I ...write and ...exclaim ..: I, too, overflow; my desires have invented new desires, my body knows unheard-of-songs.

Hélène Cixous

Finding My Voice in the Waves

Dawn Swimmer and Mariña, the Mermaid of Salvora Dawn Swimmer and Mariña, the Mermaid of Salvora Island

It's hard for me to imagine a more moving personal challenge than swimming at the edge of the open Atlantic from the island of Sálvora to the fishing port of Aguiño. One day in summer 2020 I overcame both real and irrational fears to do this swim, a swim I hadn't even set for myself as a challenge. Many layers of meaning unfolded for me in the process of both doing the swim and then trying to find my voice to transmit the power of this experience by writing about it. Who doesn't sometimes feel mute in a world where one's voice can easily get lost? Come with me into the waves on a journey that took me out into the sea and back home again.

Finding My Voice in the Waves 

by Dawn Swimmer

Battered by constant winds and the onslaught of the Atlantic Ocean's wild waves, Sálvora Island modestly rises out of the sea protecting the entrance to the 40km long, Ría de Arousa estuary in Galicia, Spain. Strong currents, treacherous rocky shoals, small islands and unpredictable conditions around the island and in the estuary have been the bane of sailors from time immemorial and given rise to a rich folklore and colorful place names that fill the nautical charts. Sálvora is magnetic, a place where legends of giant men and mermaids meet tragic reality with devastating shipwrecks such as the 1921 Santa Isabel steamer which took more than 200 lives. Inhabited by tough folk up to the 1970s, the island's abandoned village serves as a testament to hardy, meager living in extreme conditions. Owned privately by the Mariño family lineage during most of its history, Sálvora now forms part of Spain's Atlantic Islands National Park, a grouping of several barrier islands along Galicia's stunningly scenic western coast.

Swimming from Sálvora Island to the fishing village Aguiño is not something you can do every day. Aguiño is the last and closest mainland village to Sálvora, famed for the audacity of its inhabitants who brave the rough seas to extract percebes (goose barnacles), one of the most demanded shellfish of these nutrient-rich waters, off coastal rocks, cliffs and islets where the waves break. 

For six years I lived in Aguiño looking at the ocean and Sálvora contemplating their beauty, power and treachery. Fishermen would return in their bright red and blue boats followed by flocks of gulls feeding off scraps. I could also see offshore islands and a spit of land, O Carreiro, that reaches with jagged, aged knuckles far out into the sea. Countless times low tide called me out to the rocky, shell-covered spit as far as I could go into the sea beachcombing and gazing upon Sálvora mesmerized by the beauty and waves. With great respect I imagined the people who once lived there and rowed back and forth across the rough channel for their livelihood and social needs! Watching the enormous winter waves crashing upon the shoals with gale force winds deeply impressed me. Spectacular rainbows often materialized over O Carreiro, the sky black behind it potent with storm.

Beachcombing on O Carreiro only accessible at low tide. In far distance the islands Noro (left) and Salvora (right)
Aguiño's boat ramp and shipyard, O Carreiro in background
Looking towards Salvora from O Carreiro. The tower marks one side of the Aguiño shipping channel.
Funny monument to percebes (goose barnacles), the local delicacy

During those six years I never went to Sálvora. Nonetheless I dreamed about the island and fell in love with its protectress and legendary ancestor, Mariña, a mermaid who rose from the sea and captured the heart of the local lord. Of the numerous versions this is my favorite. Many moons ago, a medieval knight controlled these lands and set up a stronghold on Sálvora. One day out for his morning ride, he spied a woman lying on the beach. Getting closer he noticed that she had the tail of a fish. Captivated by her remarkable beauty and curious about this wonder of nature, he fell in love with her at first sight and carried her back with him to his manor. When he spoke to her, she did not respond. She tried to speak but nothing came out. Perhaps her voice was different, a voice of the sea, inaudible for the human ear. For him she was mute and for herself, in this new world, she was too. He named her Mariña which means 'of the sea.' As she fell in love with him, she progressively lost her beautiful iridescent scales which fell to the ground like jewels in the sand revealing her legs which she learned to walk upon.

