Introduction to Winter Sea Swimming

A webinar facilitated by Open Water Swimming Coach Kath Ferguson. An Introduction to Winter Sea swimming.

Winter Swimming; The Waiting Game

The skill you need for winter swimming is patience. During a season full of storms it’s a waiting game for safe swim conditions.

I am often asked what do you need to swim in the sea through the winter? Is it maintaining the frequency of your swims? Is it having all the kit? Is it a wetsuit? It is none of these. What you need to swim in the sea, through the winter, is patience.

Along with a drop in temperature comes an increase of storms and conditions that are unsafe for swimming in the sea. With less daylight hours, opportunities to swim can be scarce for days on end and there is quite literally nothing you can do but wait. I’m not very good at living in the present. I tend to live in the past, rehashing and overthinking every interactions, or the future, making an overwhelming amount of plans in the pursuit of happiness. Being present and being patient is very difficult for me. But if I don’t practice patience it can be detrimental to my mental health.

I am also asked how cold water sea swimming through the winter improves my mental health. Based on the above you could assume it would have negative connotations. But it doesn’t. The answer is, in lots of ways. The kindness of the community I swim with is uplifting. My time in the water is full of fun and innate joy. The cold water biting and burning my skin improves my resilience in my day to day. But, one of the most fundamental impacts it has had is it has taught me how to wait and appreciate the present and the swims no matter how scarce they are.

I learned that lesson, the hard way, some years back. About 8 years ago I attended a conference in Cornwall in the winter. I travelled with a couple of colleagues from the south coast. We took our surf boards and at the first opportunity during a free afternoon, we pulled on our neoprene and headed to the beach. The wind was cross shore and savage. There were blinding squalls. The waves were all over the place. And it was cold, bitterly exposed Atlantic cold. Undeterred we paddled out. Waves are rare on the South coast so anything is better than nothing right? Well no.

I spent a good hour being smashed about on frankly shit waves, every bash depleting what little energy I had left. I was tired, I was frustrated but I refused to get out. Soon, I was pretty much incapable of getting out past the waves, my arms were like jelly and my head dropped so far my cheek was practically stuck to my board. But then it happened. The happy ending to this tale, isn’t the perfect wave but the realisation that I needed to stop. What happened next I remember so intensely, when I think about it I am transported back to that moment. I sat on my board, finally past the breaking waves, exhausted, freezing while hail from another squall stung my face to the point of crying. I sat motionless, depleted and defeated. And I became acutely aware of my surroundings. I marvelled at the towering granite cliffs and watched the waves relentlessly pound at their foundations. The sky was full of fast moving grey, fully laden clouds, they were hypnotic to watch from my front row seat. I took immense pleasure at what was on offer, and that was not good surf conditions. And I was happy, content, in the illusive moment. I headed back to shore when my numb fingers reminded me I’d outstayed my welcome. Surfers have long since learned patience, finally so had I.

Cornwall in a squall in the winter

When I started swimming in the sea year round I was able to apply my new found approach of waiting for the right time. It is assumed that those that advocate the benefits of cold water swimming go in every day. But that simply isn’t true and just not possible. Even if you have the time and energy the sea will dictate whether it is safe to swim. Like good surf conditions, good swimming conditions are not guaranteed. You can only control how you respond. The world we live in is all about the immediate and instant gratification. We can sometimes sneer at the younger generation as they order food to be delivered by Uber in five minutes, buy the latest trendsetting item of clothing the day it launches, use of snapchat and TikTok counting the speedy likes. But are the middle aged (me included) not guilty of the same when we moan about our WIFI providers, in inability to get a next day delivery and, as is the case for a sea swimmer, when you cannot get your cold water fix because the sea is inaccessible? If your expectation is that you can get what you want when you want it you will always be disappointed. In my case I have applied this to swimming in the sea through the winter. I am swimming to improve my mental health but without the right mindset and approach, in my case setting the expectation that I won’t always be able to swim, it can actually have the adverse effect.

According to the OED patience is the capacity to accept or tolerate delay, problems, or suffering without becoming annoyed or anxious. Not much research has been done into patience and the link this personality trait has to mental health and wellbeing. A study published in the the Iranian Journal of Psychiatry and Behavioural Sciences in 2015 examined the relationship between patience and mental health “Conclusions: Patience is a unique predictor of mental well-being. It is suggested that long-term patience is more important for depression and general health, whereas short-term patience is more beneficial for hedonic well-being.” So while we seek the solace of the sea to improve our wellbeing it should go hand in hand with our ability to wait.

