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RNLI Newhaven meet the Mermaids

Can you imagine swimming with mermaids? Roz Ashton, Lifeboat Press Officer at Newhaven RNLI, braved an early morning dip with a whole group of them! But the Seaford Mermaids aren’t mythical creatures, they’re a group of open water swimmers who have raised thousands of pounds for the RNLI. 

Here’s Roz to tell the story:

The Seaford Mermaid swimmers at the beach in East Sussex

Photo: Carlotta Luke

The Seaford Mermaids meeting at Tide Mill, East Sussex

Newhaven’s Coxswain Lewis and I set off in first light up Mill Drove, leaving the A259 to Seaford behind us. It was 6.45am on a fresh November morning. Either side of the bramble track, hunks of ruins popped into view – the remnant foundations of Tide Mill and its long-abandoned 18th century village. 

Our mission was to meet the Seaford Mermaids open water swimming group, whose all-year-round, daily bathing ritual was making waves down at the lifeboat station. 

We crossed the railway track and soon crunched our way onto the shingle bank. The wide expanse of bay, almost at low tide, revealed several meters of flat, wet sand. Seaford Head to the east glowed with the rich, orange dawn. 

There were already three Mermaids in the water, jumping through white horses of surf. A couple of other swimmers kept a watchful eye from the shore. 

The Seaford Mermaids are led by 88-year-old Ruth Rose, a matriarch whose dedication to sea swimming has effectively bound a whole community of bathers. 

Ruth Rose, leader of the Seaford Mermaids

Photo: Roz Ashton

Ruth Rose, leader of the Seaford Mermaids

During 2020, the number of members swelled into the hundreds. And 2021 has seen the group continue to grow, as more locals have become hooked on the thrill of cold water immersion. There are now more than 250 regular swimmers on the Mermaids WhatsApp group.

Following the tragic death of a swimmer in Cuckmere Haven, unconnected to the group, a conversation had begun among the Mermaids when they convened for their morning swim. The group reflected that they too could one day require urgent help in the water. 

Responding to the mood, Ruth sent a message on the Mermaids WhatsApp group, suggesting they might each make a small annual donation to the RNLI. Within 36 hours, more than £6,700 had been raised. By the end of the week, they had exceeded £12,000. Ruth then got in touch with Newhaven RNLI – and we were thrilled by the news of their impressive fundraising effort.

Ruth had evidently tipped-off the group that we would be dropping by. A steady flow of swimmers greeted us warmly. By 7am, numbers in the water had tripled. Little piles of belongings smattered the pebbles in a socially distanced arrangement. Still more arrived, unwrapped and made their unfaltering progress down to the water. 

I had wondered if the Seaford Mermaids were exclusively female, but apparently not. In fact, the mermen were numerous. Wearing a dry robe, Ash came to introduce himself. Ash had started swimming with the Mermaids during the summer. He recounted an occasion when, early on, he found himself swept on a rip current towards Newhaven’s West Pier. Another of the swimmers chimed in support: ‘We were very close to calling the RNLI but he managed to self-recover.’

Two Mermaids in their swimming costumes, neoprene socks and gloves, and swimming caps

Photo: Roz Ashton

Two Mermaids in their swimming costumes, neoprene socks and gloves, and swimming caps

‘Aren’t you joining us?’ enquired one sprightly lady as she toed her way past in matching neoprene socks and gloves. It was time to own up that I had my costume on. Lewis look horrified – the sea was 12°C. He was probably wondering where I was hiding my drysuit. But I was waiting for Ruth. I had a feeling she was the rock I needed to take on this cold water challenge.

A couple bowled down the shingle bank towards the water. I related to the thrill and energy coming from them. She was the initiated, he was the first-timer. ‘I’m getting straight on the train to London after this,’ he said. 

As we entered the water, Ruth did the talking. I gasped quietly. She said: ‘We keep an eye out for one another.’ She spoke of a girl, newly joined, who had been pulled underwater by a rip. ‘It was a worrying moment. Over the years there have been some close shaves,’ she described. 

