Meet the Flockers; Series 1, Ellie

The forth in our ‘Meet the Flockers’ series of blogs where we bring salted wellbeing away from the beach and into your home. Grab yourself a cuppa and get to know the salty seabirds.

I’m Ellie, I live in Hove with my husband and 2 kids exactly 15 mins walk from the Seafront! I’ve lived by the sea all my life and cannot imagine living inland at all. I lived first near the beautiful sandy beaches that give Sandbanks in Dorset its name. Not the posh peninsula, but still just a swift stroll to the sea. When I was choosing a university it was a choice only between places near the channel.

 

I really struck gold when I first arrived in Hove – a 1 min stroll to the beach and a glimpse of the sea from our huge bay windows. Shame the flat was so tiny!

Fast forward a few years; 2 kids, a stressful and emotionally demanding job as a primary school teacher and then management in a large school and my visits to the seafront to swim had all but dried up! Discovering the Seabirds has changed that in a big way.

Thinking back to my earliest swimming experience  it wasn’t in the sea at all. We had swimming lessons in the local Pool in Poole and I was awarded a certificate for swimming 5 metres! I think my mum’s still got it somewhere. I’ve never really liked swimming in indoor pools and that one was particularly noisy and smelly! I much prefer to remember my early swimming experiences as being back on that beach at Sandbanks. We often spent whole days (or that’s how it felt) building sandcastles in the white sand and collecting shells at the water’s edge. I’d often just run in and out of the shallow water watching my older brother but the competitive side of me couldn’t resist a challenge. Lifting my feet off the sandy sea floor and splashing along behind the rubber dingy dragged by my dad was a wondrous moment. The smell of sea is still one of my favourites even the algae that’s lurking around at the moment!

 

At the beginning of last year I’d resigned from my teaching job following increased anxiety and the return of my depression. I thought hard about why I’d suffered again with my mental health and concluded I needed to find a new community of people, to join something (I’m not a joiner!) and hopefully feel happier in myself.  I’ve not been disappointed!  The encouragement and support from the seabirds has been a huge part of my recovery and their companionship has been so powerful.

 

Just as I found the Seabirds wild swimming community on Facebook, I heard about the Women, Wellbeing and Water course they were running and joined the 4 weekly sessions. I loved hearing Kath wax lyrical about the tides and currents and it gave me great confidence and resilience in swimming more frequently in the sea. (The tea and cake after each dip helped too!)

I took the plunge and joined my first Seabird Swim on 1st May last year and could not have imagined how amazing it would feel. A year on and I was disappointed to spend only 5 minutes in the sea on my ‘Salty swimversary’. Although much more confident in the water than I was a year ago – big seas still scare me and the lack of Seabird laughter and screeching during this time has made the sea swimming experience a serious and almost silent one!

 

The great thing about swimming with the Seabirds is that you can just post a swim if you fancy one, no need to organise weeks in advance, and see who rocks up. Sometimes it’s just 1 other person sometimes 20. I’m still shy in big groups and often hover on the edge of a Monday Mass if I manage to get there at all. But at every single swim whatever I am  feeling when I turn up, the sea and the salty flock always make me feel welcome and part of the community and that is after all why I joined! Thanks to all you amazing people who’ve chatted, shared cake, swimming hats, laughter,  tears, lifts to Shoreham and companionship with me over the last year I’m so looking forward to being back with  the flock soon.

Swim Wild and Free

Swimming in the outdoors is free, BUT not everyone has equal access, availability or awareness.

If your social media accounts are anything like mine, you will be bombarded on a daily basis with beautiful images of the outdoors encouraging you to spend time in nature. Many are accompanied by the hashtag #free. The outdoors is free but is it accessible?

Spending time in nature, appears on the surface, (or below the waves), to be free. But having the luxury of free time to spend anywhere is a exorbitance many cannot afford. I recently read Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett’s article in the Guardian about the masses of white middle class women claiming the new craze of Wild Swimming as their own when people have been doing it since time began. At first, my heckles went up. How dare she assume that I am part of the urban elite romanticising swimming in the outdoors! But the fact that I had bought and read the article in the Guardian in itself showed me to be the privileged white middle class woman that I am. And swimming in the sea on a regular basis to manage my mental health is free and accessible for me, but not everyone has equal access. Gallingly, Rhiannon has a point.

Brighton and Hove is a very bohemian place to live. It’s a very popular place for artists, writers musicians and the like to reside. We differ from the political landscape that surrounds us but like any city there are still pockets of significant social deprivation. There are a substantial number of Brightonians that have never been to the beach let alone swim in the sea. Quite a different story to the front page of the tabloids of packed beaches in the summer and historical Victorian seaside spa town built for the middle classes.

I made ‘wild’ swimming my job. I work with the other Seabird Cath, and we choose when and where we work (to a degree). My kids are teenagers and pretty self sufficient. I am financially stable thanks to a long suffering and hard working husband. I am confident in the water after a lifetime of swimming in the sea. I can swim pretty much when I want to, or at least when the sea is suitable for swimming. So it is free, to me.

But…….my circumstances are not the norm. I am privileged. That’s not to say I don’t have mental health issues, but I have access to and time to partake in activities that benefit my wellbeing. My choice is to swim in the sea. And there it is. That word. Choice. I know it is an option and I choose to do it.

wild and free

Sea swimming is free and available to all, in theory. But there are many obstacles that people face getting in the water or even considering it an option. There are many residents of Brighton and Hove who never visit the beach and swimming in the sea is not in their line of sight. This is because, whilst being on the beach and in the sea (river or lake) doesn’t cost money, not everyone has equal access, availability or awareness.

