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Features / ‘An enormous success’: a look back on Tall Ships 2023

IT WAS back to normality with a bump this week for Lerwick – and much of Shetland – after the final visiting Tall Ships left for final race leg to Norway.

For people with a penchant for boats, bands and beer it was a brilliantly busy four days, from Wednesday through to Saturday.

But just about anyone would have been entranced by the carnival atmosphere and sights and sounds in town, from the bustling funfair and circus performers to the influx of visitors and cultures to Shetland.

There have been some grumbles – such as the bar prices and queue lengths at the 5,500 capacity main stage site at Holmsgarth, and mobile signal and 4G struggling to cope with the amount of people – but on the whole Tall Ships 2023 has been declared a huge success.

Shetland MSP Beatrice Wishart has even celebrated the event by lodging a motion in the Scottish Parliament congratulating everyone involved.

Emma Miller who has been in charge of organising the event for the last two years, said she has been absolutely overwhelmed by the response from the public and delighted with the feedback the team has been receiving over recent days.

“We have additional logistic challenges that anybody on the mainland hosting such an event wouldn’t have, and I think we have overcome them well and truly. Our visitor numbers across the event sites were at an average of over 10,000 a day,” she said.

“Everybody who has contributed to make this happen have done Shetland proud and showed that we can absolutely stand our own ground in delivering a quality international event.”

The 4G mobile coverage in some parts of Lerwick is not the greatest at the best of times, but on Wednesday as thousands gathered for the crew parade things began to grind to a halt – and it did not ease up much over the four days.

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Miller said the organisers did look into trying to get upgrades to masts, “but we were told by the mobile company that we would need two and they would be a minimum of £50,000 each”.

“But even if we could pay that they couldn’t do the work as their teams were busy upgrading their own masts,” she said.

“So it wasn’t for a lack of trying, but as a one-off four day event we could not justify the £100,000 investment.”

‘A spotlight on the islands’ – tall ships at Victoria Pier. Photo: Tall Ships Lerwick Ltd

VisitScotland development manager for Shetland Steve Mathieson said the event shone a “spotlight on the islands” and provided a focal point for the community to come together and celebrate.

So many happy faces, despite the rain on the last two days. Photo: Tall Ships Lerwick Ltd

“The event has helped attract additional numbers of visitors to the islands and the excellent organisation of this four day festival has strengthened Shetland’s reputation for laying on world-class events,” he added.

“All the ships’ crews and trainees experienced the warmth of a Shetland welcome in a well-run event and will now become ambassadors for the islands around the world.

“Lerwick of course was the focal point of the celebrations, though the crews also mentioned the amazing welcome they received in both Cullivoe and Baltasound in glowing terms and many other areas in Shetland were visited, including a lively beach party in Fetlar.”

Mathieson said there was a “wonderful atmosphere” over the four days, which was boosted by cruise passengers too.

There were three liners in Lerwick on the Thursday, making an already busy town chock-a-block.

“The local economy has received a massive boost as retailers have reported brisk trading and restaurants, cafes, bars and takeaway outlets have been full from morning until night,” Mathieson added.

“Town centre businesses really pulled out all the stops to help make Tall Ships the success it was, and showed that Lerwick is more than capable of handling the numbers seen during this brilliant Tall Ships celebration.”

The event was not just a celebration of tall ships, but of live music too, with performers coming out en masse to play at the main Holmsgarth and Victoria Pier sites.

But there were also performances in a marquee on the street, and in some pubs too.

Whilst the visiting headliners grabbed the limelight, the feeling was that it was a celebration of Shetland’s music more than anything.

When it comes to Holmsgarth, many will never have seen a stage that big in Shetland before – let alone the two screens – and when it was heaving, it felt like a proper festival experience.

The weather, a bugbear of the previous Tall Ships in 2011, also largely played ball – with sunshine turning the town into Costa del Lerwick on the Thursday.

The fog did, however, cancel the parade of sail on Saturday, in which the tall ships would have left Lerwick in unison.

Shuttle buses and park and ride services were also kept busy over the four days as folk travelled around town.

Meanwhile the novelty of having a funfair in Shetland never wore off over the four days, with the site – near the old fish market – brimming with people, punctuated by the screams of folk being chucked about on the ‘free fall’ ride.

The rides and stalls were brought up by Codona’s in Aberdeen.

One of the organisers Jensen Codona said the trip to Shetland was “just amazing” – with the funfair well received by locals.

They added that plans may be afoot to bring back some of the attractions to other Shetland events in the future, like the bigger summer country shows.

 Here is a chance to relive Wednesday’s crew parade again

Meanwhile Shetland Islands Council convener Andrea Manson said she wished to thank everyone who has made the Tall Ships Races 2023 “such a phenomenal success”.

“Our community has welcomed the ships’ crews, sail trainees and many visitors, and the whole event has been such a wonderful celebration, despite our notoriously variable weather,” she said.

“It’s a fantastic demonstration of the strength of our community that we are again able to organise such an event in Shetland.”

MSP Wishart added: “Last week was an opportunity for Shetland to come together, for this island community to celebrate its maritime heritage while extending hospitality to crews, sail trainees and visitors from around the world, and ‘Shetland plc’ triumphed.

“Seeing the Swan, helmed by local skipper Maggie Adamson, receive an award at the prize-giving ceremony was a proud moment for many.

“I commend the work of all organisers, event sponsors, volunteers and sail trainees for making the event an enormous success.”

Police area commander Stuart Clemenson was unavailable to comment, but it is understood that there were no issues from a policing perspective during the Tall Ships.

In addition to 2011, the event previously came to Shetland in 1999.

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