I see practicing patience as a powerful choice that suppresses the stress of modern day living. I don’t always achieve it but I try! According to Judith Orloff a practising Psychologist, “Practicing patience will help you dissipate stress and give you a choice about how you respond to disappointment and frustration. When you can stay calm, centered, and not act rashly out of frustration, all areas of your life will improve.” Whenever I go for a sea swim I am prepared to abandon it before or during the swim. This may be because the sea conditions are unsafe but it could also be because there is pollution, I’m too tired, it’s too busy. In beauty spots in rural parts of the UK people block roads, park in passing places, block access to farm land in their pursuit of a swim…… I always have a plan B so waiting for another opportunity to swim isn’t such a difficult decision.

Living in Sussex can be a challenge when you want to swim outdoors. There is a distinct lack of inland waterways or sheltered coves. There is one ugly industrial port you can access when the sea is just too rough to swim in but frankly it is like swimming in used dishwater and the back drop is like something out of a dystopian novel. Being a coastal county all of our rivers are tidal meaning the safe slack tides may not be at a time when you are able to swim or in fact during daylight hours. The porous chalk of the South Downs prevents lakes from forming and any there are tend to be privately owned or privately run. Pells Pool, a beautiful spring fed freshwater outdoor pool remained open until November this year but has now closed for the winter. Saltdean Lido only opens it’s heated outdoor pool for the summer season. So when relentless storms arrive on our shores at the start of the winter season, there really is no option for me but to wait.

Finding other things to do other than swim in the sea is a good way to wait it out and can still provide the cold water therapy and blue space that your wellbeing requires. Reframe your winter sea swimming as a small part of the holistic experience. Part of the adventure could be looking through maps for new swim spots and a coastal walk with friends. Even if you are unable to swim you will have found a new swim spot for a future date and enjoyed the journey. If the sea is not safe to swim in it may still be okay to play in the shallows. Sit on the shingle and let the waves roll over you, known locally as pilcharding or wave bathing. It’s a really good way to watch the behaviour of waves and understand their strength and gain the experience and expertise needed to swim another day. Beachcombing or beach cleaning are really mindful pastimes and a really good way to understand the topography of your local beach as well being a guardian for your swim spot. After the recent storms there is a huge amount of plastic in the strandline and it you feel like you have done something positive as you place it in the bin. On a recent beach clean a particularly wet weather front arrived very suddenly after blue sky. I was soaked though to the skin, resistance was futile and I found myself laughing uncontrollably at the situation – pretty much the same experience as swimming in the sea! And the reward was a hot bath afterwards.

Even if the sea provides the perfect swimming conditions I may not be physically or mentally capable of a swim. During the colder months people are more prone to illnesses and this year a significant number of people will have contracted C19 which entails a slow recovery. Physical injuries like sprain and strains also put a stop to swimming. I suffer from BPPV which kept me out of the water and in bed for quite a while this month. Experience reassures me that my ability to enter the cold water again, when I am ready, will always be there. I can understand the fear of those new to winter swimming that they will lose the cold adaptation they have built up to combat a drop in sea temperature and nurtured since the summer, if they do not swim regularly. This simply isn’t true. Yes getting in regularly helps, I hardly have a gasp reflex at all after 4 years of skin swimming but it isn’t the be all and end all. Don’t worry so much about cold adaptation, it’s the acclimatisation you do before each individual swim and entering the water safely each time you swim. that is important. Not how often you swim. A couple of years ago I was unable to swim for 3 weeks. When I was finally back in the sea it was no different to any of my other dips. So if you can’t get in for days or even weeks, don’t sweat it. And trust me when I say, that first swim after a setback is oh so sweet!

Above all remember, all good things come to those that wait!

The Great Neoprene Debate

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

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.

Accessories

Gloves
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.

Socks/Boots/Shoes
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!

Hats/Headbands/Caps
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.

Aftercare
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.

Different Folks, Different Strokes. Post swim smiles are still the same!

Swimming with a Flock in the Winter

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.

After drop

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!

hypothermia

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……..

The Buoys are Back in Town

The summer season is here in Brighton and Hove. The Swim Area Buoys and lifeguards have returned to our beaches but there have been a lot of changes to their service. This blog explains the 2020 Lifeguard Service and advice on swimming safely through the summer.

