Visit to Shetland and thoughts on those lost at sea

I have just returned from Shetland on board MV Hrossey. Thought it might be nice to record some of my thoughts for those interested in doing the same trip. The time was just days after the sinking of yet another ship and the tragic loss of more lives, drowned at sea.

Though in my mind’s eye Orkney and Shetland have always been the Northern Isles and so part of the same place, it is clear they are far apart, despite much common history with the Vikings and even now. It is a long way by boat. About 6 hours. Flying is far preferable, but when you have a car the boat is the only option (obviously). My wife flew up to meet me in Shetland but as the fog was down her plane could not land and the flight was diverted south to Inverness. Just another reminder of life in the Northern Isles!

So how to pass time on the ferry? Eat a meal, contemplate sea-sickness, bravery, and watch out for Fair Isle. The ferry moves quite a bit at times as currents can be strong and there is little shelter from winds and swells. Some enjoy the bar and others crash on the floor (some maybe both?) but by far the best way to travel is to sleep. The cabins are excellent with their en-suite shower / toilet and the movement of the sea is no problem when in bed. So, my advice: get a cabin. (I should point out that while I may have contemplated sea-sickness it was not an issue for me – and the tablets you can take work – as do the wrist bands etc, so do not be put off but do not forget it either!).

The ferry leaves Kirkwall (Orkney) at 11.45pm and arrives in Lerwick (Shetland) at 7.30am. Breakfast on the ferry after it docks in Lerwick is the best option. I didn’t find a good cafe open in town that early. You can stay on the boat (or leave and return to it for breakfast – how civilised).

The return from Lerwick leaves at 17.30pm and gets back to Kirkwall for around 11pm, so less demand for a cabin but still worth it. Certainly for those continuing to Aberdeen it is a must, surely. Boredom would drive me crazy, otherwise. I tried the cinema to fill in the time (obviously if you are with other people you can chat – not a viable option on your own! Mind you, I did get to chat with Frank – thanks mate).

The first and the last hour, or so, of the crossing seems to be nicely sheltered by the land masses of the islands (based on my two visits, four sailings). In between, the ferry can sometimes dance like a prancing pony – I am no sea dog, you can tell. It is quite amusing and certainly gives me a healthy respect for those settlers of Shetland, way back in the Stone Age, over 6,000 years ago. But then they would have been far more used to the sea and comfortable with it – more like the guys in the book I just read:

I digress to mention The Crossing by Ben Fogle and James Cracknell, rowing across the Atlantic in a high tech version of those plastic pedalo things I see on sedate lakes and amusement parks. My hat off to you boys! The fascination with such heroicism includes reading (absorbing) every minute detail of the journeys by Tor Heyerdahl and Vikings old and new … and I get the impression that seas can be easier in small boats than large super ferries but hey, the sea is still boss. It terrifies me in its power. This is why the price of fish is too little – my sincere thanks to every man and woman who goes out in boats to get my supper, you are my heroes and I want you to know it.

The sea has become a foreign place for most humans over the past thousands of years and we often neglect it. We throw our waste in it (as the recent Bag the Bruck proves, yet again), use it to digest our effluent (watch out Thurso surfers), and we pull all the whales and fish out of it into huge facatory ships, leaving not enough for our small boats, the birds and the rest of life. (As a boy I watched the Cod Wars between Britain and Iceland on tv and my heart and stomache leapt as the boats braved the seriously stormy conditions – for our fish. Never take a piece of cod or haddock for granted, some guys have risked their lives for it).

Whilst I was up on Shetland, out at sea the Bourbon Dolphin sank and lives were lost. Tragic. My condolences to all the relatives and friends and workers who lost family and friends that night and to all those who mourn lives lost at sea. So sad. So terrifyingly huge, awesome and overwhelming – the sea. We travel upon it holding our breath, like ants upon a leaf, vulnerable and waiting. We hope and trust. Sailing back from Shetland last week, knowing more lives had been lost, drowned at sea, I passed most of the time by staring into the dark grey water and the white spume of waves, and thought of those not coming back.

In my next blog I should actually write about what it was like to be on Shetland (for those of you who do not know) but for now, I will close, my heart heavy for those who died whilst I was safe on land, eating fish and using diesel to drive.

Thank you.

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One response to “Visit to Shetland and thoughts on those lost at sea

  1. Thanks for your vivid accounting of your trip to Shetland. As a former member of a creative writing class, your “essay” is a perfect example of a well-written, “Show”, don’t “tell”, neat little gem. I have a healthy respect of the sea and especially after one of my teenage daughters and I were caught in a rip tide one afternoon. “Stay on top of the water and swim with the shore line,” I told her. We walked safely to shore some distance from where we entered the water. Oh, yes, every time I purchase a piece of cod, or any fish taken from the sea, I breath a breath of thanks to the men who make it possible for me eat something beside farm-raised cat fish, or even talapia. Did I spell that correctly?

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