The Saint Paul was indeed an elegant vessel. A three-masted sailing ship with a small engine and a crew of twenty. With a fully equipped hospital and medical staff its function was to provide medical assistance to the numerous French vessels fishing off Iceland┤s coasts. The ship was from Le Harve and was spending its third season in Icelandic waters. The Saint Paul had assisted many fishermen the previous year and the crews and their families were most grateful for this service.
Easter of 1899 the Saint Paul encountered bad weather off the south coast near Mealland and ran aground next to the K˙afljˇt river estuary. All on aboard, including doctors and a chaplain, made it ashore. The stricken ship was soon spotted by those living on the nearby farm of Mealland. They quickly came to the rescue and provided shelter for the ship-wrecked crew. A few days later the survivors were on their way to Reykjavik on horseback, a journey that required crossing sandy wastes and glacial rivers.
It was a sad sight seeing this beautiful vessel stuck fast in the sand. There was no way of refloating her, so a hole was cut in her side so that as much as possible could be salvaged. Local farmers said they had never seen such grandeur in all their lives, referring to the lavish gilding. There was a chapel on board and some items from it are today in the local churches at Langholt in Mealland and ŮykkvabŠjarklaustur in ┴lftaver.
The district adminstrator held an auction on the beach and over 300 people from surrounding areas attended. Most items were auctioned off. The wreck itself however went for a very low price due to the fact that it was precariously close to the estuary and so risked being swept away before it could be sawn into pieces and taken away.
The Saint Paul played a vital role in the provision of medical care to French fishermen during the long and arduous cod fishing season in the North Atlantic. Many fishermen had already received attention on board the vessel before it ran aground. That season alone it was estimated that there were 4000 French fishermen in Icelandic waters. Another hospital ship was sent to the fishing grounds, but eventually the French authorities built hospitals in Reykjavik and the village of Fßskr˙sfj÷rur on the east coast and so the need for hospital ships declined.
The old French hospital in Fßskr˙sfj÷rur village in the East fjords of Iceland has recently been renovated and converted into an elegant hotel and restaurant. In the hotel there┤s a fine exhibition tracing the history of French cod fishing off Iceland┤s coasts.
Stories written by Lilja Magn˙sdˇttir
Translation and narration by Neil McMahon