The alarm bleeps on the bedside locker. I silence it quickly, so as not to wake the whole house and I slide out of bed. The heat is high and the radiators are scalding to touch, only the darkness outside alerts you know the ungodliness of the hour. Stars wink hello while everyone slumbers. A splash of water and some minty fresh breath and then back to my room to dress. I had the foresight to lay my clothes out the previous night. All the clothes that I will be wearing today besides my hat and gloves have been very generously loaned to me by the marvellously impressive Lára Stefánsdóttir.
Soft wool lies directly next to my skin. The next layers are all wool of varying percentages with a final top layer. This is the best layer; a fabulous hand knitted patch-work like jumper of a tan and blue squares. It was the perfect topping for my look of steadfast warmth and solidity. The jumper was scratchier than the inner vest but the moment I put it on my core temperature climbed. I knew I was in the best clothes to survive whatever the weather would throw at me. Standing in my room with only a small bedside light on and the sounds of a sleeping house I felt like a character from a pantomime – the goodie or the baddie I hadn’t decided yet!
Jacket, gloves, hat, ear warmers, rigid hiking boots, scarf and neck guard, back-pack of plain crackers, bananas and bottles of water; all ready and I gently closed the door behind me. It was 6.20am on Saturday 10th October 2015.
Even in the pitch black of the early morn the ducks of Ólafsfjörður stalk you as you walk past. It is twenty past six in the morning and I am quacking at the ducks of this small town, in north Ísland. To my ears these duck, which rule the town, sound like the angriest, maddest ducks on this Earth. They like to know everyone’s business and they will haggle with you until you answer. That of course is the mistake, now you are in a conversation! So on this dark morning I am in a discussion about the appropriateness of my being out and about, disturbing their morning saunter around the pond. I quacked on by and up to the Björgunarsveitin Tindur equipment building.
The Slysavarnafélagið Landsbjörg is an essential Icelandic volunteer organisation. They are a group that are highly trained to aid or rescue those you have gotten into difficulties both on land and sea. There are many of these teams scattered throughout the whole country, specialising in whatever threat is most likely to that area. For Ólafsfjörður the main threat is avalanches, and stupid tourists stuck in the snow! But these are not the only incidents that the local team will be called out for. Therefore they need to be highly skilled in mountaineering, sea rescues, helicopter usage, dealing with snow and skiing accidents and much more. They are vital to the safety of an area.
This Saturday I was lucky enough to be allowed to join the local Björgunarsveitin Tindur for the National Training Day.
The Slysavarnafélagið Landsbjörg holds a training day for all the teams around the country every year. Every second year it will be a massive event including both land and sea whereas on the opposing year it will be a sea training day only. It is a massively co-ordinated event, with a headquarters that is tracking and keeping contact with all teams scattered throughout the chosen area. This year the event covers both land and sea and was held in Akureyri, the capital town for the northern region of Ísland.
At one point on the drive down to Akureyri I asked who were the most likely calls out to and the resounding answer was the “stupid tourists”. While this may sound flippant to an outsider, it is a very real concern. Ísland has roads that even the locals will not use at certain times of the year, so why would a tourist (driving in a typical rental car) drive past a very large sign stating ÓFÆR, IMPASSABLE in both Icelandic and English, possibly removing a chain closing the road as well, know more than the locals. As a tourist I understand the lust of wanting to head up the road either in a car/jeep or on foot into those hills. They look benign and inviting from down below but in reality they could fast become a death trap. I forgot to ask if the tourists most recently rescued had been following a SatNav. The quickest way isn’t always the most relaxing nor accessible.
Put away the Garmin’s and Tom Tom’s and use an old fashioned paper map, check the weather and road information at all garages. This is real data information and will let you know the state of the roads before you head out.
Compass, torch, water and some food and a stash of clothes to change into if need be.
Now you are ready to go for that hike.
The drive from Ólafsfjörður to Akureyri allowed the sun to rise and when we arrive the water of the fjord is flat and beautiful under a clear blue sky. The blinding sun is only starting to emerge from behind the mountains and the water is bathed in the rays of buttery yellow. It belies the slight cool breeze that is blowing, everyone keeps moving. I am to join the sea rescue team for the day. I couldn’t wait.
I don’t remember falling asleep the night before, I was so giddy. My only worry is that I should throw up all over these men. Sea sickness never looks good, especially not when you are the only girl on a crew of extremely experienced hardy men. Please do not throw up, was the mantra in my head for the entire drive down to Akureyri. A breakfast of dry black bread and some water and nothing more. Nothing that could possibly slosh around uncomfortably and acidly in my stomach. My mantra ceased when I saw the water. It was perfect and the activity of everyone setting up and greeting each other was enough to distract me from all possible humiliation.
Remember the five layers of clothes? This had not even come close to preparing me for the get up I was to wear. Head to toe in waterproof, completely sealed suit (it put me in mind of an oil rig worker). Life buoyancy built into the back of it. Picking it up I nearly fell over. How was I to wear it if I couldn’t even hold it? I am used to oil skins and my wet gear, all of which are sitting at home, but this was a whole other level of professionalism. As it turned out, as with most things, once I had it on it was practically weightless, I could have been wearing my normal jeans and jumper. It was surprising comfortable and easy to move in and warm. Only the neck bindings rubbing against my skin was aggressive.
