Away Days – Taking the Ferry to Shetland

As I left my flat on a grey Aberdeen afternoon, my legs decided they wanted to take me on a long, winding route to the harbour. It was a Thursday and I should have been attending a lecture like a good student does. However, there was a good reason for my absence as the time had finally arrived to go and visit my girlfriend.

Usually it would have taken me 20 minutes or less to walk to Leah’s flat which is ironically located near the ferry terminal. On this day, however, it was going to take slightly longer and was going to involve a huge test of my pretty non-existent sea legs.
My lack of sea legs had let me down when travelling to the Hebrides in the past and when boarding the Yasawa Flyer to the Fijian islands among other boat-related experiences. I didn’t entrust a huge amount of confidence in them at this point in time, realising it would be an even longer journey if I couldn’t stomach the often unpredictable North Sea waters.

You see Leah is on placement in the Shetland Isles, but more specifically she is on placement in Lerwick, the isles’ largest settlement and a town which is home to the northernmost Tesco in the British Isles. Obviously, this was slightly less exciting than the chance to see Leah again, but it’s a fact worth noting in my opinion.

I boarded the boat a good hour before she was set to leave on her 14-hour voyage. I was very excited, but also hugely nervous. Nervous because I had no sea legs. Nervous because I didn’t know how I was going to keep my ever-restless body entertained for 14-hours. And nervous because I had stupidly been reading up on the shipping forecast and it said it was going to be a little rough.

Just before 5pm the large roll-off role-on ferry left its berth and I was able to take some good photos of the old pilot’s house, my late grandfather’s former place of work. As we left the harbour’s sea wall behind, I realised I wasn’t too displeased at all to be leaving Aberdeen behind for a few days. The Granite City was looking as grey as ever and my mind needed sometime away from the urban sprawl.

Not long after passing the new and more modern pilot house I wondered if my grandfather would have thought I was pathetic for feeling slightly seasick already as we encountered the first North Sea breakers. Having approached my reserved reclining seat nearer the bow of the ship, I quickly realised I wouldn’t be able to stay there for long as a staggered around helplessly, suddenly feeling sick to the gills.

Eventually I was able to steady myself as I became more in tune with the motion of the boat, plonking myself down in the dining area, located near the vessel’s stern.

Occasionally I would step out onto the back deck, the fresh breeze helping as I watched the coastline north of Aberdeen in the fading light. I have no doubt it could have been a lot rougher, but the occasional larger swell would sometimes result in other passengers losing their footing to the cacophony of crashing silverware in the nearby kitchen.

As the Northlink ferry steamed away from the coastline, I was even able to eat something as I gradually began to feel less queasy. My concerns where transferred from my stomach to the adventures of Winston Smith as I dived into reading ‘1984’. I haven’t read many novels in recent years but had completed 200 pages of George Orwell’s terrifying dystopian masterpiece by the time we reached Lerwick.

More importantly, it kept me busy during a long sleepless night in the dining area. I had again attempted to no avail to return to my reclining seat, but despite the calming seas, I was unable to stomach any significant time spent away from my camp out near the vessel’s stern.

At around midnight the MV Hrossey had reached Orkney. I watched the lights of Kirkwall flickering from out on the deck as a sniffer dog smelled me curiously. I wondered how easy it would be to smuggle illegal substances into the Northern Isles, though this dog was more interested in my polos in my pocket.

After departing Kirkwall, the remainder of the journey was punctuated by short cold and uncomfortable bouts of sleep and reading. Unsurprisingly, ‘1984’ wasn’t doing much to lighten the mood as I sat alone, trying to ignore the noticable motion of the boat.
Throughout the night, I often wondered out onto the back deck, shivering uncontrollably as I watched the slight outline of the vessel’s wake as it cut through the icy cold North Sea waters. There was very little else to see except the frequent emergence of the stars in the night sky when the clouds would temporarily clear.

However, I found peace in looking out into the dark abyss as I searched for any distant lights of other boats, land or oil platforms in a natural darkness unlike any other I had ever experienced. There was something mysterious and slightly magical about it all as I looked out into the seemingly never-ending darkness. I almost felt like the world was my oyster, a feeling which had escaped me in recent months.

Eventually, the darkness faded into light as we passed the southern tip of the Shetland mainland, before Lerwick came into view on the starboard side of the boat. My poor stomach was finally able to relax as the Captain skilfully manoeuvred his boat into its berthing spot in the town’s harbour. I had somehow survived the journey without throwing my guts up. Perhaps I do have some sea legs after all.

Before I knew it I was on dry land again and with Leah, having experienced what getting the boat to Shetland is like. It had been a long, tiring journey while being an adventure which had reminded me about how exciting travelling can truly be. It was also worth every second as Leah reminded me when she gave me a big hug in the ferry terminal.