It saddened the lovers that she was unable to speak but despite this barrier, they had a son they named John. He had blond curly hair and beautiful sea-green eyes like his mother, as did many of her Mariño descendants. As was the custom, on the night of St John, at mid-summer, a celebration was held with a huge bonfire to ward off evil spirits and, as it died down, to jump over. In a rash moment, the knight grabbed John from his mother's lap and raced with him towards the fire to leap. Mariña, unknowing of the custom, cried out in terror, "John, my son!" Everyone stopped and looked at her in wonder and from that day forward she found her voice.

Mariña. Art by Sam

Her life on land continued but part of her heart always longed for the sea and she would spend long hours gazing out over the azure waters in the calm days of summer and harsh storms of winter, the whistling wind perhaps mixing with her mermaid's song. Legend has it that one of her conditions for staying with the knight was that she would take one of the blue-eyed Mariños each generation down to the watery depths to where, they say, she eventually returned and where her soul belonged. She made deep sacrifices of her essential nature to live on land but at least she reclaimed her voice and developed a new one.

When living in Aguiño these landscapes became profoundly embedded in my psyche with awe, respect, beauty and some fear. The legends inspired and stirred my soul. In Aguiño I became pregnant with my second child, a girl. We named her Mariña which means 'of the sea'. She is now 16. Swimming to or from that island, lurking on the horizon and which captured my imagination but seemed utterly inaccessible, never crossed my mind at that time.

Newborn Mariña & Dawn Swimmer in 2003 with Port of Aguiño and O Carreiro in background.
Mariña, her older brother & Dawn Swimmer in front of the retelling of Mariña's legend at a local park.

An urge to start swimming seriously and to challenge myself arose within me in Fall 2017. The ocean is a deep passion of mine and I wanted to train and complete an open water swim in the Ría de Arousa. While I am a life-long swimmer, I was never either a competitive pool swimmer nor a dedicated wild swimmer. Swimming became an integral part of my life both in the pool and ocean.

In March 2020 the Covid-19 pandemic truly hit Europe and lockdown confined people to their homes. Fortunately, I live looking out at the sea in a rural area with extremely low population density. The sea became my salvation. Every day at dawn I would go to the sea to feel the ocean, listen to its rhythms, ask questions to the wind, observe the tides and waves, and gain strength from its power. Dawn swimming became and continues to be an important anchor in a time when life was turned upside down. 

Dawn swimming became my anchor, May 2020. Contemplating the ocean and swim, raw and exposed to the elements, while sunrise light and shadow divide my back representing my own inner struggles.

When lockdown lifted I began to train again in the sea with my teammates, alone and accompanied by my partner, Jonas, in his kayak. Normally, when we train in the ocean, the team swims at the same safe beach up and back a couple of times a week. It often feels like a long, stimulating but, at times, monotonous pull in a pool. The truth is I adore swimming in waters that are a bit edgy and rough, to feel the wave action, and to fight the wind and elements. With no pool to train in, I began to train more intensively in the ocean and, with my partner's support and encouragement (from his kayak), we began to explore the waters of the estuary that open up to Sálvora swimming to and from close, off-shore rocks and islands.

One day, towards the end of summer and after numerous excursions in the estuary together, Jonas suggested, "Why don't we kayak to Sálvora and you can swim from there to one of the mid-way islands and then kayak back to Aguiño?" I said, "No way, I'm not kayaking to Sálvora, that's just too ambitious and risky for me going that much further out into the near open sea with the currents that run between the islands and the channel."

The sea's unpredictable nature commands great respect within me and I have no desire to foolishly tempt fate. A bitter, relentless NE wind often blows in summer; if it catches you off guard it can be very dangerous. Two recent, fatal kayaking accidents in the nearby coastal waters were also in the back of my mind. Frankly, getting overturned in the kayak by an unexpected wave or losing control in strong currents in the Aguiño channel concerned me more than the swim. I had no interest in appearing on the evening news! 

Nautical chart showing Aguiño port (center top) and directly south, the island of Sálvora and to the northeast the Isla Noro and then Isla Vionta.

