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Surviving ‘Seaman’s Day’: Scandinavia’s Coldest, Wildest Water Fight

In a remote harbor town in the Faroe Islands, an American adventure race team stumbled onto a local festival and found themselves squarely in the middle of a Scandinavian Water War known as 'Seaman's Day.'

(Photo/Jason Magness)
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I never expected to see blood at a water fight — or collapse from sheer fatigue. My adrenaline had been pumping for nearly an hour and my reserves were flagging. I was exhausted and cold to the bone despite my drysuit. But the smile on my face just kept growing. This was the most pure fun I’d had in the last decade.

We were bobbing in the chaotic waves of the harbor town of Klaksvik in the Faroe Islands — an archipelago so remote I’d never even heard of it. Sitting in the North Atlantic between Iceland and Scotland, this tiny self-governing Danish territory comprises 18 rugged islands that are home to far more sheep than people.

I’d just finished competing in an expedition adventure race with team Bend Racing as part of the sport’s World Series. Normally after a race like this, I’d be content to do no more than sleep and eat for a week. But the island’s beauty and culture begged for further exploration.

A quick query to a passing local and we were told unequivocally to check out the “Sjomannadagur festival.”

The what, now?!

“Sjomannadagur” is Faroese for “seaman,” and the festival was a celebration of the island’s fishing heritage, it turned out. “There are tons of great seafood, coffee, games, and treats, and everything is free,” they said.

We were already sold, but then the local added, “There is also a great big water fight in the harbor to kick things off!” Almost as an afterthought, they added, “Be sure to go prepared.”

Faroe Islands Seaman’s Day: Scandinavia’s Biggest Water Fight

Full dry suits to make sure we were prepared; (photo/Jason Magness)

Google “world’s biggest water fight” and the web will spit out the answer: “Songkran” — the Thai New Year festival. In the videos I found, Songkran looks like fun. It’s a bunch of young backpackers and locals partying like it’s spring break, getting wet to stay cool in the 100-degree humidity.

But even in mid-August, average summer temps in the Faroe Islands were colder. We had battled some very intense weather during the days and nights of our adventure race, relying on our Kokatat drysuits and The North Face Futurelight Jackets to help us survive the storms.

The locals’ final words, “Be sure to go prepared,” kept rattling around in my head. They’d almost sounded ominous. We’d bought low-tech, high-volume squirt gun tubes. But as we left our Airbnb for Seaman’s Day, I couldn’t shake that warning. So I grabbed my drysuit on the way out.

My comrades laughed. Surely a friendly festival water fight would not require that kind of gear. But one by one, they all went back to grab their own three-layer armor of choice.

We’d never have survived without it.

Klaksvik Harbor: Home of the Festival

(Photo/Jason Magness)

Klaksvik is nestled between fjord inlets, dramatic mountains rising straight from the sea everywhere you look. It is the second-largest town in the Faroe Islands and a major industrial port for the fishing industry. Which is why the locals celebrate their Seamen with 2 full days of festivities on the third weekend of every August.

The water fight we were about to engage in is just one event of the Seaman’s (or Sjomannadagur) Festival extravaganza. There are also conferences, lectures, exhibitions, and workshops all about fishing and the industry, the Seaman’s Day swim, where locals swim out into the cold open ocean, and, of course, the free coffee, pastries, salmon, and ice cream we’d heard about.

An hour before the Seaman’s Day water fight was set to begin, we arrived. A few minutes of wandering aimlessly around the large port made it clear that this was a local tradition and not a well-publicized tourist festival. There was no signage and no posters with the festival schedule.

But giant tubs filled with water were strategically placed throughout the harbor.

Kickoff to Faroe Islands’ Seaman’s Day

(Photo/Jason Magness)

At first, the turnout was tiny. We were on the verge of becoming underwhelmed when the crowds appeared out of nowhere.

There were kids of all ages, parents, and grandparents, and gangs of identically dressed teens marching about in formation. People started donning heavy jackets and boots. Beside us, a grandmother zipped herself into a thick drysuit. People everywhere were adorning protective outfits straight out of an episode of Alaska’s “Deadliest Catch.”

