Forty years ago this autumn, on 21 October 1971, the Gullfoss steamed out of the harbour in Reykjavík on a routine sailing to Scotland. The Gullfoss was the flagship of the Iceland Steamship Company, a shipping operator which was coming to terms with the new economic realities. The relentless growth in air traffic signalled the demise of many traditional shipping services. And Icelandic routes were surely not the only ones that were threatened by new transport options.
The year 1971 represents the Indian summer of commercial passenger shipping in north European waters. Planes were still very expensive and where there was an overland option, trains were still slow. The ship was the natural choice for many journeys. But by 1972, many shipping services were being cut to reflect falling demand. Hundreds of European vessels were, like the Gullfoss, sold to new owners in the Middle East or the Far East. The 1973 oil crisis prompted big hikes in fuel prices and a series of even more savage cuts. Over the five years from 1971 to 1976, almost half the regular passenger ferry routes in northern Europe were either cut completely or reduced from year-round to seasonal operation.
The routes on which the Gullfoss had reliably served since 1950 were scrapped in 1972. The following year, the 3,858-ton ship was sold to a Jeddah-based shipping company which remodelled her to accommodate 1,100 passengers. In her earlier career on Icelandic services, the Gullfoss’ maximum load was 209 passengers. In December 1976, the ship which had once been the pride of the Icelandic nation drifted onto a reef in the Red Sea, capsized and sunk. The interior gangways of the vessel were still decorated with fading photographs of remote villages around the coast of Iceland.