Calum Hudson is a maelstrom swimmer, adventurer and one-third of the Wild Swimming Brothers. Together, Calum and his brothers Robbie and Jack have swum across the three largest maelstroms in the world and are ticking off the top seven one-by-one.
I talked to Calum about swimming in the most treacherous bodies of water in the world why he has made it his mission to inspire more people to go for an outdoor swim.
Calum, what is a maelstrom and why would anyone want to swim across one?
A maelstrom is the technical term but most people would know it as a whirlpool. It’s a body of extremely treacherous water comprised of different currents, waves, eddies and vortexes. They form where you have a narrow seabed with a colossal depth on either side. When the tides change, huge volumes of water from the depths rush over this shallow ledge and crash together, creating the maelstrom.
There are loads of myths and legends around them that have all come from the few maelstroms around the world. But not many people know they’re actually real. For example, the Moskstraumen – which we swam across in Norway – is in Moby Dick and Jules Verne’s Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea – it sucks Captain Nemo’s submarine down into the abyss. Edgar Allan Poe wrote a famous poem in the 1800s called A Descent into the Maelstrom. They’re deeply rooted in our culture.
So to answer your question, a maelstrom is an extremely dangerous body of water – not somewhere you’d want to swim.
So what made you decide you did want to swim across them?
The first maelstrom I heard about was The Corryvreckan. My brothers and I were planning to swim the Eden River in Cumbria, and needed somewhere to train. One of the big problems we had in training was that I live in London, Jack lives in Newcastle and Robbie lives in Berlin. We didn’t want to rock up on the first day of a 90-mile swim having never done a long distance challenge together. We needed somewhere we could meet up, test everything and gain some confidence for the swim.
I was searching online for swimming challenges in the UK, looking at things like the Channel, Lake Windermere and Loch Ness but I wanted something a bit more out there. Then I came across The Corryvreckan and the name alone really appealed to me.
I learnt that it’s a maelstrom off the west coast of Scotland and the third most powerful in the world. There’s a lot of cool history around it. George Orwell wrote 1984 on the island overlooking Corryvreckan, and was once shipwrecked when the maelstrom crashed his boat against the rocks and he had to swim to safety. Only a handful of people have swum it and funnily enough, the first person to do so was Orwell’s nephew, who had one leg and coincidentally swum it in 1984.
We got hold of a ship captain in the area, and with his help we swam the Corryvreckan. The swim was mental. The swell is massive, and looking at it, you’re not even sure if you’d be able to get a boat across it. But it’s all about timing. It dies down for 25-30 minutes before picking up again so you have a very short window to get across. We did it in 22 minutes. And that kicked off the maelstrom obsession.
And from there you went on to swim the two biggest maelstroms in the world?
I just came to love the history of the maelstroms. There’s something about a whirlpool, it’s such an awesome force of nature. To actually see these thousands of tonnes of water being sucked down is incredible. If The Corryvreckan had been the biggest maelstrom I might not have thought about the others, but being the third biggest I started thinking “well hang on a minute where are one and two?”
I came across the Moskstraumen and the Saltstraumen which are both in Norway in the Arctic Circle, and I just knew swimming across maelstroms in the Arctic Circle was something I had to do!
So it was your brainchild, but how did you rope your brothers into it as well?
They always make me feel a bit less mad because I know they’ll agree to any idea I come up with. Part of it is the ego – they’re my brothers and there’s no way they’d let me be the only one doing it, or that one would do it and the other wouldn’t. But there’s also the more positive side that we’re all in it together. You’re not going into it alone. You know you’re going to have your brothers, who you trust more than anything, by your side.
Before Norway, our parents said it was too dangerous. My mum had had nightmares about us getting pulled down this plughole. They said I could do it on my own if I wanted but if all three of us were to drown, they couldn’t live with that. That was the hardest thing of all. Looking my mum in the eye and telling her we were going to do it anyway. I’m always interested in how other adventurers cope with the guilt when doing something incredibly dangerous. Where is the line? If you do something too dangerous and you’re genuinely putting yourself in danger, at what point does it become your own selfish ego as opposed to something inspirational?
There are a million things that could go wrong and perhaps we were incredibly lucky with a lot of it. We identified all the risks beforehand but all you can really do is manage the risk, not eliminate it.
What were the main risks?
A lot of people drown in those waters – boats capsizing, kayakers and divers, fishermen slipping on the rocks and falling in. It’s a ridiculously small percentage of bodies that get found. If you go down you’re down.
With maelstrom swimming you have such an unbelievably tiny margin for success. All it would have taken for the swimmer at the back to be sucked down is me having my watch a minute wrong. When the margin between coming home or killing one of my brothers is having my watch set correctly, then you’re operating under quite extreme circumstances.
Another big worry was killer whales. There are about 600 killer whales in the Lofoten Islands where the maelstroms are. They’ve never killed a person in the wild – only ever in captivity – so they’re not a threat to humans, but they’re still the ocean’s apex predator. They hunt great whites, and an adult bull orca is six tonnes and the size of a bus. Statistically there’s no real risk of them attacking you, but we didn’t want to be the first statistic. The chances of seeing them were pretty slim but it was weighing heavy on the mind. It definitely made for a nervy swim.
