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The Whirlpool

We had reached the top of the highest rock, and now stood about fifteen or sixteen hundred feet above the angry seas that beat against the sharp, black edge of Lofoden. The old man was so out of breath that for some minutes he could not speak.

‘Not long ago,’ he said at last, ‘I could have guided you here as well as the youngest of my sons; but not now. Now I feel broken in body and soul. Three years ago I suffered a terrible experience — such as no other human being has lived to describe. I passed through six hours of the worst fear that you can imagine; and in that time I grew old. In less than a day my hair changed from black to white, my arms and legs became weak, and my nerves were destroyed. I have brought you here so that you can have the best possible view of the scene of my suffering — and to tell you the whole story as you look at it.

‘We are now,’ my guide continued, ‘very near the coast of Norway, and this rock that we are on is called Helseggen, the Cloudy. Sit down, lean forward very carefully, and look out onto the sea.’

A wide stretch of dark, almost black, ocean lay below us. To the right and left, as far as the eye could reach, stood lines of sharp pointed rocks. A narrow band of white water marked the point where these rocks left the land and entered the sea. About five miles out to sea there was a small island with little growing on it.

About two miles nearer the land, there was another, smaller one, surrounded by a ring of dark rocks. The appearance of the ocean, in the space between the more distant island and the shore, had something very unusual about it — the water was moving angrily in every direction, both with and against the wind.

‘The further island,’ went on the old man, ‘is called Vurrgh.

The nearer one is Moskoe. Do you hear anything? Do you see any change in the water?’

As the old man spoke, I noticed a loud and gradually

increasing sound, like the noise of a heavy wind. At the same moment I saw that the movement of the sea below us was rapidly changing into a current that ran to the east. Even while I looked, the speed of this current increased almost beyond belief. Within five minutes the whole sea as far as Vurrgh was moving violently; but it was between Moskoe and the coast that the main disturbance lay. Here the wild waters, lifting, racing, thundering, turned and twisted in a thousand circles, and then rushed on to the east with frightening speed.

But in a few minutes the scene changed again. The surface grew smoother, and the whirlpools, spreading out to a great distance, combined to give birth to another, much larger one.

Suddenly — very suddenly — this could be clearly seen in an immense circle more than a mile across. The edge of the whirlpool was represented by a broad belt of white water. The centre itself, as far as it was possible to see, was a smooth, shining, ink-black wall of water, sloping at about forty-five degrees to the horizon. Round and round it flew, sending out to the winds a frightening voice, half cry, half thunder, like nothing ever heard on earth.

The rock on which we were sitting trembled to its base. I threw myself flat on my face, and held tightly to the stone.

‘This,’ I said at last to the old man ‘this can be nothing else than the great whirlpool of the Maelstrom.’

‘So it is sometimes called,’ he said. ‘We Norwegians call it the Moskoe-ström, from the island of Moskoe.’

The written accounts of this whirlpool had certainly not prepared me for what I saw. The description given by Jonas Ramus, which is perhaps the best, does not in any way equal the reality; but perhaps he did not watch the scene from the top of Helseggen or during a storm. Some of the details that Ramus gives are interesting, although they are hardly powerful enough to give a clear idea of this natural wonder.

‘When the tide is coming in,’ Ramus says, ‘the current runs rapidly up the coast between Lofoden and Moskoe. When it is going out, the sound is not equalled even by the loudest and most terrible waterfalls. The noise can be heard several miles away. The whirlpool is of such a width and depth that if a ship comes too near, it is pulled into the circle and carried down to the bottom, where it is beaten to pieces against the rocks. Then, when the tide begins to go out, the broken parts are thrown up again. The length of time between the tides, when the sea is more or less calm, is rarely more than a quarter of an hour, after which the violence gradually returns.’

This attempt of Jonas Ramus to explain the whirlpool as an action of the tides seemed reasonable enough to me when I first read it. But now, with the thunder in my ears, it seemed quite unsatisfactory. As I looked on the scene, my imagination found, for a moment, the belief of Kircher and others more acceptable.

They thought that there must be a hole or crack running right through the earth and opening out, at the other end, in some distant part of the ocean. I mentioned this idea, as a joke — since it is foolish in the extreme — to my guide. I was surprised to hear him say that most Norwegians believed it, although he himself did not.

‘You have had a good look at the whirlpool now,’ he said, ‘and if you come round this rock, away from the noise, I will tell you a story. It will prove to you that I ought to know something about the Moskoe-ström.’

We moved round the rock, and he continued.

‘My two brothers and I once owned quite a large sailing boat, with which we were in the habit of fishing beyond Moskoe, nearly to Vurrgh. In all violent currents at sea there is good fishing, if one only has the courage to attempt it. But of all the Lofoden seamen, we three were the only ones who made a regular business of going out to the islands. The usual fishing grounds are a long way to the south. We risked going near the whirlpool because of the fine fish to be caught in large numbers around the rocks of Moskoe.