Just then, I lost my footing in a sand gully as a wave swelled up to my full height. ‘Are you alright dear?’ Ruth asked. I was, but appreciated her asking. I looked around at the other swimmers. A contingent made up of sets of twos and threes. Here and there, exclamations of delight and laughter sung out above the sound of the waves. The day’s sea state determined more of a play in the water than a swim. Child-like frivolity in the surf. I noticed how relaxed and easy everyone looked. I counted more than 30 heads in the water.

Holly and Steve Wood,  two of The Seaford Mermaids

Photo: Roz Ashton

Holly and Steve Wood, two members of The Seaford Mermaids

The Seaford Mermaids may be unique in the depth of forecasting detail Ruth shares with the WhatsApp group every evening for the day ahead. Her forecasts have achieved notoriety among the members, prized as the holy grail. They cover sunrise and sunset, air and sea temperature ranges through the day, wind speed and direction, sea state and swell, tide times and local hazards to beware of, such as rips and currents.

Here’s a small excerpt:

‘Weather forecast for Wednesday. Sunrise at 7.21am into an almost cloudless clear sky rising over the cliffs by about 7.34 am. At that time, air temperature will be 12° C, rising to maximum of 14° C by noon. Sea temperature 12.2° C. The wind will ease a little overnight, but at 7am it will still be 19mph, gusting to 24mph from due south directly off the sea.’

I took her advice, although struggled somewhat with my laces. My mind was wandering to the heated seat of my car. All the while, Ruth chatted calmly, recalling memorable moments and scanning the ground. She bent down, turning an occasional pebble, before presenting me with a small knobbled specimen with a hole right through the middle. 

She spoke sincerely of how these stones are created, by rock forming around a worm, perhaps millions of years ago, and filled with the sand that it had consumed. I felt truly initiated. The generosity of this woman has nurtured a welcoming environment for people to swim safely together in the wilds of the sea. I knew I would return.

The Seaford Mermaids going for a dip at Tide Mill

Photo: Roz Ashton

The Mermaids heading out to sea for a dip

Six months later, I am proud to say that I have swum at least once a week since. This is not a badge of honour but a personal win. For all the mornings that I have got myself there, through a numbing winter of lockdown, when pulling the covers back over my head would have been the easier option. Swimming our seas, lakes and rivers throughout the year may be the tonic to overcome the feeling of languishing - the aimlessness, joylessness, and poor concentration so many of us have felt over the past year.

I have made friends and learned new skills, like how to calm my breathing and acclimatise to the temperature on the frostiest of days. The simple act of swimming rewards me with a sense of achievement – I have carried it through these difficult months, a glowing nugget of possibility.

As restrictions are eased and our horizons begin to broaden, I wonder how many of us will manage to guard each little win in the inevitable gathering pace of a post-pandemic world. My bets are on the Mermaids and their nationwide kindred spirits, all getting a buzz out of the elements.

Safety advice

Before you hit the water, here are the RNLI’s top safety tips for open water swimming:

  • Never swim alone. The safest way to wild swim is at an Open Water swimming site, with a club or between the red and yellow flags on a lifeguarded beach. If you can’t get to a lifeguarded beach, learn more about your chosen location and check hazard signage.
  • Tell people where you have gone and when you expect to be back.
  • Find an organised swim group in your local community.  
  • Acclimatise to cold water slowly and enter gradually to reduce the risk of cold water shock. A wetsuit will help you keep warm, especially if you're new to open water swimming.
  • Check weather and tide times before you go, avoid swimming in dangerous conditions.
  • Take a means for calling for help in a waterproof phone pouch and have this on you at all times.
  • If you see someone in trouble, call 999 or 112 and ask for the coastguard
  • Wear a brightly coloured hat plus a tow float for increased visibility.
  • Always swim parallel to the shore and not straight out. Cold water, waves and currents can tire you out quickly and make it harder to return to shore. 
  • Never swim under the influence of alcohol. 
  • If you find yourself in trouble in the water, you can help yourself get back to safety by floating (here's how!) 

Tempted to give it a try? Read our article about getting into open water swimming

Whether you’re swapping the swimming pool for open water or enjoying a quick dip, here’s how to stay safe

Get open water swimming tips