Jonty Pearce makes the long trip north to sail in the Shetland Islands, but is hampered by mechanical and weather problems
I have waited many years to get to Shetland (and Orkney, for that matter). The main obstacle preventing my visit has been the length of time it takes to get there from the Midlands. Being married to a teacher (and thus also restricted to school holidays) this only gave the Easter, half term, or summer holidays. In addition, as a practising GP in a small practice, these school holidays had to be shared equably between the other doctors. Duty sharing at Easter and Christmas have always denied us a proper break at those times, and the summer is full of midges…
Am I making too many excuses? Probably. But the underlying issue is that it takes a full day – and night – of travelling at either end of the holiday to get this far north, and we have never been convinced it was worth either the time or the expense. Now both of us are newly retired the world is our oyster, and are revelling in our third trip to Scotland since 1 April. When the Penguin Cruising Club proposed a charter to these remote islands, we jumped at the opportunity. Two yachts were chartered to sail round the Shetlands before calling in at Fair Isle, with the cruise finishing at Kirkwall after exploring the north of Orkney. The club organiser was only able to find two yachts by chartering one from Shetland, to be returned after the two week charter, and one from Kirkwall, to be delivered to Lerwick before the start.
But there is a problem; the Orkney boat suffered a seized sail drive when visiting Fair Isle last week. The charterer has turned cartwheels trying to ready the yacht for us, and the latest bulletin looks hopeful that it will sail into Lerwick on the morning of the charter. A new sail drive has been fitted, but there were driveshaft problems too so new parts are in the process of order and installation. At least the weather is fair for an Orkney to Shetland passage, but we are still holding our breath.
Carol and I have planned a few days ashore both before and after the charter; partly to give us the chance of exploring by land, but also because the travel timings worked better that way. For our return from Kirkwall we learned that there is no Aberdeen ferry between Saturday morning and Monday night, so we have booked accommodation. And on the upward journey the train fare would have been three times the price on the Thursday or Friday, so we left on Wednesday. It ends up with our two week charter occupying three weeks holiday – does this justify our failure to have visited before?
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Now we are finally here in Shetland, we love it! The weather is changeable and the forecast alters daily as a low goes over. Lerwick itself bustles contentedly and is an interesting mix of a historic island centre with surrounding industrial outskirts. Today’s plan is to go south to Sumburgh Head to the RSPB reserve and archeological attractions, but as I write this in my room on the third floor of the Islesburgh Complex Hostel the visibility is limited to a mere two streets by a blanketing morning fog. The forecast says it will burn off in an hour or two; we will wait and see.
Sailing round these parts does pose certain challenges, of which the propensity for fog is one. The speed of change of the weather is another, and both of these factors are compounded by the tidal rips (roosts) round the headlands. Timing, forecasts, and planning have to be well thought out before casting off up here, so I am busy with my homework.
We are looking forward to getting afloat and actually sailing rather than talking about it – but first we need a yacht! We are keeping toes as well as fingers crossed and trust our charter turns up at the altar on time…