Pretty sure you haven’t heard of Westman Islands, I know I hadn’t. They have been around for thousands of years formed by the undersea volcanic activity. They are only about 8 miles off the southern coast of Iceland. You can take a ferry or fly (about 20 minutes) from Reykjavik or I found out you can do both also from Landeyjahöfn, a small town on the southern coast, where the flight is only 10 minutes. There aren’t many flights a day, so plan early.
Westman Islands, Vestmannaeyjar, are a collection of about 16 islands, with Heimaey the largest and only inhabited one. Six of the these have fishing cabins on them. There are also about 30 rocks and skerries. Skerry is a new word for me – means small rocky reef or island.
There was a submarine eruption southeast of Hellisey in 1896. The next eruption began on 14 November 1963. It lasted about four years – one of the longest in Icelandic history – and gave birth to Surtsey, the 15th island in the group. People are not allowed on Surtsey except for scientists monitoring the island’s activity.
The island Jolnir developed 5.5 miles southwest of Surtsey during Christmas 1965. This eruption lasted until the 10th of August 1966 and the island had disappeared at the end of October the same year. Lava started flowing again from the eastern craters of Surtsey on the 19th of August 1966.
After breakfast we walked over to a fish factory.
We left the fish factory and headed to the folk museum.
In the museum were photos of the 1973 eruption on Heimaey of Eldfell.
More about this eruption later on.
This is the story of a man who survived beyond all odds from a fishing vessel that sank. Loftur showed us the movie “The Deep” made in 2012 about his story.
On March 11, 1984, Guðlaugur Friðþórsson and four other fishermen were fishing near the Westman Islands when their boat, Hellisey VE-503, capsized at about 10 pm.
During the sinking of their boat, off the coast of Heimaey, he and two out of four other companions climbed on to the keel. After about 45 minutes, they swam towards the shore, yet the other two disappeared within 10 minutes. The only survivor of the crew of five, Guðlaugur swam for five to six hours in 41 F to 43 F cold water the 3.7 miles to the island, wearing shirt, sweater and jeans, guided by a lighthouse. The air temp that night was 28 F. The steersman talk all the time with birds around him to keep his wits. On the way he passed within 300 feet of a boat without being noticed.
Reaching the shore, he found himself at the most dangerous section of the island’s coastline, due mainly to the waves hitting the coastal lava rock formations. After searching for and finding a suitable, less steep part of the shoreline, he finally got to land but had to walk with bare feet. He lost a good deal of blood because of the sharp volcanic glass. In a tub full of water for sheep, he broke the inch thick ice with his fist and drank. He had to walk 1.25 mile in wet clothes until he reached a settlement at 7 am. The son of the homeowner thought he was a drunk and closed the door on him, but the father checked. Guðlaugur was taken to the hospital, and doctors were unable to find his pulse. His temperature was too low to be registered by a regular medical thermometer. His body temperature was below 93 °F yet he showed almost no symptoms of hypothermia only of dehydration.
Of course, no one believed his story until they finally found remains of the fishing vessel in the area he said it was. He was sent to London to be tested by the Royal Navy. He does not like to be remembered or thought a hero. He lives in Westman Islands and stays out of the spotlight.
Guðlaugssundið – the Swim of Guðlaugur – has been an annual tradition in the Westman islands since 1985, a year after Guðlaugur’s heroic swim. This tradition, which takes place in the swimming pool of the Westman Islands, commemorates the deed of Guðlaugur, and all the fishermen lost at sea.
We walked down to the harbor for lunch. A stop for a photo op with Puffin.
After lunch at Tanginn restaurant on the waterfront, we went to the Eldheimar volcano museum, which was built around the ruins of a house dug up from underneath thick layers of ash and lava.
After the museum Loftur was taking some of us for a hike on the lava field. I started but when I saw this hillside, I decided not to continue.
As it turns out, there was a small language issue, as I thought Loftur was taking us up that path and I had already climbed one hill to get to here. Turns out he walked the group down the road and up a less radically angled way. I need to be more specific in my line of questioning – Asking are you going up there? he said yes. He didn’t explain further and I didn’t clarify. As it turns out, I made the best choice as one of the ladies who did the climb told me later the wind was blowing hard and the shifting rocks made them lock arms to keep from falling down. Yup, not my cup of tea.
I headed towards town and the cemetery that I had seen in the photos of the eruption.
We then had a short break to rest and get ready for our home hosted visit. Helga and Arnor were a lovely couple who told us their tale of the eruption.
Helga was just 17 and very much a hippie (think pictures of long hair with flowers from San Francisco) when the eruption happened. Her father was not all that happy with the young man that she was in love with. That fateful day had been a stormy day and many fishing vessels sought protection in the harbor. Because there were so many fisherman in town the theater decided to open to give them something to do. On the night of the eruption Jan 23, 1973, Helga and Arnor went to the theater, and came back to her house. At 2 am, Helga awoke to her mother yelling for her to get dressed and down stairs. Helga looked out the window to see the eruption. They came downstairs to find her mother had fixed a big meal. Helga not understanding her mother’s logic, asked why. To which she was told, her mother didn’t know when they would eat again as they were leaving the island. Though her father was not happy with them, he decided the young man must love her and sent them to look for her brothers who were working and he called Arnor’s parents to let them know.
Everyone walked orderly to the harbor and were loaded onto fishing vessels to leave the island. Taking only the clothes on their backs. There were approximately 5,000 people to evacuate. If it wasn’t for that storm, those boats would not have been there to help them.
Helga and Arnor talked about how the ash was falling and it had burrs on them and it was sticking to their hair and clothes. In some places it melted the hairs together. They got on a ship and as they sailed out of the harbor, Arnor said he could see the red lava in the sea beneath them.
Helga and Arnor got married and have a couple of children. They are both singers, musicians, and artists.
The sad part is no animals could be rescued. Farmers had to slaughter their whole stock. It was either that, or the animals could die from the lava, from the toxic gas, or starve to death. They did not know if the island was going to crack in half, or sink.
This eruption lasted until July. The concern was the lava flow was towards the harbor and that it would block the harbor. There was an Icelandic scientist who thought why not use the sea water to slow or stop the lava flow. They didn’t have pumps, but they contacted the US Ambassador who asked the US President, Richard Nixon. The US supplied 40 pumps that they had from WWII and because of the temperature of the water, it worked. This eruption created a 656 foot mountain. One of the pumps sits on the hillside next to the lava flow today.
Westman Islands inhabitants did not want to give up on their amazing islands so they went back and with help from other Icelanders and foreigners the dug up the islands again so people could move back. Not all the homes were uncovered.
The islands are famed in Iceland for their major annual festival, Þjóðhátíð (“The National Festival”), which attracts thousands of people. The festival was first held in 1874, at the same time as the commemoration of the millennium of the settlement of Iceland. Vestmannaeyjar residents had been prevented by bad weather from sailing to the mainland for the festivities and thus celebrated locally. Helga and Arnor perform at this festival.