Many groups and communities face a lot of barriers to outdoor activities which include wild swimming. Outdoor fun is a privilege some cannot afford. It is easy to overlook inequality when you are part of a community that has access and benefits. It is undeniable that there is a lack of diversity and inclusion in the outdoor swimming community. Not intentionally but still undeniably.

As part of the Salty Seabird community, I know how much the cold water, connecting with others and being in nature improves my mental health. As Seabirds CIC we want others to realise this too. Last year we received National Lottery funding to run our ‘Women, Water and Wellbeing’ (WWW) programme with local mental health charity Threshold Womens’ Services, who referred participants to us.

It was a huge success, with the majority of the participants still regularly swimming with us. It was an unexpected outcome to be part of a thriving flock of fellow sea swimmers. Without intention we created an inclusive community where all are welcome. However, we remain mainly middle class white women! And we can only assume why this is the case. Is it due to our name and the female association with the word bird? Is a group of semi naked women screeching on the beach intimidating to other potential swimmers, particularly men? Is it because the times we swim are when those with more traditional occupations are working? Is it because many residents of the city do not have childhoods or backgrounds that encouraged outdoor activities?

What is clear is that Society’s hierarchies of ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, body size, and economic class do not miraculously disappear in the sea.  And what is needed is an understanding of what is preventing certain communities in our city from accessing the sea and potentially improving their wellbeing. Particularly communities that are socially and economically deprived.

Although in principle all you need to swim is a swimming costume, there are certain pieces of equipment that make wild swimming more manageable. On our famous shingle beaches only the hardy go without footwear. And if you wish to swim year round, neoprene accessories such as gloves and hats make the experience a bit more enjoyable – which is the aim after all. Not everyone can afford these.

As said, in principle all you need is a swimming costume, which most people own, but some do not have the confidence to put on, let alone in public. A negative body image can prevent people, particularly women, from taking part in activities that requires them to wear forms of sportswear. And there is no where to hide in a wet-suit. Some people simply can’t swim. They have either never learnt or have a bad relationship with swimming based on previous experience. Our group is very keen to promote the notion that paddling, dipping, sitting in the shallows and just getting wet, is in fact outdoor swimming!

Wild swimming requires a certain level of knowledge. Knowing it is an option and recognising that there are ways to improve your wellbeing. Pockets of the population have limited time to have fun and are unaware of communities residing in their local area partaking in outdoor activities. In times of austerity people are working more than one job and longer hours just to make ends meet and when they are not working have responsibilities for young children or is more common now, caring for ageing parents. Or both. These potential swimmers may be completely unaware of outdoor swimming.

There is also a certain level of skill and confidence needed to swim outdoors. Although I am the co-founder of our Salty Seabird community group I personally wouldn’t rock up on my own to meet a group of people I don’t know to swim in the sea. I, like many others who suffer from anxiety, would need a more structured first session where others were in the same boat. I do not like meeting new people and although I have the physical skills to swim outdoors I do not have the confidence to swim with strangers. Knowing where to go and how to get there is knowledge born of experience. Not everyone lives by a large body of water and if they do is it safe to swim.

The list of why swimming in the outdoors is not accessible and available to all is lengthy. And not all of the obstacles can be overcome. But some can. In 2020 the WWW programme intends to work with an increased number of vulnerable people. Additional access to structured sea swimming sessions will transition non-swimming women into wild swimmers that will have a new way of improving their mental and physical health safely and confidently. Our approach will be to work with community development groups in the city that already have trusted relationships with women for whom, wild swimming is not even on their radar.

As a Community Interest Company, Seabird’s aim to provide a way for local people to manage their wellbeing by using sea swimming and friendship. The community courses we facilitate specifically focus on people that would not otherwise be able to access the sea/beach without guidance. We can provide the equipment, transport, childcare, flexible times and a nurturing community to encourage and teach the skills to provide the confidence to women. The sessions provide support to members with a wide range of issues, including anxiety, depression, stress, low self-esteem, loneliness and long term health conditions. Our aim is to give participants the skills, confidence and self-belief they need to enjoy sea swimming, no matter what additional challenges they face. We recognise that everyone person is different and each responds to challenges differently. But we believe that with the right assistance and support they can do it!

Author: Seabird Kath

N.B We recognise that there are men in the local community who would also benefit from swimming in the sea but we do not feel we are the right organisation to facilitate courses for male groups. The same can be said for communities that have come together based on shared experiences of race, gender identity and sexual orientation. We are also aware that the middle classes can be mentally ill too, just because they have greater access to free and paid for self-care doesn’t mean it is not needed. However, our 2020 aim is to encourage women, in areas of socio-economic deprivation, who would not normally easily access sea swimming as a tool to maintain wellbeing and yet are in great need of it, to give it a go.

 

We Came, We Swam, We Conquered

On World Mental Health Day, a reflection on our Women, Wellbeing and Water courses. We are all water warriors in our own way. Salty Seabirds swim group was set up as somewhere to signpost people that self identified as having mental health or wellbeing issues. A safe haven for them to enjoy the sea.

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………..