Seasoned With Salt

The best things about swimming n the sea in the winter in Brighton and Hove.

We are transitioning from winter swimming to summer swimming. Sea temperatures are definitely in double digits. But the waters have been devoid of swimmers. It’s around now that I start to swim less often, but for longer. The swim area buoys are still locked in their winter cages, a maiden voyage may have happened by now. By the time July and August comes around, I avoid the seafront, but I’d even face that to swim with my birds right now. That first swim is going to be glorious, but I still prefer winter swimming………

Over the winter months the tourism trade dies down and we get our beach back to ourselves. We reclaim our treasured sheltered spots in the morning sunshine on the east side of the concrete groynes or wooden breakwaters. Space to spread out the huge array of winter swim kit we have accumulated, borne of experience of regular year round swimming.

For those that don’t live within walking distance of the beach, parking spots are actually available on the seafront. Unlike other seaside resorts, it is not free off season in Brighton and Hove, but the traffic wardens tend to migrate inland to prey on locals rather than tourists in the colder months. Having a car in close proximity to the beach is great for a quick getaway when you need to warm up quick. Those with heated car seats are the most prized seabird friends.

The starlings only mumurate over the winter months. Starlings spend their days on the South Downs but just as evening approaches they make their way to the piers and the marina to roost for the night, I live below their flight path and they often stop and rest in the trees that line the streets of terraced houses. Just before sunset they come together to create mesmerising displays of aerobatic feats. This winter we donned wetsuits to swim underneath them, the best seats in the house. You can also catch great clouds of them in the morning as they head north again for the day, giving the gulls their turf back.

Dawn is at a more reasonable hour during the winter months so a sunrise swim is actually achievable without having to have an afternoon nana nap to recover later the same day. And sunsets are at teatime so swimming in the fading light is a regular treat. Our much treasured moon swims often have moon rises that coincide with sunsets in the winter. We have fire pits and bike lights in tow floats to create a festive and fun backdrop as the light fades. Many pairs of knickers have been lost to the sea as we scrabble in the dark and cold to get dressed. On these swims, you look to the east to see the moon make her entrance and then turn to the west to watch the sun kowtow to her night-time friend. Both are strikingly visible and the sea’s constant horizon ensures you have an uninterrupted view, with the exception of the piers, but they just add to the magic! The colours created by the sunsetting are so much brighter and intense in the winter.  There is less water vapour in the air and it is colder which removes any filters. Dust and pollution particles are also less prevalent in the sea. So the best place to watch the sunset is in the sea, in winter. Add in a full moon and some starlings and you’ve hit the jackpot.

 

For many of our flock, winter swimming brings a strange kind of security. The seaweed dies back and the jellyfish disappear so they are secure in the knowledge that whatever lies beneath will not brush past their legs whilst swimming. The dreaded May Bloom doesn’t plague the seas in the colder months. The algae feeds on sunshine as the waters begin to warm up and at it’s worst it can be like swimming through frothy yeasty beer. It even makes the water effervescent. It can hang around for weeks on end leaving your skin slimy and your cossie stinky. Once it dies back it leaves plankton for the jellies to feed on, so once your skin stops being slimy it starts to get stung. But not in the winter.

Many of our salties swear by cold water therapy as a way to manage their wellbeing. This is only possible in the winter months. There are lots of reasons and lots of research into cold water swimming and why people do it. People looking for a cure for depression, anxiety, physical pain and discomfort.   It’s a great group activity and creates community and camaraderie.  Exposing yourself regularly to stress, by swimming in cold water allows your body and mind to adapt to dealing with stress in daily situations. Yes there is pain to begin with, alongside a lot of profanities the benefits are oh so worth it.

Head in swimming over winter is only for the hardy. And that’s not me. I can manage year round skin swimming, without any neoprene accessories but my head is up for the duration, unless I am wiped out by a wave. I wear a swim hat to keep the wind chill away and my hair dry but other than that I am clad in only my cossie. Cold water swimming does not come without it’s risks, you need to make sure you have a quick exit route and strategy. But this awareness can enhance the swim no end. With your head out of the water you are able to notice your surroundings, become more aware of the behaviour of the water and the waves and understand weather patterns.  It is also a more social swim as you chat and check in with your fellow swimmers. And for those who feel a swim is not complete without getting your head wet and stimulating the vagus nerve, there is always the opportunity for handstands before you get out of the sea.

