Swim and Tonic

I thought I was doing OK, and I am, but there is definitely a storm brewing in the distance. Low pressure is here and it relentlessly keeps coming. So one morning this week, I released the pressure with the flock on the beach and in the sea.
As I sit, days later, thinking about that morning I cannot help but smile. Better yet, the exhilaration, excitement and elated mood I experienced was shared. It was just the tonic!

We’re at the tail end of Storm Francis and the weather is changeable. Strong winds are keeping us on our toes and permanently glued to weather and sea forecast apps to identify swimming windows. We had a Seabird birthday to celebrate this week so opportunity was key. The birthday girl settled on an 8am swim at King Alfred Beach, the dog friendly side. I was also meeting a friend that morning, having a swimming lesson and generally galivanting about the beach between lessons and courses. So I agreed to the birthday swim but said I wouldn’t get in just come for the cake and the craic (the birthday girl is Irish).

Another Seabird spotted me as soon as I got out of the car. I don’t have particular, favourite or regular swim buddies. They all fill my cup in different ways. This bird is bloody funny and her quick wit and clumsiness have your sides splitting. So I knew I was in for a fun gathering of the flock. We wandered down to the beach watching birds come from different directions, drifting until they spotted the ever growing brood. There was lots of talk of the weather and the waves. The beauty of a westerly is you can see the squalls and the fronts coming over the sea and the sky has been putting on quite a show of late.

There was lots of pre-swim chatter. It’s the summer and we all naturally migrate in the warmer months, coming back together in September when school starts. And although this has been a strange summer of staycations, we have still not met in big groups or seen much of each other. So the chatter was excited, urgent, loud and bloody lovely. Two of the birds I’d seen the day before but there was still so much to say. One I hadn’t seen for months and was keen to hear about her freshwater swimming adventures. There have been house moves, holidays, exam results, illnesses that all needed airing. Most of the birds are parents and a child free hour means cramming conversation in.

Finally, they got in the sea. A couple of years ago, particularly on a wavy day, they would wait for me to lead the charge. That is not an arrogant statement, it is merely a fact. I am not the Queen of the Sea (I am) but I do have confidence when getting in the water. Looking to my left and right there would be lines of birds waiting for when I would make my move. Now they all nonchalantly stroll in and if a wave takes them out they laugh. From my strange, dry vantage point I feel like a proud mother hen. This is why we did this. These women were strangers to each other not so long ago. Now they are firmly established in each other’s lives. We may not venture far from the beach but we venture into each other’s experiences, worries and doubts and are welcomed like old friends. There’s screeching, laughing and wonderful rendition of Happy Birthday in a mermaid ring. A couple swim off to get some mileage in, others bob and chat, a few practice their strokes. Doing their own thing but doing it together. Then it was time for cake. The only reason for swimming in the sea year round other than connection is cake. And lots of it.

Before the birds even had their clothes back on the cake came out. Various varieties. You cannot have a swim and then be offered just one type of cake. The distance swimmers were back and needed warming up so cake was eaten in a stood upright shaky position. Others wrapped in robes hunkered down to get out of the growing wind. Positions swapped as conversations changed. Then finally, someone said “Right I must go now”. The reason for an 8am swim was so it didn’t eat into peoples day and we could prepare for the return of routine mornings. Inevitably, the first “Right I must go now” was responded to with “Yes, me too.” But no one left the beach. The chatter changed but continued. You just ended up talking to someone else further up the beach. I walked the neap high water line with another bird looking for sea glass and putting the world to rights, others picked up litter, some had another slice of cake. But no one actually left. When I go back from my slow dawdle, they were all still there, just in a different flight formation. Finally the first one left and gradually people began to leave. It was so gradual it was hardly noticeable and the “Right I must go now” was replaced with “I thought you were going” or “Are you still here?”.

I had no where to be other than the beach that morning. Something I had been fretting about as the TO DO list at home beckoned. But by now I’d been at the beach for well over an hour, almost two. Time had run away and relaxation had rushed into replace it. With a handful of us left, a sizeable piece of sea glass was found and that was it. We were going nowhere. Tales of legendary size finds were shared, shingle was over-turned in the search for fortune and shells offered in exchange for the gem. But the finder wasn’t to be parted with her treasure. Then she found another piece, even bigger, practically in the same spot. We swarmed around her plotting ways to relieve her of her burden of gems. Creating a sea glass colour and size hierarchy and beach currency to offer her as a trade deal. We were Sea Witches at their best.

