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Maggie Adamson - What Swan Means to Me

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18 September 2020

In the next instalment of our personal stories of Swan, Maggie Adamson tells us about her history with Swan and life on board as a crew member. As an accomplished sailor, and world class musician, Maggie has travelled the world, but her passion for Shetland and the Swan has seen her crew the Swan for the past four seasons.

Maggie Adamson at the helm of The SwanLike many young Shetlanders, I first sailed on the Swan as a primary school pupil when Andrew Halcrow was skipper. It was a fantastic and memorable experience. When I was older, I volunteered with Swan, and in 2016 was part of the volunteer crew for a few trips, including school day sails, a 10 day trip to St Kilda and sailing her home from Gothenburg for the Tall Ships Races, via Denmark and Norway. I absolutely loved it and the following season was delighted to be offered a position as Bosun. I jumped at the chance, and have been part of the crew ever since, with my position as Bosun becoming Mate in 2018.

As one of only two paid crew, and also volunteering to help over the winter months, I have got to know the wide range of people who volunteer and book trips with the Trust both on and off the water. There is a great community feel around the Swan and the common interests of the sea, boats, our heritage and sailing really bring folk together. Being part of a relatively small crew is great, as you get involved with everything necessary to run a successful sailing vessel. This includes maintenance, trip planning, navigation and watch leading, which all change dramatically depending on the type of trip and clients you have. This variety throughout the season is brilliant and keeps every trip fresh.

There is no ‘one kind’ of person who comes sailing with us, and learning about their reasons for being onboard is really interesting. Generally, our clients are of mixed abilities, varying from people who have sailing experience to those who have never been on a boat before. It’s very satisfying to see someone nervous and unsure of being onboard become a confident crew member a few days in. Even experienced sailors can find a new boat daunting. However, everyone has key skills which contribute to the group dynamic – and we find that a sense of humour and some cooking skills are also very valuable!

The youngest passengers I’ve had were a group of pre-school bairns from Skeld. They were about 4 years old and we showed them the sails and the helm and they explored the boat below decks. The smiles on their faces all morning was fantastic, I'm sure they will remember that trip - as I still do my first trip in primary school. What the Swan does for the older teenagers is something very unique too - they have to learn many life skills and take responsibility for themselves and others during their time onboard. For many it is their first time cooking and cleaning. Living on board teaches discipline, timekeeping and team-work to a high standard and the consequences of doing it poorly are evident. Apart from designated youth trips, the Swan is open to all ages. We’ve had charters, family sails and a day sail with a dementia group where many of them sailed boats like the Swan in their working days. You just can’t experience anything like it from watching videos or reading about it - the real thing is so important.

One of the things I love most about working on the Swan is the variety. Every day is different, depending on what sort of a trip we are on or if we are between trips.

While at sea there are two main types of trips, day sails and overnights. Day sails can feel more intense, as you have a much shorter time to explain things to the passengers and to give them a chance to try everything. Overnight trips, are often more satisfying, after a few days onboard, clients are generally more confident. I love sailing away from land for a few days and settling into the watch rota with the sole focus of making the boat sail and work well, while having a great time. Even when the weathers grim or your having a bad day, it’s still great to be on the water with good company. On shore, we are either doing maintenance or planning and preparing for the next trip. This can include painting, varnishing, tarring, stitching sails, engine maintenance, toilet maintenance (the worst kind!), changing bunks, cleaning, navigation, meal planning and shopping.

Compared to modern boats, sailing the Swan does have its challenges, which includes the size and weight of the rigging. She is also difficult to reef at sea so we always have to watch the weather very carefully and plan ahead. There is a capstan on board which we can use for the mainsail but, if we have a full crew, we do all the sail changes and trim by hand, this is challenging but really good fun and rewarding for all on board.

As with any boat, heavy weather can be a challenge, which can also lead to another issue – seasickness. The first couple of days are the hardest for anyone feeling unwell but the saying ‘you will get your sea-legs’ really is true! In heavy weather, managing everyone onboard is one of the most important things after sail plan, ensuring no one is too cold or dehydrated and people get enough rest. There are many potential risks on a boat which have to be managed and it’s important for us that everyone knows when they can get involved and when, in the very few circumstances, it’s an experienced crew only job. Generally, anytime we are able to set the sails and switch the engine off is a brilliant moment, the hum of the engine disappears and is replaced with the sound of the sea as the wind power in the sails drives her forward.

I have so many memorable experiences from my trips - here’s just a few specific ones:
  • When we set the topsail for the first time under way in Alesund, Norway. It took us a while to get everything and everyone ready, and it was quite a heave to the top, but what a sight once it was set! This is a light wind sail only and really adds to the speed overall in these conditions.
  • Crossing the Artic Circle on our way up to the Lofoten Islands was very cool too. Having a bucket of iced water chucked over you to mark the occasion was memorable! The whole trip in the Lofoten Islands was very special, exploring new places and the remarkable landscape, it was such an adventure.
  • Sailing in gales is always exhilarating. We got caught in a force 10 on the nose as we were sailing round the infamous Stad in Norway. We were already reefed but only expecting a force 5 that day, the extreme wind started to rip the main sail at the top and all the crew worked together to sail (very slowly) into Moloy where there was a lot of hand stitching the next day!

One of the best trips I crewed was the Tall Ships in 2018, as the trainees we had from Shetland were brilliant! They learned so much, were really keen and good fun to have on board. It was such a rewarding trip for everyone. Unfortunately, there was not much wind and we had to put the engine on to keep up with the rest of the fleet fairly early on, putting us out of the race. This didn't dampen any spirits though and about half way across from Sunderland to Espjerg in Denmark the sun was shining and the sea was flat so we made preparations and went swimming off the side of the boat in the North Sea! The sea was surprisingly warm and it was a great moment.

I would recommend a trip on Swan to anyone and my top advice would be - be ready to get involved with as much as you can and ask loads of questions. As crew, we really like when people take an interest and ask about what is going on – so never be afraid to ask even the most basic of questions.

Our Shetland location is fantastic - the sailing area is challenging but uniquely beautiful, in scenery and wildlife. We are also ideally located for the start of an adventure, sailing abroad to Norway, Denmark, Faroe, Sweden and many more countries, and south to Orkney and Mainland UK. I hope that the Swan continues to be a part of the community in Shetland and that many more people are able to sail on her. I also hope she is able to keep exploring further afield and introducing Shetlanders, and our living heritage, to different people, cultures and countries.

Personally, working on the Swan over the past 4 years has given me the chance to learn from some fantastic people, skippers Thorben Reinhardt, Peter Robertson and engineer Ian Nicolson especially. This, and The Swan Trust’s membership of the Association of Sail Training Organisations UK (ASTO) have supported me to achieve my Yachtmaster Ocean qualification, which I couldn't have done otherwise and am very proud of. I am also grateful to the Trust for allowing me to Skipper my first commercial trip last season for a 10 day sail around Orkney and Shetland.

If I were to sum up my experiences on Swan in five words it would be: Exciting, challenging, rewarding, fun and unique – and overall, what the Swan means to me, is a great way of life.

Follow these links to donate or volunteer with the Trust.

Discover other personal stories of Swan:

Andrew Manson

Heather Gray

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