We Came, We Swam, We Conquered

A reflection on our Women, Wellbeing and Water course

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………..

Summer Swim Slump

Last Year’s Summer Swim Slump

Long hot days and warm sea temperatures have created idyllic sea swimming conditions from as early as May this year in Brighton. The offshore breeze that just wouldn’t shift for two months meant flat seas inviting longer safer swims. Lots of visitors including jellyfish, seals and even a shark added to the swim excitement and anticipation. Clear aqua water creating a picture postcard seaside setting enticing normal swim aversive beach-goers into the water in their droves. So why did this seabird stop swimming?

With the summer brings increased social commitments and the kids school holidays. Every weekend is packed with BBQs, weddings, parties, camping trips, weekends away. Summer family holidays are taken and weekdays are spent juggling child care and cramming in work. Life is full to over-flowing. And it’s great. The endless summer we dared to dream of is a reality. Especially this year, when the weather has been so kind to the British masses.

But it’s only great for a while.  This summer hedonism is not sustainable and the inevitable summer slump arrives, for me, in July. This year the summer started early. Early because of the weather and sea temperatures got into double digits in April. Early because my eldest did her GCSEs and her endless summer started mid June with festivals, parties and prom. Early because I returned to teaching life-saving to school children on the beach and gained a permanent shorts tan at the start of the season. So by July I was kind over it!

With the slump came a ‘can’t be bothered’ attitude and an unshakeable fatigue. This was clearly visible to the naked eye. My normal priorities of sea swimming and being outdoors resided on the back burner and mundane non-urgent errands and tasks took poll position. These errands and tasks included watching season 1-4 of Poldark. I have literally been swimming off Brighton Beach maybe 5 times in the last 2 months. And when I say swimming I mean a dip, a couple of groynes breast stroke, catching up with a willing seabird,that due to the crammed calendar, I probably haven’t seen for a few weeks. I looked on with envy on social media as our flock of seabirds grew over the summer but I am conspicuous in my absence.

I truly believe that outdoor swimming, open water swimming, wild swimming, what ever you want to call it, should be free from arbitrary goals. You can float in a pond, jump waves in the sea, swim lengths in a lido or smash out kilometres down a river. Yet my summer slump was gradually stealing this belief from me. By August I found myself in the wonderful cycle of self loathing. Loathing my body and mood that had changed due to a food and drink over indulgence. Loathing that I wasn’t going round the buoys at least once a week. Loathing that I still haven’t been around the West Pier this year. This slump was gaining  momentum. (Not sure how slump can gain momentum as a heavy non-moving thing but you know what I mean).

So it’s September 1st. I declare summer to be officially over. For me anyway. The kids return to school and college and routine returns. I have cleared the calendar and cancelled camping. The warm weather is welcome to hang around but not for too long.  Poldark season 5 hasn’t started yet. So this week I have been in 3 times. Once for a dawnie and met two new wonderful seabirds. Once for a sunset swim post brilliant Swim Talk at Sea Lanes. And once for a regular swim spot swim followed by tea and cake. The later catching up with summer lost seabirds who had also had summer slumps. Now it is Autumn, I am planning to go back to my routine 3 swims a week. One early bird swim, one Fun Friday swim with tea and cake and one Saturday Social swim. Sod the slump let’s swim!

 

Like Mother Like Daughter

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

The Diary of Ann Steward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Author: Seabird Kath

3 generations of Seabirds

mum2

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

 

 

Floating

Floating – an essential pastime!

All I have done is float for the last couple of months. With trapped nerves caused by knotty and gnarly trapezius muscle I can’t do much else. Whilst I love to float by choice, when it is enforced, it’s not only my nerves that are trapped – I feel trapped!

I have never been good at resting for recovery. Being active is my therapist couch. As the seas began to warm, and after some technique coaching at Sea Lanes I was looking forward to a summer of long lazy point to point sea swims. But it just wasn’t to be. Instead I have been coaching our Women Wellbeing and Water courses and reading for relaxation. A good distraction but it all keeps coming back to floating. On our confidence courses I have been encouraging participants to relax and float on their backs. My relaxing reads have included re-reading “Floating – A Life Regained” by Joe Minihane. I cannot get away from floating………..

