Esther The last Grimsby Sail Trawler

The Rescue at Sea

This is a shortened and somewhat cleaned up account of the story of the rescue of 38 fishermen from Grindavik on the South West coast of Iceland in March 1916. The story first came to me from an email sent to me by Thorbergur Kjartansson from Iceland who I met on line years ago. He found the story in a book written I think in 1933 from an interview given by Esther's Skipper Gudbjartur Olafsson about that the events of that day.

Thorbergur Kjartansson did his own translation and the story below in my own version from that. As with all things like this some of the power of the story has been lost in translation. I later found the story on a web page which you will find here and will need to be run through a language translation program like the one found on Google. Which ever version you read the drama and dangers of fishing the frigid waters of the North Atlantic are plain to see.

Here's the story.

The wind was from the south/south west on the morning of the 24th March 1916 when 24 small wooden boats put to sea from the fishing village of Grindavik on the South West coast of Iceland.

small boat
Typical fishing boats of Grindavik

Each boat had a compliment of between 10 and 12 men all put to oars as was traditional for those days. The fishing grounds were not far off shore and besides few could afford the luxury of fitting motors to their boats. Earlier the wind had been light and from the south, the fishing had been good and the weather was fine and expected to last.

However the wind turned and was driving hard from the north. Within a short while, anxious men were cutting away expensive fishing gear in their haste to save their lives. Sudden changes in weather is grist for the mill to those who fish Iceland's treacherous waters but even these experienced fishermen were caught out by both the suddenness and the ferocity of the weather driving down upon them.

In all twenty of the stricken craft made safe harbor but four boats and 38 men were driven away from the southern shore by the fearsome northerly gale.

The Captain of one of these small craft was a man called Gunnar Brynjolfsson. On his boat two of the men had become ill and he was down to seven men. He hadn't the manpower to battle the strength of the storm and was eventually driven far from shore.

His family, and loved ones of the other 37 stricken seamen, could only watch helplessly from the shore as their men folk, who had only left their homes that morning for a days fishing were now battling for their lives against a sea that had in such a short space of time turned from friend to foe.

When the situation was almost hopeless they saw a ship. The ship was called Esther.

esther large
Photograph above is of a painting of Esther
by Arreboe Clausen from Iceland.

Esther was on route for her home port of Reykjavik, the Capital of Iceland. She had had a successful fishing trip and was loaded to the decks with fish.

The deep rocky waters off the coast of Iceland were not fish able to trawlers so the traditional methods of hook and line were mainly used. Many of the smacks, who lost out to steam in the north sea, found a new lease of life in the north with the people of Iceland, Fareos and Scandinavia. Line fishing is labour intensive so engines were fitted to these boats. Most or all of the rigging was removed and extra births were built in the forward holds. Esther had a crew of 27 men on the day she stumbled upon the 4 stricken fishing boats from Grindavik.

Because of the worsening weather The skipper of Esther Captain Gudbiartur Olafsson decided to make closer to shore to ride out the storm. This was very fortunate for Captain Gunnar Brinjolfsson and his men. As Esther headed for the relative shelter of a lea shore the lookout spotted Gunnar Brinjolfssons boat and its crew.

Soon the other three boats were spotted and with in an hour all four boats were tied up to Esther's stern and 38 men crowded below decks with the 27 crew of Esther, however their ordeal was not to end there.

Esther's Captain tried to make for Grindavik to put the stranded fishermen ashore but it was not possible. The storm was at its height and Captain Olafsson would not risk Esther or the lives on board. He had no choice but to stand off shore and ride out the storm.

Conditions below decks could only have been described as atrocious. At the end of a trip the crew would have been tired and ready for home. Clothes would have been damp and uncomfortable. Provisions would have been low and general conditions would have been poor. Most of the births would have been used in shifts. Esther had a crew of 27 but at most only 15 berths, 12 forward and 3 in the stern. There might have been berths in the wheelhouse for the Captain and first mate but it is not known at this time if Esther had a wheelhouse in 1916.

Now there were an additional 38 men on board all of whom had spent the day in open boats in a raging storm. Wet, tired and cold, all were forced in to the cramped forward hold and stern compartment.

During the night Captain Olafsson gave orders that the planking on the ships rails be broken away to allow the seas that were breaking over Esther's bows to run off more easily. Esther was sitting very low in the water with a full hold of fish and she could have been easily swamped if too much weight of water was allowed to sit on her decks. The water had to be got rid of as quickly as possible and the only way to do this was to break away the planking beneath the rails.

Captain Olafsson

For two days and nights Esther rode out the storm with her crew and the rescued men doing what they could to stay afloat and keep the seas from entering the ship.

On the morning of the third day following the rescue the weather had eased a little, the eye of the storm had passed. Orders were given to make for Grindavik and they set sail toward the shore.

By the morning of the fourth day following the rescue the weather had cleared enough and they reached Grindavik unharmed and with no loss of life. The four boats tied up to Esther on day one of the ordeal were however lost to the sea.

Captain Gudbjartur Olafsson was later presented with a signed gold watch from the crews of the four boats. He later became president of the Icelandic rescue union.

This is a fantastic story of which I am sure there is much more detail to be uncovered.

Return to the Esther story in Iceland or continue to the Faroes

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