We talked ourselves onto a tiny fishing boat, the six of us likely tipping it far past its passenger limit. We headed out into the bay, under cloudy skies and temps in the mid-40s. Our vessel was massively outgunned. Our team was decidedly under-armored. And no one could have been more excited.

Water War Commences

(Photo/Jason Magness)

Our “guns” were a total joke. The first boat we got close to drenched us with buckets of seawater as we effectively pissed into the wind.

The shores and docks on either side of the bay were lined with people — mostly kids. Toddlers, numbering in the hundreds, held monstrous squirt guns of every variety. We found an old fishing bucket on board and filled it with seawater, learning from the tactics that had left us drenched from the start.

We made pass after pass along the docks, delighting in scoring direct hits on 3- and 6-year-old kids. But they were tough. No matter how many times we hit them, they were lined up and waiting for us on the next pass, faces dripping, holding out for reinforcements.

(Photo/Jason Magness)

As we started a fifth pass, we saw it. A fire truck had parked right behind those kids, its giant hose snaking down into the sea, sucking up 250 gallons of seawater per minute and blasting it right into our faces.

Dense spray showered down all around. We tried to escape the onslaught but soon found ourselves running headlong into the middle of it. We dodged, attacked, circled, and escaped. Our captain made a quick maneuver to avoid a collision, throwing us all to the rails.

(Photo/Jason Magness)

He cursed in Faroese. The engine stalled. I looked up to see blood running down my teammate’s smiling face. I glanced at the others, all silently assessing the situation. The ocean was cold. The bay was wide. We were on a stranger’s boat with a captain who didn’t speak English, and no one had a life jacket on.

Then, a horn blast split the gray skies. Everyone stopped and looked up to see two battleships entering the fray.

The Danish Navy Arrives

Faroe Islands Seaman's day
(Photo/Jason Magness)

The ships were mammoth, looming over all the other boats. They divided the harbor into three lanes, forcing us to make some hard decisions. Passing by the outside of either ship, we’d face the tiny foot soldiers and fire trucks on the docks. Between the ships, though, was a gauntlet of mayhem and madness.

The behemoth boats were suctioning over 1,350 gallons per minute (basically a full bathtub every 3 seconds) and firing at nearly 200 psi. Those turrets made even the fire truck cannon look like a pea shooter.

Faroe Islands Seaman's day
(Photo/Jason Magness)

The mood changed in the harbor. The little boats that had been skirmishing just moments before stopped fighting each other and turned their attention toward the giants. It was a David(s) versus Goliath moment.

If there is one thing our team has learned through our years of adventure racing it is how not to give up. So we consigned ourselves to the idea that we were expendable. We sacrificed the little remaining dryness and residual warmth in our tired bodies to provide a distraction and allow some of the more skilled fighters a chance.

Faroe Islands Seaman's day
(Photo/Jason Magness)

We were all shivering and completely soaked despite our suits. And 50 psi apparently exceeds even the best 30,000mm waterproof rating. But we continued, our tiny streams of water bouncing off the high metallic sides of the battleships. And still, we fought.

When our arms were too tired to lift a bucket of seawater, we returned to those tiny comical squirt tubes we’d bought. They were absolutely ineffectual, but a heroic gesture nonetheless.

Then came a long, mournful horn blast.

Seaman’s Day Ceasefire

Faroe Islands Seaman's day
(Photo/Jason Magness)

The effect was instant. Boats stopped and the churning sea calmed. Mist hung thick in the air.

Somewhere a cheer started, invisible to us through the humidity. But it spread. Within minutes, voices echoed through the fjord, bouncing between the imposing mountains, and the hulls of the ships. It was a mix of triumph, joy, celebration, and no small measure of relief (at least from our small crew).

We’d survived Faroe Islands’ Seaman’s Day. And tomorrow, we’d return to the festival (along with thousands of others) for endless free coffee, pastries, salmon, and ice cream. It certainly felt like we’d earned it.

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