Tell us a bit about you?
I’m Claudine, a 43 year old mum of two, wife, business owner and Seabird. I have always loved swimming. It was the sport I was “least bad at”, at school! We also had swimming lessons outside of school and I remember it being one of the few extra curricular activities I enjoyed. I continued to swim, on and off, throughout my adult life, it has generally been my go-to exercise.
I have always loved the sea and for years I was unable to visit a beach without going for a paddle. I have lived in Hove for 13 years but it took me nearly 10 to actually swim in the sea here.
I discovered proper sea swimming two years ago now (my swimmiversary being 20th April). In March, I was running on the seafront and saw some swimmers come out of the sea, I decided to walk over to and chat to them. As I got closer, I realised one was Rachael, who my children had had some swimming lessons with. As I spoke to her and her two friends, I said wistfully “I wish I could do that”, and they all looked at me, puzzled, and said “why can’t you?”. Good question. So a month later, I did. I met Rachael and another of her friends, (now one of mine), and went in the freezing April ocean (why not start in more or less the coldest sea temperature of the year?), wetsuited up. It was joyous! I felt the buzz. Two years on and I have done two winters, mostly without a wetsuit, and it is now “my thing”.
What made you join the Salty Seabird Swimming Community Group?
I did a few swims with a colleague I was working with in Portsmouth, and then with another Brighton swimming club. One day I picked up a flyer for the Seabirds. I liked the sound of them, swimming for wellbeing. I went along to Lagoonfest where they had a stall, met them and bought some of their wares. Then decided to join them for a swim. I loved the community feel of the group, even though it was much smaller then than it is now. It felt casual, there were a few who would swim off and get some distance covered, but others who would bob and chat. It was nice to have the choice to do either. I have since swam regularly with the Seabirds, several times a week, either in the large group swims, or when I am feeling less able socially, I’ll message one or two of them and see if they’d like to meet. With the Seabirds, there are people who completely get me. I feel that amongst the Seabirds, I’ve found my tribe.
Where is you favourite place to swim in Brighton and Hove and why?
I’m not sure I have a favourite spot. Anywhere along the beach at Hove is good with me. Anywhere there are not too many people. I don’t mind Shoreham when it’s too rough at Hove. It’s not the prettiest but it’s good knowing you’re right next to the RNLI station, although it would be quite embarrassing to have to be rescued a few metres away from it!
Why do you swim in the sea and when did you start?
I’m interested in the research and the findings about the positive impact of cold water on mental health, and in particular depression and anxiety. I struggle with these two unwelcome visitors at times, and take medication for it. I would love swimming to be a way of reducing or getting off medication for me. I would love it to be socially prescribed so I “have” to go, (although that might take the fun out of it)! I know there is research going on to prove its impact so that it can be prescribed.
Does swimming in cold water itself impact positively my mental health? Yes, I think it does. I no longer get the rush and buzz I got when I first started. I rarely get the hysterical giggles after a cold swim any more. I wonder if the impact in that sense has warn off over time. I haven’t since got the child-like rush of excitement I got after swimming 30 meters in 2 degree water at the Cold Water Swimming Championships. Dr Mark Harper suggests the cold water swimming high replicates a cocaine high. Well, I have developed a tolerance to the effects of my drug of choice.
However, I still get a lot from it. I have a great sense of achievement when I’ve overcome the freezing-ness and got myself in, shoulder-deep and then dunked my head. Once I catch my breath I always have a sense of “ahh, that’s better”. I feel invincible when I’ve gone into deeper water and swam round the buoys, especially after overcoming a panic attack out there. But most of all I have a great time when I swim with my salties, I have the connection. So for my wellbeing I think what I need is to swim, with a small group if that feels right, or a big one on other days. To listen to myself and see whether I need to chat with newbies or stick to those who know me. I always need to dunk my head and get my face in. And above all just get in that damn sea!
What do you love most about swimming in the sea?
I love a cold day when the sea is still and the sun is sparkling off it. I like being able to have a good swim and look at the sky, look at the sun sparkling on the water. I love a calm day when I can float on my back, stare at the clouds and feel grateful for being able to do that. I love the summer when the buoys are out and I can challenge myself to swim around them. I love a bouncy day when the waves a just a little bit scary but fun to jump around in. I love getting out and feeling the bitey cold of my skin, trying to dress quickly so I don’t start shivering, and then feeling the warm ribena slowly heating me up from the inside.
How often do you swim in the sea?
As often as I can. It would be every day if I could. Generally it is 3-4 times a week. Last year I completed 200 swims, over 190 of which were in the sea! This year’s target is 201 but Covid 19 has made that target look difficult to achieve.
How would you describe your experience of swimming with the Salty Seabirds?
Empowering, joyful, necessary. I never regret a swim. There are days when I’m not sure I feel like it, or can’t be bothered or am feeling socially awkward and don’t feel like seeing people. Even on the crappiest day, in the lowest mood, and the trickiest swim, I come out feeling at the very least a little better than I went in, and very often hugely better. I enjoy the long detailed conversations about tea after swims, and the hilarity that follows. I enjoy giving penguin hugs to those who shake when they get out. I am one of the lucky ones who have enough natural neoprene (or “bioprene”) to offer insulation to the cold so I have rarely shivered, even after almost half an hour in under 10 degree water. And one of my favourite seabirds moments, I stood on the shore at Shoreham contemplating going in the water, in tears, and felt a huge warm hug envelope me. I didn’t know which Seabird it was holding me, and it didn’t matter. Only when we eventually pulled away, I saw the huge smile of our own baltic mermaid. She didn’t say anything, other than perhaps “come on”, and gently encouraged me to get in the water. She had known exactly what I needed at that moment, a big bear hug and a freezing cold swim: the two best cures for most things.