The much anticipated arrival of the iconic yellow ‘SWIM AREA’ buoys is finally here. They are safely anchored off Brighton and Hove’s beaches but they aren’t quite the same………

As a group, we try to encourage all local residents of all swim abilities to join us in the sea. Our aim is to create a community space for people to enjoy the water and provide a way for swimmers to manage their mental health and wellbeing. The summer is great time to start and as we re-opened the group to new members this week we have already seen lots of new Salties joining our flock. So as a warm welcome to warmer seas we’d like to share the story of our swims, the iconic Brighton Buoys and our summer season lifeguard service. Particularly as C19 has meant significant changes to the Seafront service and we want our flock to swim safely.

As the waters warm, our numbers inevitably grow. This year we are unable to share our swims with more than 5 other Salties. The beauty of the bigger regular swims is you will find someone that meets your swim needs. They swim the same stroke as you, the same speed as you, the same distance as you and eats the same cake as you. Some of us will swim out and round the buoys, some won’t. Some will paddle, some will float, some will swim for long distances. Whatever works for you. But in the spirit of inclusivity we swim at the speed and to the distance of our most relaxed swimmer if we meet as a group, and we ask our swimmers to be mindful of this as new Salties join us.

Normally the SWIM AREA buoys would arrive in early May ready for the lifeguard season to start on Brighton and Hove’s beaches over the May Half Term. Due to C19 there has been a delay. Brighton and Hove normally has 14 lifeguarded beaches  and the swim area buoys mark out an area that is safe to swim in if the yellow and red flags are flying and a lifeguard is on duty.  They are not there for swimmers to swim round although many use them as markers to swim too and roughly measure the distance of their swim. If you were to see a bird’s eye view of them you would see they are never parallel and move around quite a bit in bad weather so it is a very rough measurement .

The season normally runs from May to September with the outer posts of Saltdean, Rottingdean, Ovingdean and Hove Lagoon opening from July to September, as the schools break up. There can be between 1-3 lifeguards per post depending on how busy that particular beach is. The more popular touristy beaches by the Palace Pier have more lifeguards. All the beach lifeguards are supported by a lifeguarded boat that patrols daily and the Seafront staff and co-ordinators (the staff on the quad bikes).

This year, the most noticeable change is the late arrival of the SWIM AREA buoys and their position in the water. They are not in sets of 5 in front of lifeguard posts (Pic 1). Instead they are dotted along the shoreline, roughly (and only roughly see pic 2) parallel with each other from the Palace Pier to Hove Lagoon. There are no buoys east of the Palace Pier. Instead of indicating lifeguard posts the buoys are to prevent jet skis and boats from coming to close to shore to protect water users.

 

These buoys are not to be confused with the boat lane buoys. These too are yellow but a different shape. However, from a distance, and now the buoys are in a parallel line alongside the boat buoys, it is hard to see the difference. These buoys look like the picture below and are there to indicate where boats can approach to and from the shore. If you don’t want to get hit by a boat – don’t swim in these lanes. The boat lane buoys line up with yellow posts on the beach as per the picture below. This one to the west of King Alfred is by the boat winches and normally has kayaks locked to it. So if you can’t see the shape of the buoy from the shore – look for a post.

As there are no inner buoys yet this year and a limited lifeguard service the Sea Front Office have requested that swimmers do not swim out to the buoys to reduce the number of rescues they have to perform and the risk to their lives from the sea and C19 infection from swimmers. This is the most common rescue they perform. Swimmers head out for the buoys and when they get there can be too tired to swim back, not realise they made it there on a tidal current or offshore wind and don’t have the ability to get back, or get there and realise how far they are from shore and freeze both in temperature and ability to move.

We’ve had a few ‘hold your breath’ moments within our flock. Last summer, on the first day of the lifeguard seasons a new Salty asked another swimmer if they thought she’d be able to swim out to the buoy. The other swimmer, innocently replied yes and so a group set out on her maiden voyage. When the new swimmer got to the buoy it was clear this wasn’t the right decision, the lifeguard was attracted and a board rescue ensued. The lesson here is you need to take responsibility for your own assessment of the conditions and your capability. If you are asking someone else the question can I swim that far, or for that long etc the answer is no. We’ve also had a new swimmer not only to the group but to Brighton join a group swimming around the West Pier. The swimming group had made it clear on the swim invitation that is wasn’t a usual group dip of handstand performing, cake and a natter afterwards but a long swim around the pier.  The new swimmer still joined and  got into significant difficulty as she wasn’t used to the cold temperatures, the strong currents and also put the lives of the others swimmers in danger as they stayed in the water to help her back to shore.

