A Dangerous Sailing to Svellingen
In early February 1899, during the cod fishing season, my aunt Hansine Jensen became deathly sick. A neighbor lady, Johanne Sivertsen, and I were asked to bring word of her condition to her husband Carl Jensen, who was engaged in cod fishing with headquarters at Risvaer, an island 8 miles to the south of our home. Risvaer is a fishing center with excellent harbors located in the Lofoten group of islands of Northern Norway- about 230 miles north of the arctic circle. The fishermen came to spend each night at Risvaer, while out cod fishing during the day on the fishing banks to the east on the open waters of the Vestfjorden.
At this tune I was 14 years old, but small for my age. Miss Sivertsen and I left home on a Tuesday about 5 o'clock in the afternoon and rowed the eight miles in about three hours, arriving at Risvaer about 8:00 p.m. Our rowboat was about 18 ft. long with seats for 2 sets of oars. It could also be converted into a small, single, squatesail boat. There was a quiet calm on the fjord this particular evening which made rowing easier. During this winter season in Northern Norway it is light from about 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.- with the sun above the horizon for only an hour in the middle of the day.
We remained at Risvaer over night. My two brothers, Erling and Paul, were employed on fishing boats with two different uncles. Both were stationed at Risvaer. My oldest brother Erling (18 years old) was with Uncle Johan's crew. I slept on Uncle Johan's lodging boat which was tied tip in the harbor. Most of the fishing crews lived in larger lodging boats having a cabin and bunk beds. These boats were left anchored in the harbor while they went out cod fishing in smaller open boats and returned at the close of each day. All boats were sailboats. There were no motorboats in the fishing fleet at that time as there are today. These fishing boats had a single sail and could also be rowed when there was not favorable wind. During our first night in Risvaer, a heavy north-east wind blew up preventing any fishing boats leaving the harbor for the fishing banks. However Uncle Carl decided to sail home to his sick wife in spite of the storm. The trip home through the small fjord with the protection of the many islands would not be as hazardous as the open waters of the fishing banks. He took the girl who had come with the and three or four men with him to man the oars. They figured that as long as they couldn't get out to fish they might as well visit their families for the day. It was necessary for me to remain until I could row home with our family boat in calm weather. The storm continued until Saturday.
On Saturday morning it was calm, but there was a heavy atmosphere (if we had possessed a barometer it would have been on the bottom). All boats prepared to leave for the fishing banks. According to custom each fishing boat proceeded out to the mouth of the harbor to be ready to start for the banks to the east when the signal flag was raised at 6:00 a.m. It was unlawful for any boat to leave before the flag was up.
I started off rowing north toward home at 6:00 a.m. as the fishing fleet started out for the banks. I rowed for about an hour between the many small islands of Vestfjorden and into Øksfjorden. I assume that I was about one-third of the way home when a small breeze cattle up and I decided to hoist my sail. As any other 14 year old boy, I would rather sail than row. No parent would allow his child to use the sail when alone in a boat because of the danger of capsizing. It required considerable skill to manipulate the sails. The young people then had the desire to sail prematurely as the youth of today have the urge to drive a car before the law allows. This was the first time in my life that I had attempted to sail alone. It took me over half an hour to set the rudder, raise the mast, and hoist the sail.
By this time a heavy fog had settled on the water and the wind had changed to a south wind, which I mistook for an east wind (I could not see any landmarks and I had no compass). I set my sail for an east wind so instead of sailing for home, I sailed in an almost opposite direction out to sea. The wind kept increasing and the temperature dropped. I sailed by many small islands and eventually came to the open waters of the Vestfjorden with its large ocean swells. Then I realized that I had sailed off course and was lost on the open sea in a terrible snowstorm. I had failed to put on my outer oil cloth clothing which would have kept me fairly dry. Consequently my woolen clothing and mittens became wet and frost began to form. I became panicky and felt sure I would freeze to death. However, my first thought was to lower my sail--this I did. Then I was impressed to kneel down in the boat and pray for guidance, for I believed that there was a God in heaven who had the power to help me if He willed it. When I arose from my knees I felt an unusual calmness about my situation. I then recalled father's advice never to become panicky when out on the sea-- no matter how impossible the situation might appear. A rift or opening then appeared in the snowstorm and I could see a particular far-off island, which I knew was a great distance away because of its heavy blue appearance. I decided to lay my course for that island. I then raised my sails again, but due to me increasing intensity of the wind it was necessary for me to successively reduce the sail three different times until a was at half -mast. I continued to sail in the direction of the island even though it was out of sight most of the time. Without a compass I laid my course by the wind, assuming it continued in the same direction as when I saw the island. Then high winds developed which stirred up tremendous -waves, giving me sea the appearance of churning white foam. Waves broke over the front of the boat and wind blew waves in from the back and sides until I was soaked to the skin. I was constantly busy bailing out water in order to keep the boat afloat. While thus engaged I thought of my mother and family at home. All logic told me that I would freeze to death even if I were to reach the island. I was concerned about the sorrow that my death would bring to my mother and brothers and sisters (my father had died 10 months previously). However, as I contemplated my situation I felt as if there were an unseen personage standing beside me in the boat reassuring, me that I would find shelter and comfort when I reached this island. There were other islands visible to me as I sailed, all of which were uninhabited. I had no earthly means of knowing that the island I was headed for was inhabited. But I sailed on with hope and an unseeing assurance, arriving at the island ins six hours alter leaving Risvaer.
