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As It Is, Like This Rescue

[13 mins reading time]

Nyo Ze: As It Is, Like This 

All human cultures are projects of self- and co-creation. They emerge from engagement, story and sense-making.

Evidence from all the world over shows the enormous long-distance interactions between people and cultures. We people have always lived in a small world politically and culturally connected. People travelled and journeyed to see and learn from other places.

In their fine and wise book, The Dawn of Everything, David Graeber and David Wengrow explore the importance of cultural choice and refusal.

All human cultures engage in refusal. They know what others are doing, but in order to remain true to their own identities, they will engage in active refusal to adopt certain other technologies and ideas. Some foragers lived alongside farmers for 3000 years, and refused to adopt agriculture. Some city states knew all about metal and the wheel, and refused to adopt them.

At times, cultures do get stuck, thinking they know or have it all. The modern era of neoliberalism and planet-wide nature and climate crises is an example of being stuck. We might say we are living now in the latest of “stuck times.”

For my Sea Sagas of the North, I talked to an 80-year-old famed English skipper of the trawlers and drifters, and he said, “You know we were more tolerant and kind in the days of fishing, when we travelled far to other ports and places and came back with gifts and stories.”

Fisher communities on the coast of the east of England felt more affinity with fishers and farmers a thousand miles away in Iceland and Norway than they did with communities ten miles inland. But when the fish stocks collapsed, people lost their friendship networks.

What did those fisher and farmer communities choose to do? They rescued their competitors when ships were stranded.

That is how it was.

In the dark days of an Iceland December, one helpless trawler was wrecked at the base of half-kilometre cliffs. The next year, in the same month, another was stranded by the icy tempest. This was a story of cliff rescues and winter kindness. This was also a story to work its way into legend.

This is how it is, like this.

In many a coastal parish, temple bells ring the rites of passage. The hard sea god seems deaf to families who keen, who have to carry empty coffins. There were whispered tales, farmers washed with courage, who of old they knew could never rescue every seaman.

So grateful thanks, were offered back by crinkled eyes.

It was the second year of peace, the third of Iceland’s soul. In the faint light of winter, layer-cloud so cold it roofed the earth and sea. All the treeless slopes and fields had been bleached, yet the farmers of this bluff would soon discover how it felt to wear a national halo.

The fearless farmers, they were sure-footed as sheep. From the sky above, down the rescue party dropped. Here seamen long had rowed, setting hooks from sixæreens, mittens frozen stiff. Here was cold sea-current, flowing south from Arctic Sea, where the onshore winds churned waters rich in food for fish.

It is still the greatest borough of the birds, in all the northern deeps.

Now the farmstead men and women, they brushed clean each suit and dress. They shone shoes and carried coats, for at last had dawned the spring. They recalled four years before, how each witness at Thingvellir, standing at the back in rain, could not hear a single word. Yet today at the banquet, the President and all the nobles, would gift to Þordur the Life-Saver, a silver handled trophy. And pin on forty-five men and women in all, polished rescue medals. And to the faint surprise of some, five honours were also sent by the king of the distant fishers.

Wise leaders in ages past, often saw how annals might depict a story, how all could feel a common pride. So this elected leader of the isle, Sveinn the president, turned to Þordur, whilst on every tablecloth flags of Iceland and Britain stood side by side.

“Your story has defined our country,” he said, “So I will find the funds, if you will send to our best curator, an invitation to the crags. Ask Óskar the film magician to script a modern saga.”

The actors for the movie met at Þordur’s farmhouse, where tarred wooden sheds once had fringed the pebbled beach, where boats were launched by men and boys, their fingers gripping sanded oars. Now they trod ten leagues inland, took the crew to the cliff-top, where the Bjargtangur lighthouse looked west upon a sea of scree and skerries, where puffins built their burrows in the grass.

As the heroes spread out on the turf, Óskar scoped the set. He lay out flat and crawled, gazed below from the brim. He turned to Þordur, this burly man of soil. Will you tell again the story of this rescue, that has so captured all our country folk, and those of distant Fleetwood too. We’ll set the cameras purring, and all of you can play your part.

The recipient of the silver cup, Þordur now told of the four-day rescue. The coastguard had caught the mayday call from trawler Dhoon, its one stern engine had thrashed the sea, yet abruptly lost its power. It was December at its worst, a ship was on those rocks. Outside was blizzard, so he called his neighbours one by one, fetch horse and rope, bring rockets and the rescue gear.