We understand, that for some swimmers having goals and targets gives you something to strive towards but this must be done safely. If you wish to increase your time in the water, build up to it slowly and stay close to the shore so you can exit quickly.  Another way to measure your swim distance is to move parallel to the shore and count the groynes. These are roughly 100 metres apart and allow you to stay in shallower water and closer to a safe exit point. If you wish to swim to the buoys consider going at slack tide on a spring low with no wind. Don’t forget to wear a tow float and a bright coloured hat, preferably orange or pink.

So as to changes to the Lifeguard Service. They start today! (Saturday 13th June) Hooray. They will operating on the beaches by King Alfred and between the Palace and West Pier only to begin with. If and when this changes we will publish updated information in the group. Opening up additional posts and putting out buoys closer to shore and to mark out swim areas are under discussion. The current lifeguard posts are larger and will have 6 lifeguards per post – 3 operating each half of the post. They will be working a reduced day from 11am-5pm.  We will no longer be able to leave our bags and belongings with them as it would pose a cross contamination risk. However, they are still happy to answer any of your questions of give you advice, just be mindful to stay 2ms or they will have to put on their face masks.   They will have boards close to their posts indicating tide times and sea conditions. There will be increased water patrols on boards and the boat will be joined by volunteer crew on Surf Lifesaving Club boats at the weekends.

To me the buoys mean summer, clear seas and double dip days. Yes I swim to them, round them, under them, photograph them. One of these years I’m going to clean them. But I do it when the conditions are right, I am in the right frame of mind and  I have the energy. Sometimes I don’t know if all the buoys are aligned to mean a swim to them is an option until I get to the beach, see who else is there and see if the sea is playing ball. I’m quite happy to change my plans to perfecting my handstands, searching for crabs on the sea bottom or just floating. The sea is most definitely my mistress and dictates my swim!

However you decide to swim with, however long you stay in, wherever you swim to and from, do it safely and have a wonderful summer of sea swims

Useful Resources

  • How to read sea condition forecasts – this blog written by local Sea swimmer Freja and explains how to read the Magic Seaweed App
  • Other useful apps are windguru, buoyweather and Imray
  • The seafront has a number of webcams to get an idea of the sea conditions before you leave home. They can change quickly though so be prepared to change you plans.
  • How to swim in cold water safely – this blog focuses on mitigating the risks of swimming in cold water. Even in the summer the sea can be cold!
  • Water quality is measured by various organisation around Brighton and Hove. Surfers Against Sewage have a Safer Seas app that provides warnings if the water quality is low.
  • Seafront Office are happy to give advice. They cannot give you individual advice on whether it is safe for you to swim but can provide answers to general queries around water quality, sea temperature events etc. Their contact details are; 01273 292716.
  • Statement from Brighton and Hove City Council regarding the service in the seafront.

To Swim or not to Swim?

Never has a debate more divided the outdoor swimming community since Skins Vs Suits! So should you be swimming in the outdoors right now?

 

That really is the question. And the question that is dividing the once aligned community of wild, open and outdoor swimmers. This is hopefully a balanced view, if there is such a thing…..

Being an outdoor swimmer opens you up to a large friendly wild swimming community. I swim with the Salty Seabirds in Brighton and Hove because they are my safe harbour in stormy seas. Always kind, willing to help and support each other. Swimmers I have never met, and never will, virtually share their swimming lives with each other on a daily basis. Again the positive affirmations and generosity keeps your spirits lifted.  This has continued throughout the Covid19 crisis but not even this robust and buoyant community is coming out of this unscathed.

We don’t have a governing body – we outdoor swimmers, swim wild and free – that is the point. The group I swim with have rejected clubs rules, constitutions and committees in favour of fluid freedom. However – we do stress that everyone swims and their own risk and precautions should be taken – those being irresponsible are removed from the group so there are group rules of a kind.

The answer to the question to swim or not to swim, is all about personal perspective, personal experience (not the swimming kind) and personal need. And therefore, the only person that can answer the question is you! When the government guidelines in England prevented people from travelling to exercise/go outdoors for an hour it was a very easy decision to make. If it’s not on your doorstep you can’t do it.

Cue the ‘haves’ and ‘have not’ division. All over the Outdoor Swimming Society images of huge paddling pools (sometimes in huge gardens attached to huge houses) popped up. Instead of asking about places to swim the most asked question switched to the type and size of paddling pool to get. So much so that the poor group admins had to restrict the number of posts on the subject.

As the English restrictions were relaxed cue the ‘wild’ and ‘open’ division. Those that dip in any river, pond, cove or muddy puddles could now jump in their car and seek out spots to get wet. Those that swim for fitness and train for events were still being denied access to commercial open water swimming venues. And the no swimming rules have remained in Scotland, Wales and NI.