Teaching people, new to open water swimming, to float allows them to experience the buoyancy of their wet-suits or their body and the salt water. It provides them with reassurance that if they feel scared, panicked, unsure, they can flip onto their back and take some timeout to adjust to their surroundings and situation. We create, what I like to call, a Selkie Circle or a Mermaid Ring, where we all float in a round at the beginning of the session. It’s a really good way for the swimmers to become comfortable with each other, with me and their environment. It also looks pretty cool.

Floating is a  vital life saving skill. Drowning can be prevented in lots of instances if the swimmer relaxes to conserve energy and float on their back as per the RNLI Float to Live campaign. As the sea warms up and the sun continues to shine the masses are flocking to the beach. Unfamiliar water and not being used to sea temperatures can result in poor choices and people getting into difficulty. In Brighton and Hove we have a number of drownings every year. The RNLI advice is;

5 steps to float

1. If you fall into water, fight your instinct to swim until cold water shock passes

2. Lean back, extend your arms and legs

3. If you need to, gently move them around to help you float

4. Float until you can control your breathing

5. Only then, call for help or swim to safety

Floating on your back is also a really good way to acclimatise to prevent cold water shock. Nothing like that first trickle down your back! If you spend time floating before you start your swim you are able to acclimatise, regulate your breathing and get used to your environment in controlled way so hopefully the RNLI advice will not be needed. I include it as part of the warm up. There are stretches on the beach first before entry, then a few dolphins dives and front crawl stroke before flipping onto your back to catch your breath and get ready for the swim ahead.

Floating is a great way to feel the tidal flow, experience the impact of wind strength and direction, find a static sighting point and consider which direction you need to swim in. I am famous for swimming in the wrong direction even after studying the various apps that tell me which way the flow should be going. I blame mother nature and the moon. Although it could be my sighting as I aim for one buoy and arrive at a completely different one on a regular basis. After doing everything at pace and being particularly crap at going slow I have learned, the hard way, to take my time and float before I set off on a swim. Having earned the Salty Seabird nickname of Tidal Bore due to my obsession with tides and flows, floating allows me to practice what I preach.

Finally floating is the best way to be one with your salty environment. Ears just below the surface and eyes to the sky you become part of the sea in tune with its sights and sounds. Taking time to really appreciate being in the sea, looking at the colour or the water, feeling the energy of the swell and listening to the shingle being dragged around on the seabed. All of these experiences write your swim story and wouldn’t be possibly without floating.

And the best thing is….everyone can float!

Author: Seabird Kath

A little farewell note on floating.

“And out floated Eeyore.
“Eeyore!” cried everybody.
Looking very calm, very dignified, with his legs in the air, came Eeyore from beneath the bridge.
“It’s Eeyore!” cried Roo, terribly excited.
“Is that so?” said Eeyore, getting caught up by a little eddy, and turning slowly round three times. “I wondered.”
“I didn’t know you were playing,” said Roo.
“I’m not,” said Eeyore.
“Eeyore, what are you doing there?” said Rabbit.
“I’ll give you three guesses, Rabbit. Digging holes in the ground? Wrong. Leaping from branch to branch of a young oak-tree? Wrong. Waiting for somebody to help me out of the river? Right. Give Rabbit time, and he’ll always get the answer.”
“But, Eeyore,” said Pooh in distress, “what can we–I mean, how shall we–do you think if we–“
“Yes,” said Eeyore. “One of those would be just the thing. Thank you, Pooh.” 
― A.A. Milne, The House at Pooh Corner

 

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. 

 

Swimming for cakes and connection OR competition?

Back to trying to balance swimming in events and swimming for fun. Or can they be the same thing?

Last summer, after completing 12 months of skin swimming I decided I needed a new goal. I do this a lot. Set myself goals and then begin to loose the love of the thing I was doing just for fun because I think I need a goal to do something. It’s a complicated place inside my noggin.

Last summer I had some beautiful swims. My two favourites were, a swim in the Lake District with my daughter to celebrate the end of her GCSEs and a swim in Glen Nevis with my son in literally, the most beautiful place in the world. I’d also completed a year of skin swimming and set up Seabirds Ltd with some swimming friends. On a post swimming summer heaven high, I entered a ton of events for the following year. Because obviously I needed an arbitrary goal to enhance the joys of swimming. Didn’t I?