What would you say to anyone thinking of starting wild swimming as a form of managing wellbeing?
Give it a try. As long as you do it in a safe way, what have you got to lose? I have taken a couple of friends in for their first cold swim and they have loved it. It’s great to see the buzz on their face and then hear later on that they felt incredible for hours afterwards. The sense of a achievement to accomplish what many people couldn’t (and admittedly many people have no interest in doing), is awesome. So many friends and acquaintances say they really want to join me, one day…..
Where and when was your favourite swim? – details please and lots of them
One of my favourites was during the crazy weekend in Wales a few of us Seabirds went to, for the Bluetits weekend. We drove a looooong way to get there, had a great Friday night, dipped at a lovely couple of beaches on the Saturday, a rather crazy Saturday night in the cow shed, followed by a magical swim on Sunday. I’d seen idyllic pictures of the Blue Lagoon and was thrilled to be swimming there. It is the sea but in an almost enclosed pool so it would be possible to swim even when the waves are too big. It did not disappoint. Surrounded by smooth black rocks that some swimmers climbed up and dived off. We knew that as honorary Bluetits for the weekend, we would collect a muffeteer badge for going in naked. So I was up for the challenge. Not one to rush into getting my kit off in Hove, I was happy to strip amongst this wonderful group of crazy (mostly) women. It was liberating. It was a gorgeous location, a lot of fun doing it naked, watching the brave ones cliff jumping without putting pressure on myself to have a go. And someone said there was a seal. I didn’t see her pop her head up but later saw an incredible video of one of the group having a little chat with the seal.
Possibly my favourite local swim was the sunset starling swim which was the last in the 12 moon swims series. By the Palace pier, we gathered and swam, or at least jumped the waves, as the starlings did their beautiful murmuration above us. It was magical. I have seen so many pictures and videos of the starlings making their shapes, but rarely seen them in reality, so to look up whilst being in the sea and watch was magical.
What’s been the biggest barrier you’ve had to overcome to regularly swim in the sea?
I have never been particularly nervous of a little dip in the shallows, but on a rough day it can scare me. I have been in a number of situations where fellow swimmers have been tumbled or got into trouble quite a way out from shore. I have kept my cool and helped those who needed it. But confidence is certainly something that I have gained whilst swimming.
Time is always a barrier for many of us, and as a working mum running my own business, I can’t swim as often as I’d like. I am often away for work and have yet to pluck up the courage to meet up with other wild swimming groups wherever I am staying. When I’m not away I am based at home so some days have too much to do, to justify time out for a swim. But when I can go, I go. Sometimes for a long chill on the beach afterwards, and sometimes for a “dip and dash”.
Thirdly (although I know you said your biggest barrier, I have picked three!) I have a reputation amongst the Seabirds for being terrified of “creatures” in the sea. I am not sure where it comes from, as i have willingly paid good money to swim with creatures in all sorts of parts of the world. And yet if I feel something touch my leg or hand, my squeal can be heard for miles, and I jump 5 metres in the air. I am particularly afraid of jellyfish, to the extent that when I saw one last year during the 2.5km swim as part of the Paddle Round the Pier Festival, I could barely catch my breath an had to cling onto the surfboard of a young lifeguard who then stayed with me for the whole swim. This slowed me down as I stopped the next two times I saw jellies, despite them being meters below me, and it resulted in me missing the cut off time for the swim and being pulled out by the safety boat. Jellyfish 1,: Claudine 0! This year I was planning on getting hypnotherapy to help with my irrational fear, and so I can conquer that 2.5km sea swim, but as yet it hasn’t been possible.
Is there anything else you want to add?
One of the things I think about when I’m swimming is that the onlookers (and often there are many, pausing their walk along the prom to look at the group on the beach, particularly in the middle of winter) are thinking. I reckon half are thinking “what a bunch of crazies, why on earth would they be going in the sea?? I’m cold and I have a hundred layers on – you wouldn’t catch me in there!” or words to that effect. I think the other half are thinking “ooh, that looks fun and exhilarating, I wish I could join them” or perhaps “one day I will”. This assumption is based on the fact that these are the two reactions I generally get when I chat to people about sea swimming in winter. So many friends have said they’ll join me, but haven’t as yet. I do feel pretty tough when I’ve got in past my shoulders and caught my breath. But that’s not what I do it for.
The other benefit, and this is a big one, that I have gained from sea swimming is that it has helped me gain confidence in my body, in terms of it’s capability and the image I have of it. I’ve had a fairly negative relationship with my body most of my life, until a couple of years ago when my eyes were opened to the idea that I didn’t have to conform to society’s one dimensional idea of thin = beautiful, thin = healthy, and that I can be large and beautiful, and large and healthy. I now appreciate my body for what it can do, including entering cold water, swimming (nearly) 2.5km in the sea, swimming out beyond the west pier, carrying me 3.8km down the river Arun. I have stopped beating myself up because my body doesn’t fit certain norms and I now feel far more comfortable changing on the beach, and even, as mentioned above, having the odd naked swim without worrying what judgements people are making about how I look. The only judgement that matters is my own and that is gradually getting more positive.
Finally, I am so pleased to have found the Seabirds, and for the Seabirds to have found me. During this time of lockdown, I am speaking to friends and family more often than I would otherwise, as many of us have more time on our hands. But the ones reaching out to me most with hands (not literally) of support are my birds, the Seabirds.