Guðlaugur Friðþórsson: Icelandic Seaman Who Survived After 6 Hours in Ice-Cold Water

boatThis happened on the 11th of March, 1984. Around 11 pm, 5 km east of Stórhöfði on Heimaey (the largest of the Westmann Islands, an archipelago off the south coast of Iceland), the fishing boat Hellisey VE 503 rolled over. The emergency raft was unreleasable. Three out of five fishermen were able to climb up on the upended keel of the boat, but it sank about 45 minutes later. The air temperature was -2° C, the sea was as cold as 6° C. One of the remaining three men died almost as soon as he got into water. The two others, Guðlaugur Friðþórsson, steersman, then 22 years old, and Hjörtur R. Jónsson, captain, 25 years, swam side by side and tried to keep talking. Very soon Guðlaugur realized that he was alone. However, he remained calm and concentrated. He headed to the west, where the lights of Heimaey were visible. In water that cold he had to die in 20 or 30 minutes. It is unbelievable, but he swam about 6 hours to survive.

Guðlaugur was dressed in jeans, shirt and sweater, with nothing on his feet. He did not know that wet clothes draw heat from the body 20 times faster than dry ones. However, he knew well that low body heat leads to mental confusion, irregular heartbeat and death. The steersman talked all the time with birds around him in order to keep his wits. On the way he passed within three hundred feet off a boat without being noticed. When Guðlaugur finally reached land, his ordeal did not end: he was against a cliff and had to go back into the sea.

He swam again, this time along the cliffs. When he finally climbed out to the shore, he realized that he was on a broad lava field. Since he was barefoot, he lost a good deal of blood because of the sharp volcanic glass. In a tub full of water for sheep, he broke the inch-thick ice with his fist and drank. He had to go 2 km in wet clothes until he reached a settlement on the 12th of March at 6:55 am. Doctors were unable to find Guðlaugur’s pulse when they examined him at the hospital. His temperature was too low to be registered by the usual medical thermometer and is reported to be at least as low as the minimum 34° C. However, he survived in good health.

To be sure, this heir to Vikings did not yield to death primarily because of his extraordinary courage and determination. However, a startling fact was discovered by the researchers from the University of Iceland: Guðlaugur’s fat is almost like seal fat. It is more solid and two or three times thicker than human fat. So I can’t help but wonder whether the Icelandic folktales about selkies are actually downright truth.

Photo courtesy Michael “Mike” L. Baird. Used under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic Licence.

42 comments… add one
  • Lenny T

    Watched the movie this evening. The gentleman showed extraordinary courage while trying to save not only his life but his friends also.
    Did the scientists discover anything that could be useful to fisherman caught up in the same type of situation?

    • Viking Rune

      Lenny, almost nothing can be done if the temperature is really low.

  • Sid Bream

    It’s truly amazing that he survived, but it’s also very hard on him that only he survived and he lost all of his shipmates. He is truly a sea legend.

  • Grunhilde

    Is Gulli still alive? I would love to meet him someday! His is a truly miraculous and in awe inspiring story!

    • Viking Rune

      As far as I know, he’s alive.

      • Kamila Pruska

        I just watched the movie and I’m really impressed inside. Very touching emotionally story of the hero! It would be a great honour to met real Viking. He gave me power today !

        • Viking Rune

          Thank you for sharing this, Kamila.

  • Mark Keltie


    Today I watch the film 25/05/2016, I live in Australia by the coast and surfed most of my life, I will never complain about cold water ever again after watching the film on SBS, what a brave and lovely man, he would be a lot older now and I wish him well

    Kindest regards to him

    Mark Keltie

  • Tracey Bourke

    I watched this amazing film as my son is a fisherman in the Republic of Ireland. It was honest and true, no Hollywood glitz like The Perfect Storm which was a load of rubbish. So sad for the lost fishermen, one of the most dangerous jobs in the world.

    • Viking Rune

      Hello Tracey. Yes, honesty and truth is what we lack more and more both in the movies and in real life.

  • bresail

    I lived in the Westmann Islands at the time of this tragedy and was also on a fishing boat, VE Arntyr. So I can vouch that this event is true.
    Shortly after he came out of hospital, we met up with Guðlaugur in our watering hole, “Skannsins “.
    He wasn’t just talking to the seabirds, he was asking them to get help.
    He swore he would never go to sea again.
    He was a always a great person.

    • Viking Rune

      Hello Bresail. Thank you, very interesting.

  • Tony M

    Yes, I saw that film ” the deep” last night, I would not have survived 5 minutes in that water, that guy is like living miracle and a seal.

    • Viking Rune

      Hello Tony. Yes, he’s truly extraordinary.

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