About a month passed and I hadn't really thought about swimming from Sálvora (which seemed a ludicrous idea) and Jonas suggested again, "Tomorrow the conditions are supposed to be ideal for crossing to Sálvora – no wind, the tidal flow and the calmness of the sea." I do love a challenge. I turned the idea over in my mind a few times. We planned it out and taking a deep breath, I said, "Okay, let's do it." I woke up the morning of the swim to look at the forecast and the winds had changed. I started to express doubt and freak out. "What if something goes wrong?" a voice in the back of my mind piped up. My major concern was the kayak. He reasoned with me and said, "It's okay. We can always go another day. The island isn't going anywhere." I started to gently weep. Feeling frustrated and upset, I wondered,  "Am I self-limiting because of irrational or rational fear?" After hemming and hawing a few minutes I told him, "I don't want to go. I'm too uncomfortable. I'll just go for my dawn swim as usual."

With a heavy heart and mixed emotions, I rose from bed and prepared myself for my dawn swim. "Let go of the fear," a voice whispered from within, but the voice of fear pushed back harder saying, "What if?" As I closed the front door to head to the beach, I felt like I was letting myself down. 

Sometimes I listen to guided meditations on the daily walk to the beach. I happened to be in the middle of a 10-day Chakra meditation course using cello music to awaken each chakra (energy center) from the base of the spine to the crown of the head. The day's meditation focused on the solar plexus chakra, the third chakra, associated with power, strength, passion and transformation. The teacher commented, "It's all about taking action and to take action in our lives we must build enough emotional and physical heat to sustain our energy." Blocking this chakra, she continued, was shame, humiliation, self-doubt, insecurity, and feelings of unworthiness. Hearing those words, I looked out over the calm sea and breathless day. Something clicked into place internally and with great determination I marched back up to the house. Entering the bedroom, where my partner had happily returned to sleep, I said, "We're going!" Perplexed and sleepy, he responded, "What are you talking about?". I repeated, "I want to go. We can make a decision once we get to Aguiño. From the safety of bed, we don't know and we can't know unless we go and see." I dropped the fear and connected with my strength. It was time to swim my verses.  

Ideal conditions on the way to Salvora (in background)
Jonas kayaks toward fisherman casting nasas (lobster pots)
Fisherman's small launch
Cormorants and a gull drying their wings

With incredible good humor, Jonas got out of bed and we prepared for the day's adventure. After loading the kayaks on the car, we drove the 15 min to the port of Aguiño. The rising sun and the pancake flat water revealed a perfect day for the crossing. I shed the doubt and worry like a molting snake. With a kiss on my lips Jonas launched my kayak off into the sea and I shot like a dart out in a straight line for Sálvora and its patroness Mariña. We were not alone on the water. Being home to a thriving fishing industry, fishing vessels of different sizes crossed our path, coming and going, as we skimmed across the surface of the sea through their wakes. I couldn't believe we were making this crossing. As we approached Sálvora, cormorants and gulls shared space on the rocks, drying wings and warming in the sun. I felt peaceful, joyful, in the moment. Anything seemed possible. We reached the island, covered with grasslands, a few grazing horses, shrubs and sparse trees and followed its coast to the island's only port. 

Paddling into the bay at Sálvora, Marina greets you
The kayaks in the bay at Sálvora
Changing into my wetsuit
Manor home cum salt factory now the National Park office

Paddling into the bay I found myself mesmerized by the statue of Mariña, the mermaid, who dominates the idyllic sandy bay in the port adjacent to a small stone salting plant converted into a manor and now the park office. I kayaked towards her and let the craft float up onto the beach. From the moment I saw her, I sensed her protection. She sits calm and beautiful, a gentle look upon her visage as she looks out to sea, not the open ocean but back towards the shore, her heart perhaps always divided between her two loves – the sea where she was born and the love that brought her out of the water. Her long wavy hair flows down her back reaching the tail she sits upon. She is a creature of two worlds, complex, different, untamed, a wild beauty. Sometimes I also feel like a mermaid with a divided nature.

I found some rocks to change into my wetsuit under her watchful gaze. I put on my 1mm swimsuit and then my open water swimming wetsuit, plus three caps – a neoprene and two silicone caps, my goggles and neoprene gloves. Before launching myself into the water, I asked Jonas to take some pictures of me with Mariña. Climbing up to the base of the statue, I read the plaque commemorating her inauguration. Surprise and delight filled me to see she was sculpted in 1968, the year I was born! It felt a bit surreal, a magical moment when legend and reality merge. 

