Heather Gray - What Swan Means To Me

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15 August 2020

Continuing our series of personal stories in the lead up to Swan’s 25th anniversary next year, Unst lass Heather Gray tells us about her experiences with Swan, including how she progressed from Trainee to chaperone.

HeatherMy experience as a Swan trainee begins in 2008 when, aged 14, I went on a school trip with One Step Beyond from Baltasound, Unst, to Norway and back. We had the most amazing time away and this is the trip that got me hooked! In 2009 I sailed with Swan as a Sail Training Shetland trainee from Stromness-Greenock-Belfast-Lerwick as part of the Small Ships/ Belfast Tall Ships Races. I joined the Swan again in 2011, sailing from Greenock up to Lerwick as a part of the Tall Ships Cruise in Company, stopping along Stornoway and most of the Shetland host ports on the way.

In 2017 I moved from trainee to chaperone, leading that years One Step Beyond Trip of school bairns from Baltasound over to Norway, on a similar trip to the one I first experienced. Most recently, in 2018 I crewed as a volunteer on the Mid Yell Primary bairns ½ day trip around Hascosay, and I’ve had a couple of shorter day/weekend trips to Skerries and Foula through the years too.

In 2019 I helped organise the most recent trip with One Step Beyond over to Norway. Unfortunately, due to work, I was unable to join them on the trip. I spent the time they were away jealously following them online, and was even more envious when they returned and told me of their travels!

I have had so many great experiences on my trips, but some of the most memorable are: seeing bioluminescent algae (mareel) for the first time – nobody said anything at first because we all thought we were seeing things!; Doing the Cha Cha Slide in a ‘dance off’ with the Alba Endeavour while sailing down Bluemull Sound; Seeing one of the most spectacular sunsets sailing back across the North Sea; and taking part in the Lerwick Tall Ships Crew Parade – an atmosphere I will never forget!

Personally, the aspects I enjoy most about being on The Swan are getting away from everything, having no phone signal or wifi and not being able to see anything but horizon and the sea – it is just so peaceful. That only happens on longer sea passages but I think it’s great! I love the camaraderie that you get on your down time, when you might all be gathered around the mess table playing cards and just enjoying the simple things.

The more challenging aspects would be inclement weather - it can get a bit frustrating if you can’t get your kit dry! Being in a small space with a lot of people can also be challenging, but you learn to adapt and there is enough room for everybody to have some space if needed.

I would absolutely recommend a Swan trip to anyone - It’s an experience you never forget! It challenges you, pushes you outside of your comfort zone, you meet new people, see new places, see old places from a different angle and gives you a different perspective on life. In a time where everything is motor powered it’s nice to disconnect and just use the wind as power – and not having phone signal or wifi for a period of time does you no harm! If I were to pass on any advice, my top tips would be: bring a pair of warm socks and a pack of cards, get involved and don’t be afraid to make mistakes – chances are that it’s other people’s first time onboard too.

In my opinion, one of the biggest community benefits of the Swan is being able to offer such a unique experience to folk, on a former herring drifter which is just such a big part of our history. It can open folks’ eyes to career options or experiences they might not have known existed or were possible before. It can encourage local bairns to consider careers at sea, or it can just make folk realise that you don’t have to go to university to be able to do a job you love.

As we have fundraised for all the One Step Beyond trips, we know they are well supported by our community. I am very proud of how the community comes together to support the bairns, and how the bairns get stuck into all the fund raising events - be it supper nights, Sunday teas, car washes, quiz sheets, or any other ideas they come up with. The fact a small community like Unst has funded several trips over the years shows how valued a trip on Swan is – if the bairns did not enjoy it, and their parents didn’t see how much the experience has benefitted them, it would not have happened again and again – benefiting more young people.

In terms of Swan, my proudest achievement, to date, would be successfully leading a group of bairns across the North Sea and having no major incidents! Changing from Trainee to Chaperone was in one word – terrifying! Although, it did help that we’d all got to know each other, working together at the fundraising events. Being a successful chaperone certainly boosted my confidence to be able to lead other groups, and was an incredibly rewarding experience.

The Swan means a great deal to me, it has boosted my confidence and pushed my comfort zone. Without it I don’t think I’d have done half of the travelling or experienced half the things that I have! If I were to sum up a Swan trip in five words, it would be: Life-changing; Excellent; Fun; Memorable; Peaceful. I hope the Swan can continue to give the experiences I have had onboard to others and to share a peerie bit of Shetlands history. I also hope to sail onboard again soon, and hopefully see new places - I’m desperate to get to Faroe!

If you would like to charter Swan, for a school, youth group or just pleasure, please contact us to discuss your requirements.

Follow these links to donate or volunteer with the Trust.

To book your own trip on Swan check out our upcoming trips

Read other personal stories of Swan:

Andrew Manson

Maggie Adamson

Ewan Hutcheson & Liam Slater

Gilly B

Andrew Halcrow

Joseph Kay

Laurie Goodlad


Want to get involved in maintaining and operating a traditional wooden sailing vessel? There are a number of different ways you can volunteer to safeguard, care for and sail this unique heritage asset.

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