Saturday, March 15, 2008


The Lofoten Headland’s next-door neighbour is the Maelstrom – Moskstraumen – renowned as one of the world’s strongest tidal currents in open waters. It flows between the island of Moskenesøya in the north, and some islets just north of the uninhabited island of Mosken in the south. The strait is about 4-5 kilometres across and 40-60 metres deep, and is considerably shallower than the surrounding sea. The tide fills up the Vestfjord twice a day, and the difference in height between high and low tides can be up to 4 metres. Midway between high and low tide, the current changes direction, and this is when the whirlpools begin to appear, with speeds of up to 6 knots.

Nothing else in Lofoten has been so prolifically described – and exaggerated upon – in so many languages. In 1539, Olaus Magnus’ "Carta Marina" was published – complete with an illustration of a terrifying Maelstrom. In 1555, his work on the Nordic people’s history came out in Rome. The Maelstrom is here described as an ocean vortex that runs up and down the sea every day, devouring great ships and spewing them up again! In 1591 the district bailiff wrote, " ... When the Maelstrom is at its peak, then you can see the sky and the sun through the waves and breakers, because they roll in as high as mountains." Similar impassioned descriptions of the Maelstrom can also be found in later accounts. The Norwegian clergyman and poet Petter Dass, the American author Edgar Allan Poe and the French author Jules Verne, are all in the same league. These authors describe the furious force of the Maelstrom, and Jules Verne also describes it as the world’s most dangerous stretch of sea. They write of a current that howls, that rumbles like a buffalo herd on the prairie, that drags ships under, smashing them to smithereens against the sea bed. They describe great whales bellowing as they submit to the Maelstrom’s vortices, while on land, the houses shudder at their foundations! The inhabitants of the outer coast villages of Hell and Refsvika lived nearest to the Maelstrom. They were annoyed at these exaggerations. They themselves had first and foremost treated the forces of the Maelstrom with respect – adapting their work and travels to it in a natural manner. Yet even so, it took its toll among the inhabitants.

Its ferocity was indeed a powerful experience. From the land, it was exciting and entertaining to watch, and the locals gladly climbed a fair way up the mountainsides to get a better view of it.

Today they say, "The Maelstrom, ah yes, that was our television when we were kids." Despite all the delirious descriptions of "the Great Maelstrom," the people of the outer coast regarded it as a gold mine – full of shoals of shiny fish.

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