As a social introvert I am fascinated by human interaction. Envious of those that seemingly find conversation and connection easy. Over the festive period the Salty Seabird flock grew to record numbers but I am not always able to face new faces. I observed from afar (social media screen) but was still able to share in their joy and happiness at experiencing a cold water sea swim. I still felt part of the flock.
Being part of a community is not a new thing. Nor is swimming in the sea. But doing it as a community activity arranged via social media is. But what fundamental components of being part of a community remain unchanged?
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a Community is; a group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common. The internet and social media platforms have meant that I can watch someone else’s swim live, from the comfort of my own home. Watching their face erupt into a smile, breathe in the beautiful scenery and converse with them via comments. It’s not that same as actually being there. Only two of your senses are engaged and there is no real replacement for physical presence but I do still feel part of a community, albeit virtually. We don’t necessarily live in the same place but we do live in the same space.
We also have a particular characteristic in common. The Outdoor Swimming Society have claimed the characteristic ‘stoic’ for the virtual Zeno’s Swim Club. The ability to just keep going – or in this case just keep swimming. This is true of my local Salty Seabird community and my virtual outdoor swimming community. The impact cold water immersion has on our physical and mental health, has been researched and written about, both anecdotally and academically. What we all seem to agree on is that in that moment, in the water, we have escaped the day to day. We know it will be there once we’ve dried off but we will be better equipped to deal with it. We are testing our resilience. Why would you enter freezing water willingly? Its takes your breath away and it burns your limbs. Because, you know, once you’ve had a swim you will feel like you can keep going.
I have talked and written at length about the sense of connection I experience from swimming with a group. In a fragmented world, and during times of austerity, the need for connection and community has never been more necessary. The Salty Seabirds have grown from a few to the many, some I have never met, some have names I don’t know, some swim in different spots, some swim long distances and some dip. But I am connected to them. Connected by the shared need for respite and rest and the ability to find it by the sea. Connected by sharing cake and tea post swim. Connected by a rediscovery of childlike joy and the ability to play in the water. For me, connection is at the heart of the community.
Recently the Salty Seabird community has demonstrated the strength of the connection at its heart. A new Salty wanted to raise some funds for a paediatric study into treatment for Alkaptonuria, the genetic condition her son has. So she posted a call to arms for swimmers join her swimming in the sea through the 12 days of Christmas. The response was overwhelming with incredible numbers of swimmers joining her on a daily basis, donating and sharing the fundraiser. This community, didn’t know her, or her son, when she asked for support, but because a bunch of people have a sense of belonging or connection they answered her call.
Connection is prevalent throughout the virtual outdoor swimming community just as much as it is locally. ‘Tits to the Wind’ organised by 3 wild swimmers via social media was supported by swimmers the length and breadth of the country. The idea was to swim topless and raise money for Mind a mental health charity and raise awareness for Coppafeel which encourages people to check for lumps to ensure early diagnosis of breast cancer. Instagram was full of wonderful images of people exposing their “Tits to the Wind” and sharing the experience. All the topless swimmers are alike in some way, they feel a sense of belonging with each other even though they’ve never met.
Whenever Lindsey ‘Stompy’ Cole puts a shout out for people to join her for a swim or for a bed for the night she is never disappointed. In 2018 she swam the length of River Thames as mermaid to raise awareness of plastic pollution. Since then she has cycled and swum around the UK instantly recognisable by her infectious grin. Again, via social media, she posts shout outs for swim buddies and place to stay which are answered by the supportive community she is part of.
Lindsey is not the only one to swim with strangers. Salties join us from all over the world to experience the sea on the South Coast of England. In addition to the wild swimmers individual and group social media accounts, there is a Wild Swim Map and the Outdoor Society FB group. So many way for swimmers to connect with one another. Whenever I go on my holidays I will find a local swimmer or group to swim with. And you know that when you do eventually make it to that waterfall, lake, tarn, you will be made to feel very welcome and very much part of that local community.
The Oxford English Dictionary goes on to say; the condition of sharing or having certain attitudes and interests in common. Again by wild swimming virtual connections when posted words or an image resonate you instantly feel part of a community. I frequently comment on other people’s posts and have regular dialogue with people I have never met, but I know they are my people. Some of these may be sea swimmers local to Brighton and Hove, who swim in the same spots as me yet we have not met. Some of these sea swimmers may in fact be part of the same Salty Seabird community group but we are yet to swim at the same time and place. This is the beauty of these leaderless, self-regulating communities glued together by sharing the swim love.
Watching my own community of Salty Seabirds thrive brings me joy on a daily basis. Every week new swimmers join us, entering the sea as strangers and leaving the beach as friends.. The local connection of community is incredible. We’ve had single Salties spend Christmas day together. Poorly Salties spend their birthdays on the beach with us even when they are too ill to swim. They fundraise and volunteer for Seabirds, provide lifts to Shoreham Port, swap stories, give warm welcome and advice to new swimmers…….the list goes on. They are the salt of the earth – or in this case salt of the sea.
This is what community looks like – it hasn’t changed – just the way we connect has.