Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Reflecting on a busy week away

Heading north from Sumburgh we transited Mousa Sound, which separates the Mainland from the Island of Mousa, on the south west of which lies the largest and most complete surviving Iron Age round tower or broch.  Even without the opportunity to land and visit it is a most impressive sight and I hope somewhere that I can return to for a closer look.   In the meantime you can read more at http://www.shetland-heritage.co.uk/mousa.  I have also been unsuccessful in my efforts to find and insert a suitable map but suggest that google maps do give good coverage; on the satellite view you will get an impressive bird’s eye view of the broch of Mousa.  (Search on Mousa first and then the broch is labelled.)

Arriving in Lerwick we said goodbye to one crew before spending an uneventful Saturday night and awaiting the arrival of a new crew before heading north through Linga Sound which separates Whalsay Island from The Mainland.  Swan was fished from Whalsay in her early years and today it has a reputation as the home of the pelagic boat owners.  Sadly there was no time to linger and we continued north to The Island of Yell and into Burra Voe, a small village with a primary school of 11 pupils (in two classes).  We were greeted on the pier side by the primary school headmistress and made to feel most welcome.   

The following day we started this season’s school programme with two separate trips, each aimed at slightly different age groups but with children of between 5 and 9 years old.  Each trip was only about an hour and a half long and combined an introduction to the boat, including climbing into the bunks which for some was the highlight, with experiments with pulleys to lift the table top and finally a short trip under engine during which all took the helm for long enough to have their mantelpiece photo shot.  Afterwards we had lunch in the school before returning to the Swan. 


The following day we embarked a group of 14/15 year olds for an overnight trip to the Outer skerries.  The trip out was somewhat lively and it took its toll on some of the crew and school staff.  There is absolutely no doubt that sea sickness is a physical condition and that it can be very debilitating.  Equally there is no doubt that mental resilience and robustness are either negative or positive contributors to speed of severity and recovery.  One member of the school staff suffered but worked through it whilst the youngsters were, generally, too ready to give up.  Whilst disappointing it is perhaps not too surprising and mirrors Kurt Hahn’s work on survival during the battle of the Atlantic (I fully intend to pick up on this work soon!!)   Another striking observation was the reluctance of any of these youngsters, without significant encouragement, to help look after each other.  Instead there was an automatic assumption that the staff (sea or school) should be doing this.  I have no disagreement with the notion of my duty of care or leadership role but equally “God helps those who help themselves” conveys a powerful philosophy and approach to interdependence.  It might be tempting to ascribe, at least in part, this observation to the uncertainty of the environment of being at sea but this is not supported by another observation.  My initial welcome on the quayside included the mandatory brief on taking care boarding the boat which included crossing the decks of another boat.  I also asked that they help each other by passing bags between them and so forth.  In fact not one of them did.  Again there was both an expectation and actuality that the school staff do this.  After explaining and demonstrating the fitting of life jackets I asked them to work in pairs to assist and check each other, with limited results.  I accept that as a former soldier I might have a different expectation on how people form teams and look after each other, and I also accept that these children were younger than the soldiers (or British Schools Exploring Society young explorers) that I have previously worked with.  However, this automatic reliance on teachers or adults is both striking and disappointing; it seems to me to point to both an unwillingness to accept responsibility and to a system that is reluctant to empower people by accustoming them to exercise responsibility.   I have observed this in another setting during Army life.  Some years ago I worked in the army “basic training” organisation.  (The army doesn’t use the term basic training but it concisely describes the scenario.) After about 3 weeks in the Army every soldier is required to pass a series of tests about safe weapon handling.  The test is classroom based and in a standard format.  It is mandatory that all soldiers pass before progressing in training (and at 6 monthly intervals thereafter regardless of rank or experience).  Move forward to week 20ish of their training course and these same young soldiers are now taking part in demanding field firing exercises.  They are firing live ammunition during practice attacks (or similar).  Occasionally their weapon might jam and malfunction.   The correct response is one of the tests that they passed in week 3 and have to re-pass within a short period before taking part in these battle exercises.  In other words we know that they are capable of carrying out the drill . . .and yet their first reaction is typically to turn to the range safety staff. 
It seems to me that in both cases there has been a failure to develop not the skill but the confidence to enact the skill in a real situation.  I think this has enormous implications and ramifications which posse a challenge to all concerned.

