Iceland doesn’t have an army. We like it that way, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t have a long history of men risking their lives and living with gruesome work conditions for the good of the country. I’m talking, of course, about the Icelandic fishermen. They play such an important role in the history, culture and economy of Iceland that they even have their own holiday. The first Sunday of June, every year, is celebrated as Fishermen’s day in Iceland, aka Sjómannadagurinn.
It’s important to keep in mind, that while Iceland is a pretty big island, probably bigger than you think at least, there aren’t a lot of people living on it. The reason for this is that the majority of the island is made up of uninhabitable mountains, downright hostile glaciers, and plateau deserts, desolate stretches of black sand, streaked with snow almost all year round. That’s why all Icelanders live on a narrow strip of land between the ocean and the mountains and the towns in Iceland that are not built up around fishermen can quite literally be counted on one hand.
For the longest time, fishing in Iceland meant getting up way before dawn had even started thinking about cracking, putting on the thickest, heaviest clothes you could find, and heading out onto the open Atlantic Ocean with a few friends and colleagues in an open rowing boat, whatever the weather. As you can imagine, a lot of people were lost at sea, especially since swimming was considered futile against the cold of the water, and a useless skill to have. Speaking of people that were lost at sea, did you know that so many Icelandic fishing boats were attacked during World War II, that Icelanders actually have a higher per capita death count during the war than most European nations?
Since the beginning of the 20th century, technology made leaping strides in the Icelandic fishing industry and it’s no longer bordering on suicide to work as a fisherman. That doesn’t mean that it’s especially pleasant work, the shifts are long, the labour is hard and the bigger ships usually go out for weeks, even months at a time. Even the smaller ships, that only go out for a day or two at a time, have a much longer workday than office jobs. On a good day, 8 hours of fishing might be enough, but if the weather’s bad or the fishing is slow, it might be 14 hours or more.
As you can see, being an Icelandic fisherman is no walk in the park and they deserve their own holiday. The first Fishermen’s day was celebrated in 1938 and it’s been a popular event in all fishing towns around Iceland ever since. All ships are docked that day, so the fishermen can spend the day with their families. There are celebratory programmes featuring speeches and family orientated events, usually followed by a dance in the evening.
Reykjavík, although not as dependent on the fishing industry as some of the smaller towns is actually the biggest fishing harbour in Iceland. The city celebrates Fishermen’s day with the Festival of the Sea, a two-day celebration of the ocean around us and its importance to Icelandic culture. The festival takes place at the old harbour area, an exciting neighbourhood in Reykjavík, where new restaurants, shops, artist workshops and other businesses are popping up and offers a plethora of fun events for kids and adults alike.