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The Ocean Within Us

The water temperature was 7ºC yesterday when I went for a late afternoon swim. Colder than usual, but the water was flat, calm, reflecting the pink and orange of sunset.

These were luxurious conditions for a long, slow cold-water swim. A flock of gulls circled and dove at the water out past the Living Rock Island. A seal popped its head up and watched me a while. A freighter rumbled past Stuart Island, hugging the coastline.

The icy water gripped me.

Into the icy waters

These were different conditions than the ones Guðlaugur Friðþórsson (pronounced Gothlager Friorsen) 1 faced on the evening of March 11, 1984. He was 22 years old, working as a mate on a fishing trawler off the south coast of Iceland.

The ship’s trawling gear got snagged on the sea bottom, and as the crew worked the motorized winch to free the nets and lines, the boat overturned. Two of the crew members drowned immediately. The ship began to sink. The three remaining crew couldn’t release the emergency raft, so were forced to swim in the direction of the shore. The water was 5ºC.

Within minutes, there were only two crew members. Soon it was just one. Our hero, Guðlaugur, swam for several hours, talking to seagulls to stay awake. A boat went by a few hundred feet away, but he wasn’t able to attract attention. He swam backstroke, training his eyes on a distant lighthouse.

Emerging from the ocean

He eventually touched land. But it was the base of a cliff, and there was no way to climb or walk ashore. He re-entered the water and swam further south, eventually reaching shore, a snow-covered lava field.

Guðlaugur walked in the direction of a nearby town. He was terribly thirsty and stopped at a sheep cistern, punched through the ice with his fist and drank the water.

Guðlaugur recovering in hospital following his 1984 ordeal.

When he entered the village, “it seemed to him a splendid dream-vision of life.” 2 He knocked on the first home he saw with lights on. He was barefoot, covered in frost and his feet bloodied from walking over the sharp lava rock.

When he arrived at the hospital, doctors could not discern a pulse. His body temperature dropped below 95ºF (the thermometer used went no lower). He showed no signs of hypothermia, only dehydration.

The story is real and is told as part of the opening narrative of a recent book, Why We Swim, by the San Francisco writer and New York Times contributor Bonnie Tsui. A swimmer herself, Tsui’s book uncovers stories of Olympic champions, a Baghdad swim club that meets in the pool of Saddam Hussein’s palace, petroglyphs of prehistoric humans in the water and modern-day swim clubs and Japanese Samurai swimmers.

The story is one of the most remarkable stories in the book. Guðlaugur became a legend in Iceland and is revered as the quintessential embodiment of the Icelandic spirit. The story became a feature movie in 2012, The Deep, which can be found on a handful of streaming services.

Seal fat

By rights, Guðlaugur should have died after spending hours in the icy water. But subsequent studies showed that his body benefited from a layer of dense fat cells that bore a resemblance to a seal’s body. The fat layer was two to three times average human thickness, a biological peculiarity that allowed him to survive. It kept him warm, buoyant and able to keep swimming.

It’s something I’ve been thinking about in my late afternoon swims. We’re primarily land-based creatures but still have a powerful connection to the watery world that gave rise to the earliest forms of life on earth.

In an earlier blog post, I wrote of Rachel Carson’s view 3that we carry a part of the sea in our bodies. How we have in our human veins “a salty stream in which the elements sodium, potassium, and calcium are combined in almost the same proportions as in seawater.”

“How we look out upon the sea and sense something familiar,” writes Carson, “a sense of wonder and curiosity, compounded with an unconscious recognition of [our] lineage.”

Underwater currents

The Guðlaugur story brings that lineage into sharp relief. This is something that goes beyond the symbolic or poetic. Guðlaugur’s physiology takes us directly to that connection in our history as organisms born in the ocean. We as humans may be better adapted to land, but our ties to the sea still run deep in our bodies and psyche, like deep underwater currents.

It is a connection I feel almost every time I wade into the waters of Boundary Pass from our little beach. It’s the effect of being immersed in cold water, the calming influence it has on my breathing, the hyper-awareness of the sea animals, the birds, the aquatic plant life, the tides and currents that enfold me. The feeling that I may be an interloper in this water world, but one I’m deeply drawn to.

I haven’t been tested by the conditions faced by Guðlaugur and hope never to do so. And frankly, I get seasick at the first sign of sea swells or choppy water. But I’ve also felt the “benign indifference” of the ocean and its hidden dangers. And I have a profound respect for its power and a faith that it can save me, just as quickly end my life.