How did you prepare for the risks?
Every half hour we stopped to feed, and we had our support team ask us questions to spot any signs of hypothermia. First name, last name, date of birth, where we were born and counting down from ten to one. We were very strict that if anybody got anything wrong they’d be pulled out.
Partnering with a local guide is one of the most important parts of a maelstrom swim. If you don’t have a local expert you’re screwed. Hillary climbed Everest but he wouldn’t have got close if not for Norgay. Local guides never take the credit but they’re the ones who get you there.
We only take mates on the expedition as well. Our camera and support crews are old friends we’ve known for years. You’re putting your life in their hands but if you tell them to do something, you know they’ll do it. If you can have a team of friends that you trust as well as partnering with an experienced local guide, it gets to the point where it sounds insanely dangerous, but you’ve done as much as you can to eliminate the risk that it can go very safely.
Was there any point where you thought you wouldn’t succeed?
I didn’t let myself think that. Maybe it’s arrogance but at no point beforehand did I think I can’t do this. Our approach is that negative thinking won’t help anything. Whatever happens, we’ll work it out and it’ll be fine. But immediately afterwards there’s this overwhelming moment where you let yourself feel all the fear and the emotions you were banishing beforehand.
When we drove away from the Moskstraumen I was really emotional. As I was shivering in the back of the boat I welled up and let myself admit how terrified I was, that it had haunted me for months. I didn’t have to pretend anymore.
What do you want people to take away from your swims?
We just want people to go for a wild swim. Anywhere in the UK there’s a body of water, whether it’s an outdoor lido, a river or a lake. Go outside, get back in touch with nature and do something that will liberate you.
Swimming in rivers, walking in the woods, running up mountains – all of these basic things that every kid grows up loving and you hit your twenties and what do you do? You spend ten hours sat at a desk, eight hours in bed, four hours on a train, two hours watching TV and that becomes the new norm. You forget you spent your whole childhood outside and you know these things are good for you but you don’t do them. So if anybody watched anything we do and went for their first wild swim, then it’s been a success.
Why do you think outdoor swimming hasn’t taken off? Why do you have to inspire people to do it?
It’s weird. People look at water and go “What do you mean you swim there? How can you do that?” It’s a body of water; of course you can swim there! I’ve had people email me to ask “How do I go for an outdoor swim?” What can you say to that? You just go outside and you swim! Obviously you don’t want to be too cavalier – you need to check the temperature and the tides and make sure you’re safe. But it shouldn’t be something difficult. It’s weird to think people have lost that knowledge. Imagine what it’ll be like in 25 years when our kids have VR headsets and their idea of fun is hanging out with their friends in a virtual reality world.
I hope the reverse is true in that the more people use technology and enjoy this urban lifestyle, the more the human body and psyche rejects it and yearns for something more natural and wholesome. Hopefully there will be a shift where people return to nature, reclaim it and get more involved in it. But right now, how many seven-year-olds know how to safely go for an outdoor swim as opposed to downloading an app? I would not want to run that survey.
What’s next for the Wild Swimming Brothers?
At the moment I’m organising three swims in New Zealand later this year. The first is to swim across an active volcano with a crater lake in it. It hasn’t erupted since 2007 but it is active – it could erupt.
We like to have an environmental slant to our swims, so we’re doing the next one for the kakapo. It’s a flightless bird that only lives in New Zealand and it’s the rarest bird in the world. It’s critically endangered and we think it perfectly represents the fragility of the natural world. We’re calling this swim the Quest for the Kakapo. We’ll be swimming out from the mainland to one of the three islands where the kakapos live. To both inspire people to get outside but also as a metaphor for looking after the natural world.
But one of the main reasons we picked New Zealand is that it’s home to the biggest maelstrom in the southern hemisphere – the fifth biggest in the world. It’s called Te Aumiti, named after a legendary Maori sea king. In ancient legend he rode a giant cormorant around this bit of coastland until one day he crashed it into the sea which created the maelstrom. There was also a dolphin that used to live there called Pelorus Jack who guided the first sailors and pirates who arrived in South Island through the maelstrom. There are so many cool pieces of literature and history around it. This is the next step in our plan to eventually swim the seven biggest maelstroms in the world.
What will you do when you’ve finished the big seven?
This’ll keep us busy for a while. We’ve still got the Naruto whirlpool in Japan, Skookumchuck in Canada and one in the USA called Old Sow. None of them have ever been done before. Swimming is the best sport for doing stuff that’s never been done. If you want to climb a mountain that’s never been climbed, it’s incredibly difficult. Whereas swimming – the biggest lake, the longest river, hardly any of the seas have ever been swum.
The big one we’d like to do one day is Lake Baikal in central Siberia. It holds 20% of the world’s fresh water and it’s the oldest, deepest lake in the world. It’s so unique it has its own ecosystem and its indigenous species. It’s a fascinating place. The Brothers of Baikal – that’ll be the big one. One day.