Today is Seafarer’s Day, which is a pretty big deal here in Iceland. Since 1987 it’s been an officially designated holiday for everyone who works on fishing vessels, meaning that all ships, insofar as possible,* must be in the harbour on this day. All around the country there are celebrations, events, speeches, dances, etc. going on, most notably in and around the country’s harbours.
EPI tells me that in rural areas, in the small villages that revolve almost exclusively around fishing, this day has traditionally been the big event of the year [well next to, maybe, Christmas and Easter – but certainly bigger than National Day, which is on 17 June]. For once, on this day, all the men were home with their families, and there were all the aforementioned celebrations [and probably a lot of drinking and carousing]. In Reykjavík, Seafarer’s Day has been expanded into a weekend-long festival called Festival of the Sea, with a carnival-type atmosphere down at the harbour.
Meanwhile, a place on a fishing vessel has never been more coveted. According to a recent survey, 84% of seamen are satisfied in their job and see it as a future career. They get special tax breaks [pay considerably less than the rest of us], and if you’re lucky enough to land a place on a ship with a high catch you’ll have an excellent salary. Fishermen get paid fixed wages plus a commission from the earnings of the catch, which is a pretty good percentage for the lowest ranking position and then rises in increments, so that an average salary for a regular fisherman can be around ISK 1 million in a good month [USD 13,500 / GBP 7,300]. Today’s fishing trawlers are like four-star hotels, with top facilities: rooms with ensuite bathrooms, gymnasiums, libraries, DVD and video libraries, sun benches, top chefs on board, etc. The work is demanding, certainly, and you have to be in good physical condition [and presumably not prone to seasickness], but gone are the days of extreme cold and hardship and work around the clock – there are fixed shifts now and while there may be extended periods away from the family, fishermen get good breaks in between.
Obviously there are risks involved – the weather can turn bad and crashing waves can pull seamen overboard, and of course there is heavy machinery on board that can be dangerous. Sadly – and somewhat ironically – the luxurious facilities can also pose a threat. Just a couple of weeks ago, fire broke out on a trawler from Akureyri that was out at sea, with the result that two crew members died. The fire, it turned out, started in one of the sun benches on board. Consequently, celebrations in Akureyri were subdued today and some events were cancelled, as a loss of that sort leaves a painful mark on a small community.
Just as an aside, the notorious independence and self-assurance of Icelandic women is almost certainly a result of the fishing-based society, as they necessarily had to hold the home and everything together while their men were away for extended periods. Indeed I could probably write long a dissertation on the psychological make-up of this nation as a result of being a fishing-based society – but not today.
IT RAINED ON THEIR PARADE…
…and rained, and rained. In fact, the heavens opened with a torrential downpour today – hence there was a rather poor turnout at the harbour and the Minister of Fisheries made a speech in front of only a few hardy souls that huddled together beneath their umbrellas. It’s been pretty warm in the past few days with a certain humidity in the air that we northerners usually only associate with foreign countries. It’s stopped raining now, and temps are 11°C, the sun came up at 03.02 and will go down at 23.54.
* Some trawlers will be out fishing for months at a time and in those instances, of course, they don’t always make it home for this day.