Nothing has been so hotly debated since the days of the skin Vs suits discussion. I swim in the sea because I love the expanse of it, the never ending horizon, how it changes every minute of every day. I love swimming with my flock, faffing, chatting and eating cake. I admire the creative ingenuity of those able to rig up resistance bungees to provide them with personal endless pools. I have enjoyed watching people get into cold baths and showers. I have particularly liked the imaginative buckets of cold water being thrown about all over social media. But none of this does it for me. My personal perspective, experience and need means it’s the sea or nothing for me.

Now, as we approach a sunny bank holiday in England and you are allowed to travel, meet a friend albeit 2 metres apart it is not quite so cut and dry. Under normal circumstances this would be the first weekend of the lifeguard season for seaside resorts up and down the country. But this year it is not. Last weekend Coastguard rescue teams from around the UK were called out 194 times to incidents including inflatables drifting offshore, crashed and broken down jetskis and pleasure boats, people injured while out walking or cycling along the coast, paddleboarders, kayakers, windsurfers and kite surfers who found themselves in difficulty and people cut off by the tide or stuck in mud. As I write this the coastguard helicopter is flying over Brighton looking for lost children. More people in the water definitely increasing the probability of accidents and emergencies which will inevitability put the NHS resources under strain and voluntary RNLI crew at risk.

 

Beautiful locations are normally so popular and picturesque because they are rural and remote. What this means is they will naturally have lower incidents of Covid19 and they do not have the infrastructure to deal with a huge increase of visitors at a time when the emergency services are stretched to the limit. People are being asked to stay away from the Lake District = and the coasts of Cornwall to protect these communities. Popular tourists resorts like Brighton are also under threat. Just a quick hop down the A23 from London and you can be on the beach in an hour. Up until now Brighton and Hove has had one of the lowest rates of Covid19 cases. We’d like to keep it that way!

For those of us that make a living from teaching people to swim or open water coaching the personal need to get in the water may be financial. However, how are we meant to perform a rescue under social distancing regulations. The risk assessments we normally use are redundant. I specialise in working with people with confidence , mental health and wellbeing issues. I have to be closer than 2 metres with my swimmers to provide them with the very necessary reassurance they need. So my personal perspective is to postpone all of the confidence tasters and wellbeing sessions until all restrictions are removed. We have also felt a uncomfortable promoting our wild swim shop when not everyone is allowed to swim and not everyone should be swimming.

People who no longer have access to their local pool, or have always wanted to try wild swimming and the change in weather and working circumstances has made this possible now are keen to experience outdoor swimming. We receive lots of request asking for advice on how to start, what to wear, where to go etc. We gently advise them that this isn’t the best time to start swimming outdoors. You can’t miss something you have never experienced and the sea will always be there when this is all over. We’d also like to be able to personally welcome them into our group and show them the ropes  For us running a community group we cannot provide the support/guidance etc they require without actually being with them and as voluntary admins we don’t have the time or resources to do it and are not prepared to ask those in the group to either. So, our Salty Seabird community group remains closed for the foreseeable future. People have begun to swim again, in pairs based on their personal perspective, experience and need.

We are very visible here on Brighton and Hove’s beaches  and have monkey see, monkey do concerns.  Many of us are experienced year round swimmers but know that anyone regardless of swim ability and local knowledge can get into difficulty. Those that choose to swim try to be discreet and respectful of others that choose not to.

We have a trauma surgeon in our group that works in a busy A&E department – if anyone needs a bloody swim outdoors it is her. But she hasn’t and she isn’t going to until the rest of the UK allows swimming, and she evaluates the impact of the bank holiday and the more relaxed lockdown regime on the Covid figures at the hospital. This is based on her perspective and experience overriding her need. (We will of course provide her with a guard of honour when she enter the water when she returns to the flock.)

We also have some swimmers in our group that suffer severely with their mental health and they believe that as a direct consequence of their lack of access to cold water they have suffered relapses in some cases resulting in admission to hospital. They feel that a quick low tide dip is less likely to result in a stay on the ward that not doing so would.

So the choice is yours. What is your perspective, experience and need? If you do chose to get in the water, do it safely. If you chose to wait, the sea will be there with open arms when you do.

 

Social Distancing Safe Swimming!

