Pool-landia

For 70 years, Iceland has kept afloat the idea that mandatory swimming lessons save lives, but the policy doesn’t hold water.

Published April 11, 2017

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MOB: the acronym under a red button on almost every commercial fishing vessel. If pressed, it means that a man is overboard, floundering in that 71 percent of the world called the ocean. In cold waters, each number of degrees the ocean temperature registers on the Celsius scale is roughly equal to the number of minutes it takes the average human to reach hypothermia. Crossing through Rósagarður, relatively warm fishing grounds between Iceland and Norway, in early October the water temperature is a balmy 5 ˚C. That’s five minutes for a person to tread water while the crew on board throws a life ring, turns the boat, and readies the rescue net for a MOB recovery.

The belief that you can make it back to the boat—or, if it’s close, to shore—once you’re in the open sea is largely a fallacy. Whether you can swim or not, the cold ocean almost always grabs you and doesn’t let go. This myth of potential survival, however, has affected every child, every taxpayer, and every town in Iceland. The story many Icelanders tell themselves is simple: few will drown in the ocean (or, bonus, anywhere else), if you teach everyone to swim.

Outside the greater Reykjavík area, towns and villages in Iceland have, on average, 19 boats, 1,182 people, two petrol stations, one church, and one outdoor swimming pool. Just like every other adult in Iceland, I spent 10 years swimming back and forth, back and forth, back and forth in a 25-meter pot of water—never going anywhere. By the time we finish sixth grade, we can swim 200 meters without aid, the Nordic definition of being able to swim. Compulsory swimming lessons may be a good idea, but not for drowning prevention, like most Icelanders believe.


Throughout the 20th century, joining a boat crew meant enrolling in Iceland’s most dangerous profession (since the country had no army). The deaths of seamen were reported on public radio like the loss of foot soldiers. Listeners heard a name, along with the victim’s home address, marital status, and number of children. In a nation that has never exceeded 335,000 residents, any individual’s chance of knowing some of the drowned was relatively high. On February 17, 1939, everyone apparently had enough of the bad news when six children lost their fathers.

The unforgiving ocean that surrounds Iceland has spurred conflicting narratives in this small country: ones of heroic, seafaring Vikings who survive despite the most disastrous circumstances, and real-life fatalities that cause untold grief to many a fishing family. Video by Egill Bjarnason

Earlier that day, the steamboat Ólafur 57 had anchored off the town of Akranes, where captain Bjarni Ólafsson wished to attend church. The Ólafur crew members, along with Ólafsson, piled into a dinghy and headed for shore when a large breaking wave capsized their small boat. The captain and three of his mates drowned only 300 breaststrokes or so away from land. Back then, few people knew how to swim, including sailors. That fatal wave helped spur a metaphorical one across an ocean-centered society; with half the male population destined to work on a boat at some point in their life, there was a nationwide call to improve safety at sea and to teach younger generations how to swim. It seemed like a logical response.

In 1940, the government passed as law mandatory swimming lessons for students in grades one through 10. Townspeople in Akranes opened Bjarnalaug pool—named after a beloved skipper—on the annual Fisherman’s Day in 1944. Everyone who could lift a shovel, push a wheelbarrow, and mix cement joined forces at the construction site in the town center. Since the local government could afford only a third of the cost, youth and women’s associations collected the remaining funds. “Growing up, it was the landmark in town,” says Þórólfur Sigurðsson, 72, who both learned and taught swimming in Bjarnalaug. Pictures from the opening event show hundreds of proud faces, remotely detached from war-torn Europe, where most other communities were busy building barracks and restoring bombed hospitals.

Soon every community—large and small, rich and poor—had a public pool with children going back and forth from morning to afternoon. Unlike the banal objectives of some school subjects, swimming lessons were to the point: pay attention or you may drown one day. So Icelanders learned to swim, and swimming eventually became a cultural pastime, and pools became community gathering places. As youngsters, Icelanders learn the usual acrobatic strokes, along with the so-called “school backstroke,” designed for long-distance survival, and how to swim with an unconscious person in our arms. Despite all this, for decades Icelanders continued listening to the radio with a sigh and murmur, hafið gefur, hafið tekur—the ocean gives, the ocean takes. The death rate for seamen remained stubbornly high: the Icelandic Maritime Administration estimates that a total of 4,000 people drowned in the sea, lakes, and rivers during the last century. An annual toll of 20 to 50 men, healthy and hard at work, seemed like an inevitable part of coastal life. A 1992 study found that, despite mandatory swimming lessons, from 1966 to 1986, the death rate hardly dwindled in Iceland. Not until the early 1990s did the rate finally start to drop. The year 2008 was the first time in Icelandic history that none of our compatriots’ lives were lost at sea. Hurrah! In recent years, the death rate has hovered at one or two per year, if no major accidents occur, although no deaths were registered in 2011 or 2014. But how much of that was the result of swimming instruction?

