Adventurer Cal Major on discovering sea swimming

The ocean advocate paddled her SUP board across miles of seawater - but tackling depression meant getting into it

James Appleton

Cal Major has devoted her life to the sea. A vet by profession, she has spent many years surfing, scuba diving and stand-up paddleboarding (SUP). Last year, she completed the first SUP journey from Land’s End to John O’Groats – completing 1000 miles, solo, in 59 days. Its purpose was to raise awareness of plastic pollution around the UK coastline and what we can do to stop it. Though she had completed previous expeditions around the coastline of Cornwall and the Isle of Skye, the gruelling trip pushed her to the limit. Now touring her documentary about the trip – Vitamin Sea – she tells Beth Pearson how taking up sea swimming helped her cope when post-expedition depression set in.

Obviously you have a particular affection for sea water – we have swimmers at the OSS that feel more drawn to rivers, the sea, lochs or lakes, but it can be difficult to articulate why. What is it about the sea for you? 

I believe everyone has an environment that sings to them, and I can completely appreciate people’s love for inland water. For me the sea is just beyond comparison for making me feel alive. It can look and feel different every day, depending on the state of the tide, wind, swell, weather… it can be a thousand different colours. I love the waves, dunking my head underneath them, and the energy that the sea and the unhindered air around the sea can hold. I love that I can see a horizon, and often feel quite humbled by the vastness of it. And I love the wildlife encounters I have there – from kelp, to seaweed, jellyfish, even just the sound of the sea birds. I also love how you float a little more in the salt water. Getting in the sea never fails to reconnect me to my purpose, and to keep me in love with it enough to do whatever I can to protect it.

As someone who has been involved in ocean plastics campaigns for several years, do you personally see the movement heading towards seeing all watercourses as inherently connected?

Yes, I definitely have, and I think it’s important that we all know we’re connected to the oceans. They produce half the oxygen we breathe on Earth, so their health is so intrinsically linked to our own, and water connects us all. Of course, our inland waterways directly connect us with the ocean, and protecting them is paramount to protecting our oceans too. I am a firm believer that People Protect What They Love, but they only love what they know, and so the access to water campaigns, also being rolled out by British Canoeing [as well as the OSS], are instrumental in helping people to fall in love with our waterways, and to do what they can to protect them as a result.

You surf, SUP, and scuba dive – where does outdoor swimming fit in? Do you swim for different reasons than other water-based sports?

I definitely swim for different reasons to kitesurfing, surfing and SUPing. I swim to reset. I only discovered outdoor swimming about a year ago, and as is the case with so many other people, it has transformed my life. I started swimming last year after I finished my Land’s End to John O’Groats SUP expedition, and was exhausted and suffering from post-expedition blues. The summer had been so hot, and the sea was glorious and warm. There were no waves to surf, so I got in for a dunk every day. They quickly became my lifeline.

A couple of months after finishing the expedition, I was really struggling with depression. Surfing, which had been my number one passion for years became impossibly hard in my self-critical brain. Swimming became the one thing I could bring myself to do in the sea – minimal effort, no faffing around with wetsuits, and no judgement. I could get in and out in as short or long a time frame as I wanted, except that I wouldn’t let myself out until I was giggling and mindfully splashing around, throwing water into the air. The colder the water, the quicker this would happen.

It’s since become a big part of my routine. It’s my daily dose of nature – even if I don’t have time for anything else – I use it to reconnect me to our planet and to my mission. I live right by the beach in North Devon, but travel a lot up and down the country. The first thing I do is look on a map and see which beach, lake or tarn is going to be closest, and going to be my lifeline that week.

“A couple of months after finishing the expedition, I was really struggling with depression. Surfing became impossibly hard in my self-critical brain. Swimming became the one thing I could bring myself to do in the sea – minimal effort, no faffing around with wetsuits, and no judgement.”

At the film screenings, you’ll be introducing the film and doing Q&As, but in the past took you a while to discuss your adventures due to their effect on your mental health. How did you cope with this at the time and has it influenced how you approach your trips?

You’re right – it took me a while to open up about my post-trip depression. I think that’s because at the time I didn’t realise I had depression, I thought I had gone mad. It was a terrifying place to be in, and I wouldn’t wish it upon anybody. However, I’m also incredibly grateful to have experienced it, and to have come out the other side with coping strategies in place, so that I can on some level at least relate to other people’s struggles, and protect my own wellbeing better too.

At the time I did what a lot of people with depression do, and hid away. I ate cake constantly, watched Netflix to numb reality and sometimes couldn’t get out of bed, or the house, because I was on the verge of a panic attack. I honestly thought I’d never be well again, and couldn’t understand why people were out doing things just for fun. What was the point?

My boyfriend was really helpful and incredibly understanding, but not many people understood what I was feeling. In the end one day I was so down that I called the doctor in tears begging for help. They saw me that day and gave me some medication which, within a week, brought me back to life. I’m so grateful for that. It was enough to help me put into place some lifestyle changes and coping strategies to keep me well. My daily (or as often as I can) swims form a big part of how I stay well now. I also try and eat well, exercise well and see good friends regularly – all things we know are important, but at the time are the first to go.

I also learnt a deeper respect for my body. The instant change once I started taking the medication helped me realise that this depression was not a failing of my brain, it was a chemical imbalance from two months of over-exertion, exhaustion, stress and malnutrition. I’d put my body into an enormous debt that I needed to pay back, and the depression was just my body’s way of ensuring that happened. I was not “messed up in the head” as I told myself on a daily basis, but struggling with an imbalance, which was manifesting as depression. For future expeditions I will now, whilst pushing myself, also respect my limits, my need for sleep and my need for a block of recovery time afterwards where I can switch off everything and just be.

Do you still experience some of the more usual anxieties people get with open water swimming, such as fear of the depths/vertigo, or of jellyfish, or have your trips well and truly put those to bed?

That’s a really interesting one! I’m not worried about jellyfish in Devon as they’re fairly harmless, but I am in Scotland as I’ve seen Ross Edgley suffer with some pretty horrendous stings to his face! I also do get a bit fearful out of my depth. I’m happy enough to SUP 10 miles off shore, but feel incredibly vulnerable when swimming if I can’t put my feet down! I’ve seen tides and currents at their most powerful, and don’t think my swimming is strong enough to overcome that if I needed to. If there’s a boat nearby however I love being in deep water, and imagining all the stuff beneath me… although I can quite easily freak myself out with this too!

What’s the question people ask most when they find out that you’ve paddled around Skye/Cornwall/LEJOG?

People often ask how many times I fell off, what I ate and how I went to the loo. You can find out the answers at the screenings!

Finally – what’s next? 

I can’t reveal next year’s plan yet as I need to find out first if it’s actually humanly possible! But it involves the oceans, SUP, kite surfing, and swimming. Better get training!

  • Cal will be presenting her documentary in Scotland from this weekend, starting in Glasgow on Sunday 8th September. For dates and tickets visit her Vitamin Sea website