A quick Google search of Shetland’s beaches displays a few images of a coconut, tropical island, paradise minus the balmy temperatures.
Having flown into Sumburgh on a few occasions, swimming on the white sands south of the main island never really excited me. My brain must connect the beaches with leaving my family for a month so I can the pay the bills. This must interrupt my swimming neurons, they don’t start banging together, no dancing into a mass of cold water excitement. Don’t get me wrong, if given half a chance I would be licking the inside of my travel googles and jumping in. But Shetland has more to offer.
Last year Banna Minn was not the closest beach but it was reachable on the ship’s rusty bike from Scalloway harbour. The 7 km journey was great medication to escape work. 80 men on a boat, after a couple of weeks feels confined with the added pressure of a new promotion on a unfamiliar vessel. Every hill top or corner on the costal road gave a different prospective to Shetland, gone were the bleak thoughts of WTF happened to all the trees.
Meal Beach just offshore from here, there appeared to be a reef of sorts and every 3 or 4 minutes an almighty wave set arrived and jacked up over the reef like a massive A frame about the size of a small house, an epic wave but not for swimming. Different sights from the coastal road altered nearly as much as the altitude on the hilly road. After much huffing and puffing, I eventually reached a sign and a small chicken enclosure.
Is it weird to wonder what every chicken you see eggs taste like? The best eggs I have ever tasted was with a hungover breakfast in the highlands of South Africa a few hours north of Durban. I don’t know what they feed the chickens, but the eggs were amazing. If the eggs were that good, a bet a tandoori chicken leg would have won the equivalent of the Noble Peace prize at Master Chef awards ceremony. Thanks to Pete Foulis and his family for their hospitality.
Anyway, getting back to the previous year in Shetland, the sign pointed down a rocky Landrover track. The white beach was the bottom of a cove and in the mouth of the cove you could see the waves crashing in, these were the reason we were in port hiding from the weather, unable to work. In the cove there was a lazy 1-2 foot swell.
I waded into the clear water and started swimming along the beach. After a couple of minutes, I looked up and saw the small head of what looked like a wet dark Labrador. It was in fact a seal. I turned round and started swimming in the opposite direction. I had not swam far, about 100m, when I looked up, seal number 2 appeared. In fact, after a quick inspection, I was surrounded by half a dozen of the curious water dogs. I started swimming again, (I had not purchased my travel goggles by this point in my swimming adventures and everything was eyes closed or blurry salt water open) and after a couple of strokes a large dark object passed underneath me.
It was seaweed, relax, breath, it was kelp…….honest, just do some breast stroke, it was seaweed, chillaxe mate.
It was no good, my mind started off on its own wee adventure and convinced itself the seaweed was in fact a seal. Unable to calm the panic, I swam back to shore laughing at myself.
This year, armed with a pair of goggles and swim cap, whilst on my offshore working ventures, I have managed swims at Sands of Sound, Gulberwick and a wee beach north of Greenhead base north from Lerwick. This is much to the amusement of my work mates, and I’ve now earned the name Bare Grylls and Seal Grappler.
Sands of Sound is round the corner from Tescos. I tried to give directions to some tourists to the picturesque white sandy beach using Clickimin Broch. It was constructed on the island, a 1000 years before Jesus was running about the Middle East turning water in wine. The Broch is a massive round stone building with dry stone walls about 2m thick, which were constructed without epoxy resins, concrete or reinforced with rebar.
It has withstood the extreme weather from the North Sea and Atlantic Ocean. It’s not as in your face as Stirling Castle when you are traveling from the South to North on the M9, but it stands out as you enter Lerwick by road, as does Tesco’s and the swimming pool, which, when giving directions everyone understood.
The water at both Sands of Sound and Gulberwick was incredible. I am not blowing smoke up your arse when I say it was clearer than my local swimming pool. My local swimming pool has the odd plaster floating about, but generally seems clear and clean, but watching the hypnotic bubbles as my arms entered the waters of Shetland probably made my head position too high and my legs too low, but this was not a competition, rather an opportunity to submerge my senses. It was blowing 20 knots offshore and overcast on the day I was at Sands of Sound, but the sun was out with a light breeze at Gulberwick the day after Easter Monday.
There was one family on the beach when I arrived that never paid me much heed but I soon realised I had left my towel on the boat and it might be tricky getting dressed after my swim. I headed out into the water and swam south along the coast, which stayed relatively shallow. I had swam about 200 yards when I saw a different young family waving from the rocks. I returned their waves and swam on for a wee bit longer. I turned round and started heading back to the push-bike I had parked on the beach and my warm merino wool base layers but the young family had decided to make camp beside my bike and get the kids into the rocks pools. I tried to stay in water as long as possible hoping they would find another flat rock to play on so that I could escape the water and get dressed, minus my towel. Close to twenty minutes was my limit and then I had to bail. The mother tried to engage me in conversation but my hands were shaking that much and my only thoughts were getting warm. They must thought I was a weirdo when I lifted my bike and clothes and headed round the rocks for some seclusion, but as I mentioned, I never had a towel and was conscious of exposing my hairy butt to their angelic toddlers. If I had a towel I would have been more congenial. Sorry.
I enjoy swimming but I’m not very confident when in my Speedos. I am constantly aware of minutes of being the water the effects it has on my body. I notice sharp spasms along my biceps after about ten minutes of water temperatures at 8 degrees or less and being very uneducated about swimming I take this as a sign to start getting to the safe location and close to my warm clothes.
