Wednesday, January 07, 2015


Their expressions said it all: there but for the grace of God.

Those pre-dawn TV shots of the Hrossey's passengers describing the sight of the Cemfjord's upturned bow, a brutally floodlit gravestone to her eight crew, in the Pentland Firth, hit hard in Shetland. Along with her sister ship Hjaltland, the ferry travels between Lerwick and Aberdeen every night, a 150-mile journey which lasts between 12 and 14 hours, taking in the most exposed and dangerous open-sea route in UK waters.

All of us have been on the boats in dreadful weather. We've slammed into huge waves, heard the car deck alarms going off, watched unsuspecting holidaymakers heaved down staircases. In the old P&O days, when crossings were undertaken in much more extreme weather than today, we've been hove-to in Scapa Flow for days, seen cars smashed flat by overturned HGV trailers, watched our meals fly sideways off tables. And now, with Aberdeen's estuarial harbour terribly vulnerable to certain winds and tides, you can find yourself wallowing off the Granite City for hour after vomitous hour until that final hair-raising, stabilisers-off dash for the narrow gap between breakwaters.

But you never think you're going to die, not really. The old joke is that when you're flying to Shetland, you're sure you're going to die; on the boat, you just wish you were dead.

I watched the faces, some of which I knew, listened to the island accents, and I could see and hear the grim, rueful sense of survival, the recognition of and gratitude for escape.

Island life, or life in these islands, is not easy. It's not safe. Sure, we try and make things as comfortable as possible. But at the crossroads of the Atlantic and the North Sea, we are exposed, both in transit to and fro and during our everyday existence. Helicopters, fixed-wing aeroplanes, fishing boats, yachts, ferries, tankers, cargo vessels, cars, motorbikes, even walking home over the hill. Technical failure, human error, and most of all the weather. All weighing down on you. You just plan, prepare and try not to worry too much.

Weather, though. Is it a Russian or a Chinese proverb? There's no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes. No. There are bad cars, bad tyres, bad boats, bad decisions. Bad forecasts.

Here we are connoisseurs of forecasting. Everyone has their favourite website, obsessively monitored along with one or other of the AIS ship movement services. Current favourites are the Norwegian YR (, the surfing service Magic Seaweed ( and the one recommended to me by a local inshore fisherman last week, XC (

It's fair to say that things are not looking good for the weekend. XC is much more focussed and detailed than those TV 'amber warnings', and we're looking at Saturday into Sunday as the worst period, with average windspeeds in the 60-70mph region and gusts of up to 93mph. Boats and planes will be cancelled. Power lines will come down, particularly if the predicted snow arrives (wind-driven snow is death to exposed electricity cables).

And so we prepare: Petrol for the generator. Oil for the central heating. Peat for the fire? Not with our chimneys. The Rayburn will have to stay cold and glum. I'm due to broadcast three three-hour national radio shows from the house, as usual, Friday through Sunday, right in the midst of the hurricane's worst period. Saturday night's forecast offers the worst risk of falling off-air, though the Uninterruptible Power Supply gives me enough time to get to the washhouse and start the generator. While a record plays in from the Glasgow studio where my producers sit, waiting to start the back-up pre-recorded programme. If there's lightning, that will wipe out the secure, one-to-one ISDN line to Glasgow, leaving a sometimes wobbly internet link from an iPad.

Worried? A bit. But it's just Shetland. At least I won't be outside. At least I won't be at sea.

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