Into the Maelstroms
Calum Hudson of the Wild Swimming Brothers takes up the story... "Fear has a way of sharpening the senses and focusing the mind. As I sat in the back of a RIB boat, the cold sea air rushing through my hair and the spray cooling my face I could feel my heart beat rising, my stomach churning and my throat drying up. I was deep within the Arctic Circle in Norway, on the same latitude as Siberia, Greenland and Alaska, where the sea is black, the water 9-10 degrees, hypothermia a real danger to anyone entering the water, the lions mane jellyfish are the size of a fully grown man with tentacles stretching 10 metres, sea eagles roam the granite sea cliffs and 600 killer whales roam the waters. I was about to attempt the longest ever swim in the Arctic Circle but there was another danger to concern us, we were adding the worlds most powerful maelstrom into the mix, The Moskstraumen.
Maelstroms are bodies of water where the currents swirl, whirlpools form, opposing tides clash, vortexes spiral down to the abyss and powerful eddies rage. The Moskstraumen in Norway is the biggest in the world, 8km wide between the islands of Lofotodden and Mosken, and the stuff of literary legend, Edgar Allen Poe, Jules Verne and Herman Melville all wrote about it's monstrous power and Norwegian fisherman treat it with the utmost respect. No one has ever swum in the Moskenstraumen or attempted to swim across it, many people thought the very idea of it was insane and I'd had my fair share of journalists look at me as if I was mad or had a death wish, in fact it took a good 6 months and a trip to Norway in person to convince our ship captain Therese of Aqualofoten to support us on the crossing.
However I wouldn't be swimming alone, I'd be heading into the maelstrom with my big brother Robbie and little brother Jack. Two days earlier we'd become the first people ever to swim across the second biggest maelstrom in the world, the Saltstraumen. We'd made that swim in 10.45 minutes just getting back into the boat before the central whirlpool appeared, the margin for error being around 45 seconds. The year before we'd swam across the Corryvreckan the 3rd biggest whirlpool in the world off the coast of Scotland in 22 minutes. It seems that whirlpool swimming was becoming something of a family holiday and tradition.
But there was another reason we were here, we had learned that the Norwegian government was planning to drill for oil in Lofoten, a marine haven for the biggest breeding pod of Killer Whales in the northern hemisphere, Seals, Humpback Whales, the largest cold water coral reef in the world, 75% of the Atlantic Cod population and hundreds of rare sea birds. In partnership with WWF we wanted to draw attention to this and felt that swimming across the maelstrom, itself a perfect personification of mother nature at her most powerful and ferocious, might inspire people to reconnect with the natural world and protect the creatures who call it their home.
With that in mind I leaned back in the RIB and felt the fear rise, a pod of 10 Killer Whales had been seen in the Moskstraumen as early as 4 days before and this was weighing heavy on my mind, despite posing little threat to humans (the only recorded attacks are from captive Orca's) the constant thought of a 6 ton bus sized black shadow of an adult bull Orca appearing beneath us was psychologically challenging to say the least, we were expecting to be in the water for around 2/3 hours and that is a long time to cope with apex predator fear, open water swimming has a way of cocooning your thoughts, with every shadow becoming a potential monster from the depths.But I looked across the boat at my brothers and our support team Beth, Dave, Luke and James and thought to myself that I needed to embrace this, that this was a truly special moment, no one knew what it was like to swim through this maelstrom or what the currents would do to us and I felt a sense of wonder within. We were about to take a leap of faith into the unknown but I knew with my brothers either side of me, stroke for stroke across the maelstrom that we'd emerge on the other side.
We entered the ice cold water at 8.00am, with the Norwegian weather gods looking on favourably we set off across the 8km stretch of water together as brothers. It was the most incredible experience of my life, looking up to my left and seeing my little brother Jack dwarfed by the cold black expanse of the sea and the distant colossal mountains of Norway's rugged coast and breathing to my right and seeing giant Lion's Mane Jellyfish floating below Robbie as Sea Eagles patrolled the islands and shoals of fish swam beneath us. On the surface the water was black but below was a veritable smorgasbord of marine life, we didn't see any Killer Whales but if we did I've a feeling they would have swam with us, intrigued but not looking for their next meal.
Between the two islands for the full 8km there are sections where the sea is smooth and calm and then suddenly a current, eddie or whirlpool will appear anywhere, at any time and then disappear within a minute or two, the speed of the flow pushes 11 to 20 kph (6.8 to 12.4 mph) and above. I felt that we'd tapped into something primal, truly experiencing one of the wildest corners of the world on it's own terms, through wild swimming we'd directly immersed ourselves within the environment and seemed to merge into the sea as we swam onwards. As we approached the final part of the swim, after over 2 and a half hours in the Arctic water, we were hit by one final freezing cold current, it pushed us backwards and despite swimming forwards we were stuck completely still, in that moment we moved alongside each other and beneath the water I could see the smiles on my brother faces as we pushed through the final vortex.
We reached the tip of Lofotodden at 10.31am Wednesday 24th August, completing the swim and becoming the first people to swim the Moskenstraumen. There was no time for posing as I was in the early stages of hypothermia and we rushed back to boat, the Moskenstruamen had pushed us to the limit, but this was never about conquering a challenge this was about becoming part of the natural world and for a fleeting moment experiencing Mother Nature on her own terms."