I was teamed with the sea group which consisted of three lads; Auðunn, Jónas and Ásgeir. The rest of the Björgunarsveitin Tindur were up the mountains doing land challenges or in headquarters keeping a close eye on us all.
Earlier Auðunn had laughed when I told him of my adventures trying to find waterproof gloves, that would also allow me to move my fingers. I ended up with the bright yellow gloves that fish processor workers use to protect their skin, but these were still more waterproof than my normal gloves. The bright yellow gloves caused great amusement, I would certainly be seen if I lost my footing and went in. But with the laughter dying down Auðunn says; “We have proper gloves for you. Put those away until next years gardening starts.” I haven’t seen them since.
I received the piece de resistance of my gear; a white helmet, with visor at the ready. I felt so impressive standing in my suit and helmet and somehow surprising I felt like I looked like the lads. Could I possibly fit in with these guys? We would find out . . .
Rescue a group of girls, stranded on the shore of the fjord with an injured member of the party.
Co-ordinates set, checking both the Admiralty Chart and the GPS maps. And we were off.
Ásgeir takes the wheel and with radios crackling and clipping out instructions and directions to all crews, we revved our engine, the rib lifted it’s nose into the air and off we flew. Once the initial motion of starting had subsided the nose sat back down to lie perfectly parallel to the water’s surface and only the wake from the motor board at the rear left any indication as to our presence on this pristine morning water. Up to 50 knots the wash becomes near flat behind us with the increasing speed and we thunder out of the safety of the inner bay and into the open waters of the long Eyjafjörður.
Visor pulled low, forcing the heavy wind to be swished to the side of my head and not into my eyes. I keep my head down low and scan the landscape through my eyelashes. I am unable to lift my head more than a couple of centimeters from the dip in my neck, I don’t have the neck muscles to hold my head up. I must work on this set of muscles in the future.
I watch as two geese take to the wing. Ásgeir challenges them to a race. Their white feathers glint against the brightening sun as they power up the fjord, keeping pace with our rib. They bank to the left and fly back towards the bay, Ásgeir declares himself the winner. We past a gigantic ship docked into the industrial end of the port. Big black letters of Antigua and Singapore the only indictors as to it’s journey to this northern port in Ísland. But everything is silent and calm in the port, no working activity on this weekend morning.
We cut through the water and pass by the city of Akureyri, I breath in the fresh chilled air and marvel at the gracefulness of the boat and the confidence of the three men I am with.
The first shout of sighting goes up. Waving from the shore, we can see the blonde hair of one girl signalling to us. Two girls huddle close together, to keep warm? While another lies prone on the top of a boulder, holding her wrist across her torso. Engine off and lifted out of the danger zone of rock and seaweeds underneath and we drift into the shore.
The two huddled girls signal to us to hurry. Jónas jumps in and guides the boat closer and wedges us up on a rocky outcrop that will hold the boat in position. Auðunn and Jónas wade onto shore and access the injuries; a smashed shoulder and broken ankle. They call for the back board. The girl rents the air with a screech as they prepare to roll her. Einn, Tveir, Þrír. Another shriek of pain, but she is on and being hoisted to the rib. Again Einn, Tveir, Þrír and she is in. The board is the perfect length to sit comfortably between the two inflatable sides at the front of the boat.
With care Jónas takes the girls ponytail and tucks it thoughtfully in alongside her head between the head guard, out of the way. She at least won’t get a cold from a wet ponytail. All in, push off and we are back on the open water. Slow and steady at 20 knots, and return to base.
Back on terra firma the ground crew take photos of the returning damsel. Smiles and cheers and photographs to show off later with all her friends. For us onto the next mission.
This is the shape of the day to come, unfortunately it ended early. Racing through a time-trail challenge with Jónas and Auðunn scrambling around on shore shouting back letters for me to record. Ásgeir is a magician with the locations he tricks the boat into entering. The competitive streak has kicked in with us, we must beat the others. Quickly quickly, scramble quicker.
Then it all came to a sudden conclusion. I heard a funny little clink and Ásgeir looked back at the engine, directing it to turn left. It remained static. The steering rod had snapped. The engine lay in a perpendicular line to the back board of the boat and would not move again. We were out. We would not be beating any teams, on the water at least.
Slowly we chugged back to shore. Ásgeir directed the engine manually to navigate the fjord while Auðunn controlled the throttle, as he was closest to the leveler. Back on shore, we pulled our rib out of the water, washed her down, suits as well. I removed my helmet with a twinge of regret and we headed off to head quarters.
I had felt such exhilaration donning that suit and helmet in the morning, removing it in the early afternoon sun felt a little bittersweet. But I had an amazing time and the lads I had been teamed with were great fun and were so welcoming I loved every minute of it. I may not have been of any real use to them, but they never once made it obvious and for that I thank them whole heartily.
Thank you to the whole team of Björgunarsveitin Tindur and I will be forever impressed and awed by the work you carry out. Especially when you are dealing with stupid tourists. And I will be forever happy that I didn’t embarrass myself by throwing up on you.