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
  • Brendan

    Simply . . . incredible ! !
    This Icelandic man deserves all the respect in the world for his personal endurance against all the odds .

    It is without doubt a heartrending story of survival andhearbreak .
    When we can sit back in our comfortable firside chairs and argue one way or the other the ifs buts and the maybe,s as to wether this was some wildly made up story of self preservation in frozen waters and a near hopless situation this man deserves all credit in overcoming such odds .

    Down through human history time and again humans both male and female have blown away the record books in times of survival .
    The will and passion to survive in circumstances most average people could not is a testimony to that personal endurance .

    When we consider in our own lifes experience right from the time of conception , we are one swimmer in 4.5 million of swimmers .
    by that i am talking about a single human sperm .

    Yes , for in order for each and every person to be alive to read this . . . . you – me and the whole living population of this planet earth had to compete against that 4.5 million other swimmers and live to tell the tale .

    I salute that Icelandic man , I salute him for his bravery and survival skils for his positive mental outlook and obvious will to live beyond what would be deemed to be against the odds .

    Brendan Gorman . . . . from Ireland .

    • Viking Rune

      Thank you, Brendan. Great comment.

  • Odram

    Of course he didn’t make it up…he was onboard, the navigation reports showed where the ship sand and how long he would need to have been in the water. His hospital reports proved his body temperature on arrival. He was known to be a member of a crew that were all lost.

    • Viking Rune

      Hello Odram. Yes, the story seems to be totally true.

  • jay

    what a gripping true story and film the deep was very good ,
    what a man of 22 had to do to survive ,mind over matter
    a lesson for us all

    • Viking Rune

      A lesson for us all, to be sure. Well said, Jay.

  • Margit

    Hallo, gibt’s diese wahre Begebenheit auch als Buch zu lesen?
    Wenn ja, wer weis wie der Autor heißt oder wo ich ein Buch in Deutsch bekomme.

    • Viking Rune

      Hallo Margit. Leider, weiss ich nicht ob diese Begebenheit in einigem Buch beschreibt wurde.

  • Dai Hughes (Wales)

    I was very sad for the men that did not survive and for their families. Gudl was very lucky and very tough to get through such a night. I hope he is very happy and huge respect to all people who have to work in the North Atlantic.
    Good luck to you all.

    • Viking Rune

      Good luck to all fishermen.

  • Patrick

    and then he went back fishing again!

    • Viking Rune

      That’s amazing, really.

  • Fisherman from NE Scotland

    Some people are just extraordinary. The film is extraordinary. Life can be extraordinary. I totally believe the story, looking at the real footage of the interview when Guðlaugur Friðþórsson was talking about the experience, personally I saw a man telling the truth.

    To endure such shit scary experience and then live to tell the tale about it; what a unique man.

    • Viking Rune

      Yes, the man is truly unique.

  • ElectricRay

    He most certainly did not. And the water was 3 degrees. There is a simply extraordinary film of the episode called The Deep which has just been released. Don’t miss it.

    • Viking Rune

      Yes, the movie is great.

  • Johnny

    6 hours in 6° C water? No way! He most likely made that up.

    • Dude from Iceland

      No he didn’t, this is a well known story here and he was my fathers friend. Besides there is a shitload of proof.

      • Johnny

        What proof? Generally, a person can survive 6° C water for 10-20 minutes before the muscles get weak and you lose coordination and strength. Within 45-60 minutes you are dead. In extreme case depending on body weight, physical/mental condition and pure luck you can last maybe, but that’s a big maybe, 120 minutes.

        6 hours is highly unlikely to put it mildly. Impossible is a better word.

        • Patrick

          It’s true scientists tested him for days. He smoked, drank and was out of shape and not even a strong swimmer.

        • another dude from Iceland

          Us Icelanders are just hardcore folks to put it simply. Just look at Hafþór Júlíusson from Game of thrones, he ate 7 whole chicken.

    • Oyvind

      Science said the fat He had under his skin saved him. Doctors in England tested him, He was protected off the cold water

    • Richard Lionheart

      No, the guys ability to survive in such conditions is well documented by the Royal Naval Hospital at Portsmouth, England, who tested him several times in an ice water tank used to train divers nad SAS soldiers. A movie was made about it in 2012 called “The Deep”

  • Brian

    The Sea is unforgivable watch the move a Perfect Storm it is about fisherman from Mass. USA that get caught in a storm. I could not imagine being in a viking ship in the storm I saw in that movie.

    I am happy he made it. It is true we do adapt maybe he has a internal survival suit kinda badass. Check out Deadlist Catch it is on the Discovery Channel. They got guys that fall in the ocean off the coast off Alaska and die or are not the same. They say it is like the water is cutting into you maybe his nerves are use to the frigid cold and can still focus on survival.

    • Viking Rune

      Hello Brian. To be sure, we know far too little about the powers a human body actually has.

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