Daily Archives: July 28, 2022

The sea takes its toll

We drove directly from the ferry to a shop in northern Yell where we’d been told we can swap our propane bottle. “No problem,” they said, and while Jack pulled around back to get the new tank, I perused the well-stocked shelves of yet another surprising store on a remote island. There were items here I had trouble finding even in shopping Meccas like Sydney and Penang, not to mention the usual eclectic array of household and utility wares.

I’ve started asking locals for suggestions on places we can park for the night. Most aren’t tuned in to the wild camping culture and point us toward any nearby campground they know. Sometimes, though, we get some pretty good suggestions. The woman in this shop proposed the community hall down the road and said they had electrical hookups and the usual campground amenities. That was surprising because it isn’t on any list or website or app that I use. I filed that one away for the future and asked if there was a more remote place. She suggested a cemetery a few miles away. We’ve been in Shetland long enough to know that graveyards are usually on a windy hill overlooking the sea, the churches they were built around are generally in ruins, the car parks are mostly level, and we’re almost always the only ones there because most people, for reasons I’ve never understood, find it creepy to spend the night near a graveyard. I plotted our course.

The graveyard fit all the criteria and we settled in for the night to plan our exploration of this new island. In the morning I walked among the gravestones and saw the usual pattern of a community that relies on the sea for subsistence.

I find markers with “lost at sea” or “drowned” in every churchyard I visit, but there are also mass disasters memorialized on these islands. One of the most poignant is the Gloup Disaster in 1881 when 58 men were lost, all from these small communities.

Not all of the sea disasters involve the fishing fleet. In 1924 the cadet barque Bohus, sailing from Göteborg to Chile with a crew of 38 aboard, was caught in a storm and dashed to pieces on the rocks. Those who could swim ashore did, but those who couldn’t stayed with the ship and awaited their doom. Local men mustered to the rescue and were able to save all but four of the crew.

Five months later the wooden figurehead floated to the surface and washed ashore. It was erected overlooking the sea as a memorial to the shipwreck and is known as the White Wife of Otterswick.

I felt the need to pay my respects to the lives that ended on that windy outpost. As a sailor I know that the sea gives and the sea takes away. Whatever your level of seamanship and experience, you are at the mercy of the sea, and the sea will always win.

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