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………..

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

Swimming with my Sister

My love of swimming in the sea was cultivated from a young age. I spent every school holiday, even the cold winter ones, in a converted railway carriage on Selsey’s East Beach. It was the stuff of Enid Blyton books. Sea swimming numerous times a day, camping out in haystacks, racing the Lifeboat maroon onto the beach and cycling on an array of Rand Hand Gang bikes for miles on the flat reclaimed land. All of this I shared with my brother, foster siblings, cousins, new friends (now firmly established as old friends) and my little sister. With only 2 years between us in age no matter how much I tried to shake her, there was always my younger sister! In her orange towelling bathing suit.

She was ever present in the sea with me. If there was a summer thunder storm at night we would be allowed to get out of bed to jump into the sea to watch the fork lightning display floating on our backs. (It was the 1970s there was no H&S). We perfected our jumping and diving at high tide off the breakwaters into the depths that the long shore drift had created. We created flotillas of rubber dinghies, washed up crabbing pots and floats and old rowing boats and set sail into low tide lagoons.

With exactly the same upbringing and childhood experiences it has always fascinated me how we grew into such different adults. She is always well turned out and I look like something the cat dragged in. She has incredible patience with people, probably due to working as a nurse for 25 years, and I, diplomatically put, do not. She is able to cope with blood and gore while I am firmly hidden behind the cushion. I get in the sea all year round and she, even on on a summers day does not. But she did. She just doesn’t anymore.

The family holidays of the 1970s and 80s on the Sussex coast have been replaced with annual family celebration holidays. If there is an 0 or a 5 at the end of your birthday year you are expected to find a big house, by the sea, and invite siblings, parents, children, aunts, cousins and dogs to join you. This year it was Dad’s 75th and we headed off to Bude at Easter. I packed my swim suit, my sister did not.

What is not outwardly apparent is that behind my sisters immaculate appearance and organised life she has more than most to deal with. Her youngest daughter Emily has been refusing to go to school for most of her time at senior school. She is now in year 10 and they have lived with school refusal for 3 years. My sister works for the NHS and is like a blood hound when it comes to getting answers but even with that on her side she is no closer to a resolution. I could go on and on about the lack of services available, scarce school funding, female autism going un-diagnosed, acute anxiety, daily melt downs but you get the picture. Life is incredibly hard for my sister and my niece. With that in mind I planned to get Emily in the sea. This I knew would be relatively easy as she loves the sea. It calms her and gives her overworked brain a rest. She swims with me at Grandma Seaside’s on the Isle of Wight and this time in Cornwall her cousin and uncle were going to teach her how to surf. We bought spare wet suits, gloves, boots, robes with us and Emily packed her swimsuit.

So during the holiday, Emily headed into the sea at Widemouth bay and had some foamie fun in the white water. My sister watched from the beach, every present, ever anxious. She doesn’t like the cold water and the waves fill her with dread. Yet here she was watching her daughter, entrusting her to her cousin, having fun. Knowing she had to sideline her own anxiety to allow Emily some respite. Later I went in for a skin swim with my sister-in-law, in the waves, to the amazement of neoprene clad on lookers and again my sister looked on. Same seventies upbringing in the sea but she couldn’t bring herself to get in. To be honest it didn’t even cross my mind to ask her if she wanted to join us as I assumed the answer would be a firm no. And she hadn’t packed her swimsuit.

The holiday house was full, all week, with wet-suits, towels, swimsuits drying on every available radiator and hook. Talk was invariably about swimming, surf spots and surf reports. Post sea highs where shared around the fire with steaming mugs of post sea tea. The highlight of the week was that my husband and niece were going to join me for a swim in the iconic Bude Tide Pool. The surprise of the week was when my sister announced she’d like to join us too! Now to find her a swimsuit.

I often wonder what made her decide to come for a cold water skin swim that day. I think it was because she could see how much it does for my mental health and for her daughters. Perhaps she was curious about the post swim happiness high and whether it too would be some respite for her. Maybe it was good old fashioned sibling rivalry. The Tide pool has sides and a way to get in safely with no crashing waves. It also has changing rooms so that you don’t have to struggle on the sand to get your knickers on. For her the perfect conditions. So she borrowed by daughters swimsuit, refused neoprene but donned various rash-vests, gloves and boots. She questioned why she was doing it over and over again on the way there but didn’t turn back.

We talked a lot about cold water shock and what she should expect when she got in the water. It was March when the sea is at it coldest. I got in first and showed her how I floated on my back and controlled by breathing. She attempted to get in a few times and needed a bit of coaxing but eventually she took the plunge. You could see by her face she was trying really hard to control her breath so we sang. We swam and and we sang and slowly she was able to talk and regulate her breathing and we took a gentle breast stroke turn around the pool. And we were transported back to the 1970s when we regularly swam in the sea together. She was able to forget about life’s daily challenges for a few precious minutes and was so chuffed with herself that she had done it her happiness was infectious. For those few precious minutes she was back in her orange towelling swimsuit with no inhibitions, self consciousness or anxieties.

As a regular outdoor swimmer I am asked all the time if I have a favourite swim. Well this was it. It was the best swim ever. I have swum in the beautiful Glens of Scotland, Tarns in the Lake District, Rivers in the Somerset levels but I never thought I’d see the day when I would share the sea with my sister again. There was no thunder storm, breakwater jumping or dinghies but I did share the sea with my sister again. And it was the best! And now when she holidays in the UK she packs her swimsuit. My sister is a Seabird.

Author: Kath Seabird

What colour is the sea?

The weather and tides can change in an instant but so does the seascape. What colour is the sea?

