The sea has incredible power to heal. But despite its status as one of the last wild spaces freely accessible to the public, not everyone is or feels able to access this incredible natural environment. Whether that barrier is physical, mental or social, many new clubs and communities are arising to enable that access for all.
One such group is Ebb&Flow Aquatics. Based in Galway, on the west coast of Ireland, it's a group that longtime Ambassador Dr Easkey Britton is intimately familiar with. Below, she linked up with the group for a swim and to hear their stories, challenges, and how they overcame them to find a community linked by salt water.
The uncertainty surrounding ‘pandemic protocol’ created some awkwardness at first, unsure how to be around each other after so long apart. Hesitantly attempting to keep our distance until drawn to the water’s edge, the fresh sea breeze clearing the air between us.
Nervous excitement and friendly chatter began to build as swimmers arrived from all directions. After four weeks of weekly immersions in the water together, the sea was slowly becoming more familiar. The energy shifted again as clothes were shed and swapped for wetsuits, land-based personas slipping away. Guided through a series of gentle breathing exercises by the swim instructors, breathing into their bellies, the tension held between the swimmers’ shoulder blades or in their chests softened. The instructors introduced them to the sea’s particular mood and characteristics that morning - the flooding tide, gentle surge of wind swell on the shore and the choppy surface beyond the shelter of the break wall.
David stayed by the edge of the sea, looking longingly at the water — unable to swim for several months with a slow-to-heal wound on his knee. He’s determined to return as soon as he can. Wheelchair bound ever since a freak skiing accident over 12 years ago, the sea is his solace. “It’s where I’m not defined by my disability… it’s total freedom,” he says. A sentiment echoed by many with diverse abilities and bodies — the sea is a place free from judgement, where, once immersed, you get to be all of who you are. Held in its salty embrace, our bodies weightless, untethered from earthly limits, free.
Yet, there is a significant gap concerning the ways in which we engage with seas and oceans, with a will to promote wellness, enliven action and evoke change. Our beaches, seas and coasts are some of the last freely accessible public spaces. But huge inequalities persist around their access. For many, coastal spaces are experienced as exclusionary, risky or dangerous, unwelcoming or inaccessible.
It’s why the work of the Ebb and Flow swim community is so important, creating a safe and enabling space that fosters community and connection. As Caroline, an Ebb and Flow instructor said, it takes courage as an adult to admit your fears and anxieties, and then to actively face them. Indeed, recent research evidenced the enhanced sense of connectedness swimmers in the programme felt within their bodies, between themselves and others, and with the more-than-human world of the sea. Experiences like this help broaden, deepen and sustain our engagement with the ocean.
Local, grass-roots organisations like the Octopus Swimming Club are raising awareness and education of the needs and benefits of getting in the sea for people with diverse abilities. Through these community-based initiatives, combined with the support of evidence-based research from projects like INCLUSEA, the way we understand and enable more positive and inclusive ocean experiences among people living with disabilities is improving. Hopefully, to echo David’s call to action, society will shift to understand people as individuals with diverse ocean interests and knowledge, who may or may not also have disabilities of some kind.
We need a new narrative of the sea, one that goes beyond ‘inclusion’ and breaks down false dualistic notions of otherness and separateness, instead celebrating the ocean as the great unifier. The transformation post-swim was palpable — a feeling of ease and openness, everyone eager to share experiences through a profound place connection, bonded by the sea.