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3 INTRODUCTION FISHING EXPEDITIONS I arrived at the ferry landing on a stormy September morning for the 11:30 sailing to Vestmannaeyjar, a small group of islands south of the Icelandic mainland. Unfortunately, because of high winds, the ferry had not yet been able to leave the islands. It wasn’t the ocean itself that concerned the ferry’s highly skilled skipper, but the infinitesimal mainland harbor mouth, literally only a few feet wider than the ship. As the day progressed, we at the mainland ferry terminal watched thirty-foot waves crash against the harbor entrance. It seemed insane for any ship to attempt it. The south coast of Iceland is notoriously devoid of bays, and as I squinted through the pouring rain at the tiny harbor before us, I wondered how the ferry was going to fit. The previous harbor for the Vestmannaeyjar ferry had been in Thorlákshöfn, a town with a much better harbor somewhat nearer to Reykjavík. But that ferry ride took three and a half hours in good weather. In an attempt to shorten the trip (and flush with capital before the disastrous 2008 economic crash), Iceland decided to construct a new harbor directly across from the islands, making the ferry trip a mere half hour. This was a great idea in theory, but soon after they completed the harbor, Iceland’s infamous Eyjafjallajökull volcano erupted. The ash and silt from that eruption, combined with strong coastal currents, have made this harbor a headache of continual dredging and closures ever since. Besides that, the boat—still in use from the previous, much larger harbor—was almost as big as the new harbor itself. But in the late afternoon, as we all watched, the ferry emerged through the spray, coming to an abrupt halt as it hit the still pond of 4 Introduction the harbor. Cars disembarked, new ones boarded—and so did we few passengers. To leave the harbor, we had to smash through that crashing wave action again. So I decided that if I were going to die in this escapade , I wanted to see what was happening. Here I must pause to say something about Icelanders and their notions of the control of people’s risk behavior, which are very different from those in my native United States. In the United States—beyond the fact that no ferry would be attempting this crossing—all doors would be locked to prevent any nut from going out on deck. In Iceland, individuals are expected to be responsible for their own safety. (I have noticed only recently, while writing this book in 2014, that the major tourist attractions of waterfalls and boiling hot pools were at least surrounded by a cord. Only a few years back, nothing of this kind existed.) So it was with this Vestmannaeyjar ferry. As we left the harbor, I walked through the unlocked outer door to a covered section of the outside deck. Here I could see this remarkable exit we were preparing to attempt. Three men—Icelandic seamen, I learned—joined me out there, all four of us clinging fiercely to the poles beside the door. As we watched, the ferry headed straight into a wall of white. As we cut through, the water turned green, breaking directly above our heads, crashing onto the roof above us. And then—as anyone who has swum or surfed through big waves will know—the ship flew out the other side into very rough but clear open seas. The crossing from that point on was one of the roughest I have ever known, but I felt safe, thinking, “Well, this is September, and they continue to make this crossing into December, so they must know what they’re doing.” The swells and waves were of the kind one reads about in adventure stories, where the ship literally climbs up one side of what appears to be an immense hill of water, crests, and then flies down the other side. On the uphill climb, my legs felt so heavy I could hardly lift them, and on the downhill side, my feet came off the floor. Most people just lay on the benches—except those poor seasick souls who mostly sat on the floor. I held the wall and watched the waves wash over the deck. What in the world have I got myself into? I thought. It had already been a strange voyage; I suspected this new exploration might get even...


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