  • Never swim alone – but during these times it needs to be just one other!
  • Always wear a brightly coloured hat and tow float to be seen.
  • Always wear goggles so that you can see hazards
  • Adhere to social distancing requirements throughout your swim, including arrival, changing and post swim.
  • Let someone in your household know where you are, what you are doing and expected time to return.
  • It is your responsibility that you are sufficiently fit and healthy to swim and that you know your limits, have you eaten, are you hydrated, what is your state of mind?
  •  In terms of sea swimming, there are no RNLI lifeguards (Council Lifeguards in Brighton and Hove) operating presently, so you need to complete your own risk assessment on the water conditions, safe exit points, water hazards.

 

 

Woman cannot live on Swims alone

I’m all come swim with me until the summer when I have no desire to swim. Or is it because I have no need to swim?

It’s that time of year again when the inevitable summer swim slump occurs. Life gets busy and the beach gets busy. I find myself muttering under my breath about fair weather swimmers as I approach our increasingly crowded favourite spot of shingle in front of Hove Lawns. Hardly aligned with my belief that swimming is for all and everyone should give it a go. The warmer waters remove the temperature barrier that prevents so many from swimming in the sea. This is a good thing. But still it keeps me away from my sacred sea.

It’s not that I like solitude when I am swimming. I have written many times about the sense of community and connection I gain from swimming with others. But I also do not like crowds. Too many people, too much noise, bodies invading my fiercely protected personal space overwhelms my over sensitive brain. I also fiercely protect my swimming space and when I see plastic all over the pebbles I want to weep. Hardly my happy place in the summer months.

My swim squad also disperses across Europe on their holidays. They share images of Italian Lakes, Yorkshire Tarns, French Rivers and Greeks Seas. They have all found secret swim spots, a Salty Seabird haven away from our busy beaches. There really is nothing better than finding a swim spot with family and friends and there is no one else there. You’ve hit the wild swimming jackpot. This is impossible in Brighton and Hove as the beaches are always busy in the summer and good old Sussex by the sea is a wild swimmers dry spot. There are rivers and lakes in abundance but they are not accessible to the public. I scroll through neighbouring Surrey’s wild swim group in envy at the access they have to the Thames and the River Wey. The Wild Swim guide books offer no real alternative to the sea in Sussex.

The alternative would be getting up at sunrise before the beach gets busy. Not really a hard task for an early riser like me. What ever the season I will wake up between 5-5.30am every day. During the summer months it is light enough to head down to the beach for a swim. Seabird Christine runs the 6.15am club and most mornings partakes in a dawn dip so I would even have Salty company. But I just can’t seem to muster the enthusiasm during the hot months. I think I may be a cold water junkie. If the sea temperature is below double digits it seems to be more appealing. During the summer the sea is room temperature, which for me, is a bit bath like.

I am currently on holiday in France where they have a much more tolerant attitude towards swimming outdoors than we do in the England. There are Lakes and rivers in abundance close to where I am staying. But, in all honesty lakes just don’t do it for me, especially when they are 25 degrees. I class the Mediterranean as a Salty Lake – not a sea. The water level is low so the rivers near by are too shallow to swim in. With lots of research and driving around I could no doubt find a suitable deep bend in a river. But I came on holiday to relax and read not to swim. And I am just as happy to be dry for the duration.

So what happens to my mental health during these times of drought, when I am an advocate of outdoor swimming as a way of managing wellbeing. As I write this, with a glass on rosé sitting on a veranda in Provence in the cool outdoor air I am happy. I have in fact been happy all summer long, even with a reduction in regular swims. Life has been by no means smooth swimming, life isn’t for anyone, but I have experienced no significant episodes of anxiety or depression. Which has made me consider why. Don’t get me wrong I am glad not to be sad but I wonder why.

Cold water swimming is just one thing in my arsenal against my mental health demons. I have lots of other things that are working alongside regular sea swimming. They have been been doing their thing in the background consistently as the dips have dwindled. Supplements, talking, rest, new experiences, good books, digital downtime, exercise, dog walks; are just some of the things in the mental health ammunition box that allow people to continue to cope. I am fortunate to have access to them all.

I have a husband and a business partner that keep me in check and tell me to slow down when I am accelerating at a rate of knots that is not necessary. Down time away from digital distractions is a necessary part of my mental maintenance but difficult to balance when you run your own business. Being disciplined with my down time and clever with scheduling has had a positive impact on my wellbeing.

I am currently well rested. Lots of early nights and saying no to too many evenings out has enabled me to manage and recover from numerous Seabird evening sessions, lessons and events. Now I am on holiday and the pace has definitely slowed to a crawl. If we are lucky, the kids may rise before lunchtime, so our excursions are mainly low key and local. I have entire mornings to read, write, think.

