From Iceland — The Islanders: Captain Dóra At Sea And Ashore

The Islanders: Captain Dóra At Sea And Ashore

Published September 8, 2023

The Islanders: Captain Dóra At Sea And Ashore
Photo by
Supplied by Halldóra Kristín Unnarsdóttir

Her boat doesn’t have a toilet, but she has come a long way

From the crack of dawn, while most of us are still cocooned in the embrace of sleep, Halldóra Kristín Unnarsdóttir, known simply as Dóra, is already navigating the open seas. She rarely returns home before catching 750 kilos of fish, her daily quota. Dóra is more than a boat captain – she’s a trailblazer, community worker and educator. Among her many roles, there’s one constant: she cracks jokes along the way.

I was born and raised in Rif. About 150 people live here and most of them work on fishing boats or at a fish factory. When I was growing up, everybody had a father who was working on a fishing boat. We were used to the fact that our fathers were never home. The best days were when the boats were returning to the harbour, as that’s when all of our dads were coming back. 

“The stigma used to bother me a lot. I had to earn respect from all the men when I started. But now I’m a role model.”

When I was about six years old, I decided I wanted to be a fisherman or fisherwoman because of my father and grandfather. They were always going out to sea, and I was always down at the harbour crying. I couldn’t go with them because I was too young. When they returned from the sea, I was always the first to welcome them and watch everything they did. It’s like catching the flu, but I never got rid of it! When I was almost 12, my grandfather came to me and asked if I could take his place because he was getting too old to go on the fishing boat. It was a big honour for me. I don’t have any brothers, so I always looked at myself as one of the “boys” in the family. Since I only knew men working on boats, I was extra honoured to be accepted to be on a boat. 

Sailing her way

I got my captain’s licence in 2012. But I started working on the fishing boat with my father earlier than that. When I got my licence, he could retire and I took over the boat. 

Sailing is and isn’t similar to driving. You have to know the rules of the ocean and what to do if the boat breaks down – you can’t just walk away from it. The schooling was fun; I knew how to sail, so it wasn’t that difficult for me, but there were men there who had never sailed before. Despite my experience, I could feel that I wasn’t part of the group because I was a girl. There were a lot of men there asking, ‘Why are you taking the test?’ and giving me looks, like, ‘Why are you wasting your time?’ When I started working on the fishing boat by myself, there were men asking if my father knew that I was alone on the boat, as if I was stealing it. 

“The world is always talking about fishermen. It doesn’t have to be a man, a woman, whatever. I’m just a person working on a boat.”

I had to constantly prove myself. In school, I had to prove myself and when it came to reality, I had to prove myself again. It took about two years. This summer I’ve been working with Strandveiðifélag Íslands (The Icelandic Association of Coastal Fishing). We are trying to get a higher fishing quota, while advocating for a better system for our boats. I’ve been meeting a lot of new men that are working on fishing boats around Iceland and they were very weird about the fact that I was the only girl. Yet again, it felt like I had to prove myself. 

The stigma used to bother me a lot. I had to earn respect from all the men when I started. But now I’m a role model. Men are asking me if I can talk to their daughters who are going to school or who want to take over the boats. It’s irritating that the world is always talking about fishermen. It doesn’t have to be a man, a woman, whatever. I’m just a person working on a boat. It’s just a job title. Anybody can do it.

Fishing for laughs and energy

When men hear I caught more fish than them, they think that I’m a witch and that I know some kind of magic for catching fish. I just let them believe it. I tell them that I have a special routine and pick special colours. Sometimes I just continue feeding them lies to keep it funny.

The fishermen are always trying to compete to see who’s the best and the quickest. Since I’m not on the biggest or fastest boat, I don’t follow the other boats. I just go where I want to go. Sometimes they call me and ask how it’s going. When it’s not going well, I might tell them things are really good, and when it’s going really well, I might say it’s bad. Just to fuck with them. 

When I go on the boat, there’s something about the energy I get from the ocean and just having time with myself. I talk to myself a lot when I’m on the boat. I have the best time with myself! I don’t know what it is. It feels like connecting with my family roots. Even when things aren’t going really well and I’m just spending a whole day on the ocean, it doesn’t bother me. I can’t wait to go on the fishing boat again. When the weather is really bad and I can’t go out, I feel a little sad. Not like ‘Oh, I can have a day off.’ Sometimes I’m tired physically, but never mentally. I just love it.

Beyond Captain Dóra

I have two personalities – one is Captain Dóra, working on the fishing boat from May till August, depending on the quotas. The other one is Teacher Dóra, working with kids and teenagers. I’ve just started a new job at a school. I do a lot of extra stuff in the community. And I do stand up comedy – I like to put myself in awkward situations, just so I can talk about it. Now I also work in theatre and filmmaking. We have a little theatre group here and they asked me to be a director for the next play. Of course, I said yes!

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