Now don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with goals. There is nothing wrong with entering and competing in events. There is nothing wrong with striving to be the best that you can be at something – in fact it’s blooming admirable and a lot of my friends have achieved massive milestones in the disciplines of their choice and the joy it yields is wonderful.  But I need to be in the right head space for it and right now I am not. My world is a bit busy with family stuff and I need to be it’s heartbeat. There is not a lot of time, energy or inclination left for training swims, only time out swims.

I can swim for miles and for ages, not the fastest fish in the sea but I have stamina. I could still do the events I have entered, which are in beautiful parts of the country with my head up taking in the view and breathing in my surroundings. It’s the type of swimming I advocate and encourage. And I can practice what I preach, most of the time, unless it it an event. Then I seem to turn into competitive Kath. Not competing with other competitors but with myself which is a competition I have absolutely no chance of winning. I am never going to have trained enough, fuelled enough, rested enough, stretched enough. I struggle with being enough, with balance.

I did start to train for the events I have entered. It’s hard to get longer swims in over the winter unless you go to the pool. I had my one and only ever panic attack in a pool and it took me over a year to get back in. If I do it has to be crowd free, a lane to myself and preferably outdoors, which is a challenge in itself.  My plan was, as the sea got warmer to don my wetsuit and do some distance swims at dawn but frankly life got in the way as it sometimes does. I even went so far as to have technique lessons in the tank at SeaLanes. They were amazing and I would recommend Andy to anyone that wants to  really focus on their individual areas for improvement. But I didn’t practice the drills between sessions so the old habits kept creeping back in. And before I knew it my first event was only a couple of weeks away and my old mate anxiety decided to to come for an extended stay!

Making a decision about whether to do the first event gave me sleepless nights. Not just because I was making the decision for myself but the impact it would have on others. The first swim was The Big Bala Swim in Snowdonia. A part of the country I was really looking forward to exploring and you got to the start line in a steam train. I was doing the 4.5km swim across a lake with my daughter and my mate. My shoulder has something going on with it that I am in total denial about but I am in pain even after resting and when it’s not in use. Decision made! I told Libby I was dropping out which made her promptly decide she didn’t want to do it either without me. So I opted back in and decided to do a slow breaststroke swim – there are no deferrals or refunds anyway. Finally at peace with my decision. So we set off from Cornwall the day before the swim. We hadn’t even got to Somerset after 6 hours in the car. By the M4, two teens and a dog squashed in the back, had lost the will to live and we headed south for home instead. The post half term holiday traffic had actually made my decision. An easier pill to swallow.

So I have two more events to go. The River Arun still hangs in the balance. Again a scenic swim, this time a river and you are helped by an out going tide. A couple of the Salty Seabirds are doing this one as well and chips in Littlehampton afterwards  is very appealing. Also the salt water and finishing in the sea is familiar to me so less daunting.  But I have decided not to do the Castle Tri Series swim in Hever in September. Again a beautifully scenic swim (bit of a theme with me) in a moat around a castle. Not because I don’t want to but because I want to do something else instead. I have swapped the Castle Swim for The Great Tit Weekend. A weekend of wild swims and walks with the famous Blue Tits and some Salty Seabirds. How’s that for balance!

I am going to do more organised events but there has to be a balance between mass wetsuit clad swims and solace swims. And I need to accept that some things don’t go to plan like training and traffic and then we change our plans. I was able to help with the first session at Hove Surf Life Saving Club, a newly formed club in the city, as I wasn’t in Snowdonia. So I still got wet, just with a bunch of excited kids rather than fellow competitors and that was just as much of an achievement as swimming 3 miles in a cold lake. Just a different sort of achievement.

So what are my goals now? Well I am in the process of putting together 5 swims before I am 50. A set of swims I can do over the next 3 years that are in locations and with wild swim groups I really want to visit. They include the Lake District which I want to do again before my daughter leaves home but this time with the expert guide that is Suzanna Swims. And I am set on getting to Snowdonia and getting in the water with Vivenne Rickman Poole. But I am also cognisant that if time and tide do not allow then I am OK with that. There will be plenty of swims before I am 50 and some of the swims that are not in my goals turnout to be the best swims.

Goals need to be adjusted in order to be achieved sometimes. Readjusting the swim goals I set myself means goal achievement of a different kind. The goal of be kinder to myself, finding a balance and knowing that what I have is enough. Although a swim with fins in the River Adur looks very tempting………………………

Author: Seabird (competitive) Kath

Reasons to swim in the sea

The head-space of sea swimming

Reset. Release. Recalibrate. Relax. Respite. Resilience. All reasons to swim in the sea.

