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Festival of the Sea – Sjómannadagurinn

Updated: Jul 17, 2021

Written by Elin de Ruyter

‘Oh, my Lord and my God, when I now fare forth out to the fish grounds and feel my impotence and the weakness of my boat in meeting the forces of the mighty elements, then I do lift up Thee my eyes of trust and hope and beseech You, in Jesus’ name, to lead us with good fortune out on the deep, to bless us in our quest for a good catch, to protect us, that we may again reach the shore safely, and come back to our loved ones, after we have gathered many provisions that You have in Your goodness, seen fit to afford us.
Bless our loved ones and give us that we may be reunited with them in joy and safety, for the sake of the Holy Spirit; we give You all our laud and thanks, and worship. Oh, Lord, give us all good fortune - to the ship and to the men - in Jesus name. Amen.’ - Part of The Seafarer's Prayer by Reverend Oddur Vigfús Gíslason (1836-1911)

The first Sunday of June every year is known in Iceland as Sjómannadagurinn or Festival of the Sea. This is a day of celebrating Iceland’s connection with the sea and remembering those that lost their lives to its fury.

The ocean gives and the ocean takes is a saying well known in Iceland, particularly in the late 19th and well into the 20th century when the Icelandic fishing industry was booming. Being an island nation, the sea has always played an important part in the life of Icelanders and most Icelanders have at least one ancestor who was lost to the sea.

Whole crews have been swallowed by the cold North Atlantic waters around Iceland, men in their prime from small fishing villages, not only leaving grieving wives and children to face an uncertain future, but also decimating the workforce of an entire community.

During these years, the rate of death at sea was on average of 100 people per year, and this was not including the thousands of foreign men who lost their lives fishing in Icelandic waters.

Today we remember our fallen seamen and honor those that work or have worked with the sea.

My own maternal great grandfather Sigurður Eyleifsson was a Ship’s Captain who sailed through the war years, my paternal great grandfather Helgi Julíus Jónsson, a Helmsman who stayed ashore one year with an injury while his ship and crew sailed on, never to be seen again, but today I would also like to pay particular honor to the priest Reverend Oddur Vigfús Gíslason (IR# I27824) who set out to reduce the high death rate of men to the sea.

Born in Reykjavik, Iceland on the 8th of April 1836, Oddur grew up with his parents Gisli Jónsson, a carpenter and his wife Rosa Grimsdóttir. He became a priest in 1860, at the age of 24 and went on to become a priest for Lundar in Borgarfirði and later Stað in Grindavík. He was shocked at the high death rate of men to the sea and became a pioneer for marine accident prevention and would travel to fishing villages, bringing safety programs, rescue equipment and the word of the gospel in Iceland and later in Manitoba, Canada. In 1892 he wrote and had published a newspaper called Sæbjörg: Bjargráðablað Fyrir Sjómenn. (Rescue newspaper for Seaman)

In this movement to save lives at sea, he challenged the saying that ‘The Lord gave and the Lord took,‘ and was even accused by another priest of neglecting his statutory priesthood and interfering with matters that had nothing to do with the priesthood. Oddur was sorely disheartened by this and emigrated to Canada in 1894 with his wife Anna Vilhjálmsdóttir and their seven children, but carried on his work there.

He died on the 10th of January 1911 at the age of 75 years old in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada.

photo of the orange search and rescue ship in Iceland named the Oddur V Gislason
Oddur V Gislason

Today, sea prevention and rescue in Iceland, is called ICE-SAR (Icelandic Search and Rescue) and in 1998 the Icelandic government donated a ship to ICE-SAR to be used by the Maritime Safety and Survival Training Centre. The ship was given the name ‘Sæbjörg’ - the name of the newsletter that Reverend Gíslason printed in the 1890s. The school ship Sæbjörg features a fully equipped training facility onboard, both for academic and vocational training. The vessel ODDUR V GISLASON is also a Search and Rescue vessel used by ICE-SAR.

This weekend every ship is docked in a harbour and all the seaman have a day off to enjoy the festivities planned. Remember them, honor them and celebrate Iceland’s connection to the sea.

Do you have a seaman in your family?

Click here to see old video footage of men at sea in Iceland.




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A Wasteland with Words by Sigurður Gylfi Magnússon


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