No one mentioned leaving for quite a while again. Instead, we joked and teased each other relentlessly. They were the kind of jokes that made you feel like you belonged but weren’t exclusive. Yes you could be the brunt of them but not in a mean girl way. The jokes were based on joyful, jubilant times together. Childlike (some would say immature) innocent pure fun. Which continued long into the day via messages and concluded with another Seabird classic evaluation of our time together. “ I didn’t know how much I needed that”. Finally, It was just two of us left and we went our separate ways eventually because I was meeting a friend.

I stayed on the beach for another three hours after they had all gone. I met a close friend on a bench on the prom. We watched as Seabird swim coaches worked their magic with nervous new sea swimmers. Christine was running an introduction to sea swimming session and Emma was teaching a Breast Stroke to Front Crawl lesson. A lesson which Co-Flounder Cath was in. We were meant to go for a walk, my friend and I. Instead we sat and chatted about our kids, our lives and our goings on. All the while watching the sea and the ever expanding flock. Cath came to say hello after her lesson. Her sense of achievement radiated from her happiness more infectious than normal. Then it was my time to get in.

I’ve been swimming a lot in the summer but not swimming. I usually reduce my sea time in high season as I hate the crowds and despair at the litter but this year has been different. Having to meet in smaller groups has meant more salt on my skin. Outdoor swimmers are growing in numbers and so the Seabird, lessons, sessions and courses are thriving. My hair constantly has seaweed in it and there is always a cossie drying somewhere. But I haven’t been swimming swimming. My usual early morning buoy loops just haven’t happened. No point to points with the tide. No circumnavigations of either of the piers. I’ve been getting in and bobbing but I have replaced longer swims with cake, runs with crisps and gym classes with chocolate. I’m in the midst of a body moving funk and not the kind that gets your body moving. So I signed up to have technique lessons with Emma. Having a set times and place and someone telling me what to do in the hope that it would reboot my body.

It was wonderful. Moving my body with purpose. Recalling it’s hidden strength. Not thinking about anything else other than what Emma was telling me to do. Meeting the other swimmers, some of whom were just at the start of their sea swimming adventures. And Emma does everything with humour, putting the participants at ease. I lost my goggles on the first wave and did the rest of the lesson in a kids snorkel mask. Towards the end of the lesson one of the swimmers knocked against something in the shore dump. Poking out from the shingle, only visible every 5th wave or so, was a metal ladder. Only the first two rungs were not buried. With a lot of pulling, falling over and face planting I manage, with the help of two other swimmers to dig/pull it out. I proudly marched the 10ft ladder up the beach to the lifeguard post. Best beach clean find ever! And in that Amazonian moment my body and I made friends again.

tonic4

I remained on the beach for while longer to catch Christine after she completed her last Introduction Session of the season. She asked me how things were going. And I moaned and moaned a bit more and then for good measure a grumble. We’ve not been able to run the Women Wellbeing and Water free community courses for people that identify as having mental health issues. We’ve been running these for two years and this would have been our third summer. Cath and I are both huge advocates of the benefits year round swimming can have on wellbeing. This is our raison d’etre. In her calm, quiet way Christine helped me to see we’d achieved so much this summer. We’d run numerous tasters, lessons and courses to give others the confidence to get in the sea. This small part of Hove seafront had been full to overflowing with Seabirds seeking solace by the sea all morning. Reinforcing her wise words I turned to see a bobble hat and another bird I’d not seen for a while. She’d popped down for a solo dip. We chatted about how cold it was that morning and I realised I was cold because I’d been in the sea and on the beach for five hours now. I realised I was really looking forward to cold, skin biting swims again. I realised that this wasn’t the summer I had planned but it had been a brilliant one nonetheless.

My buoyant happy mood continued for the rest of the day. I finally walked back through my front door at 2pm. My hair resembled the seaweed it had been dragged through. I was starving and cold but I was warm and full. This best bird morning was topped off by an indulgent day time bubbly bath. As I finally slipped my cossie off at 3pm, the sound of shingle leaving my gusset and landing on the tiled floor and the sight of wine red seaweed stuck to my body, I smiled. Being salty all day, on the beach teeming with swimming Seabirds was just the tonic I didn’t know I needed.

