With a weekend of sun in Oxford, its no wonder that thoughts are turning to the summer perched tantalisingly beyond the dreaded exams. However, for first year DPhil student and outdoor swimmer Ellen Taylor, the end of term will mark the start of her biggest challenge yet.
If all goes well, by the time we return form summer break, Ellen will be the first women to have swum the infamous Saltstraumen Maelstrom (the word is originally Dutch and means, literally, ‘crushing current’), which can reach to 10m wide with water speeds of 20 knots. The OxStu caught up with Ellen as she returned from her trip to Norway to meet pilot Knut Westvig of Stella Polaris, who will be in the boat accompanying her as she races against the tide.
First of all, what exactly is a maelstrom swim (just to describe it in your own words for the reader)?
The Saltstraumen maelstrom is a strait between two islands in Norway. As the tide pushes water between the sea and fjord either side of the strait, the world’s strongest tidal current is formed and the momentum of the water creates dozens of whirlpools. As the tide turns, there are a few minutes in which it’s safe to swim. In these minutes, we’ll swim across the strait. Essentially, it’s a race against the tides.
This particular maelstrom has only been crossed by 3 swimmers – the Hudson brothers, from Cumbria. But there are smaller whirlpool swims too: the Corryvreckan in Scotland, which I swam last year, and the Strait of Messina which has been linked to the infamous Scylla and Charybdis of Greek mythology.
What motivates you to take on such a big challenge?
I’ve always loved outdoor swimming, and recently it’s the cold stuff that I’ve been most attracted to. For the past couple of years, I’ve been competing internationally with the GB Ice Swimming team in distances between 25m and 1km in temperatures below 5 degrees celsius. It’s exciting to push myself to new extremes. It’s amazing what the body and mind can do when put under pressure.
Maelstroms seem to have the same kind of attraction. They’re thrilling, wild, and a relatively unexplored challenge. The Saltstraumen is in the Arctic Circle, so we’ll have both cold water and beautiful scenery.
How do you deal with the risks?
The biggest risk is the currents. We’ll have a boat crew next to us, with an amazing pilot who knows the tides better than anyone. We’ve been up to Norway to meet him, and he put us completely at ease. Ultimately, it’s up to him whether we make it across or not.
The cold is another factor. It’s only a short swim, but if our bodies aren’t used to the cold, it will be harder to stay strong against the currents. The Hudson brothers who crossed this strait wore wetsuits, but we’re doing it without. We’ll arrive to Norway a week beforehand to acclimatise to the water.
There’s also wildlife to consider. Killer whales and jellyfish are common in the Saltstraumen. These are mostly psychological challenges – it’s unlikely that either would do us much harm, but the idea of swimming amongst them is daunting. I keep reminding myself that killer whales have never harmed a human outside of captivity.
How did you get into (outdoor) swimming?
Through my mum. Our family holidays when I was young were to the Lake District, Cornwall and the Channel Islands. My childhood memories are filled with water – jumping in various seas and lakes, then shivering afterwards by the fire. When I was 14, my mum swam the English Channel, and just before I started uni we swam a relay of the Channel together. From then onwards, we’ve swam all over together – from marathon swims to the Winter Swimming World Cup. When I told her that I wanted to swim across the Saltstraumen, I half-expected her to talk me out of it. But instead she said she wants to do it with me, and so now we’re training together again.
What advice would you give someone looking to get into the sport?
The wonderful thing about open-water swimming is that it’s such a welcoming community. You don’t need anything except for your swimsuit (and sometimes not even that). The Outdoor Swimming Society Facebook group is a great place to meet people and ask for advice. They also have a website, with loads of brilliant information.
There are lots of swimmers in Oxford, swimming either at Port Meadow, Iffley Lock or Queenford Lakes. For your first swim, make sure you bring lots of layers and someone to swim with you or spot you from the bank. Coffee and cake is also a good idea.
What’s next for you after the maelstrom swim?
The wonderful thing about outdoor swimming is that, although it’s becoming rapidly more popular, there are so many adventures that haven’t yet been explored. I have a few longer swims booked (the length of Lake Windermere in August, and the English Channel in 2022), but it’s the unattempted swims that excite me most. I’d really love to follow a river from source to sea, or find a new crossing between islands.
Keep an eye out for next term’s OxStu– and maybe the national news – to keep up with Ellen’s progress on this record-breaking swim.