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Bobbing About Off Shetland

by Tom Morton -

A quite wise, or at least relatively clever, man said to me, a few weeks after my arrival in the isles from points sooth a quarter-century ago, that I would have to decide where I stood on boats. Not, as it were, making sure I kept my feet amidships so as not to cause a capsize, but whether or not I was truly, madly deeply ‘boaty’.

“In Shetland,” he said “people are either massively boaty, or else they hate boats with a great hatred and avoid them at all costs.”

I have since found this to be an overstatement, but with a grain of truth in it that pertains not just to Shetland but to other island communities too. In a place where boats are essential to so many people’s livelihoods, not to mention for the transportation of goods and folk back and forward both within the archipelago and to The Land of Scots, you can fall in love with the sea and floating about on it. Or you can learn to hate it for the damage and discomfort it causes. You can put yourself into a state of denial, and pretend you live in, oh, I don’t know, Crieff, ostensibly the furthest point from the sea in Scotland. But it’s not easy.

I did not come from a boaty background, exactly, but I have always loved the sea and was brought up on the Clyde Coast, where my dad tried and tried to get me interested in dinghy racing. I had read everything written by Arthur Ransome and quite fancied the idea. He bought an Enterprise dinghy in which , for a few summers, I crewed. Ready about, Hee Haw Ho , he would cry or whatever it is you’re supposed to say when turning things around on the water.

In Shetland, people are either massively boaty, or else they hate them with a great hatred...

I didn’t like it much. This was not like Swallows and Amazons.The best bit was when, after a few hours of freezing salty wetness between Troon and Arran, we would return to the sailing club and eat four or five bacon rolls, or at least I would. In those days I could eat any amount of anything, as long as it had fat and salt in it. But if the tide was out you had to tow the boat on a launching trolley for about half a mile across Barassie beach, trying to avoid the large amounts of untreated sewage that covered the sand back in those days. It all ended badly when we capsized just off the Troon shipbreakers (now the SeaCat terminal) and were helplessly washed onto the breakwater.

Anyway, many years later I arrived in Shetland and immediately became obssessed with getting out to sea. This was, for me, provoked by its proximity. Water was everywhere, and there were all those voes and geos, nooks and crannies inviting exploration. Not mention the idea of catching fish. All this in an environment where sewage, if it existed at all, was quickly sent along the mysterious pipeline to Orkney.

My girlfriend had a tiny Mirror dinghy, we were living Voe, and having acquired an ancient two-stroke, clutchless Clinton motor, the kind known as ‘make or break’. I spent a few weeks pottering about between there and Brae. And I discovered that wondrous feeling of escape, of shedding all the troubles of the day, as you cast off and just...floated.

So I began looking for something bigger, something proper, and it’s a search that continues to this day. It began with the aforementioned Wise Man of the Central Mainland and I examining a plywood yacht in Burra. “The first thing you need when looking at wooden boat,” said The Wise Man, “is a penknife. You need to see what condition the wood is in.” Whereupon he buried the knife, way past the hilt, into the transom, which was wet, rotting and apparently made out of sodden paper maché. I didn’t buy it.

I discovered that wondrous feeling of escape, of shedding all the troubles of the day

I did, however, buy - let’s see - four Shetland Models. A Shetland Model (in sailing form, a Maid) is a double-ended open boat based on a Norwegian design and for generations it has been the staple crofter-fisherman's tool for 'da eela' or inshore fishing. The first one I had was Kenny Johnson’s old school project, made in titanically heavy glassfibre and which had been lying on the beach at Vidlin for a decade. It needed new rubbing strips and a coat of paint, and about 10 strong men to slide it into the water. The trusty Clinton motor on the stern quarter just about made it go, and it went with us to Cromarty in the Black isle, where I imagine it languishes still, taking tourists out to annoy dolphins.

The second Model was around 21 foot long, about 60 years old, or at least half of it was. The top half of the hull was glassfibre, and it had its original (probably) Stuart-Turner engine, started with either a massive handle or a sulky, home-made electric bodge. I say ‘started’. Sometimes it did, sometimes it didn’t. I had it for two years, two years of repairs, collision with piers, and the perennial bailing-until-it-stops-leaking business after you put it in the water for the first time. It would take around three weeks for the lower planks to expand and stop the thing leaking. Thank goodness for the wave pump. I think it’s still in or outside a shed in Northmavine. I still get nightmares about trying to restart that engine off the Faither.

Then there was a really rather good dark green fibreglass Model that, for once, was light and quite easy to launch. Too light, actually. It was downright frisky, breaking its moorings in a gale (Antony Mowatt and I chased it down in a salmon workboat as it disappeared towards the Atlantic. I just managed to get aboard and the four-stroke Japanese outboard started at the first pull). I won't mention the time I set it out to sea from the noost it was nestling in (a noost is sheltered nook or cranny along the shoreline used to haul boats into and out of) with a tourist family aboard, only to realise I hadn't put the drainage bung back after the last trip. "There's a lot of water coming in" was the faint and troubled shout. "Better head ashore," I responded, wisely.

After that came a couple of small dinghies, both really too wee to be safe. Though that didn’t stop two one of them being borrowed by a couple of professional mountaineer who were working for Shetland Amenity Trust on a project to count rare plants growing on the cliffs of Ronas Voe. The shear pin failed on the motor during a gale and only their amazing fitness got them home safely, thanks to a two-hour frenzy of paddling from the Lang Ayre to Heylor.

The shear pin failed on the motor during a gale...

Two years ago I bought a really lovely Shetland Model with a cabin, rigged for sailing, and along with it rented a berth at the Brae Marina. There followed two years of pumping, bailing, battery charging, repairs to storm damage and general boaty activity up to and not including actually going out to sea in her. Never has the definition of a boat as “a hole in the water you throw money into” seemed more appropriate. The longest trip I made on her was when I took her from the berth to the marina pier, having sold her to Jim Gear from Foula. He trailered her to West Burrfairth and then she was towed behind the Westering Homewards to her presumably new (and presumably eternal) home.

To be honest the vessels that have lasted longest in my ownership and have provided the most consistent fun, fish and flotation have been two plastic sit-on-top kayaks (I’ve tried the ‘proper’ kind where you deliberately trap your legs in a tube, and hated them with a great and abiding hatred) and a wee rubber HonWave dinghy with a four-stroke Japanese engine. They sit outside all year round, require no maintenance to speak of (the engine is purged and cleaned and kept indoors over the winter) and can be used at a moment’s notice. Using the kayaks, we have explored the caves of the Hillswick Ness, and the wee HonWave has caught its weight in mackerel many times over.

The berth on Brae has just gone, passed on to a neighbour who has a sizeable boat and knows how to use it. My Swallows and Amazons dreams of overnight voyages to Norway or, at a pinch, Aith have been shelved. But as the weather continues to improve, the kayaks and the wee rubber dinghy await. Being boaty in Shetland isn’t something you give up easily.

Posted in: Heritage

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