In theory, traffic jams are possible on Røvær Island - but they are highly unlikely. You would have to orchestrate rush hour by driving the only two cars across the island at the same time. But why would you want to do that?
In many ways, time has stood still on Røvær Island. Located a short 25 minute boat ride off the coastal town of Haugesund in south Norway, the place radiates the type of tranquility we associate with the “olden days” – a simpler way of life away from the hustle and bustle of our modern western societies. This is what appeals to me: Røvær Island has community. With a population of about 100 permanent residents, communal life, where people look out for each other, celebrate a shared history together and depend on each other for life’s necessities, makes this place a treasure to cherish. Helga Rasmussen is one of those treasures and key personalities that make the island tick.
Helga is waiting for us at the dock as we arrive after a short journey across rough waters from Haugesund in a Zodiac. She is here to show us around Røvær Island and tell our small group about the island’s history and community life. As a 5th generation islander and part owner of the (only) local hotel, Helga is as embedded in island life as you can be. And as we walk up the hill towards the center of the village, she starts sharing fascinating stories and facts about Røvær Island. It quickly becomes evident why she loves this place so much and why she prefers to spend her time here. Is the lack of traffic chaos the reason why people live here? I just had to know.
Despite its small size (1.4 km2 or 0.54 sq mi) and cozy, old fashioned fishing village atmosphere, Røvær Island has all the modern conveniences of today’s life. Here you can find a store, a hotel, a post office, a church, a hostel, a café, a kindergarten, regular express transportation to the mainland and a school with its own principal, Internet and Apple laptop computers. The latter is especially surprising given the fact that the school has an enrolment of only 17 students.
Of course, the island’s economy is mostly driven by fishing. Røvær Island was a popular fishing spot during the Viking era already and the people here have never lost their close bond with the sea. During seasonal fishing in the late 19th century, up to 20,000 fishermen swamped the island, some living on their boats while others rented space in the local homes. They came predominantly during the herring season and left the island as quickly as they came. Other sources of employment for the islanders are the hotel, dairy farming, the store, the school and a local salmon farm. It does not take much to keep this tiny economy going!
Røvær’s small population may make life seem idyllic on the island, but it has one major drawback: the community constantly hovers near the edge of irrelevance and extinction. As Helga explains, while people are drawn to the island life and would like to move to Røvær, it is very difficult to obtain building permits for new houses. “The problem are the zoning restrictions”, explains Helga. “The politicians do not make it easy for us to grow our population.”
“Quite opposite from other places where city folk have a cabin on the island for vacations, here many islanders have vacation condos in the town of Haugesund”, Helga comments. “The apartments come in very handy when teenagers have to move to finish off their last two years of school in town.”
Like many other close-knit communities around the world, Røvær Island also had much heart-break in its long history. One tragic event has shaped the comradery and the caring among the islanders more than any other: the boat accident on Friday, Oct 13th, 1899. On their way back from a funeral on the mainland, 30 islanders and their sailing vessel got caught in a hurricane and crashed on the rocks just off the coast. Everybody on board drowned.
As Helga unlocks the door to the island’s museum, we enter island life in the 19th century. We also become aware just how much the memory of the accident is still embedded in the psyche of the islanders. The event must have galvanized not only the close-knit community of Røvær Island, it caused the entire nation of Norway to rally and support the island’s population. On that fateful day, Røvær Island lost over 50% of its male population. Four women and four children also drowned. As a result of the accident, 36 children were left fatherless and 11 women without their husbands. Helga explains: “In those days, losing your husband meant a loss of your livelihood. The widows and the children had to be cared for. In the end, the accident made the community stronger. The reverberations from the event can still be felt on the island.”
The heart of the Røvær community is the church. Originally built as a community activity center, it now hosts regular church services (once per month), concerts and lotteries for fundraising. Hanging from the ceiling of the building is a powerful reminder of the one thing that has made this community strong: a replica of the doomed sailing vessel. For community life here and elsewhere, remembering and celebrating are important ingredients.
Speaking of ingredients, I want to know what Helga’s sister put into the fish soup she served us just before we left. It was the most delicious soup I have ever tasted. As if I needed more incentives to move to Røvær Island! I wonder if it is a recipe Helga’s family perfected over 5 generations. Finally, I have come to the conclusion that it isn’t the lack of cars, the light Røvær traffic or the short commuting times that keep people on the island - it is the fish soup.