On keeping warm at sea – how the Faroese do it

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Published 27th Jul 2007

The evacuation of three severely chilled crew-members from the Sea Stallion on the voyage from Roskilde to Southern Norway has provoked the following comments from Tórshavn.

We Faroese have, as is well-known, fished summer and winter from small, open boats on the sea for over a thousand years. For the lost couple of centuries this has been from boats of the type that the Viking Ship Museum uses in its educational section. As far as I know, there are no stories of people who have suffered hardship because they have got wet or because of hypothermia. If they really got into distress, this was because the boat could not reach land because of waves or currents that made the boat sink – not because some of the crew-members got cold. 

We only had oars and sail and had to adapts ourselves to strong currents and unpredictable and sudden changes of weather, almost always with wind and often rain, sleet, snow and cold for days on end. With the help of the technology of earlier times it was not possible to make land quickly simply because there was a sudden change in the weather. 

The reason is probably to be sought in the clothing that was used in the Viking Age and which has undoubtedly continued to be used in the Faroes, possibly improved or further developed or just changed in some way, for example by the introduction of the art of knitting. In the Viking Age woollen material was woven or just felted, since the art of knitting was not known. In the Faroes there was normally a change in more modern times from woven homespun to knitted material. 

The fundamental determining feature of the woollen material is the wool structure of the original north-western Nordic short-tailed sheep and its high content of lanoline. Woollen cloth has formed the basic clothing of Faroese seamen from the skin outwards. The wool consists both of fine, impervious, insulating underwool and of longer fibres of covering wool, which drain the water from the sheep and which massage the fisherman’s skin and hence ensure both an increased blood-ciculation and that the fine wool does not lie too close and adhesive to the skin. In this way the material feels airy and one neither freezes nor sweats, more or less irrespective of the temperature. If cold material lies directly on the body, one does not only become clammy but the skin also cools down very quickly as a result of evaporation. When one puts on the woollen material for the first time, it might feel prickly for a while but after 10-15 minutes one no longer notices this prickly and itchy sensation but feels the wool to be light, soft and comfortable. 

Closest to the skin one wore woollen underclothes and of course woollen socks. And it is in fact important that this wool is not just fine wool but in part coarse wool that massages the skin, as mentioned above, as well as offering airiness and protection against the clothes sticking to the skin. On top, one wore over-trousers of wool and a wool jersey. If the weather became colder, either with more wind or some slushiness, one donned on top a woven and felted sjóstúka, a woollen “sea-coat” and, if necessary, a knitted or woven hætta or ‘hood’, which I have also recently seen with a lining inside, presumably to reduce any irritation or allergy from the wool or the rather coarse wool structure when one employs a mixture of underwool and coverwool. This hood covers the whole head and neck. The wool is sufficiently elastic for the hood to be worn so that only the lowest part of the forehead and the eyes, nose and mouth are visible, or it can be drawn down under the chin so that one gets a bit more “air” but so that one still protects the parts of the head that do not stand the cold so well. In addition mittens were used if necessary. These were also made of wool and it was only the thumb that had its own “finger”, while the other fingers were kept together. 

If one gets wet, or sopping wet, it of course feels cold, since the water penetrates through the woollen material. After a short time, however, the body has warmed up the water and the damp material so that the wool and the water now work together to act as an insulating layer. This is even better protection against the chill factor than the wool alone. In order to exploit this effect optimally Faroese fishermen made their woollen socks wet just before they set out to sea. It is also important, however, to protect against continued seeping in of water as well as a hard wind, since strong evaporation has a chilling effect. If the weather was really soaking wet, with rain or sleet or even waves that poured in over the boat, one put on roðklæðir ‘clothes made of sheepskin from which the wool had been removed’. These consisted of two separate parts roðbuksur ‘sheepskin trousers’ and roðstúka ‘sheepskin jacket’, that is trousers and hooded jacket made of sheepskin from which the wool had been allowed to rot away before the skins were tanned, treated and finally sewn up. Sjóstúka, hood, mittens, roð -trousers and -jacket could all be put on and taken off separately depending on the necessity and the temperature. 

Today the Faroese have all the modern textiles at their disposal that are available in other countries and which we are pleased enough to use, since the handwork involved in making wool and leather clothing is comparatively laborious and hence expensive. On the other hand we have not been able to find anything that can replace the woollen underwear with the same effect and to the same degree keep the body warm and dry and prevent sweat from within and moisture from outside lying close and sticky to the skin and allow the dampness to diffuse out just as swiftly or more quickly than the sweat can be produced. Underclothing made of Faroese wool is therefore still preferred by many Faroese fisherman who work in the North Atlantic, even though all ships and most boats now have wheel houses where one can seek shelter.

Roar Heini Olsen

Created by Roar Heini Olsen, projektkoordinator, HFS (Den færøiske miljostyrelse) Tórshavn