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The Great Fishing Voyage – Útilegan Mikla

Here is an amazing story about Icelandic fishermen in 1869 - people who lost their lives and those who survived.

Vestmannaeyjar Rough Seas

Heimskringla Newspaper. 08 December 1937. Útilegan Mikla. Bréf úr Vestmannaeyjum.

Translation by Julie R. Summers. August 2015. Fulbright Scholar to Iceland.

The Great Fishing Voyage

The narrative of Hannes Jónsson, sea pilot at Miðhús (b. October 21, 1852; d. July 31, 1937).

The fishing season of 1869, Hannes was hired on the eight-oar Gideon by the farmer Árni Diðriksson in Stakkagerði. On Thursday, February 25, Árni planned to go out to sea and had shortly before put the Gideon in the boathouse, but the weather had been very unstable, so men were not often going to sea. Many went out that day. Jon Jónsson at Vilborgarstaður, captain of the six-oar Blíður, and Árni Einarsson at Búastaður, the father of Ingvar at Hólshús and the captain of the eight-oar Langvinnur, had already gone out.

When Hannes went to the ship that morning, he fell on a hill in the wet slush above Naustin, where the ships' equipment was stored, and he got completely soaked through. So he headed back home to change his clothes, since it was considered unwise to go to sea wet. When he was finished, he again went down to Sandur and all except the Langvinnur had rowed or come out to Botninn to read the útdráttarbæn, a prayer customarily recited before the first voyage of each fishing season.

Hannes didn't want to go with Árni because he was said to be a poor fisherman, although he was an intelligent and diligent man. So Hannes stayed on land for a few days.

There were unusually strong south breakers that morning. There had been stormy weather out of the south-south-east overnight, but in the morning the weather was calm and the weather frostless. The surf was so great that Leiðin was cut off and men had to take advantage of the pauses between breakers. Most of the ships that went to sea went south in the bay Flóinn and south near the bay Stakkabót, except three ships which went north and west around Heimaey. Shortly before midday came a flare of strong weather due west. Some ships had then already come home. The men couldn't even tell if they'd gotten any fish because it was so difficult to keep control on the rough seas and visibility was extremely poor.

Árni Diðriksson had just come in near Miðhúsaklettur on the Gideon. The storm was instantly so strong that they didn?t drag the fishing line out since the oars were blown up out of the oarlock. They, and all the ships that had gone south along the coast, turned around because of the weather and sought shelter east of Bjarnarey. Most rowed away from the storm. On board the Najaden they tried to raise the sail, but the mast broke.

Two of the ships that had gone west were right by the rock column Stóri-Örn when the storm broke out. It was Brynjólfur Halldórsson, a farmer in Norðurgarður and the father-in-law of Hannes, the captain of the eight-oared vessel Áróra, and Guðmundur Erlendsson, the sea pilot who commanded the Svanur. They landed at Eiðið, and the surf was not as strongthere since it was southerly. But not long after, when the westerly storm had continued for an hour, the water began to crash chaotically over Eiðið. When they landed, Sigurður from Brúnn under the Eyjafjöll mountains was there to help them. He hadn't gone out fishing because he thought the skies did not bode well and the surf was too high. He was a very astute and weather-wise man. He often went out fishing and enjoyed good weather while others stayed on land, and he sometimes stayed on land while others went out fishing if he found the weather uncertain, and so avoided many hardships. He had a fishermen?s hut at Grímshjallur for his crew, and he was captain of the six-oared rowing boat Ísak. Guðmundur walked from Svanur to Eiðið but Brynjólfur was put in charge and went with his ship to Hrófin. By that time, the weather was so poor that he didn't trust himself to row directly to Lækurinn, so instead he went south along Botni opposite Básasker and hurried from there in the wind east to Lækur. The current in the harbor was so strong, that the waters at Lækur dried up in the undertow even though the seas were great.

The third ship that had gone west was near the rock Latur when the storm broke out. Símon Þorsteinsson from Hólmur í Landeyjum was on the six-oar Dúfa. He turned east and searched for shelter in Faxabót. He remained there close by and held east of Yztaklettur and made his way to Bóndabót, where he stayed for the night. He reached land close to noon the next day.

The ships that went east around Bjarnarey searched for shelter in the bay or caves around Haganef.

