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………..

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

 

The benefits of a Swimming Community

As our Salty Seabird Swimming Community grows, a reflection on the benefits of swimming with others.

I have been swimming in the sea for as long as I can remember. My mother likes to take credit for my love of the sea as I spent a huge part of my childhood in, on or near the sea. I won’t even consider a holiday that isn’t near water. My happy place and happy times are shared with my husband and kids. Sharing time in the water with them is my favourite thing to do.

My biggest swimming achievement this year was swimming solo around the buoys off Brighton’s beach. It wasn’t my best swim of the year. Yet it was memorable as it was a first for me. Although I am confident swimmer I can get spooked by what lies beneath and am known to chant’ just keep swimming’, a la Dory, in my head. I regularly swim round the buoys with the Salty Seabirds and out to the West Pier Marker Buoy with the local Surf Life Saving Club but never solo. On my own it was a very different swim. There was no stopping and chatting at the buoys, silly photo taking, buoy climbing or floating and admiring the shoreline view. This got me thinking. I can swim around the buoys on my own, but I don’t and not because I can’t, it’s because I don’t want to. I like sharing my swims.

There has been lots of research on the benefits of cold water swimming and the positive impact it can have on physical and mental wellbeing. Here in Brighton there is a large beach community of swimmers that swim all year round. Many of these swimmers also spend their time out of the water researching the benefits of sea swimming. They hope to gain funding to enable more people to get in the sea. Open Water Swimming is becoming popular with people from all walks of life, all readiness levels, shapes and sizes all keen to experience benefits that are so widely talked about. The post swim ‘high’ is promoted as the new drug of choice to beat depression and for me personally it is. But the positive impact can be as much about the cold water physical effect as being about the community and the sense of belonging.

The Outdoor Swimming Society is a brilliant organisation with really useful information for swimmers. One of the things they advocate is swimming with others as part of their tips for safe swimming. But for me, I do not swim with others for safety (although this is also a consideration). I swim with others as part of a shared experience and shared love of the sea. I get the same benefits from being with a bunch of like minded Seabirds during the getting changed faff and the mandatory tea and cake as I do from sharing the sea with them. The Seabirds are my sanctuary, my safe space, my solace. My community.

What is remarkable is that I did not know many of the Seabirds a year, month or week ago. Some I am yet to even meet. They have grown so rapidly in their numbers and organise swims as a self service. Attracted to the inclusive community, they post where and when they are swimming and if that suits, others will join. You can enter the sea as strangers and exit the sea as friends. It has been amazing to watch this growth over the summer months and into the autumn. They are a bunch of people who take to the sea for self care and wish to do it with companions. They have become a community.

There are a number of books I have read about the swim community. But as fictional novels or a collection of personal journal entries. Some of my favourite books resonate with me because they are centred around a group of people that draw strength from each other in the water. I don’t think these books were written with the intention of of promoting the positive impact of belonging to a swim community. But they have. ‘I found my Tribe‘, ‘The Whistable High Tide swimming Club‘ and ‘The Lido‘ to name but a few all have a swimming community as a theme.

Whether it be Lido’s, Lake or Lochs, the outdoor swimming community provides a sense of belonging in a very fragmented society. Swimming groups provide each other with confidence and friendship unified by a love of being outdoors and in the water. Unlike many other outdoor activities it straddles age groups, gender and socio-economic status. You don’t need to be fit to do it, it’s free or relatively cheap and in certain circumstances you don’t really need to be able to swim – as long as you get wet it counts.

In Brighton, there is a swim community group or club to suit all. Brighton Swimming Club founded in 1860 has a long tradition of sea swimming and has changing facilities east of the Palace Pier. iSWIM is a newly formed club that operates organised swims and events from Brighton Sailing Club by the West Pier. The Brighton Tri Club and Brighton Tri Race Series run training sessions in the sea over the summer months. We have our fingers crossed that Sea Lanes will receive planning approval to build an outdoor pool on the sea front creating a sea swimming community hub. There are lots of smaller community groups too that are more fluid in terms of their swims and facilities. Salty Seabirds is one of these.

The Salty Seabirds community aren’t concerned with swimming times or distances. Depending on who joins us on the day will dictate whether it’s a disciplined swim around the buoys or a leisurely social swim, parallel to the pebbles, counting the concrete groynes. You can chose your stroke. Some do front crawl, others breaststroke and a few back stroke. We are yet to spot a butterflying seabird. We understand that there are points in people’s lives where they need support; to build resilience and make improvements to their well being. The sea dipping and swimming seabird community provides company and respite from day to day challenges and worries.

