Many of the ships are dressed overall, their huge national flags creating a colourful spectacle in the light northerly breeze.
Stalls have sprung up on Victoria Pier with a range of exciting items to be sampled. There is Shetland knitwear and crafts, including glass, artwork and jewellery. A Thai stall is offering buffalo horn keyrings and necklaces, carved in front of customers, and there is a Finnish stall with woolly slippers and gloves.
Exciting food for sale includes Spanish tapas, French cheese and German salami, as well as food from local traders, and music is never far away. And crowds of people are admiring the ships and enjoying the warmer weather.
Shetland’s sail training ship Swan, home from the Cruise in Company leg of the Tall Ships Races, is there, together with many others, including the Lord Nelson, Christian Radich, Jolie Brise and Prolific, displacing visiting yachts and other regular harbour traffic.
Swan skipper Matthew Chapman said: “There are bands playing either side of us, there’s a real carnival feel and this is only the beginning, it’s excellent.”
Some of the larger Class A ships are at Holmsgarth where a thicket of masts and a cluster of marquees and a funfair have popped up. The furthest travelled ship, the Colombian Gloria, staged a rifle display in which naval cadets, drilled to perfection, twirled and threw rifles to each other to the swirl of bagpipes – introduced to Colombia by the British navy, invited by the Colombian government to rebuild its country’s navy.
The immaculate appearance of the cadets in black uniforms, white belts, hats and gloves and gleaming black shoes, echoed that of the ship, with its shiny brass and neatly coiled ropes.
Watching the display was MSP Tavish Scott who said: “It was a real display of skill and intense concentration. It’s an impressive ship.” Also present was SIC convener Sandy Cluness. He said: “It’s a beautiful ship, the pride and joy of the Colombian navy.”
Nearby are more Class A ships, including the two largest at 108 metres, the Polish Dar Mlodziezy, sporting a huge white and red flag, and the Russian Mir, berthed near the NorthLink ferry.
Outside the Dar Mlodziezy some of her crew practised juggling and laid out a huge jigsaw puzzle to appeal to young visitors. They were trying to raise awareness of the port of Szczecin where the Tall Ships will be in 2013, said sailor Lukesz Wojcik. His shipmates love Shetland, he said: “We love the seals and we feel the ghosts of sailors who have been here before.”
One of the first ships open to the public, the Mir, which has 199 people on board, was yesterday doing a roaring trade in souvenirs, including miniatures of Russian vodka.
The distinctive German Alexander von Humboldt is also at Holmsgarth on her last voyage in this incarnation – a new ship, the third to bear the name, will shortly be built.
Berthed opposite is the 58-metre Dutch schooner Eendracht, which will have two Shetland trainees on board for Race 3 from Stavanger to Halmstad. Her name, according to Captain Jaap Schot, means unity. There is no difference between officers and crew, he said. All work together (this includes baking all their own bread while on ocean passage) and all wear T-shirts, not uniforms.
The steel ship, built in 1989, can take up to 60 people. She has no television on board and the captain said: “I’m glad of that. The young people talk, sing and make lots of noise.”
More large vessels are nearby, the newer Alba Endeavour and Alba Explorer contrasting with the older Gulden Leeuw, Constantia, Provident and the ketch Svanhild, which was built in 1889 and thus one of the very oldest ships currently in Shetland.
The Tall Ships have attracted people from near and far. Passengers on the Dim Riv get a close-up view of the ships, and people strolling on the quay enjoy them at their leisure. Others, in holiday mood, can try the delights of the fairground, the Sizzler roundabout or the Street Dancer, the test your strength stall, the bouncy castle or the one where everyone gets a prize.
All around is the enticing smell of food, from barbecued fish to venison or steak and music is never far away. And, just to emphasise the importance of the event, the biggest screen imaginable on the biggest, blackest American-style truck, stands at the entrance to the scene.
Former Shetland residents Alistair and Sheila Brown, back in the isles to see the event, said it was good to see the activity in the town, the ships themselves and all the ancillary events. Mr Brown summed up the feeling of many: “Shetland should be extremely proud attracting an event like this.”
The crew parade took place at 4pm yesterday, starting with a blast of gunfire from Fort Charlotte. Participants in full uniform and fancy dress were by Lerwick Guizer Jarl John Hunter and his squad, accompanied by the Lerwick Legion Pipe Band. More music came from a samba band, a brass band and drumming group Aestaewest. The parade followed at 5pm by the official opening ceremony.