Þordur continued: “Our force was ready, yet we could not guess where exactly was the ship, nor how they would be shackled to the wreck as three whole tides washed in and out of hull. We tied our tackle to the horses, called yapping dogs to heel, strapped on boots with nails, shrugged rope around our shoulders.”

“There were many leagues to march, across our moors of ice. At last we saw from this snowy peak, waves pounding at the reef. And the tiny stranded Dhoon, its sailing days were done.”

“You can see, it was no simple task, abseiling as we do in spring for birds and eggs. There are razorbills at base, kittiwake and fulmar on the central shelfs, guillemot from sheerest bluff. Yet this was winter, so we tied twine around our waists. Six men dug their heels in ice, the first slipped over, down through all the birds, a plumb line to the dark below. We hoped we could attach a breeches buoy before it sank.”

The men and women of the ancient farms, were nodding now, pointing to the route. How they now could drop camera bag and tripod, all the kit and batteries. At that time they still were unknown to the fishers holding tight. And no one had exactly measured, how far was the descent to the icy metal ship, its side torn open by the skerries. Later some would wonder at the choice made by the owners, for fate decreed this ship was first named the Armageddon.

This fishing trip the Dhoon, less than thirty rods in length, she had mineswept in the war, now set sail with a replacement skipper, the leader granted leave at home. So a captain from Hessle Road in Hull had steamed with the crew to Iceland’s western waters. Would they sneak inside the limit, or stick to deeper grounds, further from the risk of rock? Either way in this winter storm, all the nearby trawlers helpless, facing waves of forty feet, now their anchor would not hold.

One growler sheared away the wheelhouse, popping planks of ship. the sea swept away the skipper, with Fred the fairground boxer, his son a decade later, would be lost from another trawler. The bosun Albert, another hand who learned to sail from the eastern village called The Grit, now marshalled all the crew for tide on tide. Thirst was soon their fear, they broke off ice to suck as they huddled in the whaleback. The Weekly News would later write, shock would soon be felt for weeks at home.

Þordur and the fellow farmers, took up the tale. “We swung down the wintry cliff, kicked off from crag, ten of us arrived at the base, the others anchored ropes up here. And after Unni raised the tent, she also dropped to talk to them in English. Yet we did not know, how we would retrace our steps, or even if we’d find a single fisher still alive. We piled equipment on a cliff-foot ledge. And paused till daylight came, hoping we’d be spied from wreck.”

“And by and by, we dragged them in by breeches buoy. Twelve sailors had been waiting, two days soaked by freezing sea. Their hands and feet were useless, we put cigarettes gently on each lip, broke flatbread into pieces, slid mittens on their hands, their eyes showed thanks.”

“Unni told them swing your arms, this volcanic land has no heat to spare. But her news was dreadful, they did not know. A frightful prospect, there was still this fearsome cliff to climb.”

We formed a chair from rope, tied in the fishers one by one, each still wore a cork lifejacket. Árni the Ascender had scrambled up to tell them at the top to tug. So seven of the crew slowly rose, crawled and rolled on the meadow snow, stared at the cloud above.

But night drew in too fast, we could only fetch the other five halfway to the ledge of Flagernef. Halflidi and his climbers took off their outer clothes, they tried to keep those men alive. Wrapped them up, waited for the distant dawn.

Now Unni spoke up: “I heard some seamen mutter, they would never go to sea again. They seemed still stiff with terror, carved up by guilt, for it was they who had survived, when friends had drowned below.”

“We laid them in the tent to warm. At long last the sun did rise, so we made our way. The sailors staggered on the snow, we strapped some onto horses to trek the winter fields. The bosun Albert fell six times. And no wonder, since he could not grasp the reins. Into beds we tucked them smiling, spooned hot broth to each. None had ever tasted blended coffee mixed with brennívin.”

“Their eyes were glazed, yet soon they had departed.”

“We heard they sailed by trawler south to Reykjavik, took a plane to Glasgow, a train to west-coast Fleetwood, where a grand reception, hailed them home for Christmas. Yet we can tell you this, the stranding damaged each of us in secret ways, the fisher and the rescuer will carry dread, locked deep inside. It would not surprise me, if those sailors felt never safe at sea again.”

When Óskar finished filming, the descent and climb now in the can, he asked another time. “We will return in winter, will you assist us once again?”

