A sailor's paradise

by Marsali Taylor -

Local yacht skipper and dinghy instructor Marsali Taylor describes Shetland's sailing scene.

The 13th of November turned into a bonny afternoon, so I headed out for a sail. Most Shetland villages have a small marina, and ours, in Aith, is so handily close to the house that I reckon on 20 minutes from crossing my doorstep to being out on the water with sails hoisted and engine off. Today was a personal best: 17 minutes before I pulled the "Stop" handle and the clank of the engine faded into silence.

After a week of gales, it was wonderful being out on the water. I had a light wind behind me, and my 8 metre yacht, Karima S, steered herself nicely while I made a cup of hot chocolate and found the last of the chocolate stores. A couple of young guillemots, speckled grey and cream, bobbed up beside me. I sailed north for a couple of miles, and didn't turn back until the street-lights lit up in Aith. Then I had a fast beat home, with the wind in my hair, and the water chuckling under Karima's prow.

Visiting yachts often head up the east coast towards Lerwick, Shetland's capital. My sailing playground is on the west, Swarback's Minn, a spread hand of water opening out from the Atlantic, but protected from the worst of the gales by green hills and red sandstone cliffs. Puffins nest here, and kittiwakes; seals bob up close to the boat, and otters bustle along the shoreline. Within 12 miles of my own berth, I have two more marinas (both near excellent seafood restaurants), several piers and two pontoons in beautiful, deserted bays, if I fancy a night under the stars. Karima S's mast stays up all year, and I manage to get at least one trip on the water every month. Getting out on Christmas Eve afternoon, when everyone else is fighting supermarkets, is a bonus.

My summer sailing season is divided between messing about single-handed from Aith and serious racing up at Brae, the largest marina on the west side. It has 54 berths, and Shetland's most active yacht racing fleet. Masts go up there in April, and there's racing every weekend through May and June. It's not all around the cans; Karima S and I join them from Aith for overnight stays at the western island of Papa Stour, or Sunday lunch at a bay called the Hams – the old Viking word for a good mooring. We race around for the Mavis Grind Foy – an afternoon of sideshows and music – and there has to be some kind of flotilla expedition for the summer solstice, which generally involves a fire on the beach, a barbeque, and staying up past midnight to enjoy the sun dipping below the horizon, then rising again.

In July, the regattas begin: Brae first, then Aith, then the fleet works its way around the west side via the villages of Walls and Skeld to the former capital, Scalloway. After that the yachts go down around Sumburgh Head, and up the east coast to Lerwick for the big Inter-Club, followed by the Lerwick Regatta. The regattas aren't just about racing, though many of the trophies are over 100 years old, and solid silver; they're also about having a good time, with a disco on the Friday night, a slap-up meal in between races on Saturday, and a dance in the evening. Most have a fishing competition, with the catch barbequed, and many also feature rowing races in the traditional Shetland yoals.

It's not just adults that sail. Over the first weekend in May, we instructors haul the club dinghies out of the shed and put word round that classes are about to start again. They run on Mondays and Tuesdays in Brae, through May to September, and Delting Boating Club also hosts week-long courses for youngsters throughout the summer holidays. Lerwick Boating Club runs classes too, in Picos and 420s, and Sandwick, in the south end, has a thriving Mirror fleet. Youngsters from these clubs regularly compete at national level, and the best go on to represent Shetland all over the world in the Inter-Island Games.

However, Shetland waters aren't for the unprepared

On the west of Shetland, you have the wide Atlantic breaking on volcanic cliffs, with the bolt-holes concentrated around the jutting out "Westside". On the east, the next stop across the North Sea is Norway. Between east and west, you can either go over the top and chance the currents around Britain's most northerly lighthouse, Muckle Flugga, or go through Yell Sound, where tides can reach seven knots, or you can head down around the notorious Sumburgh Head. Sailing in a flotilla with local skippers is a good way to learn more about the area – and there's usually somebody going round. If you go north-around, don't miss Shetland's Boat Haven, in Unst, with a walk-around display of traditional boats and their gear.