So strong is the sense of community that we three founding members of Salty Seabirds set up a business together. In 2017, we experienced significant changes in our lives, resulting in daily sea swims. We all needed solace from the rat race and some life-changing curve balls and we found this in the sea and from each other. The simple joy of meeting, getting in the cold water together, being outside and doing something playful had a really powerful effect on all of us. Whilst chatting, bobbing, changing, faffing and drinking tea, Seabirds Ltd was formed; in the sea, where all the best ideas are born! We decided to build a business with a moral code; ethical trading, organic, anti-waste and pro-people business, with a trading arm generating alternative funding for charities and local community groups.

Alongside this, the Salty Seabird swimming community was ever present and grew from us three to over 100 swimmers organising up to three different swims in different locations in a single day. We’ve all noticed the huge benefits that being in, on, or near the sea has had on both our physical and mental health and well being. Creating a way for others to experience these benefits was a natural next step. In 2019 we plan to run confidence courses to encourage women into the sea . The course will act as a foundation for women to join the already established swimming community group providing them with respite from daily worries, a support network and a regular activity and meet up.

We recognised the need for salted wellbeing. We recognised the need for community.

Author: Kath Seabird

To Swim or to Gym? That is the Question

National Women’s Health and Fitness Day falls on the last Wednesday in September. i.e. yesterday. This is an American concept but one that the UK seems to have adopted. My Social Media streams were full of positive images of women keeping physically fit. Lots of references to introducing exercise into your life and healthy living particularly diet and super foods. But still a disproportionate lack of advice, images, suggestions to promote Women’s Mental Health.

Mental and physical wellbeing are intrinsically linked. If you focus on physical health, i.e. diet and exercise, there is a positive impact on mental health . The WHO states that “there is no health without mental health.” Nowhere is the relationship between mental and physical health more evident than in the area of chronic conditions. … People with chronic physical conditions are at risk of developing poor mental health.

In the past I have prioritised my physical well being over my mental health. I was your typical gym bunny. Always doing the school run in Lycra and headed off to a gym class as soon as I had dropped the little darlings off. The sweat was addictive and the endorphins kept me coming back for more. As with open water swimming, there was a supportive gym and school mum community too. But it was a double edged sword for me. It brings out my  competitive nature and I found that it was never ‘enough’. I hadn’t trained hard ‘enough’. I hadn’t gone to ‘enough’ classes. If I didn’t sweat it wasn’t ‘enough’. My focus on my physical wellbeing was beginning to have a detrimental impact on my mental health.

So I changed my approach and looked for balance. I reduced the gym classes and mixed them up with more gentle classes that focused on strength, flexibility and relaxation. Much needed for 45+ year old joints and a frazzled brain. Slowly I weaned myself off the sweat addiction. But the hardest activity to change was my swimming. Open Water swimming has always been part of my life but in recent years I have introduced pool swimming into my routine. Not indoor pools….that would be a step too far! I applied my standard discipline approach to this activity. The number of lengths I swam each time and the time it took to swim distances. It was hard to be a seabird swimmer, free from swim drills in the pool. The lane ropes almost dictate swim drills to me. So I headed for the sea and ditched the pool. Luckily there was a Seabird flock waiting for me to join them.

Over the last 18 months, since the Seabirds were formed, I have swum in the sea all year round and there has been a marked improvement in my mental wellbeing. However, as soon as the water warmed up enough to be safe,  I found myself setting swim distance targets all over again. Round the pier, counting the groynes or using the iconic yellow swim buoys to measure the distance of my swim. I even swam solo, which was as much to do with a confidence goal as the need to pursue physical goals. If I didn’t swim front crawl without stopping and get up a sweat (yes you can sweat in the sea) it wasn’t ‘enough’.

Vanity played it’s part too. Ditching the gym and the pool changed my body. And not in a way I liked. It didn’t stop me from stripping off on the shingles and showing half of Brighton my bare bum. But lots of my clothes now don’t fit and even the most resilient woman would struggle in seeing the positive in that. Without knowing it the Seabird Community brought me back to balance. Listening to their pre and post swim conversations I distinctly remember one Seabirds saying at school she wasn’t ‘sporty’ and now she is proud of what her body can do after months of sea swimming. Others have talked about being role models for their children, showing them that there’s life in the old Seabird yet. All of them talk about how happy they feel in the water and for hours sometimes days afterwards. The running theme throughout was always that getting in the sea was ‘enough’. It didn’t matter if you swam out to the buoys, lay in the shore dump or floated in the waves. It was ‘enough’

Health and Fitness is and always will be a very personal choice. Alone or in a group. In a gym class or in the outdoors. Dry land or in the water. If you don’t enjoy it and if it doesn’t make you happy it won’t be ‘enough’ and you won’t keep doing it. And your mental health is as important as your physical health. For me finding a balance is a challenge. But I think I am finally there. A mixture of gym classes as I like routine and encouragement. A daily dog walk on the South Downs as I love solitude and fresh air. A seabird swim free from arbitrary goals that leaves me feeling happy.  So the question isn’t really Swim or the Gym. A balance of both is ‘enough’.