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By Promote ShetlandMay 23rd 2023

When you’re never three miles from the ocean, it’s no surprise Shetlanders are defined by their relationship with the sea.

The islands have a long history of sailing, going back to the arrival of Vikings around 2,000 years ago.

These days, many youngsters growing up on the island spend their life on and around boats, even if that was just the NorthLink Ferry that shuttles people and freight back and fore to the mainland each day. But for some, the maritime experience is much more hands on.

In early 2009, Sail Training Shetland was established as a joint effort between The Swan Trust, Lerwick Port Authority, and Shetland Tall Ships Limited. Their vision was to use the waters surrounding Shetland to create possibilities for the growth and education of young individuals between the ages of 15 and 25, both from Shetland and beyond.

The aim was to foster constructive transformation by offering Sail Training experiences that are challenging, adventurous, and enlightening on board the Swan, a beautifully restored traditional herring fishing boat known as a Fifie.

Amber Johnson was one of those young people who took on the Sail Training challenge when she was 17 and joined the Swan’s crew in the Tall Ships Races. 13 years later Amber remembers the collaboration and camaraderie between a small team of individuals she wouldn't typically interact with, working towards a common objective holding immense value.

She emphasises the personal growth that can be attained from such a brief period – the experience teaches participants about their resilience, improves life skills, forges lasting relationships, and, above all, gives them an exciting time on board.

You can’t underestimate the personal development that you can get from such a short period.

Amber Johnson, ex-trainee

Amber stresses that participation is not solely about becoming a skilled sailor but rather the skills it teaches, opportunities it presents and the knowledge one gains.

Amber’s desire to join the Merchant Navy was only solidified by her experience with Tall Ships and after three years training in Southampton, she started her working life on offshore vessels. This led her to a career with NorthLink Ferries, the lifeline link she used many times as a youngster. It’s a career she loves and has worked her way up to Marine Superintendent.

Another ex-Sail Shetland trainee whose career was inspired by her time on the Swan was Laura Burden, who was so inspired by her Tall Ships’ experience she changed her university plans to join the Merchant Nay.

After graduating, she sailed for four and a half months around the Caribbean, working on the Wind Surf - one of the largest sailing cruise ships in the world. Carrying on she worked on Holland America cruise ships, sailing through Alaska, North and South America, the Mediterranean, Asia, Australia, and New Zealand.

For most Shetland trainees however, the sail training is not about future career plans but having a great time and building confidence within themselves.

Ava Priest, who was a 2022 trainee said, "I’ve started doing things outside of my comfort zone, it’s so easy to not sign up and just stay at home…I wanted to do something that was a bit different and that would push me”.

For Jess Wadley, who also took part in the 2022 Tall Ships Races, the main draw was the friendships and travel aspects of the sail training, saying, "You never know you might fall in love with somewhere you go and end up moving there!’. Jess adds that the experience has other positives – it helps make a UCAS application or CV stand out.

In 2023 Lerwick is a host port for the Tall Ship Races, making it an especially exciting year for the trainees taking part on the Swan.

In late July Tall Ships from around the world will arrive in the Shetland port for four days of celebrations, concerts, and entertainment. It will be a particularly special occasion for those on boars Shetland’s own Sail Training vessel.

Lerwick has twice previously hosted the Tall Ships Races in 1999 and 2011 to much success. And with street parades, family friendly fun and live music, it demonstrates Shetland’s ability to stage a large international event (which will also be great fun for those who call the islands home).

The Tall Ships will begin their 2023 journey in Den Helder, Netherlands before making their way to their first UK port, Hartlepool and then racing on to Fredrikstad, Norway.

For the trainees on The Swan, they can choose to either take part in the Tall Ships race or join the Cruise in Company section of the journey, arriving back in Shetland between 26th and 29th July.

If you are a young person looking for an adventure of a lifetime, Sail Training Shetland offers an opportunity to develop new skills, build confidence, and make lifelong friends.

With the Tall Ships Races coming to Lerwick in 2023, there's never been a better time to explore all that Sail Training Shetland has to offer this year and in the future.

Visit The Sail Training Shetland website to get involved or visit Tall Ships Lerwick for more on the Tall Ships Races coming to Shetland.

Thanks to Tall Ships Lerwick for support in putting this blog together.