The Hele Bay Merbabes swim community

Blog - ‘Tell it to the sea’ - The Hele Bay Merbabes swim community

‘Tell it to the sea’ - The Hele Bay Merbabes swim community

9 minute read

Open water swimming seems to be everywhere at the moment! The past couple of years has seen a huge spike in popularity and swim groups across the UK have received an increase of interest from swimmers who want to be part of local swim groups.

The recent rise in people taking the plunge has been linked to people looking for swim spots close to home, as a result of pool and sports facility closures at the hands of the pandemic.

However this surge of interest came to be, the health benefits of open water swimming are transformative and keep swimmers coming back for more. A few of the benefits include elevating mood, promoting better sleep and boosting your immune system.

Open water swimmers hugging in dryrobes

Not far from dryrobe® HQ is an incredible local swim group called the Hele Bay Merbabes, founded by Terri Ingram. What started as a small meet up with friends in August 2019 has now become a Facebook group of more than 900 members, which welcomes all swimmers, female or male, that are interested in swimming in Hele Bay.

We were fortunate enough to meet up with them on a sunny Sunday in February and spoke to Terri about the Merbabes and how open water swimming has changed her life.

Open water swimmers wearing dryrobes

The Hele Bay Merbabes is such an awesome name for a swim group! What does the Hele Bay Merbabes community mean to you?
I love the term ‘merbabes’, because I just think that everyone's a babe, it doesn’t matter if you’re male or female!

I sometimes sit here and think, every single one of those people, apart from one, I didn't know two and a half years ago and now some of them are my best friends.

I think with the swimming community especially, as soon as you meet your tribe, there's a bond that forms. We just all look out for each other and support each other and this all keeps us going for days when we’ve all come and met. I think the community in general is really supportive and obviously so good for mental health - it’s a wonderful community.

It blows my mind every now and then. It's really hard to even comprehend and so much has come out of it. Since I've started, I'm now an open water swim coach, which in my wildest dreams never thought that would be something that I would ever do. I vividly remember the day when I first got into the sea because something switched in my brain. My life has just completely changed because it now has to involve swimming!

Swimmers in costumes and swim hats walking to the beach

What do you like about swimming in North Devon?
Definitely the beaches and the coastline that we have are incredible - you can't beat it. I love the rocks, because in the summer we jump off the rocks. I love the caves, you find little places to go, like boat trips around to Broadsands Beach - you could be in Thailand!

The coastline for me is second to none. I love the fact that it is so tidal - we've got the second highest tidal range in the world here, in the Bristol Channel - with the highest being in Canada.

I love how different the beach can look after a couple of hours. I grew up on the south coast, just outside Portsmouth, and the tidal range there is next to nothing so it never looks any different and it's just a completely straight coastline. Whereas here it's just great. It's beautiful.

Open water swimmers on the beach walking towards the sea

How does it feel after dipping in the ocean?
I've also got this little saying which we say, ‘Tell it to the sea.’ So if any of us come down here and we're having a bad day, if you're in a bad mood, the weather is crap even, or you're just not feeling yourself. You get in that sea and you come out a reformed person.

It just completely lifts my mood, no matter how I'm feeling, I'll get out of there and I'll be fine. I can face whatever it is that I need to face. I don’t know what it is that does it.

In the summer I do end up thinking about the winter and craving that biting numbness that you get. I think when you are experiencing it, you can't think of anything else because you have to be in the moment. I've tried to think about what it is that is so good about it and I think it's probably because at that moment you have nothing else to think about apart from, ‘Oh my gosh, this is cold!’ then you suddenly go, ‘This is lovely’. That feeling lasts as you get out and just keeps going throughout the day - I'm sure that's what everyone else would say. It's really interesting to find out what keeps people coming back.

A group of open water swimmers waist deep in the sea

Has open water swimming improved other aspects of your life?
It really has. I had major, major body issues. I've lived here for five years and it took me two and a half to get to the sea. I spend every minute I can on this beach in summer. I love being by the sea, but I wouldn't stand up in a swimming costume in front of people I didn’t know - I didn't do it for years. The only time I probably did was going abroad. Then one day I was down here in a swimming costume, but sort of wrapped up a bit. It was so hot and a couple of people had got in the water and I just thought, ‘Oh, just get over it.’ and I ran into the sea, nobody could see me, and something in my brain switched that day. I honestly just thought to myself, ‘Actually I don't care what people think of me.’

I'm a massive advocate for body neutrality. Not even body positivity, like body neutral. I don't look at anybody's body and judge them. It took me a long time to realise people aren't doing that with me either.

So for me, it's given me body confidence and fitness. I've never been so fit in my life. I also now cycle all the time - I did a triathlon last year. I didn't think I'd ever do a triathlon. It's brought me fitness as well as body confidence.

Two open water swimmers holding hands and walking into the sea

Do you think that other people should consider open water swimming with a swim group?
For me, yes. We've got over 900 people on the Merbabes page for instance, and I know there's lots of other groups. But 900 people don't come down here and swim. I think some people just like to be in the community to keep updated on what's going on and to see what's happening. And some people are just watchers who love to see the photos and things.

For safety, I think you should join a group because swimming in numbers is much safer than swimming on your own.

We're lucky because this bay is relatively safe - you never take that for granted though, obviously. I always encourage people to do research about the conditions they're about to get into. I just think if you are swimming with a group, not only is that safer for when you are in the sea, but then you've also got this aspect of community. We hang around, especially on the weekend, have coffee and cake together and then make our own way. I strongly believe joining a group is amazing!

Open water swimmer in the sea in a wetsuit and smiling

What would you say to someone who is anxious about swimming if they are feeling body conscious about themselves?
She's not on the swim today, but there's a lady in the group who used to be so conscious of herself and would never get in a photo. Now she’s started coming down and would run in and out the sea, like a few people do.

She’s said to me that because she now gets in photos, ‘It's because of you that I’m able to do this now’. Which was incredible! I think the more you put yourself out there to do it, the more you realise that nobody is watching. Nobody is judging.

The more you realise that all of us are all different shapes and sizes, something in your head just suddenly changes.

We get so many people say to us, ‘My God, you're mad.’ That actually makes you feel really strong and proud and that 'this is a really good thing I'm doing'.

Open water swimming putting on a dryrobe after getting out of the sea

How would you sum up Hele Bay Merbabes?
It used to be just women, but we've let men in now. It's a wonderful, supportive, loving, friendly, nonjudgmental, happy group of people that all just love to get into the sea. People do it in cossies. People do it in wetsuits. People get in and just stay by the shore. People go right out and swim, but we are all in it together. Nobody would judge anyone for any sort of reason.

Open water swimmers drinking hot beverages in dryrobes after a sea swim

If you’re part of a swim group, we would love to hear from you! Drop us a message on our social channels with your details, or tag us in your posts using @dryrobe and #dryrobeterritory.

Follow The Hele Bay Merbabes

Facebook: Hele Bay Merbabes
Instagram: @merbabes_helebay

Video by Maddie Meddings
Photos by N and M Dro-tography