Into The Maelstrom

Into The Maelstrom
Published: Aug 18, 2014
Navigating the edge between a ride on cold water liquid lightning — and getting struck by it. A story that draws on a fishermen's tradition in the Norwegian sea.

The old wooden windows rattled and chattered. The cold Arctic wind of Norway’s Lofoten Islands likes to fly down the valleys of the Islands. Magnus is stirred by the noise from the window and he can feel the cool damp air of the cottage on his face. He rolls over, digging himself deeper in the duvet, pulling its warmth tighter around himself. Still dark outside, the moon shining bright, the sun far from rising, but it is morning and the new day is approaching. Magnus cannot settle back to sleep. There is something on his mind. Today is the day of the swell and it is forecast to be the biggest in years.

Whilst lying in his bed the doubts bounce around in Magnus Hammerseng’s mind. Will all the variables correlate? The tide, the wind, the size of swell and its direction must all align for the waves to be rideable. Magnus’ mind is spurred on by the tension in his gut. Behind these thoughts there is something less complex and more tangible. If the waves are as big as the forecast suggests, he wonders if he is ready, and these doubts feed his fear — the fear of cold grey waves rising and marching towards the coast where they will terminate their long journey in a tumultuous meeting with land.

The stairs of the old fisherman house creak and groan, as Magnus lumbers his lanky powerful frame down the stairs with his head foggy with sleep and his body not yet fully awake. The house has been in the family for generations, the males of each generation working on the Norwegian Sea as cod fishermen. Magnus is also a cod fisherman, but the season has not started yet. The white tailed eagles are still far to the north spawning in the Barents Sea, leaving him free to follow his passion of chasing waves. Autumn is a good time of year for Magnus, sandwiched between the bustling summer tourist season and the hard work of the winter cod-fishing season. This is also the best time of year for surfing. The days are not too short yet as the good swells start to arrive. And it’s not too cold.

The board is long and sleek with the lines of a racing boat, and thick to be able to handle the power of big waves.     

Magnus finishes his breakfast of Jarlsberg cheese and Lefse bread, washed down with a last gulp of his coffee. The first soft hues of morning light are appearing in the sky to the east when he leaves his front door, but the house to his back is still shrouded in the dark of night. Even though it is not yet winter, the cold sharp air bites at his bearded face as he breathes in the piquant sea air. He pulls his woollen hat tight to his ears as he walks to his storage shed. He finds his wetsuit hung up and dry, along with his neoprene hood, boots and gloves. There is going to be a lot of paddling today, maybe I can manage with just the suit and boots, wonders Magnus. He packs all of it in his wet bag to be prepared. He selects his board from the rack. He has many boards for the many tempers of the sea, but he has a special one he has been saving for this day. It is a board given to him by a Hawaiian professional surfer who visited the Island on a trip for a surf magazine. The board is made to ride the biggest waves. It is long and sleek with the lines of a racing boat, and thick to be able to handle the power of big waves. “It’s red because red boards are the fastest,” the pro had joked when he presented the board to Magnus. The board was a present to Magnus for showing the Hawaiian and his friends all the secrets of the treacherous coast of surf around the Lofotens — a coast where rideable waves can be difficult to find and the elemental challenges are extreme.

Magnus’s home village of Unstadt is set in a green grassy gorge framed on either side by sheer granite mountain cliffs that cast an imposing aura across the village. It is a small village with a smattering of traditional red wooden houses that lead down to a hard beach of large pebbles and small boulders. In summer time small waves trundle through the middle of the beach, but when the real swell comes the point awakens. The point sits at the northern end of the beach beneath an impressive 800 m mountain peak whose cliffs plummet to the ocean bottom. The waves on the point can be perfect and fast as they crash, thunder and spin their way across the boulders and reef, unstoppable as they threaten to overtake you and push you into the rocks. If you catch the right wave and draw the right line, you can travel through warping sections of moving ocean all the way to the beach.

In the Lofoten Islands. Photo by Cody Duncan.

Magnus arrives at the beach on foot, a few hundred metres from his home — his board under his arm, his wet bag slung over his shoulder, his hat still tight around his ears. The sun is up in the east at the back of the village and it casts some warmth on Magnus as he checks the surf. With the break of day the wind has also eased back, allowing him to unzip the top of his jacket. Standing on the pasture above the beach and point, Magnus feels more relaxed now that he his up and prepared. The offshore wind gives the sea a calm textured look, and under the clear morning sky it is a dark brooding blue, reflecting the hardness of the sea bottom and coldness of its temperature. Some small waves break on the beach but he can feel this is a lull. These waves are travelling a long way and there will be a long time between the biggest waves.

Minutes go by and Magnus begins to doubt the forecast. Perhaps the storm changed direction or was not as intense as expected. Minutes go by and the ocean is languid. Magnus wonders if he should go home and change his board for one more suited to the small waves. He feels disappointed. At this time the beach is not a challenge that the point is.

He sits astride his board, battling fear, letting the smaller waves pass.      

