Many ships have wrecked in the treacherous waters around the Faroe Islands. The stories and relics of these tragedies are scattered throughout the islands, their memory seen in places ranging from folk songs to the church silver of Viðareiði, and even in the ancestry of many Faroese people living today.
The following is a small sampling of notable foreign shipwrecks in the Faroe Islands:
In 1707, the Danish ship Norske Løve was traveling from Copenhagen to the West Indies when it ran into trouble. The big, 36-cannon ship was hit first by lightning, then by a breaker, and finally sank in Lambavík on New Year’s Eve. Approximately 100 men survived, but the ship was buried by a landslide in the night and lies now under both water and earth. The ship’s bell was recovered and is the main bell in Tórshavn Cathedral to this day, and a chair can be seen in the Blásastova museum in the village of Gøta. One of the votive ships in Tórshavn Cathedral is a model of the Norske Løve, said to have been made by one of the sailors rescued from the wreck. There is also a Faroese ring-dance song about the sinking of the Norske Løve.
Crashed and abandoned foreign vessels have often proved beneficial for the Faroese people, as useful goods and building materials would wash ashore. For example, the village of Mykines received goods from the shipwreck of the Dutch ship Walrechen in 1667 and an abandoned lumber boat in 1819, and when an abandoned Norwegian boat carrying a large quantity of timber drifted to shore in Árnafjørður in 1875, the local cost of wood fell dramatically.
In 1742, the Dutch ship Westerbeek shipwrecked on the west coast of Suðuroy, in a place called Lopranseiði. Travelling far off course in a dense fog on their way home with spices from Ceylon, the Westerbeek was caught and wrecked between a steep cliff and a line of skerries. Ten of the crew, who were sick and lying in bed at the time, went down with the ship, and another man died while trying to escape. But the other 80 men on board managed to reach safety by climbing the steep cliff and the broken mast of the ship. Faroese people from Vágur helped rescue them, and most of the men ended up spending the winter in the Faroe Islands.
The Westerbeek is one of the most famous shipwrecks to have happened in the Faroes. There is a Faroese book about the incident, and also a ring-dance song, Visen om Westerbeek. There are many stories about men from the ship who settled in the islands and left descendents. However, one of the only verified stories is that of Berent Schouten, the ship’s carpenter, who had a daughter with a girl from Vágar. Many Faroese people descend from Sunneva Barentsdatter.
In 1847, the British ship Marwood was on its way from Africa to Liverpool when it lost its rudder in a winter storm. After drifting for three weeks, the ship was stranded near Viðareiði. The people of the village helped to rescue and care for the crew, and the British government later thanked them with a gift of fine silver, which can be found in the church of Viðareiði today.
In 1895, the British ship Principia was traveling from Dundee to the United States when it caught fire in bad weather. The crew attempted to turn back towards Scotland, but the ship crashed in Søltuvík off the island of Sandoy. Only one man survived, lying on a wooden hatch for 14 hours until he was rescued in the village of Kirkjubøur. The hatch he clung to is now used as a table in Kirkjubøur’s Stokkastovan, the oldest house in the Faroe Islands.
In 1918, the Danish ship Casper was bringing a cargo of salt from Ibiza to the Faroes when it was driven onto the cliffs of Lítla Dímun, the only uninhabited island in the archipelago. The six members of the crew, including the badly injured captain, managed to reach first a narrow ledge just above the surf, and then a cabin partway up the island. They found matches, fuel, and a lamp, caught two sheep and a sick bird, and survived there for 17 days before they were discovered and rescued. One of the sailors settled in the Faroe Islands permanantly.
In 1941, two British ships sank in the Faroe Islands. The first was the Lincoln City, an anti-submarine warfare trawler in the British Royal Navy. It was bombed in an air raid and sank outside of Tórshavn, killing all eight men on board.
The story of the SS Sauternes is one of the saddest in this list. The steamship was coming into the Faroe Islands laden with supplies including fuel, Danish currency minted in the UK for use on the islands, and Christmas presents. The locals called it Jólaskipið, the Christmas Ship, and were eagerly awaiting its coming.
The Sauternes was not made for the conditions of the North Atlantic, but in wartime, compromises must sometimes be made. A storm was rising as the boat reached the Faroe Islands, and the ship could not reach Tórshavn. The crew telegraphed their position to the Naval Headquarters in the capital. At that time, they were in Fugloyarfjørður, the narrow stretch of water separating the small islands of Fugloy and Svínoy in the northeast. However, the Naval Headquarters believed that the ship was in the similarly named Fuglafjørður, which is a safe haven protected from the open sea, so they ordered the Sauternes to drop anchor.
The storm intensified, and the Sauternes sank as locals looked on helplessly from shore. All 25 passengers and crew were lost, and only 6 bodies were ever recovered; these were buried in Klaksvík. The Faroese have never forgotten the Jólaskipið, and there is a book about the tragic event. The wreck occurred the same day as Pearl Harbor, another tragedy on another archipelago on the other side of the world.
In 1957, the Icelandic trawler Goðanes crashed into a reef as it entered Skálafjørð on Eysturoy. The Faroe Islanders wanted to rescue the crew, but they didn’t have the necessary equipment, and the captain died in the accident. Afterwards, Slýsavarnafelag Íslands, the rescue association of Iceland, donated rescue equipment to the Faroe Islands, inspiring the establishment of rescue organizations around the islands. A formal rescue service was established in 1976.
In 2007, the Russian trawler Olshana ran aground at a reef called Flesjarnar on its way out from Kollafjørður. “Flesjarnar” is a dangerous reef lying in the waters between Streymoy and Eysturoy, and it has sunk many boats throughout history. Olshana’s entire crew was rescued, but the trawler sank immediately when it was pulled off the reef the next day. Several ships now rest at the bottom of the sea in that area, many carrying significant amounts of oil.