When you are reading this, I will  be waking up on the Roseland peninsula ready to explore new swim spots. I have a week in Cornwall before heading up to Snowdonia to swim in a lake. I will be spending a week wet, walking and writing, but not much else, with the three people (and dog),  I love most in the world. And it is much needed. The life of a Seabird gets busy during the summer months and I need this before a couple of months of sea time but less me time. It is at times like this when I have more reason than ever to swim! It resets and relaxes me. It releases my mood and allows me to recalibrate. It provides me with respite and increases my resilience.

Reset – a bit like switching a computer off and on – you enter the sea full of stress, anger, frustration and leave it more serene. The bad mood may return later that day, week or month but for an amount of time you are reset. I think of my mental illness as faulty wiring in the brain, sparking with no where to go. It just needs the right synapse to connect to so the spark can continue on its journey rather than clogging up my brain with unhelpful thoughts. The sea jump starts the synapse – with the help of some happy hormones – and balance is restored in the brain.

Release – you can cry in the sea and no-one knows. Getting into the cold water screaming and shouting is in itself a release. All of the above is socially acceptable behaviour when you are in the water. On dry land you may invite some strange looks when you let out a guttural cry, squeal with delight or sink into shuddering sobs. But in the sea, with a group of like minded swimmers, it is encouraged. There is literally nothing better than letting out all of that pent up anger, frustration and anxiety in the safe environment the wild swimming community provides. Physical activity also releases happy hormones endorphins and the cold water can create an adrenaline rush.

Recalibrate – being in the sea, whatever the weather, whatever the conditions, gives you the chance to think.  And not just think what am I going to cook for dinner, or how far am I going to swim today, but really think. It is an opportunity to change the way you do or think about something. The idea of Seabirds was borne of the sea. Away from the life’s chatter we had the chance to think, and we thought more people need to get in the sea and experience this head space. The clarity that can flow with the tidal stream is like no other for me. I made the decision to leave a well paid corporate career after an all day meeting in a hotel at the Marina over looking the sea. I spent most of the day staring out of the window wishing I was somewhere else instead, in the sea. Even being near the sea helped me to gain perspective and clarify my thoughts. That night I called my boss and the rest as they say, is wet wellbeing history.

Relax – sounds easy.  Not for me and not for many. My shoulders are permanently around my ears somewhere and my gut is in constant turmoil. All symptoms of anxiety and poor stress management. I am a masseuse’s worst nightmare as I literally cannot relax and the more they ask me to, the more my body contorts into acute stiffness. Don’t get me started on meditation – any excuse for my mind’s mental monkeys to reek havoc when given even the merest opening in my Mind Fortress (Think Mind Palace with infinitely more walls, boiling oil, archers and portcullis.) But I have found my own way to relax. Busying my mind with tasks that need my sole attention but not a lot of thought  like reading, crocheting or exercise classes are ways I chose to relax. Swimming does the same. When I swim alone and get into a rhythm it can be quite hypnotic.  To be candid I have to be in the right frame of mind for this. But I always like to float!

Respite – getting away from the day to day. No more so was this more necessary than in the modern day world. We are slaves to our phones, the instant, the immediate. An expectation that messages will be answered the moment it has been read. Images of perfect lives, in perfect homes with perfect families holidaying in perfect locations bombard our brains in every form of media. But there is a revolution starting in the sea that rejects the notion of always being available and living a more simple existence that is in tune with the tides. This revolution is gaining momentum and Seabird numbers are soaring with respite being our raison d’etre. We will only bombard you with the imperfect smiley swimming pictures we take in the sea!

Resilience – if you swim year round, particularly in the sea and particularly in skins you build a ton of resilience. When the ice cold water burns your skin but you continue to enter the water. When the winter waves look fierce and foreboding but you continue to enter the water. When the colour of the sea is a pissed off pewter giving off hostile vibes but you continue to enter the water. When you struggle to regulate your breathing as you submerge but you continue to enter the water. You become a water warrior. You are resilient.

For all these reasons I swim in the sea!

Author: Seabird Kath

Note: no seabird was hurt during research into reasons to swim. As ever, there is absolutely no scientific evidence to support these anecdotal ramblings.

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