The question everyone asks me is “What is the temperature of the sea?” The question I always ask myself is “What colour is the sea?”

When I swim off Brighton’s beaches, with a flock of Seabirds there is a lot of routine to what we do. We find a sheltered spot to change. But this spot can change depending on the state of the beach and the direction of the wind. We check our phones to make sure we haven’t missed any stragglers or welcome fledgling swimmers as we always swim in company. But it is never the same group of people. We look at the tides and conditions and consider the direction of the flow and which way to swim. But we don’t always get it right. We shout, scream and sing on entry into the cold water and gradually split into smaller groups to chat while we swim. But it’s not always the same person you end up swimming with each time and sometimes there is a bit of silence.

It’s in these moments of silence that I always, without fail, consider the colour of the sea. No But. There will always be a point during the swim that I focus on my hands in the water and look at the colour. The seascape changes all of the time. Sometimes the shingle is up on the prom, sometimes you can walk across sand to the pier, sometimes, just sometimes you get lovely lines of surf. Twice a day there is a high and a low tide. All of these changes are obvious to all. But how many people notice the change in colour of the sea?

sea colour1

We all use the term ‘Sky blue’…but what is sea green? I have rarely swum in the sea when it is green. But there is a palate of colours it has been and will be throughout the year.

A the sea warms up and the season moves from Spring to Summer, May bloom appears.  May Bloom, is an algae bloom that is caused by increased sunlight and water temperature. This causes a massive growth in plankton, which colours up the waters. In 2018 it lasted longer and reached further across the sea surface than I have ever known. It not only changed the colour of the sea to a rusty orange, but gave it the consistency of a really yeasty beer. You literally had to wade through froth to find clearer water to swim in and you left the water with a slimy film on your skin. At high tide the water was too deep to wade through and we ended up with dirty Father Christmas beards. In the magic of one swim as the tide turned to push you could clearly see the plankton in the strong current and swimming through it, head immersed, it was like being in an episode of Stranger Things and swimming through the ‘Upside Down’

In the winter months, storms that sweep across the Atlantic create large swells and the colour of the sea couldn’t be more different from the warm water bloom. It is a dark foreboding pewter in colour, almost metallic. It’s dark colour is almost warning you not to get in. This colour is normally accompanied by large waves that sharply break just before the shingle known as shore dump. And the colour warning should be heeded when the tide is high and the waves are big. It creates a striking contrast against a normally light grey sky and coloured pebbles but it is my least favourite colour for swimming in.

Every now and then there are summer days when the wind is offshore but not cold and the water turns a Mediterranean turquoise. It is so clear you can see the seabed right up until the end of the Pier. As well as being crystal clear, it is a flat as a millpond and the sunlight reflecting on the surface creates mesmerising shimmers and sparkles. This is when the sea is at it’s most inviting and unfortunately in Brighton it’s most busy. There will be days like this over the colder months that ensure the tranquillity of the water can enjoyed with less company but the pay off is ice cream brain as you submerge your face to experience the water clarity.

Aqua green waves are my favourite colour. Again this is a rarity and seems to accompany clean swell that has managed to make it’s way round the Isle of White without finishing at the Witterings. The waves come in regular sets and don’t churn up the seabed leaving the water awash with sand. Instead the sun catches the wave face and creates a shade between green and blue. Like the aquamarine gem it glistens. The colour is just as wonderful experienced from above as it is below the waves.

These really are just a few of the colours the sea can be. There are peaty browns, bright blues and pea greens. It’s all to do with the colour of the light and how it is absorbed by the water and the depth of the water….or so I am told. Not sure I really care how or why the colour if the sea changes, I just love that it does meaning no two swims are ever the same.

sea colour2

Author: Seabird Kath

Footnote 1: The regency iron railings along the promenade in Brighton are ‘Brighton Blue’ a kind of aqua/turquoise colour. It changes colour from Brighton Blue to Hove Green at the Peace Statue marking the boundary between the once two separate towns.

Footnote 2: 100 Flags and Colour Wheel. Over several weeks throughout 2010 Finch observed the ever changing tone and colour of the English Channel. He then selected a pantone colour swatch for each moment observed resulting in a palette of 100 variants of sea colour, which was used to dye 100 flags. The four existing flagpoles at Christchurch Gardens were used to hoist a different sea-coloured flag every day. The colour of each monochrome flag was determined by an observer of the sea every day of the Triennial following Finch’s swatch. The flag hoister chose the corresponding flags and raised them at midday

July Book Club Read

July’s Seabird Book Club Read. Floating

It’s been less that a month since we re-launched the Seabirds Virtual Book Club but it is already time for July’s book.

This month we move away from the science of Tristan Gooley to the memoir by Joe Minihane. “Floating: A Life Regained” sees the author follow in the footsteps of Roger Deakin and swims in the locations described in Waterlog. As a Seabird my favourite type of swimming is floating so the title immediately appealed. Joe is also based in Brighton so there was another tenuous link. He probably won’t remember, but I met him swimming in the sea once in front of the bandstand with his friend Seabird Laura. I went all a bit star struck and he just smiled.

As for the book – I know it will appeal to the seabird flock. It’s acutely honest and touches upon topics we regularly consider when swimming in the sea. Our joyful love of being outside and experiencing nature first hand. The warmth of the friendship we have found within our flock. A story of acceptance of his anxiety and how to live with it is also a common theme in our clan.

He writes; “In swimming I found the only thing that truly broke me out of my anxious cycle for longer than a few moments…I swam to fix myself.”

It’s on my list to read again, and again, and again. Joe is a Seabird. Enjoy Salties

xx

 

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.