Drowning: Death and Despair


Genealogy is always interesting and I love it! However, these past few weeks have been a little distressing. I have been working on a special project called the "Drowned Report." We are chronicling this history of our Icelandic ancestors and those of modern-day who died as a result of drowning or death by immersion in water.

Drowning is defined as death caused by oxygen deprivation, water inhalation, or cold water immersion. Cold water immersion causes cold shock and vasoconstriction leading to cardiac arrest and these people are also included in the Drowned Report. Drowning is one of the leading causes of death in all age groups and is the third leading cause of death worldwide.


A dreadful part of our Icelandic history happened between the years 1618 - 1749 when eighteen women were drowned as a legal punishment in the Þingvellir Drekkingarhylur “Drowning Pool.” When you visit the Þingvellir National Park, the location of this pool is shown in the photo below. You will find a memorial plaque at the site with the names of the women.

Þingvellir Drekkingarhylur - Thingvellir Drowning Pool

Several Icelandic boats were sunk during World War II including the DETTIFOSS and GODAFOSS killing many Icelandic people. Some of the people who are rescued after boating accidents actually die of their injuries a few days after rescue.


Godafoss Boat

The majority of people on our Drowned Report died while fishing on the sea. There are also those who died crossing one of the many rivers or out on a lake. Also included in this report are Canadians or Americans of Icelandic descent who drowned. Some of the fishing vessels that went down had many people from the same family lost.

I asked Kári Bjarnason from Vestmannaeyrar some questions about a large group of men that died 26. Feb 1869. He sent me the following information:

This drowning on 26. Feb 1869 is called Útilegan mikla (the great camping) as the ships could not go back to shore and had to find shelter somewhere on the little islands around Vestmannaeyjar if they could. This is one of the most memorable events in Vestmannaeyjar history ever.

At this time around 520 people total lived in Vestmannaeyjar and 218 fishermen went to sea on this day on 14 ships. Some of them were from the mainland but the majority from Vestmannaeyjar. We can therefore say that more or less all men in Vestmannaeyjar capable of working were out on the ocean that night.

The year before 1868 had been difficult and this year started badly. Total loss was 3 ships and 18 men. We have stories about this tragedy. (from Heimskringla, not absolutely correct but still a first hand account); from Hannes Jónsson the greatest fisherman ever in Vestmannaeyjar that was to go with his ship, but came too late to the shore and the ship was gone and from a periodical in Vestmannaeyjar.

Please be safe out there, everyone! The people who work on the fishing vessels are very brave. Here is a favorite video of a fishing boat in rough Icelandic seas.


The human body cools off very quickly in cold water. According to sources, 20% of people die within 2 minutes and another 50% die within 15-30 minutes. The time is much less when the water temperature is cold or the person does not have a flotation device.

If you know of a person in your Icelandic family that has drowned, please submit this information so we can add them to this growing list. As of today, there are 2,411 documented on the report but we have sadly many more to add. We are working hard on this information and much more at the Icelandic Roots Genealogy Database.

Coincidentally, International Water Safety Day is May 15th each year.


For more information on Drowings:

World Health Organization Report

2013 Canadian Drowning Report

2014 USA Drowning Report


Icelandic Roots is a non-profit, educational, heritage organization specializing in genealogy, history & traditions of our Icelandic ancestors.

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