The Tall Ships Races: A Shetland Spectacle

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In 2011, from 21 to 24 July, Lerwick once again hosted the Tall Ships Races, Europe's most spectacular sailing event. The Tall Ships Races have been held since 1956 and feature between 70 and 100 sail training vessels from between fifteen and twenty countries. The largest of these tall ships are the classic square-riggers, their beautiful lines guaranteed to impress in a way that few modern vessels can. Seeing these huge vessels under full sail is a real thrill and they make a quite unforgettable sight, especially when dozens of them set off together on the next leg of their journey. Aboard them, amid the varnished wood, the gilded figureheads, the polished brass and the smells of rope and canvas, there is hard work to be done by the scores of crew needed to raise, adjust and lower sails.

The Tall Ships Races are impressive events in other senses, too. The crews – of whom half must be between 15 and 25 years of age – number around 3,000. They're typically drawn from around 30 countries. In each of the ports at which the race calls, all kinds of social events are organised.

One of the most appealing features of the Tall Ships Races is the "cruise in company", a non-competitive leg in which the emphasis is on enjoyment and exploration. In 2011, the "cruise in company" was between Greenock and Lerwick and the ships took around 9 days to complete the 484-mile journey. After leaving the Clyde on 12 July, they explored the beautiful west coast of Scotland, many calling at some of the "guest harbours" of Campbeltown, Oban, Islay, Ullapool or Stornoway. From there, several sailed to Stromness or Kirkwall in Orkney. In Shetland waters, some ships called at Fair Isle, Scalloway, Cullivoe, Unst or Whalsay before finally tying up in Lerwick on 21 July. At each of these harbours, there was a warm welcome and a programme of events and activities.  In Lerwick, the ships" crews and thousands of other visitors enjoyed a craft and food market, together with a very varied musical programme that featured many local performers as well as appearances from The Levellers and Abba tribute group Bjorn Again.

The Tall Ships Races previously visited Lerwick in 1999. In that year, after starting in St Malo, the ships reached Shetland via Greenock and the Western Isles, later continuing to Aalborg in Denmark. There were more than 74,000 admissions to the events held in Lerwick to celebrate that visit; these included a Viking parade, a wide range of musical entertainment, inter-ship sports tournaments and tours of Shetland. For many, the music was the highlight; particularly popular was the Spiegeltent, a magnificently atmospheric, mirrored, circular auditorium. It graced Victoria Pier, right in the heart of Lerwick. 

The value of sail training is widely acknowledged. It presents young people with real, demanding challenges, encourages self-discipline and promotes self-confidence. In developing these qualities, it can be a life-changing experience. It's also a great chance to get to know people from other countries and from different cultures and backgrounds. There are opportunities for people of all abilities and many sail training vessels make specific provision for young people with physical or learning difficulties. Generally, sail training vessels are run by charities or by educational or government agencies. 

In all these respects, the restored Shetland fishing vessel, Swan is typical of the smaller sail training vessels. It offers regular voyages, of varying length, to young people in Shetland and farther afield.  She has taken part in a number of long-distance events, including the 2011 Tall Ships Races.

Shetland is delighted to have had the privilege of hosting the Tall Ships Races, not least because boats are the lifeblood of the community. For almost all of the islands" history, a boat was not only the sole means of access and internal communication; it was also an essential tool for survival with the prime purpose of providing food and income. However, those working boats were also, from time to time, used for pleasure; they could readily be used for rowing and sailing competitions. Today, the tables have turned and the large, six-oared boats ("sixareens") that were once the mainstay of the Shetland fishing fleet are constructed and used purely for competitive pleasure. Similarly, many examples of the smaller double-ended "Shetland model", essentially an adaptation of the traditional four-oared boat (a "fourareen") are still sailed with great skill in a dozen or more local regattas every year. 

Today, boats continue to be one of the kinds of glue that bond the community together and there's a huge pool of knowledge and enthusiasm in the islands, along with exceptional boating facilities. Add to those assets a tradition of warm hospitality and it's no wonder that Shetland, for centuries a North Atlantic crossroads, regularly features as a port in international yacht races. 

If you would like to find out more about sail training in general and the Tall Ships Races in particular, there's plenty of information on the internet. The website of Sail Training International is an excellent place to begin. Information is also available here about sail training within the UK and you can find out about the opportunities in Shetland here.