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The Rescue Deed of Hamningberg
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The Rescuing Deed of Hamningberg

Hamningberg is an abandoned village on the northern coast of the Båtsfjord peninsula in Finnmark, Northern Norway. Before 1965, when it was decided to depopulate the village, Hamnigberg was a lively fishing community where fishermen were hunting their catch in small open rowboats in the nearby waters. The village is located in an open bay facing the Barents Sea and has no islands outside to protect it from rough weather that frequently occurs in this area. In stormy weather the bay is extremely exposed to the rough ocean. The night between 19 and 20 Mai 1894 the whole fishing fleet of Hamningberg was at sea when a violent storm broke loose. The hurricane force winds caught the fishermen with complete surprise and as the waves rapidly grew it became impossible to take the boats to land. The most dangerous part of the sea in such conditions is the surf zone near the shore where braking waves creates a deadly barrier between the ocean and land, effectively trapping the men in their small open boats in the ferocious open sea. The women and children of Hamningberg could only watch in despair the mortal drama that took place in front of them as the major part of the adult male population were desperately clinging to their rowboats in a fight between life and death.

Before 1894, the vessels used for rescue operations were mainly large steamers. From a modern perspective these steamers are unsuited for operations directed towards small open boats. The ship hull could potentially crush the boats under the operation and hauling people on board in rough sea was extremely dangerous. Around 1890, the shipbuilder Colin Archer proposed building a smaller size rescue vessel tailored to operations along the Norwegian coast. Colin Archer later became famous for also building FRAM, the vessel that took Fridtjof Nansen on his famous voyage through the Arctic Ocean. In 1891 the The Norwegian Society for Sea Rescue (NSSR) was founded and its first vessel, RS 1, was set in to operation in 1893. At the time most people were sceptical about the abilities of a small size wooden rescue vessel compared to the large steamers in dangerous weather. RS 1 came to Vardø, the nearest town to Hamningberg, on Saturday 19 May 1894, only a day before the storm at Hamningberg. As news about the event reach Vardø, the local head of police contacted the steamers in the harbor and asked for a rescue operation. The steamers had to give in as the weather was too bad. As a final desperate attempt he then contacted the skipper of the new RS 1, which nobody believed could do anything under the circumstances. Skipper Nikolai Anthonissen and his crew took the challenge and successfully made it to Hamningberg. They used oil to calm the waves and hauled 22 wet and frozen fishermen onboard the vessel. Packed with its load, the vessel returned to Vardø. They then went for a second trip and brought another 14 men to a safe haven in Vardø. In what could only be described as a remarkable achievement all 36 men saved their life, not one single casualty occurred. The log book of RS 1 for the night between 20 and 21 Mai 1894 has one simple line which is almost austere in its modesty: ”The crew will go to bed since there are no longer any men on the ocean”.

The following days the rescuing deed of RS 1 made headline news all over Norway. The success of the operation kick started the new organization NSSR and is of course a pivotal event in the its proud history. Skipper Nikolai Anthonissen was later awarded the kings gold medal for this achievement. Visitors to Hamningberg today can see the monument that was erected in 1994, 100 years after the event, in memory of the rescuing deed of Hamningberg. In 1894 virtually no scientific knowledge of polar lows existed. Even synoptic lows were poorly understood as this happened many years before Willhelm Bjerknes founded his Bergen School of Meteorology and developed the modern model of low pressures. So how do we know that the Hamningberg event was caused by a polar low? First, the accounts of the extremely rapid change in weather conditions point in the direction of a polar low event. Also, the very low temperatures the preceding days is consistent with this. The observations recorded at Vardø for May 1894 show that the temperatures on 15 and 16 May are plunging from almost 9°C to below zero, confirming a cold-air outbreak. The precipitation for the 20 May is more that 20 mm, a very high value for the area, actually the second highest value recorded at Vardø in 1894, and indeed consistent with a polar low landfall.

The most compelling argument however, is the reconstructed pressure chars based on pressure gauges from 1894. They can only describe the situations over land since no observations were taken over oceans at the time. The pressure chart for 19 May 1894 reveals a high pressure system over southern Greenland directing a flow of cold air from the Greenland ice cap over the ocean in the Greenland Sea. In addition, a low pressure system is situated over Russia in the area near Novaja Semlja that would have directed a flow of cold air from the Arctic sea ice over the Barents Sea. The total picture indicates a massive cold-air outbreak over the ocean areas from Greenland to the eastern Barents Sea. A weather situation like this would almost certainly have triggered polar low developments over the relatively warm ocean. On 20 May a weak low pressure through is located over norther Scandinavia and the Cola Peninsula. It is unlikely that this weak low could cause the weather conditions experienced at Hamingberg. The Hamningberg event is therefore probably the oldest account of a weather event that we can, with a certain confidence, ascribe to a polar low.

Updated March 6. 2013   Editor Yvonne Gusdal
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