By Catherine MunroJuly 31st 2023

For four days in July 2023 Shetland's capital town Lerwick hosted the international Tall Ships Races for a festival of sailing, fun and friendship.

Low mist clung to the hills and fresh breeze stirred up a swell as, one by one, the tall ships began to leave Lerwick.

I stood with my sons, waving as each boat passed the Bressay lighthouse and was enveloped by haar, their silhouettes appearing momentarily spectral, ghost ships on the horizon, before vanishing from sight. I was surprised by the feeling of sadness their departure brought.

For four days Lerwick hosted the international Tall Ships Races. A total of 37 ships, ranging from 350 metre square rigged vessels to newer yachts dominated the harbour, making a spectacular sight.

On the first day, all the crews joined a parade through town carrying banners with their boat name and country of origin. It was an incredible spectacle.

The crew from Indonesian vessel Bima Suci marched with drums, with several participants wearing elaborate masks and costumes. An enthusiastic group from Netherlands danced conga dressed in a variety of animal costumes while other groups wore more traditional seafaring clothes and sang sea shanties.

On Thursday the sun shone and I have never seen Lerwick so busy. Crews from the boats, visitors to Shetland and local families filled the street and there was a real carnival atmosphere.

Everybody was smiling, chatting, eating ice-cream and enjoying the weather. I walked along Victoria Pier with the bairns, being pulled in one direction then another as every few minutes they spotted something new and exciting that they needed to investigate.

Ship masts stretched high, with colourful flags bright against blue sky.

I’d watched some of these boats arrive the day before, elegant shapes in the distance, moving smoothly and swiftly along past the cliffs at Bressay. Seeing them close up was an entirely different experience, and gave a chance to notice details like figure heads, the intricate patterns of the ropes, and marvel at their height.

We looked at the names, where they were from and thought about the journeys they had made. ‘Like ships from books but in real life', my son Finn concluded as we watched crew members climb high in the masts.

I explained that they were training ships, where young people learned to sail, visiting different ports – traditional seafaring meeting modern adventure.

Tents of local crafts and produce were bustling and there was no shortage of foods to try. A little further along there were piles of sand, a temporary beach complete with deckchairs and toys.

The next stop was a fairground, with several rides faster rides for those old, and brave, enough and bumper cars and trampolines for younger folk.

As the sun lowered and shadows lengthened, we walked back to the car, carrying stuffed toys and an inflatable alien from the hook a duck stall. The boys were chatting excitedly, greeting everyone they passed in the street and showing their prizes.

They asked me if we could return the next day and I quickly agreed, because I was also very excited to spend more time at this wonderful event.

I am not taking the bairns on holiday away from Shetland this summer, but having a week of fun at the Tall Ships Races felt like a holiday.

Lerwick became a familiar place filled with new sights, sounds and experiences. I know it will be many years until the Tall Ships Races visit again, but my family already looking forward to it.

With 1,700 miles of coastline to explore, Shetland is an exceptional place for a sailing holiday. Discover more.