Thinking about her initial muteness on land, I realized that sometimes your voice gets lost along the way of your life but it is possible to reclaim that voice, to recreate it anew, to retune it to your dreams and desires as they evolve in consonance with the flow of your inner rhythms and life cycle. It was like this swim for me: Imagine the impossible and watch it unfold. How was it possible I was standing up on that rock looking across that sea to Aguiño, a place I had lived many years, and now I felt ready to swim across a space I never would have imagined within my grasp? I was now doing what once had been simply unthinkable. 
I was now doing what once had been simply unthinkable.
I looked out towards shore like Mariña and mutely gazed upon the mountains in the distance, a very familiar range called the Sierra de Barbanza whose highest point is A Curota. Every day at my dawn swim, I gaze upon that range and watch the sun come up from behind it from a different perspective. Familiar landmarks that I know and love between the range and the island came into view. My gaze moved closer to the village of Aguiño where I had just come from, 5km away by kayak, and other significant features including, the huge, high granite boulder island called Noro and off to its left, as different as one could imagine, the flat, sandy gull-inhabited island of Vionta. Those were our immediate physical goals. 

But the real goals went much deeper. I thought about the sacrifices that Mariña made of her voice and tail to live on land which she reclaimed through her love of her child. It led me to imagine the sacrifices we all make during our life course; the external and internal limitations we impose upon ourselves; the dreams we let go of, the opportunities that don't evolve because life, work, family, circumstances take us in other directions. My thoughts also turned to having a divided nature - part land, part sea, part wild, part domesticated - and how it is possible to reconcile these differences and find wholeness. I reflected on my own return to swimming a couple years before and how it was allowing me to reclaim parts of my inner world and strength I hadn't even realized I'd lost or perhaps not developed as I would have liked. Swimming was helping me find my voice, tail and wholeness!
Noro island (rocky outcrop on right) rises 40m out of the sea. The Sierra de Barbanza range frames the background.
I visualize the swim and reflect on Mariña's story.

Calm excitement surged through me. Climbing down from the statue to the white sand beach in the small port, I made my final adjustments to my swim gear. Jonas followed behind towing my kayak on a long rope. The sea felt very cold despite my wetsuit, caps and swim gloves. The temperatures varied from about 14-16C. Feeling cold is my main mental barrier to swimming in the ocean. The cold is bearable but it's just on the edge of the comfort zone where the sensation of 'warm' never enters my consciousness. But I grinned and bore it and swam through the calm waters towards the granite monolith ahead of me. Visibility was poor beyond the port. Fish were scarce. Swimming along I looked down into the deep gray-green mass of nothingness. I found my rhythm and progressed evenly until the island's underwater platform glowed golden below me, a welcome mat. Once parallel  to the granite platform, I rose up out of the water and  planted my feet on the solid ground. Jonas pulled the kayaks up onto the rocks and we briefly explored the island marveling at the fantastic rock formations rising 40m out of the sea.  

From Noro I looked back at Sálvora. Satisfaction filled me knowing I had just crossed that 2.5km channel under my own power. By simply making one stroke after another with determination and imagination one can travel beyond one's dreams.

Leaving Salvora and heading to Noro
Standing on Noro, pleased by the easy crossing.
Reaching Noro
Looking back to Salvora from Noro

Once back on the granite platform, I launched myself into the water again swimming around the island's south and then eastern side. Noro's eastern side, with its striking vertical wall, gives onto a small, unexpected spit of appealing sandy beach. A strange current pulled along that wall despite appearing totally calm. Once past the island in the tranquil canal, it was very easy going to its close neighbor the flat, sandy Vionta straight ahead. The beach's long, low-tide shallows had me swimming a couple hundred meters in very shallow water filled with darting fish, prickly, purple urchins and red, feathery anemones until I finally reached the fine, white-sand shore. Rising again out of the cold water, I imagined myself a shipwreck survivor washed up on shore, seemingly in paradise but with no escape. Except I could swim off! Gulls screeched at the interloper in their territory unaccustomed to visitors. The sun's heat felt good.

Walking around the western side of the island through the fine white sand, I watched Jonas paddle through the thick kelp with the kayaks. Immense gratitude welled within as I knew this dream-making was a team effort, his solid comforting presence supporting me in my endeavors. I would not be here without him. Meeting up on the north side, Jonas got out and asked if I wanted to change out of my wetsuit to continue back in the kayak. I said, "No way. I'm going all the way." I felt strongly that I wanted to swim the 6.5km in one day from Sálvora; to bridge that physical and mental space planted deep in my psyche with my own bodyThe tide was low, the water a dozen shades of blue and aqua, still calm, and the visibility excellent. Today was going to be that day.  