A lone swimmer floats on her back in the swimming pool in Krossnes, Iceland

A lone swimmer floats on her back in the swimming pool in Krossnes, Iceland. But can practicing lengths in the confines of a pool help save a person lost at sea? (Hint: no.) Photo by Egill Bjarnason


Even in good weather conditions, sailors adrift in North Atlantic waters rarely swim to safety—again, it’s the hypothermia issue. The fall in the death rate for seamen is mostly the result of safety training and better technology. Accidents still happen, and surprisingly often in calm conditions when it might seem as if someone could swim to safety.

“Today, the typical accident takes place in broad daylight, in good weather, and involves an experienced seaman,” says Hilmar Snorrason, principal of the Maritime Safety and Survival Training Centre, which is onboard a ship in downtown Reykjavík. Perhaps signifying its vaunted status, the school—the Sæbjörgis prominently placed, docked next to the city’s landmark Harpa Concert Hall and Conference Centre. Since 1985, the center has worked to dramatically change the working conditions for Icelandic seamen. Add in improved technology, in the form of better boats, better weather forecasts, and rescue helicopters, and heading to sea is a lot less dangerous than it was in 1939.

Seamen now enroll in basic safety training every five years. The intense five-day course teaches sailors working on large vessels (over 15 meters in length) everything from recognizing various alarm sounds to rescuing a dummy from a burning cabin; by the last day, the sailors even know what the lifeboat biscuits taste like. What’s not covered, however, are techniques typically taught to children in swimming pools. Experts know that despite the country’s long-held views about swimming lessons, it’s the focus on safety that saves lives. The only time sailors are expected to move around in the open seas is if they end up in the water after an “abandon ship” command and need to reach a life raft. The protocol orders the crew to dress in floating survival suits that make everything other than a variation of the backstroke—a swimming technique that takes the least amount of effort and keeps your head above water—a bad move. Staying still and conserving energy, a person in a survival suit can float for six hours in freezing water without losing more than one degree of body temperature. When emergency gear and protocol fail, a swimmer has a better chance at survival if help is close, but survival often depends on luck.

Maritime safety students float in survival suits in the old harbor in Reykjavík, Iceland

Students in survival suits participate in an introductory safety course through the Icelandic Maritime Safety and Survival Training Centre in the old harbor in Reykjavík. Photo by Egill Bjarnason

But Icelanders, Vikings at heart, eschew luck and cling to epic tales of survival, old and new, that showcase grit, strength, and swimming prowess. Heroes include Grettir “the Strong” Ásmundsson in The Sagas of Icelanders, who returned from self-exile at the island of Drangey by swimming more than seven kilometers to shore, and Guðlaugur Friðþórsson, who cheated death after his fishing boat sank near the Westmann Islands in 1984. Wearing a shirt, sweater, and jeans, Friðþórsson swam five kilometers in 5 to 6 °C water. He then walked barefoot for three hours across a frozen lava field until he found help. Once at the hospital, Friðþórsson presented with only a mild case of dehydration, no hypothermia. An insulating 14 millimeters of fat kept him alive, while the four other crew members died, never making it out of the water. His story should be considered motivation for overeating, but is instead the anecdote for swimming advocates. “But Guðlaugur …,” are words I hear repeatedly when talking swimming lessons and survival.

Icelandic students get 1,200 to 1,800 minutes of swimming lessons every year from the age of six to 16. To people such as the former mayor of Reykjavík, Jón Gnarr, those 20 or 30 hours are an outdated use of time and resources. In today’s society, other risks are equally important. “Women, for example, are more likely to be harmed by men than water,” he wrote in an op-ed column for Fréttablaðið, an Icelandic daily, “why not spend the time teaching them judo or karate?”

A nation of swimmers or a nation of karate kids? Surely the statistics on drowning in the general population—forget sailors—support a swimming education.

Children practice the “school backstroke” at a pool in Reykjavík. In addition to studying all the standard swimming strokes, students also learn how to stay afloat with an unconscious person. Video by Egill Bjarnason


Globally, drowning is the third leading cause of accidental death, claiming 372,000 lives a year—more than the population of Iceland. The threat hits low- and middle-income countries hardest, where 91 percent of unintentional drownings (meaning not the result of suicide) occur—most involving children. These countries typically lack safety regulations, and swimming lessons are uncommon. In the western Pacific region, drowning is the number one cause of death for children ages five to 14, and evidence from a swimming program in Bangladesh suggests that teaching all children how to swim can reduce fatalities by 93 percent.