‘It was our practice to sail across to the islands, far above the pool, in the fifteen minutes of calm between the tides. There we would fish until the next calm period, about six hours later, when we made our way home. We never set out without a steady wind for the journey out and our return. In six years of fishing we failed only twice to calculate the weather correctly. On both of these occasions we found safety near the islands.

‘We always managed to cross the Moskoe-ström itself without accident: although at times my heart has beaten wildly when we happened to be a minute or so behind or before the calm. My oldest brother had a son of eighteen years old, and I had three strong boys of my own. These would have been a great help at such times; but, although we ran the risk ourselves, we hated the thought of taking the young ones into danger; it was a terrible danger, and that is the truth.

‘It was almost three years ago, on 10 July 18— that we experienced along this coast the most terrible storm that ever came out of the heavens. But all morning, and even until late in the afternoon, there was a gentle and steady wind from the south-west, and not a cloud was to be seen.

‘The three of us — my two brothers and myself— had crossed to the islands at about two o’clock in the afternoon. We soon loaded the boat with fine fish, which, we all agreed, were more plentiful that day than we had ever known. It was just seven, by my watch, when we started for home, so as to reach the Strom when the water was calm. We knew the calm would be at eight o’clock.

‘For some time we sailed along at a great rate, never dreaming of danger, until suddenly, without any warning, the wind dropped and we could make no progress. At the same time, a strange red-coloured cloud, moving at great speed, came up behind us. We had little time to wonder what to do. In less than three minutes the storm was on us, and it became so dark that we could not see each other in the boat.

‘It would be foolish of me to attempt to describe that storm.

The oldest seaman in Norway had never known anything like it.

At its first breath, my younger brother was blown straight into the sea and lost. I would have followed him if I had not thrown myself flat, and held on to an iron ring in the middle of the boat.

‘For some moments we were completely under water, and all this time I held my breath. When I could bear it no longer, I raised myself on to my knees, still holding the ring, and so got my head clear. Then our little boat gave herself a shake, just as a dog does when it comes out of the water, and got rid of some of the seawater. The next moment I felt a hand on my arm. It was my older brother, and my heart jumped for joy, since I had thought that he must have drowned. At once, though, my joy was turned into fear, as he put his mouth close to my ear and shouted out the word ‘Moskoe-ström!’

‘No one will ever know what my feelings were at that

moment. I shook from head to foot, as if I had the most violent fever. I knew what he meant by that one word well enough — I knew what he wished to make me understand. With the wind that now drove us on, we were going straight towards the whirlpool of the Strom, and nothing could save us unless we reached it at the time of calm.

‘We had lost our sails, and the boat was now out of control, racing through mountainous seas such as I had never seen in my life. A change had come over the sky, although in every direction it was still as dark as night. For a moment I was confused, but then, directly above us, a circle of clear blue sky appeared. In this circle I saw the full moon shining, lighting up everything around us — but, oh God, what a scene it was to light up!

‘I now tried to speak to my brother, but he could not hear a single word; the noise had, for some reason, greatly increased. He shook his head, and held up one of his fingers, as if to say ‘Listen!’

I did not quite understand what he meant.

‘Suddenly a terrible thought came to me. I pulled out my watch. It was not going. I looked at its face in the moonlight, and then burst into tears as I threw it far out into the ocean. It had stopped at seven o’clock. We had missed the period of calm, and the whirlpool of the Strom was now in full force!

‘A little later a great wave carried us with it as it rose — up — up as if into the sky; and then down we swept with a rush that made me feel sick. But while we were up, I took a quick look around and that one look was enough. I saw our exact position immediately. The Moskoe-ström whirlpool was about a quarter of a mile in front of us. I closed my eyes with the worst feeling of fear that I have ever experienced.

‘It could not have been more than two minutes afterwards when we entered the broad white belt that surrounded the centre of the whirlpool. The boat made a sharp half-turn inwards, and raced off in its new direction at great speed. The wind and the waves dropped. The thundering of the water changed to a high whistling sound - like that of a thousand steamships, all letting off their steam together. I expected, of course, that in another moment we would sink to the bottom of the whirlpool. We could not see down into the pool because of the speed with which we were carried along. The ocean that we had left now rose at our side, like an immense spinning wall between us and the horizon.

‘Now that we were in the jaws of Death, I made up my mind to hope no more; and when I had reached this decision, I began to think how beautiful it was to die in such a way — surrounded, as we were, by this proof of God’s power. It may seem to you that I was crazy, and perhaps I was, but I felt a wish to explore the depths of the whirlpool. My greatest sorrow was that I should never be able to tell my old companions on shore about the mysteries that I was going to see.