Happy Monk Tidings - October 27, 2021 🍞 - Baker's Choice this week: Mountain Rye; Blog: Colossal Roughhousing on Boundary Pass [ See link in profile ]

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The good earth! We survive the big storm! Been inside all day so I’m going swimming and the hot tub awaits. .
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#coldwaterswimming #coldwaterswim #coldwatertherapy #penderisland #southpenderisland

The good earth! We survive the big storm! Been inside all day so I’m going swimming and the hot tub awaits. .
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#coldwaterswimming #coldwaterswim #coldwatertherapy #penderisland #southpenderisland
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Bake Day with the Happy Monk. The amazing @jomosenpai (my son) came over to Pender last summer on a bake day. Was in my face all the time, taking pictures, shooting video. It was so great having him around, and I’m amazed the bread (Polenta Rosemary Sourdough) turned out so well. This video he made turned out very well, too!
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Bake Day with the Happy Monk. The amazing @jomosenpai (my son) came over to Pender last summer on a bake day. Was in my face all the time, taking pictures, shooting video. It was so great having him around, and I’m amazed the bread (Polenta Rosemary Sourdough) turned out so well. This video he made turned out very well, too!
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Post to The Happy Monk Baking Company
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Lo! The mighty Seed Feast! Favoured by Happy Monk customers the Pender Islands over! These loaves, just rolled out of Mildrith, are hot and fragrant with seeds, nuttiness and bready wholesome-ness. O for a steamy slice and a schmear of butter! That I may eat “and leave the world unseen, and with thee fade away into the forest dim.” (Apologies to the ghost of John Keats).
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Lo! The mighty Seed Feast! Favoured by Happy Monk customers the Pender Islands over! These loaves, just rolled out of Mildrith, are hot and fragrant with seeds, nuttiness and bready wholesome-ness. O for a steamy slice and a schmear of butter! That I may eat “and leave the world unseen, and with thee fade away into the forest dim.” (Apologies to the ghost of John Keats).
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#seedfeastbread #seedbread #seedybread #sourdough #sourdoughbread #woodfired #woodfiredoven #woodfiredovenbread #woodfiredbread #coboven #earth.oven #bread #breadlove #baker #bbga #happymonkbaker #happymonkbaking #naturallyleavened #artisanbread #realbread #breadpoetry #rusticbread #penderisland #southpenderisland
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Moonset and high tide, South Pender Island at 3:50 a.m. 
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 #woodfired #woodfiredoven #woodfiredbaking #woodfiredbread #clayoven #clayovenbaking #coboven #cobovenbaking #sourdoughbread #sourdoughbaking #breadmaking #breadbaking #breadlove #bread #bakersofinstagram #bakerslife #penderisland #southpenderisland #southerngulfislands #southerngulfislandsbc #happymonk #happymonkbakingcompany #happymonkbakery

Moonset and high tide, South Pender Island at 3:50 a.m.
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#woodfired #woodfiredoven #woodfiredbaking #woodfiredbread #clayoven #clayovenbaking #coboven #cobovenbaking #sourdoughbread #sourdoughbaking #breadmaking #breadbaking #breadlove #bread #bakersofinstagram #bakerslife #penderisland #southpenderisland #southerngulfislands #southerngulfislandsbc #happymonk #happymonkbakingcompany #happymonkbakery
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Happy Monk Tidings - July 21, 2021 🍞 - Baker's Choice: Bird Seed Bread; Blog: Rye Bread: The Agony and the Ecstasy [ See link in profile ]

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In the early light of dawn, Mildrith oven-springs sourdough, caramelizes crusts gold and brown and leaves heavenly smells as evidence. Inside her hot clay dome, 12 boules of Salish Sourdough are on the final stage of their journey. Behold the steam rising out of the chimney!
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#woodfired #woodfiredoven #clayoven #clayovenbakery #clayovenbread #woodfiredbaking #woodfiredbread #sourdoughbread #sourdoughbaking #breadmaking #breadbaking #breadlove #bread #bakersofinstagram #bakerslife #penderisland #southpenderisland #southerngulfislands #southerngulfislandsbc #happymonk #happymonkbakingcompany #happymonkbakery

In the early light of dawn, Mildrith oven-springs sourdough, caramelizes crusts gold and brown and leaves heavenly smells as evidence. Inside her hot clay dome, 12 boules of Salish Sourdough are on the final stage of their journey. Behold the steam rising out of the chimney!
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#woodfired #woodfiredoven #clayoven #clayovenbakery #clayovenbread #woodfiredbaking #woodfiredbread #sourdoughbread #sourdoughbaking #breadmaking #breadbaking #breadlove #bread #bakersofinstagram #bakerslife #penderisland #southpenderisland #southerngulfislands #southerngulfislandsbc #happymonk #happymonkbakingcompany #happymonkbakery
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  1. Guðlaugur’s last name is not a family name, but a patronym, a component of a personal name based on the given name of the father. A matronym is based on the name of the mother.

  2. From Why We Swim by Bonnie Tsui, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2020

  3. Referring to Carson’s 1951 book, The Sea Around Us, which won the National Book Award for Non-Fiction and remained on the New York Times bestseller list for 86 weeks.

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