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………..

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. 

 

Different Folks, Different Strokes. And Different Dips.

Who do you swim with? Where do you swim? What times do you swim? With anyone, anywhere, anytime.

The thing that underpins the Salty Seabird Swimming Community is our shared belief that swimming in the sea, on a regular basis, can provide respite from modern day living. An opportunity to re-set, re-calibrate and relax. But how we chose to swim, who with and where, differs a lot!

Depending on where my head is at I will chose whether to join ‘big’ swims or not. I am a regular at the Monday Morning Mass and think this a great way to start the week. Others meet up in two and threes to swim preferring to swim in smaller groups. On New Years Day I made my way to D5 beach for the Salty Seabird swim to find 50 swimmers and up to 100 more family, friends, kids and dogs. That was without counting the spectators on the prom. A little overwhelmed at first, I soon found some Seabirds I regularly swim with, safety and sanctuary restored, and jumped in the sea. In the cold winter months we would not recommend swimming alone for safety reasons but in the summer months the solitude of a solo swim can be the choice for some. Although the community of sea swimming has huge appeal there are days when you just need to be by yourself. How you feel each day and who you want to swim with differs.

The wonderful thing about meeting people through sea swimming is you aren’t defined by what you do for a living. In fact, it is not a question I have ever been asked by anyone I have met on the beach or in the sea. But I know some have jobs by the times that they swim. Some go as early as possible, even before dawn and others are at sunset. This is more obvious during the winter months when the daylight hours are limited. Some go at random times like 10.45am or 12.15pm. Not sure of the rational of the quarter past and quarter to the hour. Although the time differs, there are always others to share your sea swim with. In the summer months time is important to avoid the many tourists that flock to the beach. In the winter low tides are selected when winter storms churn up the sea.

The frequency that people go also differs. I wouldn’t suggest that it is more than once a day in the winter months but we currently have a Seabird doing a Dip a day in January inspired by Outdoor Swimming Society‘s Ella Foote. Most try for at least once a week to try and keep acclimatised to the cold water but we have some infrequent seabirds that can go weeks without a swim and still manage to take the plunge when they can. Some plan their week around swim times, some will decide on the day and some stick to rigid times and places. Some only go in at weekend. I have a mixture of my regular swim times, a Seabird of habit, and may also be swayed by an impromptu invitation. The feeling I get after a swim is always the same.

Where seabirds meet to swim also differs. The location is normally dictated by where you live. East Brightonians go in on the beaches in front of Madeira Drive where Sea Lanes and the wonderful warmth of Brighton Beach Box are. Others are more central and so swim on the bandstand beach, in front of Brunswick Square or on D5 (this was the name of the Lifeguard post there). And those further west swim at Marroccos, The King Alfred or Hove Lagoon. When the sea conditions are rough we all head off to New Beach or Shoreham RNLI. Unlike surfers, there are no secret swim spots in our bustling city. In fact we regularly supply the promenade entertainment for walkers, runners and cyclists. Living in north Brighton I take my pick.

The Seabird founders didn’t make a conscious decision-to swim year round or skin swim. It just kinda happened. We started swimming in the sea together when it was warm and we just didn’t stop. I know some hate wet-suits as they feel claustrophobic putting them on and constricted when they swim. I also know others who literally cover their entire body in 5mm of neoprene leaving just their face free – see featured image. Then there are all manner of hats, gloves, socks, rash vests and bobble hats. New swimmers find the flock of seabirds by our distinctive bobble hats! What we wear into the water differs. But the reasons we get in remain the same.

To make certain we practice what we preach we three Seabird Founders have made a commitment to each other to swim together in 2019, just us Directors on a weekly basis to catch up on our personal lives and have fun. This ensures our interactions aren’t all about the balance sheet but more about the balance. We discussed this at length racked with guilt that the Salty Seabirds community would think we had abandoned them once a week. But then we remembered the Salty Seabirds works because it is fluid and you can chose who you swim with, where and when. And that’s ok!

How long you stay in, how far you swim, who you swim with; it all differs. But we still get in and that’s the same. Whatever your preference, limitations or frequency we all love to swim in the sea!

Author: Seabird Kath

different2

 

 

Women, Wellbeing & Water

Since the announcement that Birds get Big Lottery Grant we have been super busy at Seabirds HQ. Not the bad kinda busy but the good kinda busy. People asking to join the closed Facebook Group which is used to organise our swims and share smiley swimming snaps. Lots of enquiries in the inbox asking how people can join our sea swimming community group Salty Seabirds or register for the funded confidence course. An endless amount of coffee invites from Brighton Beach community supporters keen to celebrate our success and offer help.

As can be the case when starting a social enterprise, there are just as many lows as there are highs. Money and time are tight and you can feel for every step forward you are taking two back. Funding rejections can test even the most resilient Seabird. Not only has the lottery funding covered the costs of the course but it gave us much needed affirmation buoyancy to keep our project afloat.

The number of enquiries we are receiving highlights there is definitely a demand for this type of community swimming. Open Water Swimming has grown significantly over the last few years. In Brighton and Hove there are lots of swim groups that regularly meet up for a dip in the sea. It appeals to a huge variety of people from Triathletes to soul swimmers. And there is certainly room for everyone to swim their own swim and find the group that suits their needs.

Since the new broke about the Women, Wellbeing and Water course and the opportunity to join us for a Pilot Session our small informal  swimming group has grown ten fold. We have no facilities, no committee, no rules and no subs but still people wanted to join us changing on the beach and jumping in. So many women identified with the fluid easy nature of the group. Salty Seabirds have a few regular swim spots and times but basically is there for people to say when they are swimming and where so that others can join them if they feel like it and if it fits in with their family and work commitments.

The aim of the Pilot Session was to try and test out ideas that will shape the WWW course next year. Again demand was high and we had to turn people away and instead invite them to join a Salty Seabird swim instead. This reinforced our belief that there is a need for a course that focuses on respite from daily life and provides participants with the confidence to introduce sea swimming into their lives. So leading up to the day in question was beautiful sunshine….on the actual day non stop pouring rain. Heavy traffic meant we were late to open up and set up and we hadn’t managed to bake the much promised cakes. But all participants turned up, all  participants shared their swimming experiences, all participants got in the water, all participants smiled through the rain. Oh and those smiles.

Lots was learnt including never underestimate Brighton traffic on a rainy Saturday afternoon in September and shop bought cake goes down just as well as homemade after a cold dip in the sea. We’ve all met up since for the Harvest Moon swim and the regular Friday Frolic swim which celebrates the end of the week. Many participants have introduced new swim spots that are closer to their homes since our session and swum with people they met on the day. It seems that when you strip off your clothes to swim in the sea and share that experience you instantly become part of a very inclusive community. I heard someone or read somewhere that you can enter the water as strangers but leave the water as friends. This was very true of our pilot session and we are very exited about launching Women Wellbeing and Water in 2019.

 

To learn more please email info@seabirdsltd.com