I know these things, amongst others, are working on my wellbeing. They are the hidden cogs that aren’t as visible as my sea swimming. My shoulder was injured for months preventing me from doing any swimming of substance. Yes I was frustrated but I accepted it. The busy beaches have reduced my swim time to once a week but I don’t mind. I am on holiday and the main focus isn’t finding a swim spot and that’s OK.

Don’t get me wrong the desire to jump into any body of water I happen to stumble across is still there. And I cannot wait to get back to the pebble, waves and community of my favourite Hove beach. But for now I am just as happy out of the water

Author: Seabird Kath

Unprecedented Times

A Guest Blog by Seabird Claudine

It was a clear, crisp day.  Filled with sunshine, then rain, then sun, then hail, all within 5 minutes.  A typical spring day then.  Perhaps not typical as in regular, but typical as in we’ve seen it all before, weather-wise.  Four seasons in one day.  It’s one of those days where we don’t go out.  Is that because we can’t be bothered?  Because it’s the weekend and getting the children dressed and out of the house is more effort than it’s worth?  Or is it because we are on lock-down, the pandemic of Covid 19 wreaking havoc on the world?  The entire world.

As I sit in the sunshine whilst the heavens aren’t opening, I wonder if there are parts of the world unaffected, remote and cut off from others in a way that is protecting them from all that is going on.  I wonder what it would be like to live in those communities.  Before this, as well as now, I sometimes dream of the ideal “getting away from it all” lifestyle change, as many do I’m sure.  A log cabin on the coast in a remote part of Canada, on the Sunshine Coast, maybe near Sechelt, away from people, near bears, (but friendly ones), with a glorious sea to swim in literally on my doorstep.  Or in another daydream fantasy, one of those houses the characters live in on Big Little Lies; a modern mansion on the beach with a luxurious expansive deck, with sofas bigger than my entire living room, and a roaring fire-pit, overlooking the waves, and a little wooden boardwalk down to the golden sand.  Anyway, I digress.

“It is unprecedented” is the phrase of the week/ fortnight/ month – who knows?  We have all lost track of time.  It’s like something from a Sci-fi film.  People in hazmat suits (a term I wasn’t even aware of until the virus hit) all over the news, looking like they are treating people who are radioactive, or taking evidence from a crime scene.  Who knew the world could be put on hold in this way?  For some it has all come to a standstill. No-one needs certain products and services right now, maybe they never really did.  I have always looked at certain jobs and industries and wondered if they really needed to exist.  Occasionally even my own.  But for some it isn’t like that.

Simultaneously other people’s worlds have gone from high pressure to incredibly intense.  People working night and day to adapt, to change to find a need and meet it.  For some that means profiteering: opening a shop especially to sell overpriced toilet roll and hand sanitizer.  For others that means thinking how they can use their skills to provide a slightly different service and continue to make a living; restaurants offering take away service, coffee delivered to your door, everything possible being offered online, even the things that “couldn’t possibly” be done online before.  Whilst others do their best with the limited resources they have to take care of others.  People risking their lives working in hospitals with the most sick, trying to reduce the death toll and slow the spread.  People have made the sacrifice of leaving their own homes and families so they don’t take the virus home to their loved ones or from their loved ones to the workplace where the most vulnerable are.

I miss things.  I know I am privileged to have a nice house, large garden, family members to keep me company, the tech I need to stay connected.  I still have the ability to go down to the seafront occasionally, get in the sea, as long as I do it alone.  But I’m not sure if I should. It isn’t as much fun as going with a few others, or the big social swims when I am in the right mood for them, but it is still glorious to get into the shimmering sea and feel the bitey cold on my body.

I’ve realised, or remembered, that I am the kind of person who manages with a new situation, and doesn’t really notice how much I miss something until I get it back again.  It sounds a bit contradictory, but I just plod along, feeling not quite right but OK, and dealing with the challenges that “home schooling” and struggling children bring.  Some days are a battle, calming down the children who show their angst in ways that are difficult for the rest of us to be around.

But last week we had a zoom call (again, an app I was unaware of until the corona virus hit) with salty seabirds, most of us getting in a cold bath as a substitute for the sea.  And I realised how much I miss them.  I miss the whoops and squeals as we get in the sea.  I miss the chatter and banter when we are in.  I miss the giggles.  I miss the dialogue: sometimes ridiculous and hilarious and sometimes profound.  I miss the support when I need a moan.  I miss the empathy when I have a cry.  I miss the hugs when a fellow seabird just knows I need one.  I miss touch.  I miss conversations about something other than my family, school work, and C19.  I miss the wide open space.  I miss the horizon, I look at and enjoy its endlessness, it represents infinite possibilities.

