Monday, 7 February 2011


One of the earliest uses of the Scandinavian word maelström was by Edgar Allan Poe in his story "A Descent into the Maelström" in 1841, about the Moskstraumen, a powerful tidal current in the Lofoten Islands off the Norwegian coast.

One Spring morning a year or so ago, me and DL went out for a dawny on a dropping tide - there was a new chest high swell building with light cross-offshore breezes at one of our local spots. The usual paddle out was via a small stream in the corner of the beach. So we suited up and got in the water - just the two of us as the sky started to lighten.

Almost instantly I was rushed out the back on a speedy conveyor belt of moving water that dragged me away from the clean waves I had been aiming for. I found myself in a swirling, choppy, ripped up patch of water that was a lot further out than I wanted to be. It was literally a big circle of churning, boiling sea, and I was stuck in the middle of it! I'd surfed this beach many times and thought I knew most of its moods but was taken by surprise at how violent this particular rip was. I tried to focus and paddle across and away from the rip back to the relative calm that seemed only 20 metres away yet I was still going further out to sea in the opposite direction. A change of plan was needed so I steered off toward a bouncy, backwashy impact zone that would not normally be an option, but I wanted to get out of that rip before I ran out of gas. After another 15 minutes of sustained hard paddling I finally got away from the rip and across the dumping sandbank and decided to recoup back on the beach.

Back onshore I waited for DL, a strong paddler, who had also been caught in the same predicament and was making his way back to the beach.

"That was like a fuggin maelstrom out there!" I declared.

Not really understanding how it had been so ugly, because as we looked out on it now from the safety of the beach the rip had disappeared, and while I had been seemingly paddling for dear life the rip had faded away, the waves had cleaned up and a whole crew of surfers had arrived and were out having a whale of a time on the clean lefts.

The combination of a fresh pulse of swell meeting a quickly dropping tide above some particular bathymetry had produced 20 minutes of almost whirlpool-like conditions if you happened to have paddled out at exactly the wrong place at exactly the wrong time.

Bad timing? Not really - I can't say I enjoyed it, but I can say I'm glad I experienced it.


  1. wow that was quite an experience, I'm glad you got out of it. There is quite a publicity campaign in New South Wales at the moment trying to educate people on rips as there are so many inexperienced visitors to the beaches who see nice smooth water and think "That looks like a safe place for a dip".
    I liked the two great images, too.

  2. That's a pretty awesome thing to see. I have been to one Maelstrom in Scotland and they have corryvreckan boat trips. It's such a trilling yet fun thing to experience.