Already on shore I felt chilly despite the sun and I didn't want my muscles to cool. I opened a can of sardines and used a mussel shell I found on the beach as my spoon. So tasty and energizing. From here the hardest part lay ahead due to the unpredictable channel, the waves and wind were supposed to pick up, the cold I already felt and the fact I'd already swum 3.3km with the hardest 3.2km to go. Setting off into the calm, low tide zone from the beach, I swam out of the protected bay into the open sea and the shipping channel. And it's true KM 4-6 were the toughest. I entered a mental flow state where I rhythmically moved my arms, counted my strokes, and occasionally lifted my head to look for landmarks and the comforting presence of my partner's kayak. The sky, birds, boats and sea flowed by as did the nothingness below. The water turned choppy and squirrelly in sections buffeting my body in wave action that didn't make sense. I just kept stroking evenly.

Two signal towers, one green and one red and separated by about 350m from each other, mark the edges of the Aguiño shipping channel to help boats safely navigate the shoals. The waters around these tall cement poles are turbulent and choppy. Around the second one, the red one, there was a strong tidal pull and the second kayak came sweeping towards me and I had to fight quite hard through the current to liberate myself from the pull but made it beyond. Fear rose briefly but it's one of the moments when it's necessary to force yourself into the moment, assess quickly and act accordingly. Jonas couldn't take photos during this more challenging return leg as my trailing kayak pulled and behaved unpredictability being swept here and there in the turbulent waters. Percebeiros (those who collect percebes, barnacles from the rocks) coming back from the day's work in their high speed boats also presented a hazard to avoid and Jonas ably piloted us close to the low tide rocks of the O Carreiro shoals. All elements of the challenge!

The swim. Each number represents 500m. 1-10 were the kayak. 10-14 was the leg to Noro. 15-17 to Vionta. 17-22 Vionta back to Aguino
What the route looks like without the numbers. The shipping channel is between 18 & 19.
The route in relation to the 40km long Ria de Arousa estuary in Galicia in northwest Spain. Salvora is a barrier island to the estuary's entrance from the open Atlantic.

Emotion rose up in me during the last 500m into the port. I was swimming home to a place very important during formative years in my family's life. Looking right I saw the bridge of my beloved O Carreiro walk. Ahead lay the brightly colored dry docked boats in the boatyard getting fixed and restored. The small vibrant red, green and blue wooden auxiliary boats moored in the port with their descriptive names passed my arms as I stroked. In my mind's eye, my three kids (two born here) played in the park and ran down the port. I swam to the boat ramp and stood up feeling strong and proud. On the ramp the percebeiros were off-loading their boats. A great sense of satisfaction washed over me and some tears of emotion fell down my cheeks. I had no idea what I was going to do that day or what it would signify for me.

Curiously, writing about this swim has proven more difficult in some ways than doing it physically. I've struggled to find my voice that normally, when talking about the waves, flows naturally. Then I realized I'm a bit like Mariña, the mermaid of Sálvora, who also struggled to find her voice as a human on land. How many of us struggle to find our voices, to express ourselves meaningfully, to make sense of our actions, passions, struggles and journeys? I needed confidence to both swim and speak my truth and to find my voice in the waves. I let the water and words flow from my body to my hands. I wonder what it means. I wonder if it will mean anything to anyone else. Does it matter? Maybe what I say will resonate with someone else in another place, in another sea struggling to find meaning in the waves of his or her own life.

What I do know as I continue to find my voice is that it felt good to surprise myself – to dream and do the unimaginable, and to make the dream reality. Imagination is an important quality and many things color and fuel my imagination and actions including mermaids, these beautiful, graceful, strong creatures that are half woman, half fish and that spend their lives in and out of the sea. It feels good to have a wild side of myself called to do things, to take on new challenges, to trust and to keep living, keep dreaming and keep inspiring myself to live more, feel more, and grow inside and out. It's never too late. It's never too soon to seize the moment. Swimming in the waves has allowed me to find new voice and strength. I had to risk the journey into the wild and unknown, face the fear and then I was able to find my voice and swim back home.

End of the swim. Great satisfaction filled me as I rose from the water. I had no idea what I was going to do that day or what it would signify for me.
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