And so the farmers, put on hats of fur with flaps. Pulled on roll-neck jersey and added coat, saddled up their herds of horse. Took out rope and rescue gear, shouted to the dogs, waved goodbyes again to children, Óskar had in mind the scenes he needed in the mist and snow, shot from icy tops of precipice.

Now in gale force east, entering watery stage from west, again the weather blind and grim with cold, another antique trawler, came the Sargon once of Grimsby, its skipper on the hunt for shelter in Patreksfjord around the northern flank of Látrabjarg and all its cliffs.

The skipper blindly steered, hoping for the snow to cease. A young deckie took soundings with a seven-pound lead.

Sure enough on the first dawn of December, their anchor dragged. The crew were all from Hull, the mate and bosun, engineer and trimmer, spare hand and the deckie learners. The youngest was just thirteen, the oldest born in days when Grimsby sent its boys as slaves aboard the fleeting system.

Only six survived this night, the rest were frozen by exposure. With a grinding screech of metal the ship was stranded at the base of the mountain Hafnarmúli.

The rock that held the Sargon was two just hundred steps from safety. All was dark ashore, so on deck the crew launched flares, burned each mattress. And a farming wife, saw the flame and phoned the coastguard. A lad rode fast by horse from Þordur’s house, clattered over slatey slopes to find the film set. The crew and actors were amazed.

They drew out charts, and saw this was a lengthy walk. North around their tongue of land, twenty leagues to the plain of Örlygur. The formal court in Hull would later certify, the conditions were appalling. The judge voiced admiration for the shore party, coming over testing country. For he knew this was not the only stranding where rescuers had been so willing. Yet to Iceland, he sent no special message, neither thanks nor medals. He settled that the stranding and loss of life was not due to wrongful act, nor fault of skipper or the owner.

The grounded ship had a lifeboat, and one lifejacket for each man and boy, yet as the icy waves thrashed on deck, they set solid over every metal surface. Six of the crew were sheltered in the whaleback, the other ten and skipper were back inside the bridge.

The wind was so ferocious, alas Þordur’s team could not attach the rocket line to ship. All was wretched, by the clamour of the waves.

Óskar’s camera kept jamming, yet after dawn the breeches buoy was finally fixed to the hull, and a fisherman strapped in. And now the farmers scampered in the waves, and they pulled from salt six ashen men so cold.

Yet none from the wheelhouse could escape, the woodbine funnel still was straight. It seemed not far, from bridge to bow. So Þordur and Arni hauled themselves aboard, slipped on ice, grabbed at frozen metal, slowly trod the gale to search for life.

At the bridge lay the skipper, all the windows caved. The door was broken at its hinges, they found eight other bodies squeezed into the space. Two were plainly boys. They shouted out with joy, for here was a man alive. He fluttered eyelids, but they could not free his fingers frozen to a metal post.

He died before their eyes. Time had scythed the crew of Dhoon, took again this gang of Sargon fishers.

At the court in Hull, in the columns of the press, no one seemed to know these were the very medalled men and women who had a year before rescued the crew of Dhoon. That year was bad for Hull, three trawlers down. Yet in those very months, Iceland lost sixteen. The isle would soon extend fish limits further out to sea, as would Norway and the Faroes, sowing seeds for wars of cod. Yet even as the coastguards fought for fish, they also rescued stranded fishers.

Days after the rescue act, Þordur and the local sheriff, the sea now mirror calm, commissioned boat to motor round to Sargon. They aimed to retrieve the frozen bodies of the fishers from the bridge. They found in horror, open tins and bottles lying on the deck. But now there was no sign of life.

And there the rusting wreck lies still, rising up as ebbs the daily tide.

The rescued men were soundless too, the mate of Sargon retired to spend his life as master of a tethered lightship. Though the film would tell the tale, the rescuers stayed silent, some so traumatised by those double deaths on ships. It wasn’t just the rocks that fell, and struck them blows. It was the death of other men and boys, before their very eyes.

In Hull they laid heavy stones inside the coffins, to give them heft for bearers as they stumbled from the church to grave.

Jules Pretty

[Nyo Ze: As It Is, Like This]

[From Sea Sagas of the North (Hawthorn Press, 2022) and personal testimony from Oskar Sveinsson, author of Við Látrabjarg (Utkall, Reykjavik, 2009)]

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