After more than 30 years of leading the Maritime Safety and Survival Training Centre (MSSTC) at Icelandic Search and Rescue (ICE-SAR), Captain Hilmar Snorrason is set to hand over the reins to the next generation of SAR professionals. However, his incredible tenure and life experience in the maritime SAR sector have left him with a deep understanding and respect for the daily struggles of seafarers and fishermen.

During his tenure at the Icelandic State Shipping Company as a Deck Officer, he operated regular services around the coast of Iceland. Like other Icelandic seafarers and fishermen, he was acutely aware of the importance of ICE-SAR for them and the entire community.

“The Icelandic Ship Reporting system, operated by ICE-SAR, kept us in daily contact with the operation centre, especially when ships were lost or missing. Unfortunately, during those years, we lost many fishing vessels in our waters, sadly resulting in the loss of several lives,” Hilmar said. 

In 1991, after having a successful career as a master of cargo ships, he was offered the position of Principal at the MSSTC and master of the training vessel, Sæbjörg, based on his strong industry background in maritime.

Amid his tenure at ICE-SAR, Hilmar has also been a board member of the Safety Investigation Authority (SIA-Iceland), as well as a member of the advisory board for Iceland’s Ministry of Transportation and Iceland Transport Authority. In 1995, he became Vice-Chairman of the International Association for Safety and Survival Training before being named Chairman from 2004 to 2015. 

In 2013, he was awarded the Order of the Falcon by the President of Iceland for his work on safety education and his role in improving the capabilities of ICE-SAR and its numerous volunteers and professionals. 

Since taking the helm at the training centre, Hilmar has witnessed first-hand how much maritime SAR training and safety has developed, not least how the need for continuous training has become much more of a priority.

“During my career at the MSSTC, I witnessed significant cultural changes towards safety training and safety in general. When I started at the centre, seafarers and fishermen expressed the importance of safety training, but upon returning to their vessels, there was no ongoing onboard training, such as muster drills, which were mandatory at the time,” Hilmar said. 

Despite being mandated by legislation, familiarisation for new crew members was not conducted. However, basic safety training became mandatory in 1995, and refresher training became compulsory in 2003.

He recalls that an experienced Master of a container vessel, after being asked by a deck hand why there were no safety drills, responded by telling them to find a new ship if they wanted safety drills. 

“In 2008, the industry witnessed a significant shift in cultural attitudes towards safety when there were no fatal accidents for the first time. Our primary goal has always been to ensure that all seafarers and fishermen return home safely to their loved ones. This remarkable achievement has been repeated numerous times since then, highlighting the industry's unwavering commitment to safety,” he commented. 

Providing safety training to seagoing personnel is vital in Iceland, especially fishermen, who comprise over 80% of the workforce. Fishing is considered one of the most dangerous occupations, so maintaining safety awareness is crucial regardless of improvements to vessels and training regimes.

With Hilmar now stepping down from his role at MSSTC, he provided a few words of salient advice for the next generation who will oversee the safety and training of Iceland’s seafaring professionals.

“We must always be learning how to improve our skills and safety. We should apply the knowledge we gain each day and remember that safety is always about doing the right thing, even when no one is around to see it,” he concluded.