The Anthropology of Salty Ornithology

How does community connect in the modern world? By Social Media and Swimming!

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.

 

Preserved in Salt

We don’t stop playing because we get old; we get old because we stop playing – George Bernard Shaw

“Forty is the old age of youth; fifty is the youth of old age.” Victor Hugo

Since its conception, the Salty Seabird Sea swimming community flock has grown rapidly.  Not sure whether it is due to the group name, the times we swim or because of the community aspect but the majority of our flock are female. And not just female, but females of a certain age. Most of us fall into the 45-55 age group and we regularly forget our knickers. But we feel a lot younger! 

As the sea temperature drops our numbers continue to grow. Swimmers who have been bathing regularly  over the summer are keen to continue, with company, into the winter months. Many arrive for their first swim consumed with anxiety about their swimming ability, what to wear and stormy seas. After weeks of bathing with us they are becoming confident water warriors. It’s good to do something you are afraid of. Swimming in the cold sea, when the waves threaten to knock you off your feet provides reason for a very real fear. It would be so much easier to go home. But what the flock have found is, it is a fear worth facing because the other side of it is a feeling like no other. It’s recapturing the feelings associated with our younger selves, having adventures, experiencing pure joy. We are preserving ourselves in salt!

Regularly swimming in the sea exercises our brain, keeping it young by learning new skills like how to read sea forecasts and how to exit the sea safely. Swimmers have learnt by experience that their fears can be overcome. This neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to form new neural pathways and synaptic connections in response to learning, having new experiences or healing from an injury, keeps us young!

We are also exercising our bodies – but in a playful, kind way. Free from distraction, in the sea, we can tune into how our body feels (which is bloody cold most of the time). We begin to understand it in a way that is just not possible on dry land. Every part of your body immersed in cold water is talking to you and you have time to listen. We are weightless. We are soothing aching limbs. But we are moving. Anybody can get in the sea regardless of their swim abilities – and just move. This joyful movement has the added benefit of improving memory, focus and motivation. We really are preserving our youth.

Mother of all Movement, Kathryn Meadows puts it perfectly. After starting a family, struggling with PND which lead to an unbalanced approach to exercise, she stopped all intense training. “Part of my knowledge growth in that time was learning to love moving again. Moving for the sake of feeling how awesome my body was, not because I “had” to lift heavier or go faster or prove I was still fit. I fell in love with exploring how it felt to use my muscles well, to improve how efficiently I could use them and how amazing it was when I asked my body to do something challenging and it could respond.” This is also true of our Salty swimmers.

Women who swim through winter have a lack of fuss about themselves. Day-to-day dressing, hair and makeup do not apply here. It’s all about getting warm, fast post swim. Underwear is foregone, layers are essential and showers or hair brushing are positively frowned upon.  Photographer Christian Doyle photographed the Salty Seabird Swimmers as part of her ‘Against the Tide’ project.  She said, at the time “Getting your subject to relax in soft flattering light is the aim of every portrait photographer. None of the rules apply here – rather it is saying ‘this is us, how we are now, makeup free, cold and wet and unbelievably happy‘. And its’s true. We give less of a f@?k about what we look like. As long as we’re cold in the water and warm afterwards we are happy.

It is not just how our body looks that we are confident about, it is a confidence in its strength and capability in the water. We may not have washboard stomachs, toned biceps and the tight arse of our youth (did we ever?), but we are strong.  Whatever shape or size, level of fitness or swim ability our bodies are up to the task of winter swimming. Every month ticked off on the calendar is a reminder of what our wonderful wobbly bodies have helped us achieve. And we need to nurture those wobbles with cake.

During a woman’s lifetime they will experience huge changes. During the menopause years alongside all the delightful symptoms many of us are experiencing varying forms of grief. We are saying goodbye to our youth symbolised by our inability to reproduce. We are saying goodbye to our fledglings and they begin to leave the nest. And many of us are saying goodbye to our parents.  It can be a very lonely time and a time of great sadness. But there is a cure for this loneliness and it is swimming in the sea with a bunch of women who have or will experience the same grief as you. Alongside laughter and fun there can also be tears when we swim. But there will also be a hug, some stoic advice and a piece of cake. The salt in the Seabirds preserves your sanity.

Swimming in the salty sea I am not sure if we are being cured, or being cured, but we are definitely having fun! And as Mae West said; “you are never too old to be younger!”