Post winter swim rituals also provide more reasons to get in the sea during the colder months. It is a time to dust of your baking books and start making cakes. The extra layers of insulation created by eating cake, makes you more resistant to the cold temperatures. This has been tried and tested by many of our flock. You can also partake in indulgent day time baths to warm up afterwards (not recommended immediately after swimming!). Baths and baked goods are reason enough to swim in December.

So what of swimming now? False summers, that commonly occur in the UK, can bring a false sense of security. Air temperatures rise at a much quicker rate than sea temperatures and also we are now well into May the sea is very cold. Particularly if you are not a seasoned swimmer. Even in mid-summer you can experience cold water shock, a life threatening reaction to being immersed in cold water. So although there is still the opportunity to get your cold water fix I am still wearing my sports robe, woolly hat and haramaki post swim to beat the after drop caused by a cold core . And eating lots of cake!

 

 

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!”

 

The question everyone asks about Cold Water Swimming…..

People always ask me how cold the water is. I don’t know and don’t care….or do I?

Some people ask how to acclimatise to cold water swimming. Others ask how to warm up afterwards and beat the after drop. There are lots of technical questions about various pieces of kit, where it is safe to swim and how long you should stay in for. Cold water Swimming is of the moment and there are lots of people taking to the water to improve their mental and physical health which invariably begs the question how is it good for you. BUT the question that is ALWAYS asked without fail is “What’s the water temperature?” (Normally asked by people who don’t even swim in warmer months so I am always left a bit unsure as to why they have asked!)

And do you know what? I have no bloody idea and I don’t bloomin’ care. Or do I?

The Outdoor Swimming community is growing and so is it’s presence on Social Media. My feed is full of the most beautiful photographs of idyllic wild swims. But it is also full of  photos of the thermometers. The colder it gets the more I get! There are discussions on the best thermometer to use to measure the temperature of the water. My ‘lick my finger and hold it in the air’ thermometer does not measure the temperature in degrees Celsius or Fahrenheit. In the summer the sea can be as warm as a bath, my internal thermometer measures this as ‘barmy bathing’. In the winter it is cold enough to take your breath away, which shows on my internal thermometer as ‘bloody baltic’ . Anything below 5 degrees requires a profanity and is as ‘f@?$ing freezing’.  In the winter you would think our flock would migrate to warmer climes but in fact as we drop out of double digit sea temperatures our numbers increase as locals look to improve their wellbeing by partaking in cold water swimming.

It is hard to actually measure the temperature of the sea in Brighton.  In the summer, Brighton’s Beach Lifeguard Posts and year round, Brighton Sea Swimming Club regularly display the temperature of the sea on beach front boards. But it doesn’t always reflect how the water actually feels. The energy of a ground or wind swell that create waves and chop can make it feel a couple of degrees warmer.  Underground fresh water streams empty into the sea all along the seafront which causes the temperature to vary considerably. If there has been significant rainfall the river Wellesbourne increases the cold freshwater entering the sea at Poole Valley. Even in the summer months you can find yourself in a really cold spot.

This is my second winter of skin swimming. Last year felt much colder and seemed much harder. There are lots of reasons why this may be the case. i) I have a significantly larger layer of brown fat! ii) I have an ever encouraging wonderful flock of Seabirds to swim with making the whole experience easier, iii) I have spent a ton on money on kit for warming up afterwards, iv) I am much more in tune with my senses and know exactly when to get out pre swim shakes. OR is the sea just warmer than last year?

For the majority of the Salty Seabirds, this year marks their first year swimming in the sea year round. They have been told tales of the 2018 Beast from the East and have been longing to swim in sub 5 degree temperatures. We have enticed them with stories of how cold it gets in March only for false Spring to arrive and temperatures almost reached double digits again (according to my internal thermometer). Many have researched the effects of cold water swimming on mental and physical wellbeing and are chasing the elusive cold water cure. Adaptations like duck diving, wave jumping and full stroke with head in, are made to ensure that vagus nerve gets the shock it needs. Fortunately being with the flock can also make you smile on a bad day whatever the water temperature.

Although rivers and lakes are significantly colder than the sea and the further north you go, the colder it gets, I wonder if they have experienced warmer water this year. The Scilly Isles haven’t left double digits but I do not know if this is their norm. We have fresh water field trips in the pipeline – The Seabird Sussex Swimble Series – over the coming months to ensure our junkie habit is fed as the sea temperatures increase. We are looking for our skin to burn, our breath to be taken away, our fingers to fumble and for the post swim high to last all day! As long as this happens I do not care what a Seabirds watch, baby’s duck thermometer or aquarium thermometer say the temperature is. As long as I squeal as I get in, shake as I get out and share the swim love, I am a happy Seabird!

Author: Seabird Kath