‘How often we travelled around the edge of the pool it is impossible to say. We circled for perhaps an hour, getting gradually nearer and nearer the terrible inside edge of the white belt. Below us the water sloped away steeply. All this time I had never let go of the iron ring. My brother was now at the back of the boat, holding on to a small, empty water barrel, which was tied down tightly by a rope. This was the only thing that had not been blown away when the wind first struck us. On our last journey around the pool, before the drop into the depths, he rushed across to me. In great fear he forced my hands from the ring, and took it himself. I never felt deeper sorrow than when this happened, although I knew that it could make no difference in the end; so I let him have the ring, and went back myself to the barrel. I had hardly made myself safe in my new position, when the boat made a wild turn inwards and rushed down into the spinning depths. I said a short prayer to God, and thought that it was all over.

‘As I felt the sudden fearful drop, I tightened my hold on the barrel and closed my eyes. For some seconds I dared not open them, since I expected to be destroyed immediately. I wondered why I was not already in my death struggles with the water.

About a minute passed. I was still alive. The sense of falling had gone. I took courage, and opened my eyes.

‘I shall never forget the scene around me. The boat seemed to be hanging halfway down the inside surface of a circular, V-shaped hole, more than half a mile across and of immense depth. Its walls of black water, as smooth as polished wood, were spinning round with terrible speed. The light from the full moon flooded along these walls, and down to the bed of the ocean, far below.

‘At first I was too confused to notice more than just the general view, but in a moment or two I saw that the walls of water were even steeper. The boat was resting steadily on the slope - that is to say, in her ordinary sailing position, relative to the water; and because of the great speed at which we were moving, I had no difficulty at all in holding on.

‘Our first fall into the whirlpool had carried us, as I have said, about halfway down; but after that, our progress to the bottom became very much slower. Round and round we were swept, each circle taking us a yard or so lower.

‘Having time to look around, I was surprised to see that our boat was not the only object that was moving. Both above and below us could be seen pieces of boats, tree trunks, and many smaller objects, such as boxes, barrels and sticks. I must have been, I think, only partly conscious at this time; for I entertained myself, while waiting for death, by trying to guess which object would be the next to fall to its destruction. “The piece of wood,”

I said at one time, “will certainly disappear next.” And then I was disappointed to see that the wreck of a ship passed it and reached the bottom first. I had made several mistaken guesses of this kind before an idea came into my head — an idea that made me tremble again, and my heart beat heavily once more.

‘It was not a new fear that I felt, but the birth of a more exciting hope. My faulty guesses had one clear meaning: a large object travelled faster down the whirlpool than a small one. It seemed possible to me, as I watched, that many of these smaller things, whose downward speed was slow, would never reach the bottom. The tide would turn, and bring the whirlpool to an end, while they were still circling its walls. They would then, I supposed, be thrown up to the surface of the ocean, and carried away by the current.

‘While I considered these matters, I noticed that a short, though very thick, tree trunk, which had been at one time on a level with us, was now high up above. Each time we passed it, the distance between us grew.

‘I waited no longer. I decided to tie myself to the water barrel which I was holding, to cut it loose from the boat, and to throw myself with it into the water. As best I could, by means of signs, I explained this plan to my brother, and pointed to the floating wood that came near us. I think he understood — but, whether he did or not, he shook his head in hopelessness, and refused to move from his place by the ring. Action was now urgent; I could not afford to delay and could no longer think about him. Tying myself to the barrel by means of the rope which tied it to the boat, I rolled into the sea.

‘The result was exactly what I hoped it might be. As I am now telling you this story, you see that I did escape — in the way that I have described. In the next hour our boat went down to a great distance below me. I saw it make three or four wild turns in the space of half a minute; and then, carrying my dear brother, it fell suddenly and for ever into the angry water at the bottom of the pool. The barrel to which I was tied had sunk no more than halfway to the rocks below when a great change could be seen in the sea around me. The slope of the sides of the whirlpool became, moment by moment, less and less steep. The circular movement of the water grew, gradually, less and less violent.

Slowly the bottom of the well seemed to rise up towards me. The sky was clear, the wind had died down, and the full moon was setting in the west, when I floated up to the surface of the ocean.

I was above the place where the whirlpool had been. It was the time of calm, but the sea was still rough from the effects of the storm. The strong current carried me away down the coast, far down to the fishing grounds. A boat picked me up; the seamen were my old companions from Lofoden, but no one recognized me. My hair, which had been black the day before, was as white as you see it now. For some time I was unable to speak (now that the danger was over) as a result of my terrible experience, but at last I told them my story. They did not believe it. I have now told it to you — and I can hardly expect you to believe it any more than they did.’

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