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Gallery: Shetland welcomes the Tall Ships Races

The Tall Ship Races made their way to Shetland this week, filling the harbours with wooden masts and the streets with happy crew from across the world.

Crowds on the streets welcomed the Tall Ship Races crews. Image: Jen Stout
Crowds on the streets welcomed the Tall Ship Races crews. Image: Jen Stout

Shetland felt like the centre of the seafaring world once more this week. Our harbours were a sea of wooden masts and rigging and the streets of Lerwick were noisy with the languages of more than 20 nationalities. The biggest event hosted here in years – the Tall Ships Races – finally arrived.

The tall ships docked in Lerwick, as seen from above. Image: Shetland Tall Ships Ltd

Thirty seven ships arrived in the northern isles this week, on the penultimate leg of the races which began a month ago.

From giants like the 360-foot Indonesian Navy barque Bima Suci to little single-masted sloops like Lithuania’s Lietuva, they’ve all criss-crossed the North Sea in recent weeks: from the Netherlands to Hartlepool, then to Fredrikstad in Norway.

The tall ships could be seen from all around Lerwick, with their masts high in the skyline. Image: Shetland Tall Ships Ltd

They’ll cross the finish line back in Norway, in Arendal.

Each port has thrown a giant party for their visitors and Lerwick has been no exception: a line-up including Peatbog Faeries, Tide Lines and Peat & Diesel sold out weeks ago.

Hundreds of Tall Ships Races crew members arrive in Shetland

The streets were full of happy people eager to see the Tall Ships and their crews members. Image: Jen Stout

On Wednesday onlookers lined the streets for the parade of more than 1,300 crew members.

Axe-wielding Vikings mingled with Indonesians in full regalia and some in walrus outfits; a truly international, and occasionally quite bizarre, sight.

All kinds of costumes were on display. Image: Jen Stout

But this isn’t just a spectacle. The races are organised by Sail Training International: the point is to give young people the experience of a lifetime as crew.

The traditional vessels were certainly a site to behold, and one many Shetlanders will never forget. Image: Jen Stout

It’s changed many lives over the decades. This year 100 Shetlanders joined vessels, funded by Sail Training Shetland.

Meet some of the Tall Ships Races crew members, starting with 19-year-old Grace

Grace Anderson, 19, sail trainee, with her ship Christian Radich. Image: Jen Stout

19-year-old Grace Anderson was grinning from ear to ear on the deck of Norwegian ship Christian Radich. She’d joined the ship in Norway after getting a place on the scheme.

“At first it was terrifying because the crew were all speaking Norwegian, dressed very officially, and it seemed like it’d be really strict.”

Grace soon made friends and loved every minute, even the initial seasickness, laughing as she described the “humbling” experience of throwing up for two days, and the struggle of climbing into high hammocks.

“Honestly I would love to go back to sea,” she said. “I’m thankful for literally every minute.”

Sun setting on the Tall Ships. Image: Jen Stout

The trainees learn navigation, climb the rigging, even steer at the helm. Thrown out of their comfort zone, they forge strong bonds on board.

Helga Gihleengen, a 56-year-old volunteer from Norway, was on her fifth trip.

Volunteer Helga Gihleengen, left. Image: Jen Stout

“It can be hard,” she admitted, “when the sea is rough, it’s dark, you’re working without torches, the ship is moving.” But it’s the friendship that draws her back – and the “magical ocean”.

A classic Jarl Squad welcome home for the Swan

Shetland’s own Swan arrived in Lerwick to a heartfelt welcome on Tuesday, met by the roars of the junior Jarl Squad. An old herring drifter restored in the 1990s, she stands out in the fleet with her distinctive maroon sails.

Maggie Adamson, 31, skipper of Shetland vessel ‘Swan’. Image: Jen Stout

“It was quite something,” said skipper Maggie Adamson, 31. “Such a privilege to skipper your home boat, into the home port.”

As we spoke, a new batch of wide-eyed trainees were arriving for crew change, and Maggie was about to go and play on stage. She happens to be one of Shetland’s best young fiddle players.

The young crew of a Belgian ship said they’d been amazed at the musical offering, from the arena concerts to the impromptu pub sessions Shetland is famous for. Lothar, 27, said this was a big difference between Lerwick and the bigger ports.

A Belgian crew enjoying some fish and chips. When in Lerwick, eh? Image: Jen Stout

“All the music is live! Normally at ports it’s a DJ, here you have live traditional music.”

Their ship’s captain, he added, had been the star of the show dancing in the pub.

A huge amount of work and preparation has gone into Shetland’s tall ships celebrations, which included events in the island of Yell earlier in the week. They even squeezed in a royal visit, with Princess Anne meeting crews on Friday.

‘Our islands have always been a safe haven for sailors’

The whole programme was supported by more than a million pounds of funding from Shetland Islands Council.

Seating was at a premium to get a good spot for watching the tall ships this week. Image: Jen Stout

At the opening ceremony council convener Andrea Manson welcomed the guests. “Our islands have always been a safe haven for sailors,” she told them. “Shetland has a long history of extending hospitality to seafarers all over the world”.

Vikings meeting Indonesians? It must be the Tall Ship Races. Image: Jen Stout

On the pier on Wednesday Shetlander Michelle Sinclair and her Australian cousin Sue Sinclair were tucking in to plates of local seafood, along with Eileen Tait, 70, who reckoned she’d never seen Lerwick so busy.

A crew member in the parade. Image: Jen Stout

Sue, 64, had extended her holiday to take in the festivities. “It’s just awesome,” she enthused. “You can go on board the ships, and watch people on the high rigging – they look like little birds!

“I suppose historically Shetland was an important port. Vikings, Spanish Armada, traders…”

“A nautical highway!” Michelle added.

Parading crew members filled the streets in colourful costumes. Image: Jen Stout

James Paton was also soaking up the atmosphere. Having returned home after 30 years south, he’s a huge enthusiast of all things Shetland, particularly its maritime history. “I never realised how much I missed the sea. I’ve even learnt how to sail!”

Just that morning he’d had conversations in Italian, French and Spanish. The whole event was a reminder that Shetland, long stereotyped as ‘far-flung’ and ‘remote’, is neither, he added.

With its long summertime days, Shetland was perfect for late night photography of the Tall Ship Races. Image: Shetland Tall Ships Ltd

“I aye say to folk – look at the map and put Shetland in the middle. You’ll see that we’re the crossroads of northern Europe. We’re at the heart of things!”