Maritime: Keep on sailing

Ruth Grainger praises the work of the Swan and her crew, and recommends a chartered trip as an ideal short holiday.

The Swan, Shetland’s own sail training vessel – a project undertaken some 15 years ago by a few determined men, who campaigned and worked tirelessly to provide our isles with a piece of living, practical and beautiful history. What started as a fairly big job of fixing up an old boat soon turned into a massive task. But now, thanks to their efforts, the Swan sails around our coasts as a testament of their commitment to Shetland’s maritime heritage.

She was built at Hay’s Dock in 1900, and first sailed as a herring drifter during the herring-fishing heyday – a world of difference from her work today.  She has since been employed in a number of different guises, including being requisitioned by the War Office in the Second World War.

These days, instead of carrying herring, her cargo is sail trainees.  Instead of a fish hold, she has a saloon with eight bunks, and a table that can seat 15 at a squeeze. Instead of nets, she carries a generator, a Cummins diesel engine, fridges and a freezer, and is fitted with a galley and three toilets. Where the original crew accommodation used to be there are now seven bunks and access to the engine room. She has hot and cold running water, lights in every bunk, and even a shower. Care has been taken to try and retain her original features, and she is still very much a Fifie.
However, due to her new work, she now has safety rails, steel bulkheads, and all the safety equipment you can shake a stick at – lifejackets, safety lanyards, full first aid kit, life rafts, EPIRB, radar, GPS.

You may be forgiven for thinking that a sail trainee will typically be young, belong to a youth club or school group, and have some experience of sailing. Of course, you would be right, in part. The Swan does take a lot of young people on trips. But another large part of her work is as a charter boat. That means that you, whoever you are, can take a trip on the Swan.

You need no prior experience of sailing; the Swan comes with crew as part of the package. You can either go on one of her advertised trips, or charter her yourself for a trip with some friends or family. The boat can carry 15 people, three or four of whom would be crew, and so your group can be as large as 11 or 12.

Think about it: all your meals cooked for you; transport to some of the far corners of Shetland you’ve never seen before; bed and board included in the cost; the chance to learn a bit about sailing and to be part of the crew; getting close to some of the local sea life; getting even closer to your fellow crew members (the accommodation is cosy – but fun); even just doing something different.

A typical weekend charter would perhaps leave from Scalloway and head to Papa Stour for the night. Then, the following day, after a lazy start and a feed of bacon and eggs (or maybe the mackerel you caught the day before) head to Foula for a peerie wander. You could be really adventurous and explore the Sneck o da Smallie. Then return home the following day. Or what about leaving from Lerwick and popping out to beautiful Skerries for a night? The entrance into the harbour there takes a bit of beating. Then of course Fair Isle is always worth a visit. In fact, a two-night stop in Fair Isle is a good choice, and they often have good dances on there in the summer. And Unst, Yell and Fetlar always have a lot to offer the visitor.

Shetland has a beautiful coastline, and travelling on the Swan is certainly a novel way of seeing it. Orkney is also within fairly easy reach, and if you include a pit stop in Fair Isle you probably wouldn’t have to sail for more than eight hours at a time for the whole trip. Island hopping around our neighbouring county would certainly be an experience to remember.

But what about going further afield? The Swan frequently travels to Norway and Faeroe, as well as south to mainland Scotland, occasionally venturing even as far as the continent and the Baltic. She has even sailed to Iceland.

The cost of the charter is the same wherever you go. (This year’s prices are £60 per night for an adult, £47 for young folk and £30 for bairns). A ten-day trip to Norway, including all your transport, bed and board, plus a week or so of cruising the Norwegian fjords would cost £600 for an adult. A crossing to Norway would take roughly a day and a half, depending on the weather, leaving you with seven days cruising time. Faroe is about the same distance, and travelling by boat is a good choice, as the coastline there is certainly a spectacle to behold.

People choose a trip on the Swan for a variety of reasons – to satisfy some of the wanderlust they find creeping to the fore; to challenge some of the apprehensions they have about boats and the sea; for some fun with old friends; to meet some new friends; for the pure love of the sea; to satisfy their desire to experience some of Shetland’s living heritage; for a spot of fishing; and of course for peace and tranquillity.

The main reason people don’t choose a trip on the Swan is due to their fear of seasickness. But Shetland has many sheltered waters, as does Orkney and Norway, and much of the sailing can be done with as little motion as possible. Personally, I have found the positive aspects of a trip far outweigh the negative.

I have been on board the Swan in a variety of weather conditions, from flat calm to force 8, and they all pose different challenges. Lack of wind means using the engine is essential, which is slightly disappointing if sailing is the aim.

The roughest trip I have encountered was a number of years ago when I was a youth worker in Orkney and I took some young folk to Norway. To be perfectly honest, I didn’t feel too good, and remained in my bunk, leaving the crew and skipper to take us safely there. But I must say that at no point did I feel scared in any way. At the time, the trip felt rather like being in labour – that it was never going to end and death was a preferred option. However, also like being in labour, it didn’t last as long as it felt like, and the reward at the end was well worth the discomfort. A surprising side effect was that it felt like I had achieved rather a lot just by getting there, although I had basically just stayed in my bed for about 16 hours.

When we arrived in Bergen the sun was shining and the young folk on board were suddenly shouting for dinner. I can tell you now, mince and tatties never tasted so good. Before the bairns had scraped the last morsel from their plates, they had already started talking of the crossing with pride. They had met with seasickness and got the upper hand.
They were in Norway, had sailed themselves over the North Sea to get there, and nothing was ever going to stop them again. We spent the next nine days cruising around between Bergen and Stavanger, meeting some local folk, having a lot of fun and experiencing Norwegian culture. The return trip, of course, was a beauty: blue skies, a fair wind, all four sails up, a silenced engine, sunbathing on deck, and everyone enjoying the freedom of a 360 degree sea view.

These days I manage to view a queasy stomach with some perspective. Compared to the positives: cruising down a Norwegian fjord while relaxing on deck, wedged comfortably between the aft hatch and the mizzen boom, sunglasses on, a good book to hand, and camera at the ready.  There’s nothing quite like it for letting the stress drain away.

Or lending a hand with the sails. A Swan voyage is very much a hands-on experience. If you are fit and able, you are encouraged to help out with the sailing, which entails hauling on ropes, helming, keeping a lookout, stowing sails, and being part of a watch on longer trips. To begin with the system of halyards and sheets (that’s ropes by any other name) can look a bit daunting, but the crew soon help to demystify the issue. Helming can be difficult to get the hang of, but it comes with practice. If you’re really keen, you can learn a little about navigation.

And of course, the skippers are keen to give people as positive an experience as possible; so taking the most comfortable route is a priority. The Swan Trust is grateful to have the help of various talented skippers as well as the assistance of many volunteer crew, who have given their time generously over the years. Together, they have a wealth of sea faring experience – sail trainees are in safe hands indeed.

The Swan Trust is a charity. All fares paid are used for upkeep and running of the vessel. Volunteers on the trust and on the operations committee do all the organising, and extra crew is also on a voluntary basis.

If you would like to find out more about the Swan, go to

Ruth Grainger


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