Even in wealthier countries, poor children are less likely to learn how to swim than their richer counterparts. In Denmark—a country that prides itself on equality—only half of children ages seven to 14 can swim 200 meters without aid. And only 14 percent of children have learned through school programs, according to a 2014 survey by the Danish Swimming Federation. Nationally, 65 percent of adult Danes know how to swim, and almost all of them learned before the age of 15, many through school lessons. Today, fewer children are learning how to swim. But when Tobias Marling, manager of the Learning to Swim project launched in 2015 by the Danish Swimming Federation and a charitable foundation, TrygFonden, urges schools to do better, officials grind their teeth about the cost. Denmark has far fewer pools than Iceland per capita and most often they are distant from schools: transportation is thus the biggest bite in their budget. But isn’t it worth it to save kids, if not sailors, from drowning? Unlike in Bangladesh, swimming lessons do not have a huge impact on drowning rates in Denmark.

A case study comparing Denmark and Iceland shows that the relationship between swimming lessons and drowning is more complex in wealthier countries. The two countries share similar geography, culture, and wealth, yet the swimming abilities of their residents are vastly different. Denmark, however, has a lower drowning rate than Iceland, with 1.2 drownings per 100,000 inhabitants versus Iceland’s rate of 2.5 drownings. Much like the focus on safety for sailors, government regulations on water safety, supervision, and fences around pools have greatly reduced drowning rates among children of both countries and made them a rare incident. Also, in neighboring Norway, a study found that half of children are ósyndur—the Icelandic adjective for people unable to swim—and the death toll shows a trend of 1.4 drownings per 100,000 inhabitants. The only thing this proves, however, is that drowning rates and swimming abilities are impossible to isolate as variables.

Swimmers in the mountainside swimming pool at Seljavallalaug, Iceland

Built into the mountainside in 1923, Seljavallalaug is one of the oldest swimming pools in Iceland. After swimming lessons were made law in 1940, public pools sprang up across the country. Photo by Egill Bjarnason

Iceland, meanwhile, spends a lot of money on its swimming culture. The country has one pool per 2,000 people, usually in walking distance from a schoolyard. For almost all communities in Iceland, it’s the pool itself that’s a financial drain on local economies—some more than others. Of Iceland’s 169 pools, 31 are not geothermally heated and need an artificial (and expensive) source of heat. Skaftárhreppur in southern Iceland has one of the more expensive pools. Like most other modern sundlaug, as we Icelanders call our pools, it has multilevel hot tubs (for the lazy) and a small waterslide (for the crazy). It’s outdoors and is a great place to spend an afternoon; indeed pools are more popular than museums, cinemas, or churches in Iceland. Admission ranges from US $7 to $9. But not even the most popular of Reykjavík’s six pools—and thus, the most popular in the whole country—can sustain itself with admissions alone, even if geothermally heated. Imagine how tough it is for smaller communities. According to Sandra Brá Jóhannsdóttir, mayor of the Skaftárhreppur municipality with a population of 470, the sports center operating her local pool runs an annual deficit of about $600,000, or a swimming pool of nickels, which her municipality then balances out every year. That is 19 percent of the municipality’s total budget. In other words, instead of teaching everyone how to swim, her community could take that 19 percent and spend it on care for the elderly, to plow snowy, hazardous roads, or send each of the 470 residents a cheque for $1,276 every year.


Compulsory swimming lessons may be a good idea, but not for the reason most Icelanders believe. Water isn’t a native place for humans, terrestrial mammals, so why would people living alongside particularly cold water feel so strongly about their relationship with it? A habit formed, by law, in the 1940s, for illogical reasons and accepted by the country, damn the cost, is the explanation. In my hometown, a man named Magnús Tryggvason has stood by the sides of the local pool for the past 30 years—in rain, snow, darkness, and the other elements of the Icelandic winter—yelling at thick-skulled children like myself. “Crawl! Bend the wrist! Turn!”

“I know I am making a difference,” Tryggvason says when asked what motivates his lifelong commitment. “The moment when a child realizes [she] can go under water and come up again without the feeling of drowning—it’s that sincere excitement in the child’s face that rewards my work.”

And maybe that’s what it’s about: a feeling. The older fishermen I chatted with, aside from leaning on those old stories of survival through an epic swim, talked about how knowing how to swim made them feel: less intimidated by the ocean and more calm if facing an emergency situation.

For Icelanders, perhaps swimming is not about overcoming risk, but, rather the opposite. We walk from the beach into the cold water until it laps at our shoulders, the stinging cold forcing attention away from everything else, shrinking the world down to the ocean and us: we embrace the risk of the sea, kids once again.