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What it's like to swim across the Arctic Circle

Personal StoriesJames HipkissComment

As I felt the cold crisp Arctic sea breeze whip into my cheeks a deep sense of fear gripped me. I was deep within Norway's Arctic circle and about to attempt the longest distance ever swum there across one of the worlds most treacherous bodies of water, The Moskstraumen. This mighty Nordic maelstrom was a vast tidal behemoth between two islands, an 8km open ocean crossing through dangerous vortexes, freezing cold water and jellyfish bigger than a human being. Into that mix was also added the very likely chance of coming across a pod of Killer Whales, with 600 roaming the Lofoten Islands and a pod of 10 having been sighted 3 days early in the maelstrom feeding on herring. These risks were weighing heavy on my shoulders and as the boat raced along I looked across at my little brother Jack and big brother Robbie, they'd be diving into the water with me and I felt a small ember of pride burn within. At that moment despite a sleepless night and images of Killer Whales tossing seals in the air like rag dolls I decided that I needed to embrace this fear, that we were about to attempt something that no one had ever attempted and that these emotions were to be treasured not feared, with that I clenched my fists around my goggles and felt the adrenaline course through me.

Into the maelstrom

When I first googled the Moskstraumen maelstrom it seemed like some ancient myth conjured up by mariners to scare people, a legend from long ago in a time when sea monsters ruled the waves. I was searching for "maelstroms" which are extremely dangerous bodies of water where natural whirlpools form, we'd just swam the Corryvreckan, the 3rd biggest maelstrom in the world off the west coast of Scotland and I wondered if any others had been swum. The image below was the first time I saw of the Moskstraumen, it looked so hostile and otherworldly and I knew immediately that I wanted to swim across it. The reason being was that I knew that nothing would make me alive. That swimming across maelstroms in the Arctic Circle in the company of giant Jellyfish and Orca's alongside my brothers was going to be something I'd never forgot. With that in mind it all started with an email to a rather concerned Norwegian ship captain and the small job of convincing my mum that we weren't going to die.

Alongside the Moskstraumen it just so happened that the 2nd biggest maelstrom in the world, The Saltstraumen, was also in Norway's Arctic Circle, this one was a different beast and offered a narrow sprint swim across the most dangerous body of water on the planet, local scientists had chucked adummy with a GPS tracker into the whirlpools which had been sucked down in 200m in 3 seconds and 60 people have drowned in its waters in the last 40 years. We decided to call the expedition "Into the Maelstrom" with the aim to swim across the two biggest maelstroms in the world and complete the longest distance swim in the Arctic Circle. We had also partnered with WWF Norway after contacting their CEO on twitter, she loved the project and asked if we'd do it in protest of oil drilling plans in the Lofoten Islands, a marine haven and home to the largest cold water coral reef in the world. Swimming across whirlpools in the Arctic Circle with WWF to protest against oil drilling? 10 year old Calum would have been proud!

Taking up a challenge

At first these swims might seem a bit bonkers and you might be right, but for me personally I like to adventure for two reasons. The first is quite simply that I can, that I'm fortunate and privileged enough to be able to go on them. Every single one of us should go on adventures simply because we can, if your basic needs are met then there is no excuse for not immersing yourself in the natural world and I didn't feel too happy about watching my existence slip by in a haze of pizzas, netflix and urban stagnation. The second is because it is fun, because it makes me feel alive. Some people worship in churches, mosques or alters, well I worship mother nature and the limitless joy and happiness she provides. When you add my brothers either side of me I struggle to put into the words the deep connection I feel, immersed in the natural world and in pure elation. I'm drawn to maelstroms because they're the perfect personification of mother earth, beautiful and ferocious in equal measure.

After the maelstroms of the Arctic we decided we wanted to return home to our roots and embark on a more personal swim. We'll be setting out on our "Wild Lady of Lochbroom" expedition on the 26th August to swim all 11km of Loch Broom in Scotland in memory of our Grandma Wild. She lived on the lochside in a tiny house overlooking the loch for 30 years and she showed us the endless beauty of the natural world and the wild places that remain. We buried her in Clachan church in 2015 at the foot of the Loch and we will set out from the harbour in Ullapool swimming towards her, each stroke bringing us closer and closer to her. We're doing it to raise awareness for the Scottish Wildcat and believe both the Wildcat and our Gran represent the wild left in the world which deserves our protection.

The next adventure...

We've not forgotten about maelstroms though and with 3 swum we look to myths and legends of others, a mighty vortex in the southern hemisphere created by a Maori King crashing his giant pet Cormorant into the sea, a vast whirlpool in Japan painted by the legendary Hokusai and tempests in North America revered by Native Americans as portals the the animal gods kingdom. Get me back in the water!

If you'd like to hear more tales of adventure in person, then come along our next EC stories event in London, featuring the Wild Swimming Brothers!

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