There are only around nine maelstroms – the powerful whirlpools long feared by sailors – in the world, and only one, the Corryvreckan off the coast of Scotland, has ever been swum. In 2015, together with my older brother, Robbie, and my younger brother, Jack, we joined the 120 or so people to ever have swam across it. This August we looked to go further, and set off for Norway to become the first to swim across the two biggest and most powerful maelstroms in the world – the Moskstraumen and Saltstraumen, deep in Arctic Circle.
Maelstroms occur naturally when a shallow sea ledge between two islands has deep opposing sides. As the tides change, vast amounts of water rush through the gap in opposite directions, causing vortexes and powerful whirlpools that can appear in seconds and vanish just as quickly.
In the case of the Saltstraumen, over 400 million cubic metres of seawater forces its way through a 150m wide strait with water speed reaching 41kmh, creating whirlpools up to 10m in diameter. The Salt has claimed over 60 lives in the last 30 years with experienced fishermen and boats being dragged down. Two Red Bull athletes rowed across it earlier this year in what was called the “worlds most dangerous row” – swimming was going to be an altogether different challenge. Local fisherman had thrown a dummy with a GPS/depth tracker into one of the large whirlpools and within three seconds it had been dragged to a depth of 200 metres. We would have only around 12 minutes to make it across before the whirlpools became too large.
The Moskenstraumen was a different beast. At 8km wide and out in the open ocean it is the biggest maelstrom in the world, and in addition to the frigid Arctic water, its unpredictability presented a very real danger. The glassy flat sea can turn into 10m high waves as quickly as the wind can change and over 600 killer whales and the world’s largest jellyfish, the Lions Mane – with its extremely powerful 10m-long stinging tentacles – feed in the its waters.
The first time I saw the Saltstraumen from the boat, sheer terror rose within me and throughout our attempt I had to fight this fear, to never doubt for a second that we could do it. Visualisation is a huge part of this and every day for the last year I would fantasise about swimming across the maelstrom, the freezing cold Arctic water, the waves crashing around us and killer whales swimming past us as we reached the maelstrom. I’d picture over and over again the image us emerging onto the rocks, victorious.
I love swimming, and I especially love swimming with my brothers, but I had to ask myself whether I wanted to do these swims more than I feared dying. The answer I came to was yes – I had the chance to live life to the full and maybe everything in mine and my brother’s lives had been leading up to that moment, sat in the back of the boat, about to swim across the Moskstraumen.