But this too shall pass.  Many people are in far more difficult situations than me.  Many people won’t make it through.  Many people will be living with the financial, emotional and physical fall out of this for years.  I am lucky, but that doesn’t mean I’m not struggling.  It doesn’t mean I’m not allowed to feel low.

For many, life will go back to normal, soon enough, and we’ll be back to rushing around, cramming too much in, getting stressed, spending money.  But at least then we will be back with our wider tribes, we will have the freedom to come and go as we please, we will have the sea and we will have the horizon, where anything is possible.

Author: Seabird Claudine

 

Magic Seaweed explained for Sea Swimmers

Brilliant Blog by Freyja Hunt – how to read magic seaweed to aid sea swimming choices

This is a brilliant blog by Seabird Freyja. Everyone has a different favourite forecasting app that they use to see if it is safe to swim. The most commonly used app is Magic Seaweed that was designed for surfers see what swell was approaching but it can be used to look at sea swimming conditions too!

image.png

Magic Seaweed (MSW) surf report provides a seven day forecast of sea conditions. Here’s a guide to understanding the data so you can get a better idea of what to expect before heading down to the beach.

msw4

 

Surf

This is the first column in blue. In Brighton and Hove, this is essentially the height of the shore break (or the white bits that can knock you over). This will give you an idea of how difficult it will be to enter and exit the water. MSW is designed for surfers so the measurement used is that of the surfable wave rather than the total wave height. For us sea swimmers it might be worth adding a little extra on to this measurement.

It is worth noting that the value given is the average height. 1 wave in 23 is likely to be twice the average height and one in 1,175 is three times the average height. Therefore, it is worth taking this as a rough guideline and always be on the lookout for larger waves when getting in and out.

In terms of height of the shore break, my rule of thumb is anything above waist height is capable of knocking me over.

 

Swell

Swell – listed in the second column – is the height of the waves once you are past the shore break. A big swell can be a lot of fun as you bounce around above and below your swimming buddies.

The next column gives an indication of the wavelength, or the time between the crest of each wave in seconds. The longer the time, the gentler and more undulating the waves will feel. Conversely, shorter times between each crest means the waves will come more frequently and you may be more likely to get a mouthful of sea water.

wavelength

The black arrow to the right is an indication of the direction the swell is travelling. If you are doing a point to point swim, this is worth bearing in mind – if the swell is travelling in the same direction as you, it will feel like it is pushing you along. If you are swimming into the swell you will again, be more likely to get lung-fulls of sea water.

 

Wind

Wind is the main factor influencing how rough the sea is going to be. The stronger the wind is and the longer it has blown for, the larger the swell is likely to be.

The right-hand number column denotes wind speed. The larger number being the steady wind speed, and the small number being the gust speed. The arrow shows the direction the wind is travelling in. In Brighton and Hove the prevailing wind is South Westerly.

msw1

 

It is worth considering that MSW doesn’t factor in local sea breezes. Sea breezes are caused as the land changes temperature faster than the sea. For example, in the morning the sun heats up the land quicker than the sea. This triggers the air on the land to rise up and and cooler air is drawn in from the sea to replace it. Sea breezes are generally onshore in the afternoon (as the land heats up and air rushes in from the sea) and offshore in the morning (where the land falls below sea temperature overnight and air moves from land to sea).  You might therefore expect the wind to be slightly stronger in the afternoon than denoted on MSW.

 

Tidal Information

Magic Seaweed also shows the times and heights of the high and low tides. In Brighton and Hove, low tides generally vary between 1 and 2.5 meters and high tides between 5 and 6.5 meters above chart datum. The difference between the two is the tidal range. The tidal range has an effect on currents – the larger the tidal range, generally the stronger the currents will be. The tidal range during spring tide in Brighton is around 6 metres.

tide

 

In a nutshell

The first column is the height of the shore break and gives you an idea of how difficult it is to enter and exit.

The second column is the height of the swell and tells you how bouncy it will be once you are in and past the shore break.

The third section tells you wind speed and direction – or the best direction to swim in to avoid getting a mouth full of sea water.

The box below informs you of the times of high and low tides and the tidal range. From this, you can have a go at working out the direction and strength of the current.

 

See, didn’t we tell you, a brilliant blog. Thank you Freyja for allowing us to host it on our site. I use Wind Guru, Nautide and Imray too!

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.