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Kjell Wevling — an appreciation

Kjell Welving in 2011. Photos: private.

Kjell Wevling, the Norwegian yachtsman who made many Shetland friends in over 30 years of sailing to the islands, has died in Askvoll, Norway, at the age of 82.

Kjell first crossed the North Sea to Lerwick in 1977 in a little motor cruiser with a convoy of other small boats.  He was immediately enchanted by the landscape, the wildlife, the Norwegian place names, the dialect, and the fact that the locals still celebrated and revered Norway’s wartime heroes of the Shetland Bus.  He was also delighted with the camaraderie in the cheerful bar of the Lerwick Boating Club, where many of his enduring Shetland friendships began.  Later he bought a small sailing yacht, the Mona Lisa, and from about 1980 returned every summer, until his health began to fail some years ago.

In 2003 he refurbished a larger yacht, the Mirrie Dancer, in which he had a half share, and the following year began to sail further afield, to Scotland and England but, like the Vikings of old, always using Shetland as his cruising base ‘west over sea’.  A favourite spot was Skerries, where Kjell often made a landfall after the crossing of only 164 nautical miles from Bulandet, the islands just west of his home in Askvoll, north of Sognejord.  He had enormous admiration for the Skerries folk, Norway’s closest neighbours in the UK.

Kjell’s father and uncles were skippers of small coasters in and around Sognefjord.  He was born in Eivindvik, at the mouth of the great fjord, where generations of his mother’s family had lived.  His childhood, under Nazi occupation, was hard.  His father was forced to transport the occupying forces but the Nazis never found the illegal radio he’d concealed on board his ship.  A particularly bitter memory was of 1944, when one of Kjell’s younger twin brothers fell ill and died at the age of three because the Nazis prevented him getting urgent medical attention.  Kjell never overcame his hatred of what the Germans had done to his country.

Arriving at Lerwick harbour in 2005.

Perhaps because the little town where he was born had been the west Norwegian capital over a thousand years ago, when the Gulating Law was formulated by the Althing there, Kjell had an abiding interest in history.  In particular he was fascinated by the colonisation of Iceland, whose language he considered to be the purest surviving Norn.

One of the youngest students ever to qualify as a teacher at the Bergen training college, he was a scholar of English as well as of Old Norwegian.  He spent his teaching career in primary schools on the west coast, ending up as a head teacher.  Later, he cheerfully admitted being a bit of a disciplinarian, of the ‘firm but fair’ persuasion.

The long school holidays enabled him to indulge his love of sailing and in his spare time he studied navigation and qualified as a skipper of small coastal vessels.  He became an instructor for amateur and professional sailors preparing to sit examinations for their tickets.  A meticulous navigator, he taught himself how to find his way by the stars, without radar.

He had a prodigious memory and prepared for each Shetland voyage very carefully.  Kjell loved a ‘Mona Lisa dram’ (a ferocious mixture of whisky and martini, served with relish in his saloon) but even the promise of another jolly party in Lerwick, Bressay or Skerries would not keep him ashore if he judged the meteorological conditions right to sail.  In more than 14,000 miles of North Sea crossings he never had a serious incident.

In old age his sailing became confined to the fjords but he kept in touch with Shetland by phone, letters and, latterly, even email.  He also revelled in showing friends from abroad around his beautiful district.  Kjell always described himself as “a real old Norwegian Labour Party man” and was very proud of Norway’s welfare state, where a generous pension from the nation’s oil revenues allowed him to enjoy retirement to the full, including travel to the Caribbean and China.  But when the Conservative politician Erna Solberg was elected as Prime Minister in 2013 he lamented: “My God, I cannot believe this.  The whole west coast has turned blue!”

In recent years he survived several heart attacks but when he again became seriously ill, at the end of last year, Kjell was moved from his house in Askvoll across the street to the old people’s home, where he said he was cared for with great kindness.  In a New Year phone call to the writer, he had news of his son, who works in a Tromso theatre, and also confirmed that he’d sold Mirrie Dancer to a New Zealander who would make sure she was looked after and well used.

And then, as if it were just another piece of news, he announced: “I am dying, you know.”  He is survived by his son, two daughters and his brother Jan, to whom we extend the condolences of all those in Shetland who enjoyed his company and his wisdom.

Contributed.