The ruffles on the horizon begin to grow, and swell lines show themselves as they move forward towards the shoreline, gaining size and speed. Magnus holds his breathe. Perhaps the ocean is teasing him. When the first line of swell hits the shallower sea bottom at the tip of the point, it rises up as if to pause to consider for a moment, then stretching itself up, double the size of a full grown man, and rifling down the point. The wave throws spray backwards, pushing foaming white water across the boulders. A huge cylindrical wave spins down the point, allowing Magnus a moment to breathe and relax. It is on. That first wave is followed by a set of three more; each one bigger until the last wave reaches a peak of twenty-five feet. 

Magnus rushes to change into his wetsuit to avoid the chill in the air. He goes through the pre-surf ritual of waxing his board, all the time keeping his eyes on the surf. After checking his leash, he hops and dances his way across the boulders of the point. Perched on the final boulder at the sea edge, Magnus pauses to wait for a gap in the waves. To time it right he must jump from the rock on the last wave that is sucking back off the rocks before a lull in the waves that follow. If not, he will be smashed back onto the boulders by the following waves. His nerves have abated. He concentrates on the first hurdle he must cross. He is not sure if he can see a gap in the waves, or if he just senses one, but as a particularly large wave pushes itself into the shoreline Magnus jumps with his board pushed out in front of him onto the back of the receding water that pulls him out into the sea. Immediately he paddles hard out to sea to make sure he is clear of the rocks. As he pulls hard with his arms he feels the glide of his board and realises there is no turning back. With each stroke the sea in front of him grows and moves closer as a dark mountain of ocean begins to build. He paddles faster, pulling against the current to get over the wave before it peaks. Magnus makes it through the trough of the wave, up the face and just slips over the back, before it unloads its mass of water across the point.

Photo by Alexa Poppe.

After a long hard paddle Magnus reaches the top of the point. He looks back towards his village that seems far away, both physically and psychologically. He did not expect to be this far out to sea, nor did he expect that the waves would be so big. Now that the challenge of paddling out is over he has time to think whilst the ocean takes a rest too. As he waits the anxiety creeps back. He sits astride his board, battling fear, letting the smaller waves pass. With each passing wave he wonders if he can even paddle fast enough to catch one of these huge waves, never mind ride one. Wave after wave passes, but Magnus is waiting for the right one: the one with the right shape and that hits the point right to produce the wave that will allow him to ride it all the way down the point. A wave approaches that feels right. He starts to paddle, slowly at first, faster as the wave rears up. A ledge of ocean appears and Magnus panics — he changes his mind and pulls back. Not this one, he thinks to himself. When he turns around he sees the wave that he knows is the one he is waiting for. He knows by the way it is wedging off the point and forming a tapered wall of water that will lead to the beach.

This time it is head down, full steam ahead, no stopping. In an attempt to match the speed of the wave as it powers on toward the end of its journey, he claws harder and harder through the water that feels heavy. If he paddles too slowly he will either miss the wave or catch it too late and be pitched head first to the bottom of it. With his head still down he takes a final double arm stroke, then pushes his board over the ledge. Just before he jumps to his feet he sees what is in store for him.

It begins to grow and draw itself up higher, steeper and more curved until the lip pitches over Magnus’s head . . .

The take-off is vertical as he jumps to a crouched position on his board to drop down, down, and down, the whole thirty feet of the face of the wave. The adrenaline is pumping and everything is instinctive now. He banks the board over at the very bottom of the wave and pushes hard with his legs to maintain control. The curling feathered lip of the wave is towering over him as he slingshots himself off the bottom of it and down the line of the heaving wall of water. The wind is in his face, the white water is roaring behind him and he is going so fast his board is chattering across the water. He races section after section on what seems like an endless wave with each section challenging him to go faster. As the wave moves into shallower water it begins to grow and draw itself up higher, steeper and more curved until the lip pitches over Magnus’s head and he finds himself engulfed deep inside the barrelling wave. As he looks out through the almond-shaped tunnel everything seems to slow down. He keeps his eyes on the exit, but it moves further away as the ocean pulls him deeper inside the wave. He feels like a ship being dragged into the Moskstraumen, the infamous Lofoten Islands maelstrom that has featured in the work of Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melville and Jules Verne. He is now at the mercy of the swirling water and all he can do is hold his nerve and hold his line. The wave slows slightly, creating chandeliers of water that fall down onto him. He senses that the wave will collapse, but at the last second he is pushed out and back onto the green and grey face of the wave, followed by a huge shower of spray and compressed air — like a giant whale letting out a great breath.

Magnus realises he has ridden down the point, past all the boulders and in front of the beach. Just before the wave terminates itself in a mass of turbulent white water he straightens out towards the beach and jumps down to lie on the surfboard, to ride the white water safely to the beach. Just one wave will do today, thinks Magnus.

MARK SANKEY can't make up his mind if he is a carpenter pretending to be a writer, or a writer pretending to be a carpenter. He grew up in Manchester where writing stories — and a love of wood and fixing things — came at an early age. Today he lives in Cornwall where he makes a living in the building maintenance industry; the rest of his time is split between surfing, climbing, mountain biking and writing. In recent years his surfing and travel journalism has appeared in various online and print magazines.

The Lofoten islands?


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