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Stories from Norway

Keep calm - we know what we are doing

The Arctic Ocean might seem like the world’s most dangerous office - but by taking precautions and keeping an eye on the weather, modern fishermen are as safe as can be.

Keep calm - we know what we are doing

Rough and cold conditions

It’s three p.m., and it’s already getting dark in the town of Båtsfjord on the northern coast of Norway. The water is four degrees Celsius. At this temperature, a regular human being will expire from hypothermia in an hour, give or take 30 minutes. In the Arctic Ocean in winter, however, there’s a good chance a combination of shock, exhaustion and the thrashing waves will ensure that you drown long before you get the opportunity to freeze to death.

It’s been snowing heavily all day. The winds are building up to a gale strength, and the streets of Båtsfjord are all but deserted. Most people have the good sense to stay inside or, if they have somewhere they absolutely need to be, drive. Those few who are out and about walk with a crouched briskness, doing their best to shield their face and extremities against the piercing wind and the stabbing snow.

Bad weather, good fishing

It’s skrei season, meaning that Arctic waters are teeming with the coveted and valuable variety of Atlantic cod that makes mouths water across the globe. It’s by far the most important time of the year for fishermen in the north of Norway. It’s also the time of the year when the Arctic Ocean is at its roughest, coldest and most terrifying.

Tor-Øyvind Bolle is only 23 years old, but already in command of a six-men fishing vessel. He has just come back from a two-day stint out in the Barents Sea, yielding upwards of six tons of cod. After offloading his haul at the local fish processing centre, he’s heading back out to sea again. Like all who fish for a living, he was hoping for a sunny day, which it isn’t, and for the sea to stay calm, which it doesn’t.

“Of course I’d prefer sunny, calm days, but the weather is what it is and you can’t change it,” he states with the effortless stoicism so common amongst fishermen in the north. “We haven’t had a single calm day all winter.” Looking out at the waves and the snow and the wind, he doesn’t seem too worried. “It’s not that dangerous. It’s more work, everything takes a lot more effort,” he sighs.

Monitoring and taking precautions

He’s not being flippant or blasé about safety; he’s a third-generation fisherman who has been heading regularly out to sea since he was seven years old. He knows exactly how much of a beating his boat can take, and, more importantly, is acutely aware of when to turn back.

Inside the bridge, he is covered with screens and instruments, providing vital data which helps to keep Tor-Øyvind, his crew and all other vessels in the Norwegian fishing fleet out of harm’s way. He explains how he can track his position, the position of all other boats in the vicinity, and even the strength and direction of the currents. He’s constantly up to date on both current and forecast wind strength and wave depths. The upshot is that while the weather can change in two heartbeats, he can react in one.

So when asked about what his biggest safety concern is when he’s out amongst pummelling waves that crashes on deck and throws his boat around, relentless winds that tug and tear at both man and machine, and dense fog and snows that shroud the world in an impenetrable haze, he answers without a moment’s hesitation and without a sliver of irony - “Fire.”

Minimise risks

It turns out that the secret to safety at sea is built on pretty standard health and safety precautions: make sure to have the prescribed safety equipment available. Restrict the use of open flames. Do not let loose cables or items lying around. Establish routines and precautions for operating heavy machinery. Those are the risks you can control. The risks you can’t control, you avoid. Simple as that.

Additionally, he sends his position to the fishing authorities at regular intervals. He reports when he sets out the fishing lines, when he hauls them in, report the catch when you’re headed home, when you’re delivering your haul and when you tie up your boat.

Even though we haven’t even cleared the fjord yet, the force of the ocean is already making its presence known. The waves are about a metre high, which is more than enough to bring a grown man to his knees and his digestion in reverse. Tor-Øyvind himself remains unaffected by the whole thing.

“I only get seasick when I haven’t been out to sea for a couple of weeks – then it takes a day or so for me to readjust,” he says. Although he doesn’t mind a bit of rough and tumble, it’s reassuring to know that he’s mindful of where the limit is. “I draw the line at four to five-meter waves, any more than that can be dangerous,” he says. “Although I was out in a hurricane once, but that was in a bigger boat. That was quite something.”

Safety first

You get the sense that Tor-Øyvind and his crew could do this blindfolded. In fact, this is not too far from the truth: they usually put out their fishing lines at midnight, when it’s pitch black outside. Although he has never felt in danger at sea, the rough weather can take its toll. 

“When you face this weather day after day, you can lose some of the motivation. But when you get the catch in, it feels all worth it,” he says.

He checks the weather forecast on his phone. “We’re not heading out today,” he says.

Back in Båtsfjord, the harbour is filled up with boats big and small, all stranded here because of the weather. Many fishermen take the opportunity to pop by one of Båtsfjord’s two bars and chat amiably with their colleagues, even though you get the sense that they’d rather be out there, bringing in valuable hauls of cod.

But that doesn’t matter. Because safety comes first.