How do you mentally prepare to swim across the two biggest and most powerful maelstroms in the world? It's a question I repeatedly asked myself in the run-up to our Into the Maelstrom expedition. The whirlpool swims presented a new fear, a different psychological problem from what we'd faced before - a fear of the unknown.
Maelstrom swimming is certainly in it's infancy. There are around nine maelstroms in the world of which only one, the Corryvreckan, off the coast of Scotland, has ever been swum. There are barely any blogs, videos, tips, articles, websites advising you how to swim across a whirlpool. What research I could do was largely around studying orca hunting behaviour (the danger from orcas depends on the ecotypes. The pods in Norway are herring hunting pods and the only type that is semi-safe to be in the water with. I also carefully monitored the temperature of the water (around nine-degrees for our swim window). Arguably, it's a relatively insane idea and we really were heading into the unknown. There was no real way of knowing what would happen and, as the expedition formed in my mind and gradually became a reality, the fear of the unknown began to gradually increase.
With this in mind, I want to share the five key ways I mentally prepared for the swims.
1. Endless Positivity
You must be endlessly positive (my friends would argue that I lean on the side bordering on insane).
For example, the very first email I sent for the maelstrom expedition was to Lars and Therese, a pair of Norwegian ship captains from the tiny fishing village of Reine. They have run RIB tours for the last fifteen years to the Moskstraumen to see the whirlpools and the wildlife. The email I sent contained four questions:
Has it been done before?
With preparation, experience and the right team is it possible to swim the 8km across?
In theory could we charter your boat?
What are the chances of seeing Killer Whales?
To which they responded:
Not really, I think any skilled captain that knows the area will think this is mad
Our insurance does not cover things that we should have known as a mortal danger
The Killer Whales have been in the area from April to September the last 3-4 years. They move all around.
Now you'd think the point when the local experts who live there tell you it's not possible is the point you give up. However, I've learned over our previous swims that anything can be overcome with positivity and you can't go into anything like this with any doubt. So, from that email onwards, I approached every single hurdle, every danger, every "no", every journalist who told us we were going to die, with the same endless positivity. Looking backwards from the start of the swim, all those little hurdles and every moment of positivity amounts to what I call "logical insanity". It seems insane, but every danger has been simultaneously overcome, one forward-moving step at a time. After swimming the Moskentraumen, seeing the look on Therese’s face was incredibly rewarding. To know that despite her initial, understandable hesitation, she had trusted in our mad dream and steered us to safety. Afterwards she said that she got lots of emails from divers, fisherman, kayakers, etc..., who said they wanted to come and try various activities in the maelstrom, but that we were the first and only people who had actually followed up and gone through with it.
2. You must have a “Why”
We learned of the Norwegian government’s potential plans to drill for oil around the Lofoten islands, which is a marine haven for orcas, greenland sharks, 75% of the Atlantic’s cod and the largest cold water coral reef in the world. Alongside WWF Norway, we wanted to do these swims as a symbolic protest against all oil drilling activity there. Having a reason bigger than ourselves, and doing the swims as brothers, gave us mental fortitude beyond our own individual strength. I swim for my brothers and as my little brother Jack said - "I would say that the most important thing you need to keep in mind is the ‘why’ of what you’re doing. In the end, if the ‘why’ is to become more famous or to massage your own ego, in one way or another, you’re always going to fail. However, if the ‘why’ is based upon love then there is no telling how far you will be able to go”.
Doing something for the right reasons will help you overcome fear.
3. You have to believe you can
Ultimately, I had to completely and utterly believe that we could do the swims - that we were capable of doing something no one had ever done, which the local experts initially thought mad. The first time I saw the Saltstraumen, I felt sheer terror rise within as a monstrous whirlpool appeared in front of our boat. I had to fight this fear and never doubt for a second that we could swim across. Visualisation is a huge part of this and every day for nearly a year I would fantasise about swimming across the maelstroms. I would think about the freezing cold Arctic water and the waves crashing around us. I would picture orcas breaching alongside us, as we swam over the deep water. I'd visualise, over and over again, the image of Robbie, Jack and me emerging onto the rocks, validating this inner belief that forces you onwards, through worries of hypothermia, blooms of jellyfish and the ever-present threat of a six-tonne adult bull orca coming up to say "hello". I think that believing in this self-fulfilling prophecy, totally, is the key to overcoming these fears.
4. You must have absolute trust in your team and the people around you
No one truly achieves anything of merit alone and we know this going into all of our swims. For Norway, I knew I'd have my brothers on either side of me. Swimming in formation, side-by-side, distracts you from deep water and apex predator fear. In order to focus on swimming, to relax into our strokes and not worry about the currents, we had to completely trust in our support team on the boat, as well as each other.
We all had one of our childhood friends as part of the team: Dave, Luke and James, who know each of us like brothers. We also had Jack's girlfriend, Beth. We could happily place our lives in all of their hands. This proved crucial, as during the Saltstraumen swim we were caught by one of the vortexes and dragged backwards. Luke immediately noticed this and shouted from the boat for us to change direction and swim diagonally against the current. Eventually, we pulled through. Given that we made that swim with about 75-seconds to spare that quick decision and absolute concentration likely saved us from real trouble.
5. You have to love what you’re doing
I love swimming and I especially love swimming with my brothers. We do what we do because we love it and this is what gives us the mental strength to go one step further. I had to ask myself: "do I want to do these swims more than I’m afraid?"
The answer was "yes".
I had the chance to live as much as I could possibly imagine. Maybe everything in mine and my brothers lives had been leading up to those moments - sat in the back of a boat about to swim across the Arctic Circle. We had to embrace that fear, feel it within and live for the unknown. Halfway across the Moskenstraumen, with the icy touch of the cold water on my face, I remember seeing long fronds of Kelp seaweed below me reaching upwards like sentinels of an eerie deep sea forest. Then a herring shoal darted below, while the seabed teemed with a veritable smorgasbord of life. As we swam onwards, I breathed to my left and saw Jack dwarfed by the rugged mountains of the Norwegian coast, as a pair of sea eagles circled above him. Breathing to my right, I saw Robbie carving through the water with lions mane jellyfish blooming below him, their bright red lights bobbing in the blackness and their long tentacles waving in the currents. My senses honed in on my environment, the saltiness of the water on my lips, the sound of the waves crashing against me and the sensation of the freezing water between my fingers. No one else on the planet had ever experienced what we were going through. As I thought about this, a smile stretched across my face and, through my goggles, I could see the same smiles on my brothers' faces.
So those are my top 5 recommendations for mentally preparing for the challenge. Ultimately it's because we can do these things - that if we prepare, if we train, if we work with the most skilled locals in the region, if we trust ourselves, if we build a close team of friends and we all trust each other, then why shouldn't we?
The fact that you can do it is, I believe, reason enough alone.