The sea has set me free

All photos are by the author

For Heidi Westbrook, sea-swimming has brought joy, friendship and vital solace through the lockdown.

For 20 years I’ve been lucky enough to have lived on a clifftop high above Newquay’s famous Towan beach. Over the years, the number of people enjoying the water has steadily grown. Once these were mainly year-round surfers and families in between the red and yellow flags at the height of the season, but the rise of the surf school phenomenon has attracted more and more people into the sea.

For 15 of those years I watched these people with envy. I so wanted to get in, to join in, but I was scared of enjoying it too much. I was terrified that it would mean a new way of life, away from the fags and drink and party lifestyle which I was living.

I was also very self-conscious about my body. Although skinny, I felt shame. I was far from comfortable in my own skin. I wanted to swim, but where no-one would see me. My friend and I would never go onto the busy beaches of Newquay but instead occasionally hid ourselves away on the banks of the tidal River Gannel close by, where no one would see us and no one could judge.

Then, five years ago, I stopped smoking and started truly living. Looking back, it’s funny to think that such a commonplace habit could have turned me into the shell of the person I truly am.

But the transformation wasn’t easy. I put on four stone within months. I felt confused and angry with my changing shape and my body was creaking with the extra weight. My hips hurt and my knees hurt but my daughter had just turned six and she wanted to do more than paddle in the sea (which was practically our front garden). She wanted to go deeper, to swim and to really play in the ocean.

So that summer I bought myself a bikini, grabbed her by the hand and followed her lead into the sea. My child has taught me many things in life but this was to be her greatest gift.

As the salty water enveloped me I felt I had come home, home to myself. Almost as if I had returned to the womb, I felt safe and comforted. That day I stepped back onto the beach a woman reborn. I have never looked back.  

The beach is a great leveller. Because I’d never dared to go on it, I never understood how freeing it is to be near-naked with people of all shapes and sizes. How nobody looks at anyone else.

Not one person batted an eyelid as I walked into the sea. There was no judgement, and once I’d stopped judging myself I gave myself permission to enjoy it. We splashed in the waves. Did handstands and somersaults, played for hours with an enthusiasm only a child of the ocean can understand. I started dipping every day throughout that summer and with every swim I felt more alive than I ever had before.

I got myself an underwater camera and started combining my love of photography with my passion for the ocean. The sheer delight of coming home and downloading pictures, not knowing what I had snapped or how it would turn out, extended my pleasure of being in the sea. Nothing felt forced or contrived – it simply was. And for me that was – and still is – magical.

For four years the view from my window became our playground. The place where my daughter and I hung out, played, laughed and grew as people. From April to October we would swim, sometimes joined by friends on the hot days of summer.

Over the years I’d noticed the odd few people swimming or dipping year-round, and I too began to want to do that. So I started going in on my own when conditions allowed and it was too cold for my daughter. I was feeling the benefits of cold-water swimming and didn’t want to stop simply because the temperature was dropping. But I live on the north coast of Cornwall and the stormy season is no time to be dipping on beaches with no lifeguards and on your own.

And that’s where this tale took a fresh turn. On the 26th of January 2020, I joined twenty or so other women for the first swim of the Newquay Bluetits.

The Bluetits are a group of like-minded women who like to swim together. They first started in Wales but there are now flocks country-wide. It’s all very informal and friendly.

That January day the tide was low and the surf was quite big, but much to the astonishment of the hundreds of surfers in the bay we stripped off to our cossies and – rather like women marching to war – stomped down the beach with fear in our hearts but smiles on our faces.

The camaraderie of that day will stay with me forever. The screams, the swearwords, the laughter and the giggles were something else. There wasn’t a woman there who hadn’t had to summon up every ounce of courage she possessed to walk into that sea.

That day changed my life forever. Not only was the sea replenishing me, but I had found my soul sisters.

A few more swims and then the February storms well and truly hit, making dipping impossible. But we returned with a vengeance in March, when in the space of a single week I overcame my fears once more, swam in the dark in the harbour, braced against the waves at Towan and swam naked in a mermaid pool.

We swam on bitterly cold days when hail stung our skin and the freezing wind made the cold sea seem like a warm bath. We shrieked and laughed as our teeth chattered and our skin grew red with the cold. We made friendships that will last a lifetime and connections that are deep and strong.

Then lockdown changed everything. We were told not to swim and I stopped. It was breaking my heart to be so close yet so far.

There were days when I was broken, when the tears wouldn’t stop, and yet the sea was so calm and inviting. Frightened and unsure of everything, I defied the rules and took the two-minute walk into the ocean. My salty tears blended with the salt water and once more I was home.

I am strong, but it was the sea that saved me from my own fears in that strange time.

When things started to return to normal we swam as a socially distanced flock again, and it was good to be back. More women joined, and we reclaimed our bodies and our minds together. Individually the sea had changed us, and as a group we found ourselves again.

Every swim is invigorating, every swim is different. The sea makes everything right again, whether it gently floats you or slaps you around like a wet fish.

The dog-walkers and the fishermen, the surfers and the surf schools no longer see us as “those crazy ladies” (well, maybe just a little bit :})

Now, when I look out my window I often see swimmers enjoying the cool water. The health benefits are widely known and it’s a wonderful thing to see so many people from all walks of life enjoying the gift of cold-water therapy. 

Underwater photo of woman revelling in the sea, beneath the waves

Whether I swim alone or with a group, whether with close friends or the ever-growing flock of Bluetits, what I get from it every single time is beautiful. It’s as if the energy of the earth is surrounding me, cleansing me, making me whole again.

The sea truly does set me free.