Death by drowning

There have been in our family since it arrived in New Iceland, three drownings. Alfred and Herbert Bristow, sons of Fredrikka Gottskalksdottir and William Bristow, drowned with three other young people when they were returning on a sailboat from a berry picking expedition. My father, in an old tradition, was named after them. My brother drowned when his front end loader went off the side of a barge into the Mackenzie River.
These drownings, while tragic, were part of an old tradition. Can we call it that? When something is done repeatedly over a very long time?
To drown was the fate of many men in Iceland. According to Richard Burton, in Iceland there was an “unusual loss of adult males, which is said to average forty per cent drowned.”
Every year, in a land where only one crop, hay, could grow, where arctic ice filling the bays, could lower the temperature enough that the ground would not thaw and the hay would not grow, producing enough food to last the coming winter was a struggle. Hay and sheep and cattle alone would not provide the food necessary. 
Fishing was essential. It provided the second part of the people’s diet but it also provided something to trade for the many products that could not be produced in Iceland.
To produce boats, a builder needs wood. Iceland, in the 1800s, had long ceased to have wood. What had been there had been used for building and fuel and, perhaps, more importantly, for charcoal. Iceland has little in the way of minerals but it does have bog iron and bog iron, to be smelted, requires charcoal.

What was available was driftwood.

When Richard Burton arrives in Iceland in 1872 he observes what he calls “the mosquito flotilla of fishing-boats”.
The largest of the fishing boats carry two masts, he says. They are clinker-built, high in the stem and stern with a high projection for the rudder. When the sun is hot, and the wood shrinks, the boats are exceptionally leaky. The boats are not well cared for and do not last very long.
He sees no decked boats. The decked boats that do exist, sixty-one or sixty-three, are nearly all used for shark fishing on the north coast. There are 3,092 open boats. These have two to twelve oars. These boats are preferred by the fishermen because they can hold a lot of fishermen. The problem is that when they sink and the crew drown, there are a lot of deaths.
The open row boats go out three to six miles to get to the fishing ground. Then they have to row back. Burton considers this arrangement a waste of both effort and time.
The crews have guts. If necessary, they’ll cross Faxa Fjörð which is around fifty miles broad.
Basalt blocks are used for ballast. The sails are just strips of cloth. He is amazed, even perplexed by how narrow the oars are. The locals say that narrow oars are necessary because of the strong currents. He doesn´t believe it and thinks it is just tradition and folklore. The oars fit into thwarts that are lined with hoop-iron or they are set between two wooden pins. 
Having rowed a skiff on Lake Winnipeg as a boy, I found the oarlocks we used that set into the thwarts worked very well. They would seem to have been more efficient than the hoop-iron or the wooden pins. Iron in Iceland was expensive and the wooden pins more readily available but without the equivalent of oar locks, oars are useless and I can’t imagine that wooden pins under the strain of the constant rowing did not often break. In a heavy sea, the loss of even one oar would be serious.
The Icelandic nets, he says, are ridiculously small. The floats are gourd-shaped bottles made in Denmark.
Burton compares the boats and fishermen he sees with the images of Viking long ships and Viking sailors and finds the current fishermen and their craft deficient. He thinks the crews perform well in good weather but in poor weather, they often do not work as a crew or team effectively but all want to be in charge with the result that no one is in charge.
The fishermen have given up the old way of dressing and now dress much like English fishermen. However, they wear three or four pair of coarse woolen socks and the socks retain water. Burton thinks Icelandic fishermen must enjoy having wet feet.
I found most interesting that the fishermen were using the Icelandic glove with two thumbs. When the palm gets wet or worn, the glove can be flipped over and the other side used. Many years ago when I was giving a reading at a school on an island in Ontario, I was shown such a pair of mittens with two thumbs, not gloves, and asked if they were Icelandic. Apparently, around the turn of the century there had been some Icelandic people living in the area and these mittens had been kept and now were in a local museum.
Burton mentions, as do many others, that the fishermen take little in the way of food with them even though they may be at sea for twelve hours doing strenuous labor, working in a cold wind, often soaking wet. They do take a mixture of whey and water to drink and lots of snuff.
The fishermen, he says, rarely live for long. Poor food, fatigue, the tremendous hardship of the work and environment, constant wet feet, poor hygiene. The fishermen suffer from chronic rheumatism that is so severe that the fingers bend backwards. Death often comes from lung infections, gout or paralysis.
Since What The Bear Said was published with its fourteen folk tales, many people have talked to me about their families. Time and again, people have said, my great great grandfather drowned. It is a constant refrain. If forty percent of male deaths were by drowning, what family could escape such a fate?
When men were not needed for hay harvest, they rode or walked to the coast and joined a fishing crew. They lived in rudely built huts near the shore. No stove. Sometimes not enough fuel to cook their food. They were wet all the time. There was no chance to sit before a blazing fire or even close to a wood stove.
Fall fishing in Manitoba was often brutal with winds from the north, ice freezing on both men and skiffs but, at the end of the day, there was a stove and an abundance of wood. Both men and clothes could dry out and get warm. There was hot food. The waterproof clothes, the rubber boots, most of the time, kept the fishermen dry.
That Icelandic fishermen survived at all seems like a miracle. Each year when they went to the coast, they knew the odds, they knew the living conditions, but they lived in a world with no choice because they fished or died of hunger. As dangerous and difficult was the fishing, the greater tragedy was when the harbours filled with drift ice and there could be no fishing. Then there wasn’t much left to be done except pray and, sometimes, those prayers were answered with the stranding of whales. They must have seemed like manna from heaven. A gift of meat and fat from God.
Embrace my heritage? Yes, I embrace these men on their trek through the mountains, their nights on hard beds made of sand and seaweed, of dark winter days spent in open boats hauling in fish. They may, as Burton says, no longer be Vikings and their boats may be poor craft but they went to sea day after day to put out a line and what could be braver than that?
(With notes and quotes from Richard Burton’s Ultima Thule or A Summer In Iceland, 1875. Although the book was published in 1875, Burton was in Iceland in 1872 so he describes the Iceland of our immigrant ancestors.)

One thought on “Death by drowning

  1. Nice post on open water fishing in Iceland and Canada, Bill. Drowning is also a repeated theme in David Arnason's book, Marsh Burning. And here's the first 3 stanzas of a poem I wrote on commercial winter fishing on the south end of Lake Winnipeg:

    WINTER

    Most years, our country, or what we knew of it
    was winter. We found our warmth as the fish did
    underwater. We dipped our woolen mitts

    mother knit for us into the basin hole
    to thaw the frozen slime from thrashing fish
    we pulled from nets strung under the ice.

    We’d ring them out, put them on, smack
    our hands against our thighs, drive blood
    back into clawbent fingers.

    -Jim

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *