North Sea: Passage to Shetland Isles

Behold The Hour, The Boat Arrive
– Robert Burns, 1791

Behold the hour, the boat arrive;
Thou goest, the darling of my heart;
Sever’d from thee, can I survive,
But Fate has will’d and we must part.
I’ll often greet the surging swell,
Yon distant Isle will often hail:
“E’en here I took the last farewell;
There, latest mark’d her vanish’d sail.”
Along the solitary shore,
While flitting sea-fowl round me cry,
Across the rolling, dashing roar,
I’ll westward turn my wistful eye:
“Happy thou Indian grove,” I’ll say,
“Where now my Nancy’s path may be!
While thro’ thy sweets she loves to stray,
O tell me, does she muse on me!”


North Sea – Image from

The North Sea is bordered by Norway and Denmark, Scotland and England, and further south borders with Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and France. This stretch of water, also part of the Atlantic Ocean, is notorious for rough, steep seas and gales that appear from nowhere. We’ve watched the weather patterns carefully over the past few weeks to gauge when a crossing would make sense, and the time was right. From a quiet anchorage 15nm from Bergen, the crossing to Lerwick, the capital of the Shetland Isles, is 195nm. Blue Heeler stayed at the anchorage a couple of nights before crossing.


Image from ‘’

Low pressure systems roll up the North Sea frequently and we hoped to catch a ride on one.  Cyclonic lows travel in an anti-clockwise direction in the northern hemisphere, so our plan was to sail on the southerly winds, then pass through the calmer centre of the low as the wind shifts, then catch the northerly winds on the other side of the low. The surface pressure charts indicated this particular low wouldn’t produce heavy winds (nothing over 25kn), however, these systems can change quickly so we always prepare for whatever it brings.

Port tack with southerly wind

After a few miles of bashing into 15kn southerly winds, we turned and headed west on our course. Reefed sails kept the boat moving along comfortably with winds piping up to 25kn at times, but generally staying around 20kn from the south. This was a great start for us and we settled into the trip. I had to think back to when we last had swell – I believe it was back in 2017 when we arrived in the UK. Since then we’ve pretty much done sheltered water sailing. At first I really don’t enjoy when the boat heels, but after a few hours my sea-legs are steady and I can relax a bit. It was a little lumpy but fortunately neither of us gets seasick.

Starboard tack – northerly winds

So a bit of good planning and excellent weather forecasting gave us the sail we had hoped for. From 12.30pm on Tuesday we sailed along in 18/22 knots for around 13 hours, after which the winds eased as we entered the centre of the low. The wind began to shift slightly north, and eased to less than 10 knots from behind, so we motorsailed a few hours until the backing wind turned northerly. The final leg of the trip was between 10-15 knots on a beam reach. Perfect! 

Midnight arrival in Lerwick, Shetland Isles

We were delighted to actually arrive at Lerwick harbour before midnight, 35 hours after we departed Norway. (For those interested, we primarily use Weather4D and refer to the atmospheric models ICON-EU and Arpége Global, although ICON-EU was more accurate on this occasion. We also refer to ‘Windy’ as a general reference, plus local weather sites such as MetOffice, or DMI from Denmark).

The last time we did an overnighter was from Riga to Tallin almost a year ago. Like last year, darkness came on slowly after midnight; even then remained a semi-darkness until dawn began after 1.30am. At 11.30pm on approach to Lerwick we could easily see the island and had no trouble rafting up to another yacht within the small boat harbour. The header image at the top of this post was taken at 11.30pm.

Lerwick has two boat harbours for visiting yachts – Victoria Pier and the Small boat Harbour. With a strong north-easterly forecast the next day, we chose the small boat harbour and at midnight quietly rafted up to a 12m yacht already docked – we didn’t want to wake their sleeping crew. 

We awoke the next morning to a cold and dreary day. At the port office the friendly lasses took our harbour fees then went back to the boat for our traditional overnighter breakfast of bacon, beans and eggs. Later that day we had a couple of other yachts rafted up to us.

After a couple of days aboard, I need a long walk to stretch my sea-legs. Along the flag-stones of Commercial Street I spent some time peering into shop windows and poking around the op-shops on the lookout for a bargain book, or perhaps something warm to replace something worn. Later than afternoon we went out for a pint at the Douglas Arms hotel at the northern end of town and bought some fish and chips to eat back at the boat.



The weather was lovely on Friday with blue skies and warm sun bringing people out of their homes and washing drying on lines. We walked to the Clickimin Broch – A ‘broch’ is a round stone construction only found in Scotland. The Clickimin Broch and surrounding structures are quite exceptional remains considering they are dated between 1000BC to 500AD.

Clickimin Broch, Lerwick

Conveniently, across from the ancient ruins is the not so ancient Tesco Superstore. Here we bought goodies that we haven’t seen since leaving the UK in April last year – Branston Pickles, meat pies, Scottish lamb steaks, and a couple of small jars of the black gold – Vegemite! I have to say that shopping is a little easier and quicker than over the past year, as I don’t have to translate ingredients!

After dinner we walked the short distance to the Lerwick Boating Club. The club welcomes visitors to their bar and also offers their shower and laundry facilities to visiting sailors. The walk to the club passes by the ‘lodberries’ – these are enclosed courtyards with wooden doors leading down to the water – from a former century when boats were the means of delivering goods.

World Ocean Day is held annually on 8th of June – it’s a day to celebrate the ocean and raise awareness of we all rely so much on oceans to survive. Most people don’t even think about the ocean, but as you can imagine, we think of it every day. Here’s a little more about the wonder of oceans.

In Lerwick on World Ocean Day, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) held their annual Open Day at Victoria Pier. The volunteer crews of the RNLI provide a 24 hour rescue service around the treacherous waters of the UK and Ireland, while also providing education and instruction to anyone considering going out to sea. We had a look around the Lifeboat and chatted a while to one of the coxswains. Amazing work these volunteers do! The RNLI is mainly funded by legacies, donations and fund-raising events such as today. It’s reassuring to know they are there to help, although I really hope I never have a need to call them.

Supporting the event, the local Firemen, Police and Coastguard teams had their vehicles and equipment on display, inviting kids with painted faces to clamber inside trucks, police vans and the RNLI lifeboat. A number of singers and musicians played throughout the day from a small stage and a fund-raising marquee setup by local ladies sold sandwiches, RNLI souvenirs and raffle tickets. I bought a stack of raffle tickets and a couple of RNLI tea-towels, while Wayne paid a gold coin for his chance to win a bottle of whisky if he could tie five different knots in under 19 seconds. He came close, but alas left empty handed!

The weather is a little windy this week, but soon we’ll depart Lerwick and sail north around the islands. Now that we are no longer in the sheltered waters of the Baltic, we must take the time to study our tide tables to make sure we ride the floods and ebbs that flow around the skerries and through the straits of these northern isles.



Until then…

About blueheelerhr39

Sailing the world aboard Blue Heeler
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4 Responses to North Sea: Passage to Shetland Isles

  1. joliebriseoz says:

    G’day. Great stories, keep them up. Rob



  2. Your blog is fantastic. thank you for sharing your valuable experiences. I currently have a boat in Sweden and will be sailing east to Helsinki in a couple of weeks. I’ll be heading to Scotland in a year or two and I look forward to following you further.
    Best wishes
    Neil Fletcher


    • Thank you Neil. The Baltic is a great sailing area with so many interesting places to explore. I look forward to reading your voyages aboard Arcturus. Fair winds!


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