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.
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.
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.”
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.
Cinnamon-Raisin bread, an enduring Happy Monk favourite. And here’s proof of Mildrith’s (the wood-fired oven) recent health check, as she just baked 41 loaves of this (and another 40 of Seed Feast) with lots of heat left to spare. Long live Mildrith and long live Cinnamon-Raisin bread!
Happy Monk Tidings - November 2, 2022 🍞 - BAKER'S CHOICE: Cinnamon-Raisin Bread; BLOG: A Vancouver Neighbourhood; BOOK OF THE WEEK: The Philosophy of Modern Song by Bob Dylan [ See LinkTree in Profile ]...
Happy Monk Tidings - September 28, 2022 🍞 - Baker's Choice: The Approachable Loaf; Blog: This Island of Apples; South Pender Growers and Makers Market [ See LinkTree in Profile ]
#apples #applebread #applelove #approachable #approachableloaf #breadlabcollective #breadlab...
Introducing this bread, Raven Ring Bread (a take on Hapanleipä, a Finnish bread) a recipe borrowed from @ravenbreads. The stand is made by my neighbour, Ken, a gifted woodworker. See you at the South Pender Growers and Makers Market, if it don’t rain too hard!...
Happy Monk Tidings - September 2, 2022 🍞 - Baker's Choice : Volkornbrot (German Rye); Blog: The Golden Loaf of Gorsefield Rye; NOTE: We're closing two weeks for Mildrith Maintenance [ See LinkTree in Profile ]...
It was a dirty day, Wednesday. The sky hadn't been washed, the ocean was soiled, and the air was muggy and smelled oily. Then, moments before the rain started, the sun shone through and a glorious slash of colour opened up. And a rainbow! No unicorns, sadly....
Dog days. The beginning of summer mellowness. Baked in languor. But sometimes it's hard to let go. Shouldn't I be baking something? [See LinkTree in Profile ]
#penderisland #southpenderisland #happymonkbaking #happymonkbakery
#happymonkbakingcompany #dogdays #dogdaysofsummer #southerngulfislands
#southerngulfislandsbakers #southerngulfislandsbakeries #southerngulfislandsbc...
This is James Morton, my father, who would have been 100 years old today if we hadn't lost him 36 years ago. I've surpassed him in living age and spent more years without him than with him, yet he still whispers in my ear and is a great listener when I talk to him. Taken at 14th Ave. and Burgess St., Burnaby, 'round about 1955. Handsome devil, ain't he?...