The Outer Skerries are an extraordinary place.  At one level not so very different from the Mainland or the rest of Shetland but the community of about 70 people live on about two and a half square miles.  A few fishing boats work out of the harbour which whilst secure enough is subject to the vagaries of weather and sea.  A salmon farm nestles in the shallower and more tranquil water.  I won’t dwell on it but it must take a very particular person and attitude to live and work in such a place.

The following day was more kindly and we sailed back to Mid Yell in almost ideal conditions.  For me the highlight was one 14 year old girl who displayed that little bit extra when taking her turn on the helm.  I asked her if she wanted to take the wheel whilst we gybed the boat and she said yes.  I knew that we would have to gybe that day and so had explained the concept before departure. (For the non-sailors, a word of explanation but without the benefit of the white board. You are probably familiar with the term tacking; its when a boat changes direction by turning her bow through the wind.  The sails then set on the “other side” and is considered a routine manoeuvre.  It can go wrong but is seldom, of its self, difficult or dangerous.  Gybing is changing direction by turning the stern through the wind.  It’s a relatively more dangerous manoeuvre with more potential for things to go badly wrong if it’s not done under control.  (The consequences of an uncontrolled or even accidental gybe can be sever.)  Having set up the gybe, I then coxed her through the procedure whilst she gave the orders and with a little mentoring executed it very competently.  I told her to “midship your wheel” and without even a blink she glanced astern noted the rudder position and gave a turn of the wheel.  Perfect!  When I congratulated her she appeared non pulsed and didn’t really appear to understand why I was so impressed.

Returning to Lerwick on Thursday evening we were in something of a choppy sea and a foul but falling wind.  Our Volunteer crewman, Nat (the one who is always in his shirt sleeves) was at the wheel as we entered Bressy sound into Lerwick and half in jest asked him if he wanted to bring her alongside.  To my absolute delight and surprise he said he’d give it a go.  It was not an easy first “park” and required some toing and frowing with a tight turn and then some gentle manoeuvring to come alongside.  This time the helmsman did realise what he’d just accomplished and he had the broadest smile I have seen for a long time.  We celebrated with a pint.

So I completed my first week of the schools programme.  At one level it has been very satisfying but at another posses many questions.  I suspect though that it is the latter which gives me most cause for reflection but for the moment I shall keep my own counsel whilst I mull the experience and consider how it might help shape future events.
The following day I returned to Scalloway to join a short but moving ceremony to commemorate the Shetland Bus operation. Shetlanders and Norwegians have always enjoyed a close and kindred relationship and this sometimes little known wartime operation carried out in secrecy with foe ,sea and weather as enemies cemented that friendship in an enduring bond. Although not conventionally dressed for such an event, I like to think that it was in someways an appropriate attire in which to commemorate the courage and sacrifice of these men.
So to finish on a lighter note; the Shetland Boat Show provide a weekend of water inspired activity. The boats have a distinctly local flavour

The shanties sung by the Yell Shantymen aboard Swan over lunch were universal and even persuaded me to join in!!
But a highlight was the Faeroese sailing trawler "Westward Ho TN 54". When the British fishing fleet converted to steam, the Faeroese fisherman brought up many of the sailing boats and continued to fish them under sail. “westward Ho” is one of only two survivors. Built at Grimsby she now proudly flies the Faeroe’s flag and is much loved by not only her crew and community but by the wider historical maritime fleet.
And The Faeroese hospitality aboard Westward Ho was something else!! 



  1. When I look at the activities of my friends' children, I can see that they are very busy, with the parents ferrying the children to music lessons, scouts/guides/sea corps, football practise and any one of a dozen other after school activities. But the one thing that seems to be lacking is unsupervised play. I never hear of children walking to the local park, or heading of for a day's adventure on their bicycle. Could it be that this continuous supervision hinders a child's ability to develop independent thinking, and confidence in their ability to help each other? I don't know, but I find your observation of the way the children and young adults all turn to adults for assistance interesting.

  2. Izzy,

    really sorry not to have published sooner. Its an interesting observation and I am sure is connected. Children are inanely curious and we also know that they learn best (as do adults) experientially. we undermine both these attributes when as adults we take charge. Sometimes it is of course necessary but I can't help feel that we overuse the need (often for our own convenience or to preserve our image of an all knowing adult in charge).