As I approached closely to the island I made the decision to sail past the first projection and land on the far side of it, which was more protected front the wind. The speed of my boat was more than I had calculated and I missed the first cove. As I looked for the next cove I found myself at the inlet of a fine harbor where there were about thirty fishing boats at anchor.
I lowered my sail as I came alongside the first fishing boat that was at anchor in the harbor. The surprised fishermen took me on board while tying up my boat to theirs and proceeded to bail out the water and ice from my boat. By this time I was frozen to the bone and shaking like a leaf.
My first question was, "What place is this?" I was told that it was called "Svellingen" and that all of the fishing boats in the harbor had been on their way to Risvaer earlier in the day when the storm hit and forced them in to this emergency harbor. In times past Svellingen had occasionally been a fishing point or base, but this year there was no fishing going on here.
These first fishermen who took the in proceeded to build a fire to warm the cabin and heat a pot of coffee. However, I was unable to get warm in their cabin with the newly built fire and decided to go to the home of the only family living on the island -- Nils and Elsa Bernsen with their young son who was a few months older than I. Nils Bernsen was the watchman for several buildings which were in use only in those years that the fishing fleet headquartered there. I had been in Svellingen once before with my family and was therefore acquainted with the Bernsens. They had also visited in our home occasionally. So I climbed back into my boat and rowed on in to the wharf. I have thought since that it was rather inconsiderate of these men to offer the no assistance in getting in to land when I was shivering from head to toe.
I walked through the deep snow up to the house and was immediately made welcome. It seemed almost unbelievable to the Bernsens (and the many others who heard of my experience later) that a boy such as I could survive the ordeal I had gone through alone in my little boat on the open sea in such a blizzard. We learned later that thirty lives were lost in boats that day in the Lofoten Islands -- and most of these were experienced seamen. I felt then and I feel now that it was a miracle -- that God was watching over me and preserved my life in order that I might complete my assigned mission in life.
The kindly Bernsens immediately heated water in order that I might have a warm bath. After bathing they provided me with warm, dry clothing belonging to their son and finally I was able to quit shivering.
I drank hot coffee, but was so exhausted that I found it difficult to eat any solid foods. I lay down and slept for about an hour from 1:00 p.m. until 2:00 p.m. When I awoke I discovered that I had lost my voice, which didn't come back until the following day. In the evening the weather cleared and the sea became quite calm. I was anxious to return home, but Mr. Bernsen insisted that I remain overnight, which I did. This was certainly a fortunate decision, for it was only an hour later that a strong north wind (opposite in direction to the earlier wind) brought in a fresh blizzard of greater intensity than the first.
I knew that my brothers had planned to return home this day from their fishing excursion and I was concerned about their arriving home and not finding me there -- knowing that they would all he greatly worried about me. There was no means of communication of course. However this second storm also prevented their trip home. As the storm progressed many of the fishermen at anchor in the bay came ashore to study the weather and confer with each other about the storm. Word got around about the "kid" who had come in the little rowboat through the earlier storm. They all wanted to see me and one said, "This boy will be a great captain or hØvedsmand some day.
I slept well that night and woke up at 6:00 Sunday morning. After eating a good breakfast I started out for home about 7:00 a.m. It was a clear beautiful day. At Svellingen I was about the same distance from home as at Risvaer. In fact my home, Risvaer, and Svellingen formed a triangle with about the same distance between each place. As there was practically no wind, I started out rowing, but a breeze came up about one-half way home and I sailed the balance of the distance.
I arrived home five minutes before my brothers, who came that same day from Risvaer. I was grateful that my mother had been spared the anxiety that would have resulted had my brothers returned earlier with the report that I had left Risvaer Saturday morning for home. This ended a trying experience in my youth which I recall vividly to this day with gratitude to my Heavenly Father that my life was spared on that occasion.