March 7, 2020


The man who refused to freeze to death (William Park, 27th February 2020, BBC)

Heimaey is the largest of the Westman Islands, an archipelago south of Iceland mostly inhabited by puffins. On Stórhöfði peninsula, at the southernmost point of Heimaey is an outcrop that juts into the Atlantic Ocean. The local weather station here claims to be one of the windiest places in Europe.

It was here, in the early hours of March 12 1984, that 23-year-old Guðlaugur Friðþórsson stumbled towards salvation. His bare feet were bleeding from deep cuts caused by the volcanic rock hidden beneath the snow, his clothes soaked in seawater and frozen to his body. He should have already died several times over, but something deep inside Friðþórsson propelled him forwards. 

The night was clear and cold. The air temperature was -2C (28F) but with strong winds it would have felt much colder. Despite the freezing temperatures, he paused at a bathtub filled with water left out for sheep for a brief respite. Punching through the centimetre-thick ice he began to gulp down water from the trough.  [...]

Friðþórsson had fallen into the sea just east of Stórhöfði peninsula when his the small fishing vessel, Hellisey VE 503, ran into trouble. At 10pm, her trawl net caught on the ocean floor capsizing the boat so quickly the crew had no time to send a distress signal.

Her five fishermen were thrown overboard. Three of them managed to scramble onto the keel of the upturned fishing boat, two never resurfaced.

The survivors found themselves separated from shore by three miles (5km) of 5-6C (41-43F) sea. An average person will survive in water colder than 6C for about 75 minutes. Accounts of people surviving for longer are anecdotal and few. In laboratories, test subjects begin to suffer adverse effects within 20 or 30 minutes before they are pulled out. To swim three miles in these seas would take hours.

Seawater cannot get really, really cold like air. Seawater freezes at about -1.9C (28.6F), but around Iceland in March the sea is just above freezing. It is theoretically possible to get frostbite in cold water, then, but very unlikely.

On the keel of the upturbed boat, however, the sub-feezing air temperature was taking its toll. The fishermen's wet shirts, sweaters and jeans were quickly exacerbating their coldness. Staying put was not an option. [...]

After a short while deliberating, the three men decide to risk the swim. Within 10 minutes, the two others had succumbed to the cold. In all, it took Friðþórsson six hours to swim to land. How was he able to survive for so much longer than his compatriots?

For the fishermen, the first few minutes after hitting the water were critical. Cold water takes heat away from the body quicker than air at the same temperature. Those that succumbed quickly were probably unable to control the cold shock response. Gasping and panicking, they inhaled water. Friðþórsson, by contrast, managed to control his breathing.

He later described remaining clear-headed throughout his swim. He even chose to get back in the sea to swim further along the shoreline after the cliffs at his first landing spot proved too difficult to climb. The presence of mind to do this probably saved his life.

Finally, Friðþórsson reached a village, and around 7am on Monday morning he knocked on someone's door. He was later discharged from hospital having been treated for his cuts and dehydration. There was no sign that he had suffered from hypothermia at all.

Friðþórsson, now 58, is a large man. He stands 6'3" (193cm) and weighed 19.6 stone (125kg) in his twenties. A generous layer of fat about two and a half centimetres thick wraps his abdomen. His body fat kept him insulated, but it was also a vital source of energy.

Even so, his ability to stay warm was exceptional. Researchers who conducted tests on Friðþórsson after his ordeal concluded that he must have been able to maintain near normal body temperature for the entirety of his swim.

Unlike other extreme survivors, Friðþórsson has not made his story into a money-spinner. A 2012 independent Icelandic film is the sum total of the mainstream coverage. The clothes that he wore, now on display in the Eldheimar Museum on Heimaey in a small exhibit to the island's fishing history, are a modest recognition for his remarkable story.

In the film they basically conclude that he has the body of a seal.  

Posted by at March 7, 2020 6:35 AM