Through Water, the Wavelength of the World

Katie and Rob. Pic: Jon Line

It’s November 2019 and Rob Jubb is celebrating his new job as the coordinator Health, Safety and Security at the Island’s main hospital, where his wife Katie also works. He had no idea what was about to happen. When Covid hit, and the rest of us had to remember to wash our own hands, Rob was suddenly responsible for the cleanliness, quarantine, safety or otherwise of every hand, face, space, PPE and checklist in a whole hospital full of people during the biggest crisis in our lifetimes.

Almost three years later, we meet up with Rob and Katie as they prepare for a pretty wild mission to relay-swim the Channel. The more we talk, the more we realise they had a story to share that goes deeper than a swimming challenge. It’s a story about how through water, we can have experiences that are transformational. Sometimes in little ways, day to day. In other ways, it can change lives. To tell it, we need to take you to the Sea.

“I think we’ll have to go for a swim”, says Rob looking over at Katie. A spring squall is rolling across the Solent and they can’t take their eyes off the Sea. “It’s quite warm actually”, says Rob without a hint of sarcasm as the wind picks up, and raindrops appear.

Gurnard, Isle of Wight. Pic: Jon Line

After a few photographs, as after a chilly dunk, we take shelter in a nearby pub. The conversation starts with their swim across the Channel, how their fundraising is going, and if they feel ready.

“I think so, we’ve been training, long swims,” says Katie.

“The Sea’s about 11 degrees at the moment so we get in for about 40 minutes without a wetsuit so it feels… do-able” Rob adds.

The Channel Swim is across 22 miles of open water between the UK and France, through the World’s busiest shipping lane. Relay or not, it’s serious. It’s the Sea, capital S. Completed in teams, each swimmer takes it in turn to swim the channel for an hour in rotation through the spring tide, jellyfish, with no land in sight, partially through the night, sharing the water with super tankers until the team reaches France. The relay swim will raise money for a charity supporting people with spinal injury (you can support Rob and Katie's fundraising here).

Just your body and the water. Pic: Jon Line

Before the Channel, they swam the Solent. It’s not as far, but is notoriously tidal and while you won't find as many container ships, there’s plenty of sailboats between Cowes and the Needles to dodge. Open water swimming can be disorientating when there’s no beach to keep an eye on.

“The Solent was good, but halfway across I just panicked,” Katie says, warming her hands on her coffee mug, “my brain just goes to this weird place.”

“You’re supposed to stay with your kayaking guide. George was our kayaker and I said to him ‘where’s Katie?’ and she was just powering off… she was gone”, Rob laughs.

“I’m not quite sure what I’m going to be like in the middle of the Channel,” Katie says. Down to Earth, self deprecating, but not lacking confidence. It’s just how Islanders are.

Solent Waymarker. Pic: Jon Line

Pic: Jon Line

As a surfer, Rob was no stranger to the sea, but swimming for miles with no wetsuit didn’t make sense to him, until Katie persuaded him to take a dip at the start of lockdown.

“I would come down and sit with a cup of tea. I’d take the piss, I’d be like ‘what are you going in there for?’ It was cold, I was like ‘sod that’. And then a lockdown happened and I just started going along," Rob explains.

Rob in the organic Sea Shepherd t-shirt

Marine organic surf towel

Rob wears our Sea Shepherd t-shirt and Marine Surf Towel. Katie wears the organic beanie and the Rapanui logo t-shirt

Sea swimming is a popular activity. What Sea Swimmers say about it is perhaps the remarkable thing. You will get almost universal enthusiasm for the way it makes them feel.

For Rob mid pandemic, following Katie in for a dip meant real moments of calm in the madness. Covid pushed Rob and Katie to their limits. Everyone who has lived long enough, or who lived through that, knows that some days are hard. That might explain why sea swimming has become so popular.

“I think sea swimming was a lifesaver in lots of different ways”, says Katie, explaining it’s a way to process, balance and reset.

“Definitely for me,” says Rob, “I was head of health, safety and security for an entire hospital in a pandemic. We’d never seen anything like it and I felt completely out of my depth. But we got through, and I think the sea swimming helped me stay focussed, you know. We were always there.”

Perhaps it’s not that original to say spending time in the Sea makes people feel good. Paddling it in, sailing on it, walking your dog beside it. All these things we do in, on or around the Sea we do because of the way it makes us feel. For Katie and Rob personally, Sea Swimming is like an undiluted version of all that. It’s something they have begun to share here with the community on the Island.

Feeling the transformational power of the ocean motivates them to share this with others. Rob helped bring The Wave Project to the Island seven and a half years ago.

Through their work with the surf therapy charity, Rob and Katie take young people in the sea with surfboards. Part of it is about feeling great on the day, while there’s also lasting confidence to be built out on the waves.

Rob tells me how one young person wouldn’t speak when they first started with The Wave Project. Gradually as they learnt to ride small waves, their confidence grew to become a young adult unrecognizable from the withdrawn young child they were when they started.

“Everyone is equal when they enter the water,” Katie adds, “there’s a sense of value in that, a sense of satisfaction, a sense of achieving something,”

Rob looks down at his arm, “I’ve got goosebumps talking about it.”

The Sea is a great leveller. It gives us perspective. The daily dunk might be your soul cleanser or a challenge to self or a way to feel calmer. Or all the above. There’s another dynamic that we cannot avoid talking about. For all the immune system benefits that cold-water swimming brings, the UK is consistently ranked as one of the worst European countries for coastal water quality. In other words, 21st century UK is an Island swimming in raw sewage.

“It can be polluted,” says Katie. “Sometimes you can smell it as you approach, so you have to kinda go the other way. It is pretty grim… it is frustrating, when you think about how it gets pumped into the oceans and the impact that has.”

The place the land meets the sea is where manmade meets nature. Our industry meets nature. And the interaction is a chance for us to see what the other end of our end-to-end system means. People call it an environmental crisis. It’s a human one. For most of our life, humans live in the place where stuff is thrown away. At the Sea, we face up to where those decisions end up. It makes the connection the first step towards the solution. Perhaps it’s no surprise that in a lot of places, the sustainability conversation is being led by people living beside the Sea.

Rob and Katie will negotiate tankers and jellyfish across open ocean. Pic: Jon Line

The sun punches through the clouds as the squall rolls away to the east along the coast. The sun shines through the window of the seafront pub, hitting us with a wave of warmth. Our eyes are drawn to the water, still choppy but shimmering.

The Solent. Pic: Jon Line

Through our conversation it’s clear that the water can be a place to escape the madness of modern life, an escape, giving you the chance to recalibrate. For some it might be surfing, kayaking, paddleboarding. For Katie and Rob it’s been Sea Swimming. No equipment. No distractions. Just your body and the sensation of the sea. Someone more clever might link it to our evolutionary history, to the rhythm of the world, or be able to explain why that makes us feel good. For us it’s enough that it does. That we can experience, through water, the wavelength of the World.

Katie looks out the window, “right, we’re gonna go for a swim”. She turns to me, “you coming?”

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