we’ve had, New Years in northern France, skiing in Europe, Easters in Wales, Octobers in Devon, city breaks, camping breaks and not forgetting the two week headliner in the summer holidays which have earned me the nickname of Judith Chalmers. Every opportunity and definitely every school holiday we pack our bags . But the Cornish half term holiday is my favourite.

There is no inland area more than 20 miles from the sea in this coastal county. It has a coastline of over 400 miles with 158 miles designated as Heritage Coast. I think it is clear to anyone who knows me why the proximity of the sea is so important to me. It’s main income is tourism which can cause overcrowding on the single track lanes and small ports and villages designed for a much quieter existence. But if you avoid peek season i.e. the summer holidays and tourist hotspots you can always find a quiet cove all to yourself.

We stay at different locations every year. Sometimes north, sometimes south and occasionally west – the further west you go can add considerable travel time! The coastline varies dramatically and so therefore do our holidays. We always take surf boards. stand up paddle board, camping stove and lots of neoprene. The sea, coastline, tides and weather will dictate what we do. But every day we will get wet. Words cannot describe the colour of the sea in places here. Aqua Marine? Turquoise? Cyan? It must be something to do with the unique quality of the light. Swimming in these crystal clear waters is like no where else on earth.

The WiFi and data coverage is crap and Truro has only recently got a Primark, so on paper, it’s a teenagers idea of Hell. But actually if you take them away from the bright lights of the big city and the glare of gadgets you will actually find your child again under that surly stare. And although they would be loathed to admit it publicly, they long for low key as much as we do.

Early Summer is my favourite time of year. In in the countryside it is even more pronounced. Cow parsley towers over your head, grass is still lush and green before a summer of scorching and the air is beginning to warm. Barefoot living becomes a real possibility and beaches to nap on lulled by a sea breeze is a prized pastime. My favourite flowers bloom in early summer, bluebells, sea pink and red campions line coastal paths filling these desolate spots with hope. For someone (me), with a lifelong relationship with depression, the cushioned warm cliff grass trodden on, barefoot, can bring me joy. Actual joy. However fleeting, a real happiness, that I wish would stay longer.

But like all good things, these holidays come to an end. And so we look to the next year and decide on the next location. Only this year we won’t. This year is our last. After over a decade of Cornish retreats our time as a foursome is coming to an end. The eldest is off to foreign climes to play football (soccer) and study next year and I cannot see the youngest agreeing to come without her. She will be missing from all of our future holidays but it will be this one where she will be missed the most. She is my water-baby, my first born fish, my mermaid.

Author: Seabird Kath

Note from Author: I am writing this in a sun room on the banks of a creek on the Roseland Peninsula. There have been at least two squalls blow in from the river Fal whilst I have been sat here. Sunny it aint.

Essential packing for UK holiday list includes:

Towelling Robes & Hammams; both of these are absolutely essential. The UK is not that warm and when you’ve been in the sea as long as my kids have they need the towelling robes afterwards. They are the envy of other beach users as they curl up for post swim snoozes in them. Both have said it’s their best thing to take on holiday. This year I forgot our hammams – lightweight to pack as emergency towels for impromptu swims whilst walking the wild coast line. But they double up as picnic blankets or actual blankets and a scarf on chilly evenings.

 

 

Camping stove, mugs and steel pints; We take these to the beach in the evening and while the kids swim, skim pebbles, surf or build sandcastles we boil the kettle for hot chocolate, fry sausages for supper and drink chilled beer or wine. A sunset spent like this is like no other!

Games; our favourites vary as the kids grow older. Uno is and always will be a hit but we have also loved Monopoly Deal, Dobble and Travel Yhatzee. All small enough to fit in your handbag and take with you to cafes and pubs.

Sharpies; a bag of pens can be taken anywhere to draw on anything ( vandalism not encouraged). Pebbles and shells can all be decorated and hidden for others to find. We have a secret swim spot we visit every year where we have pebbles hidden that we redecorate every year.

Underwater water camera; we’ve had gopros and cheap versions of, and a Nikon Coolpix camera. The kids have spent hours taking video footage of each other in the sea and we have visual memories of our holidays now.

Well fitting wet-suits; – buying wet-suits that your kids will ‘grow into’ is a false economy. Unless the wet-suit is tight fitting, it will not work. There needs to be minimal gap between skin and neoprene for trapped water to be warmed up by their body heat. If it is loose it just won’t work. Ocean Sports do an amazing selection of kids wet-suits – mention you are a Salty Seabird and you may get a discount! Those not in Brighton – Surfdome are online, have a great ethos (paper packaging, donate to sea conservation), great customer service and a great selection.

Wild Guide books; Never leave home without one. They are basically our holiday guide book for anywhere in the UK. You will find that secluded swim spot with this as your bedside bible

Happy Holidays!