I’m lying in bed listening to the constant thrum of the ship’s engines powering on as it lists around in choppy seas and the waves crash into the hull. There’s a low level shuddering like a pulse, which I find comforting. I’m in a dorm cabin below the waterline and away from the bright lights and glossy veneers of the upper decks. We’re beneath the car deck and there’s a distinctly mechanical feel with a lingering smell of oil. It reminds me of trips as a child where we crossed the channel in a small sailing boat. We returned low in the water, laden with booze stored at the bottom of the bunks in the hull with the idea that customs officials wouldn’t want to wake small children in the middle of the night. Invariably they’d come aboard for a drop of whiskey with my dad and be on their way. The gently swaying motion of the ship helps me drift off to sleep. We’re on a bearing heading straight for the Shetland Islands and on towards the Norwegian coast. The ship is still marked up with signs for Bergen and Lerwick but it’s been at least ten years since it stopped at either. It’s frustrating for me as it would have been ideal to jump out in Fair Isle on to North and South Utsira and down to Fisher. Instead I’m making a convoluted journey from Denmark back over the water I’m currently travelling through, to Stavanger. The ferry takes a day and a half to make the crossing which will take us straight through sea area Viking.
There’s a funny mix of people on board, Danish, Germans and Faroese holiday makers with campervans and motorbikes and some travelling out of necessity. Some passengers are clearly hardened cruise goers and have several different outfits for the journey. Stereotypes are lived out as the sun comes out and the German passengers simultaneously try to reserve sun loungers on deck as well keep their places on the plastic sofas with heat lamps above them. It’s total chaos. It’s late morning by the time I emerge and we’ve already left land way behind and are in the middle of the open sea with no one around for miles. The food offer in the canteen is a steamed cod main with creamy potatoes and some dubious looking veg. I’ve eaten a lot of cod so far on this journey and it seems to be the staple diet. There are announcements for a tax free makeup demonstration taking place in the shop and I wonder how bored people actually are. Later there will be bingo.
It’s late afternoon when the northern tip of the Shetland isles comes into view and the lighthouse at Muckle Flugga is clearly visible. There’s general excitement on deck and lots of photos as there is finally something to look at. Until now, and for most of the journey, no other ships or land just the vast expanse of the sea and an overcast sky. Birds circle around the bow of the boat and I’m told that occasionally people have seen Orca. There seems to be a loose competition in these northern communities about who are the friendly people. The super friendly, welcoming and helpful Icelandic saying it is the Faroese with their cheeky sense of humour and desire to chat, the Faroese think it’s the Shetlanders who will stop the car to talk to you or even make a detour. The Norwegians get a bad press with stories of people actually scurrying indoors to avoid conversation with strangers. This doesn’t fit with my experience the next morning where I’m greeted in Stavanger at an unsociable hour in the morning with smiling faces, a personal sign and a flask of strong coffee. I do like the idea of a competition to be the friendliest people though and think perhaps the English could learn a thing or two.
I wander into the lounge where a band are starting to play. It’s a mix of covers and Faroese songs with a distinct country and western vibe. The lead singer has a red cowboy hat and shirt and later tells me that he picked them up on a trip to Nashville. He’s a Manchester United fan which explains the colour choice. The songs are all quite similar and I’m sorry so say my knowledge of country music isn’t up to speed so I can’t pick out the artists. My Faroese is non existent so I can’t tell the words. It goes on for most of the remaining afternoon and into the evening. Things change pace and most of the audience seem to know the words to the songs. I ask what they’re about and the reply is that it’s about Jesus. I’m basically listening to Faroese country gospel and it’s strangely addictive. Many older women in the audience have bought their knitting along and I’m fascinated by the quick and mechanical movement of the needles. They are sitting in lines and the effect is like a human loom moving in rhythm with the music. They boat sways from side to side and I’m overheating as I’m wearing a hat to cover the hair I haven’t washed for days. The beat of the music continues and It all starts to get too much. The clickerty clack of the needles, the chanting and clapping, the boat heaving, the repetitive sound of the band, chinking of glasses, the heat, the lack of sleep. I break into a sweat and start to drift into a trance. I feel like an over-boiling pot and have to get some air before I start foaming at the mouth or speaking in tongues.
I calm down with a beer and catch my reflection in the window, I realise that for the first time in four weeks, it’s getting dark outside. The crowd has dispersed and a small group of stragglers are watching a guitar player singing American songs. There’s a strong American influence in these North Atlantic Islands, iceland in particular, not surprising due to its location. We’re still chugging away in the middle of the sea and there’s genuine excitement at the sight of the lights of another ship at one point. Before coming into port, we’ll cross the Skagerrak, a name I remember from sea shanties we’d learnt from the radio at primary school. I think there’s a loose parallel with a life journey to that of a long stint on a ship, high and low points, the celebratory feeling of the entertainment, the lows and boredom of mid morning, the isolation and vastness of the surroundings and an inevitability that we’re chugging away along a course to a definite end. It’s a microcosm of life and it reminds me of times in hospital wards where beeping, whirring, humming machines drift on through the night. I emerge from my subterranean quarters to bright sunshine the next day and the smell of fish wafting off the land. Gone are the moody mountains with their different characters and in place is a long expanse of flat, sandy beaches. Fisher.