Last summer gave us a special cruise-in-company. The Tall Ships were arriving in Lerwick in mid-July and we were determined to be there. I had a wonderful time plotting passages and getting stores aboard before Karima S and I set off with six Brae boats and two Scalloway boats. Our flotilla had a gentle sail up to the black volcanic cliffs of Shetland's northern corner, and to a pier in a sheltered bay. We spent the evening squashed into two adjoining cockpits, yarning and sipping port under an enormous yellow moon. The next day was an exhilarating beat across the top of Shetland and into the north island of Yell, where we were given a royal welcome: hot showers, fish and chips and a night of dancing. The following day we raced down the east coast to the island of Whalsay. The last leg, to Lerwick, was a roller-coaster ride in a force five, gusting six.

As you'd expect, the Lerwick sailing facilities are good too

There are visitor berths right in the centre of town, and facilities for visiting yachties at the boating club, a hundred yards from the harbour. The Lerwick marina, slightly further from the town centre, has visitor's berths and an automated hoist. Several marine equipment firms will help you with spares and replacements, and of course there's a good range of restaurants and pubs.

While we were in Lerwick, we took part in the Lerwick Inter-Club, a festival of racing that lasts most of a week. There are races for yachts and dinghies – the Fireball class is popular in Lerwick, there's a class of Flying Fifteens, and up in Yell, Albacores. Lerwick Boating Club has hosted a number of National Championships, and our top skippers go south to compete too.

The Inter-Club is also the best place to see the "Shetland Model", or "Maid", a light-weight, double-ended three-man racing boat. These over-canvassed flyers take a lot of skill to sail, and are great fun to watch too. The boat hall in the Shetland Museum, situated on Lerwick's waterfront, shows how the modern racer developed from the traditional fishing boat. The boats are suspended in the air, so you can see the hull shapes.

One August event on the racing calendar is so much fun I don't really want to publicise it: a cracking four-hour race to Out Skerries, a little group of islands to the east of Mainland. This includes a night of session music with everyone bringing an instrument, followed by a night of traditional dances, local food like roast mutton and "crab's toes", then another cracking sail home again with Sunday lunch on the way.

My crew for part of this summer was a cousin who sails from a tidal berth near Edinburgh. He made me look again at the facilities I take for granted: a walk-on, all tides pontoon berth in a crime-free marina, clean waters sheltered by green hills with a chance of adventure in Atlantic rollers just around the corner, and a variety of birds to bob up and watch from beady eyes as I surge past. A choice of secluded anchorages with pontoons, or a marina berth near Britain's most northerly chip shop, Indian restaurant, and several high-class restaurants, including one which farms or catches its own seafood. Best of all, there's not a high-speed ferry or supertanker in sight, just the occasional motorboat.

Then I took him round our teaching facilities at Brae: a dozen Picos, four Mirrors, four Sport 14s and an RS Feva, three rescue boats, a briefing space, a drying room, a clubhouse with hot showers and underfloor heating. By the end of the tour he was green with envy, and threatening to overwinter his Westerly Centaur up here. “Book soon”, I told him, and pointed out the boats from the mainland that are already doing that, in preparation for trips to Norway, Faroe and Iceland next summer.

We're plotting next year too. We've just formed a Shetland and Orkney Sailing group, and held a Junior Intercounty on the first weekend in October, when it was gloriously sunny, and warmer than it's been all summer. We had 15 boats on the water, sailed by pairs of children with broad grins splitting their faces. There's talk of Shetland yachts going down to the Kirkwall regatta and Orkney yachts returning with them for the Lerwick regatta. We've still not done our planned "Three Westside Peaks race" (we need more young, athletic people to do the running bit) or our Class Flotilla sail to a good barbeque beach. I want to do more night sailing, taking Karima out into the long summer evenings and returning by starlight, with the phosphoresence glittering under her forefoot.

For us sailors, the summer's never long enough.

Read more interesting articles in the Spring issue of our 60 North online magazine here