These twelve ships were there:

1. The eight-oared Haffrúin. The captain was Magnús Magnússon, farmer at Vilborgarstaður. 2. The eight-oared Æolus, which belonged to Bjarni Einarsson, farmer at Kirkjubær. 3. The eight-oared Gideon. The captain was Árni Diðriksson, farmer at Stakkagerður. 4. The eight-oared Neptúnus. The captain was Símon, farmer from Steinn under Eyjafjöll. 5. The eight-oared Langvinnur. The captain was Árni Einarsson, farmer at Búastaður. 6. The six-oared Blíður. The captain was sea pilot Jón Jónsson, farmer at Vilborgarstaður. 7. The eight-oared Mýrdælingur. The captain was Þorsteinn Jónsson, district administrative officer in Nýjabær. 8. The eight-oared Najaden. The captain was Ólafur Ketilsson from Bólstaður in Mýrdal. 9. The eight-oared Enok. The captain was Lárus Jónsson, district administrative officer at Búastaður. 10. The eight-oared Eyfellingur. The captain was Magnús Þorsteinsson, farmer at Rauðsbakki and the brother of Bjarni in Gvendarhús. 11. Ægir or Farsæll, a four-oared boat. The captain was Jón Bjarnason, farmer at Oddsstaður. 12. The six-oared Farsæll. The captain was Oddur Pétursson, the father of Sigurður at Skuld in the Westman Islands, at that time a farmer at Raufarfell under the Eyjafjöll mountains, and it was his first voyage as captain.

The weather remained the same all night and there came a sudden snowstorm. Men sat at the oars and held the boats a short distance from the rock, in a small area. The boats would have crashed into each other had there not been breaks of moonlight between snowstorms. The surf was so high that it surged over Haganef into the bay. The night was dreadful for everyone, both at sea and on land.

It was unknown whether all the ships had reached land and it was uncertain whether men could survive the hardship of exposure and lack of food. It was not customary at that time for men to take food to sea with them in the Westman Islands, and this is still true today.

In the night, the crew of the Ægi abandoned ship and boarded one of the large ships. The Ægi could not withstand the weather and was lost. Three of the crewmen couldn't stand the harsh conditions and the cold, since they would have already been freezing cold and soaked through by the time they finally abandoned ship. They died late that night. All these men were middle-aged or older: Vigfús Magnússon, who lived in the fishermen's quarters at Hólshús, the father of Siggi Fúsason at Fögruvöllur; Jón Jónsson, farmer at Vilborgarstaður, the father of Sigurður at Lönd and grandfather of Kristin at Lönd; and Jón Guðmundsson, laborer at Kirkjubær, whose family came from the area around the Eyjafjöll mountains. All were married men.

The next day, February 26, the wind died down a bit and turned to the southwest as the day passed. It was five degrees Celsius. Before noon, Brynjólfur Halldórsson boarded the Áróra with dry clothes, food and drink for the fishermen. Packages of food and clothes were prepared at each home and marked for each man. There was also food and a bit of Brennivín sent from the shops. Brynjólfur had on board the best crew, men who had already returned from sea or hadn't gone out. When he had delivered everything, he turned towards home again, as the tide was beginning to rise. Many of the ships set off for home at the same time as the Áróra, although the Najaden and Neptúnus would have stayed put. Six of them reached land before midnight after fighting all day against the weather, which was still poor. But three, Blíður, Mýrdælingur and Langvinnur, had to turn east around Bjarnarey again. They had headed too far north, so that the great rising tide carried them north in a strong current on the north side of Heimaey and they didn't drag the fishing line out when they'd escaped the gusts. They turned around and sailed with just a scrap of the sail east out of the channel between Elliðaey and Bjarnarey.

A short distance from Bjarnarey is the skerry Breki. The depth there is only about seven fathoms. There was an easterly current this time, and Hannes only remembered that happening once before; it only happened in incredibly bad weather. Right up by Brekaflá, on the north side of Bjarnarey, the sea was much deeper and this was usually the preferred route in stormy weather.

All the ships sailed there and Jón the sea pilot went last with the Blíður.

Mýrdælingur and Langvinnur got by safely and held east around the island, but an outcropping of Breki caught the Blíður and capsized it without warning. Jón and his crew of thirteen all drowned there. The crew were:

1. Jón Jónsson, sea pilot at Vilborgarstaður. He was only 26 years old. His wife was Veigalín Eiríksdóttir from Gjábakki. She later married Jón Guðmundsson at Gjábakki. Jón was well-to-do and good-humored. He had been an employee of Pétur Bjarnasen, shop manager at Garður, and under his influence he would have become a gifted sea pilot despite his young age. He had previously been the captain of the Neptúnus.

2. Eiríkur Hansson, farmer at Gjábakki, 53 years old, Jón's father-in-law. He was a great ship maker and had the previous autumn built the ship Blíður. It was the ship's second voyage.

Between Christmas and New Year's, Jón had taken the boat on one shark fishing voyage. Shortly after, on January 19, he'd had to use the Blíður to save Ellert Schram of Kokkhús and one other man.