I swam north a few times, perpendicular to the coast, from the closest beach to the harbour Rova Head, for about a distance of 300m and about 100m from the shore. It took a couple of attempts to reach the fisherman creel buoys but negative thoughts and safety dragged me back to shore. In my wet suit I would be able perform laps round the wee island to the East about 600m on Google maps from the shore, but I can’t shake the feeling of dread which encompasses me, squashing the ultimate sense of freedom in my Speedos. My exposure limit is increased by wee steps. I have to keep putting one foot in front of the other, or in this case one arm in front of the other pushing the water and doubts behind.
Top of my bucket and spade list is St Ninian Isle off the coast of Shetland. Scotland’s oldest Saint, has been familiar to me since a young age as my primary school, Weaver Row was in the St Ninians area of Stirling. We were not gypsies, but growing up, our roots were never planted long. I managed to join the above primary school three times. Primary 1 was with Mrs McGee, but after a couple of years we left when my dad got a job in New Zealand. When he realised he would have to pay tax, we returned to Scotland six months later and rejoined Weaver Row in primary 3 for a short time, before leaving when my dad and mum bought at hotel in a small village of Kirkcolm, near Stranraer in the South West corner of Scotland. The village was a massive play ground for us. The woods behind the hotel were for burn jumping, games of soldiers and making fires. We swam in the sea and jumped off the slipway. The surrounding fields were owned by friends so we got the first of the season’s new potatoes. We constructed rabbit burrow type gang huts in hay bale filled barns. It was great fun and we only went home when it got dark. Alas, the summers never really paid for the winters in the hotel and we left after 4 years, rejoining St. Ninian’s primary school again in primary 7.
Saint Ninian, or the Apostle to the Southern picts, was running about in 400 AD from the Campsies and Breadlabane in Central Scotland to Northumberland in the North of England and he was first mentioned in early literature about 700AD. He brought Christianity up to Shetland. On the Isle there are ruins of a Small church where he landed, with the same name as a church round the corner from my old primary school. In 1955 a collection viking artifacts were uncovered there. All interesting facts about the Isle, but the one that had me captivated, was Britain’s largest Tombolo. In viking or local tongue, Arye, or a sandy causeway type beach, similar to Bigbury Island round the coast from Plymouth Devon, where I wasted many an afternoon trying to surf when I should have been studying. The organic scotch eggs from the farm shop on the way down the narrow high hedged lanes were amazing, I could eat 5 during an afternoon, 2 going and 3 coming back.
I considered the chance of a swim that day unlikely considering the distance from Lerwick to our boat, but the swimming gods were not just smiling, they were holding some kind of swim party for me. We were alongside the day before crew change, because it was the blowing a “hullie” giving a 5-8m sea in the work field. I got up a couple of hours early, and ran up to the wee beach close to the base. I managed a 15 minute swim and 6 km run before start of my shift. (A 15 minutes swim seems the maximum I could do and not appear to be a shivering wreck, on returning to the boat for my day’s work).
My opposite shift member appeared at the pre-shift meeting as he had changed shift onto days, a day early. Knowing there was cover for my shift I grabbed the chance of escape for a mid afternoon swim. I was returning from asking the OCM if I could disappear for a few of hours to bus, hitchhike, jog and carry my wallet for a taxi as the last resort, the 17miles from Lerwick to St Ninian Isle. I soon discovered one of the crew was getting a taxi to the airport and I could get a lift. I was dropped off at ,about a mile from the beach and had a relaxed walk down to the beach, actually, I am lying, I was quite excited so bounced along the road.
I swam up the Southside of the Tombolo for about 14 minutes. In my non wetsuit adopted Shetland swimming style, half a dozen front crawl strokes and half a dozen breast stroke, to stop the ice cream headache. It’s not very good for distance or keeping warm, but hey ho (with a shoulder shrug). I then ran across the beach and swam back down the Northside for 12 minutes. It was choppy and it was hard work swimming across the swell, but the water was clear and it was mesmerising watching the sand on the seabed move with the waves.
Over ten minutes longer than my normal swim (minus wetsuit) and with a temperature drop inducing run across the beach, my body hadn’t fully recovered from the morning’s mini dualathon. By the time I was changed and making my way through the car park heading towards the warmth on the vessel, I was shaking uncontrollably, a bit like some mad junkie. A car passed me, as I contemplated climbing over the fence instead of negotiating the cattle grid. I envisioned 2 snapped ankles as I was unable to still my legs, they were performing shaky break dance walking moves. To my surprise there was a voice behind me showing concern about my condition. The voice was from a girl (there were four of them in total in a car) and she was shocked when through gritted teeth I explained that I had been swimming and was now making my way to main road to hitchhike to Lerwick. She offered me a lift. It’s not very often I get offered lifts from four attractive girls, not one of them over 25 years old. Two sisters from Scalloway, a girl from Lerwick and an American girl from Louisiana. (I told you I was not kidding on when I mentioned that the swimming gods had plans for me that day.)
I opened a packet of almonds wanting to offer them something for they’re hospitality. Their giggles were nearly as uncontrollable as my epileptic hands, as I proceeded to shake the bags contents over the car. I jumped out of the car in Lerwick when I saw the the wee female Portuguese project engineer walking back to the boat. I told the girls I would join her and thanked them for saving my life. Swimming adventures are brilliant, especially on Shetland.