The rowboat capsized under them at Leiðin, where they were collecting eider ducks that Ellert had shot. When they landed, there was such a loud cracking that the men on shore thought the boat had broken. They stopped what they were doing and ran west to Hróf and took the Enok. Both men were retrieved, but one was drowned in the boat. It was Eiríkur Runólfsson, who was nicknamed "earl."

It was seen as a bad omen that the Blíður was not used in the rescue, because it later appeared completely undamaged. There were several other things that were thought to predict the accident.

Guðmundur Björnsson, labourer at Nýjakastali, who worked for Margrét, the mother of Hannes, who had rowed with Jón on the Neptúnus and gone with him on the shark fishing voyage on the Blíður in the winter, said he wouldn't row with him again on that ship. He wouldn't give any reasons for his decision, but he thought well of Jón.

Eiríkur Hansson had built the Blíður at Gjábakkatúnið. When he had begun work on the ship, Kristín, the wife of Sigurður in Snarlahjall, came to him where he was working and asked him whether he was building a casket. "There's no casket lid on it," replied Eiríkur.

"Then you should remove the keel," said Kristín. But he didn't do that since he didn't place any faith in her words.

3. Jón, the son of Eiríkur Hansson, 21 years old.

4. Rósinkranz at Vilborgarstaður, Eiríkur's second son. Eighteen years old.

5. Guðni Guðmundsson, carpenter at Fagurlyst, 38 years old. He was Eiríkur's son-in-law, married to Eiríkur's daughter Málfríður. She later lived with Ólafur Magnusson at Nýborg and they had one child together.

6. Snjólfur Þorsteinsson, laborer at Garður, 22 years old.

7. Bjarni Magnússon, farmer at Kirkjubær, 55 years old.

8. Jósep Sveinsson, laborer at Háagarður, 21 years old.

9. Jón Guðmundsson, a teenager from Núpakot under the Eyjafjöll mountains, the illegitimate son of Margrét Halldórsdóttir, who later married Jón Þorgeirsson, farmer at Oddsstaður.

The identities of the other four who died are unknown.

Hannes was on the banks east of Skansinn when the ships sailed east through the channel. Those who were at Skansinn saw the Blíður upside down. It was painted red on the bottom, so it was easy to distinguish it in the foamy sea.

The ships that had turned around and those that hadn't gone anywhere stayed the rest of the night near Bjarnarey. They didn't head for home until just before midday on February 27. It was then eight degrees below zero. The Neptúnus left last and sailed home. The direction had changed and by the last part of the day there was once again a southwest storm with strong winds.

The crew of the Najaden had abandoned ship the evening of February 26, boarded the Neptúnus, and let the Najaden go. The men were nearly perishing from the cold and hunger. The ship's captain, Ólafur Ketilsson, was a hardy and spirited man, although he drank too much, but the crew was in a wretched state. Most were novices from the east country. It was the first fishing season for all but three of them.

Níels Nicolaj Bryde owned the Najaden. The ship's equipment was not of the best quality, as was often the case with merchant ships. On such ships, the crews were often strange mismatched groups, because men were reluctant to join these small boats. The ship was, moreover, old and worn-out, having stood unused for six years because it was considered unseaworthy, but some repairs had been done on it before the fishing season. But the repairs were not thorough, so the insurance company Skipaábyrgðarfélagi didn't want to insure the boat that season. There was a lawsuit and the result was that the company was absolved of everything by Bryde's demand.

At about this time in the fishing season there were usually nearly twenty large ships, owned by Westman Islanders and mainlanders. There were no more ships at sea that day, however, because the mainlanders' ships had not all come out yet, and a few of the captains from the Islands were still waiting for crews from the mainland. These men came a week after the incident.

Almost one week later, Símon from Steinn went out again in the Neptúnus in a strong northerly storm. Símon, Árni Diðriksson and Brynjólfur Halldórsson were at sea that day east of Stórhöfði at Klakkar. The wind blew them toward Litlihöfði. Árni and Brynjólfur managed with difficulty to get home, but Símon gave up and was driven south around Stórhöfði, where he waited out the night. The next day the storm continued. District administrative officer Lárus Jónsson took the Enok to help Símon. He gave Símon more oars and they repaired the oarlocks on the Neptúnus. With the rising tide they made it to Ketilssker, west of Stórhöfði, and then to Víkin (Höfðavík), where they anchored.

The weather this fishing season was unpredictable and volatile and the shares only between 50-200, which was still considered good. The 1868 season was the least fruitful fishing season the Westman Islands had ever seen, and it was a time of famine and hunger for all.

Here is a current promo video from the Westman Islands -- Vestmannaeyjar.

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