Shetland Islands 2013

Foula to Lerwick - Saturday 22nd June

The rain had started during the night and my first thought on waking was the ferry. I wasn't sure just how sheltered my camp site was but the tent was straining against its guy ropes and rippling in the wind. My fingers were crossed. I didn't have a plan B to get back to Lerwick for the Hjaltland should the Foula ferry be cancelled. I imagined the worst when I unzipped the tent and stuck my head out of the door. It was a grey morning but the wind wasn't as bad as first thought, the tent though was soaked.

After breakfast I started to pack up, rolling up the sleeping bag and thermorest and stuffing them into their compression sacks. Eventually, everything was in the panniers with just a space left for the tent. I left the tent fastened to one peg to stop it blowing away and pulled out the two poles. The final step was to give the fabric a good shake in the breeze to flash off the water.

With everything stowed on the bike, I pushed it over the grass to the road. Another de-bagging / re-bagging procedure later and I was on the other side of the fence free-wheeling down the road. The ferry was due to sail at 9.30 am and I was early.

It was a grey, damp morning with the hilltops shrouded in low cloud. I caught sight of the ferry still hung up in its bunker and all was quiet down at the harbour as I came to a stop at the bottom of the hill, it was still only 8.45 am. I mooched around and took some photographs.

A bronxie stood on the wall keeping me company.

I began to wonder what would happen if the ferry was cancelled. I had no phone signal so couldn't ring Gordon, let alone look at the website. I reckoned that the ferry would probably take at least half an hour to get ready so my anxiety started to rise as the minutes after 9.00 am started to tick by. Then I noticed some movement among the houses up the valley. A few minutes later the ferry crew arrived in a variety of vehicles together with a number of passengers and people seeing them off. I was much relieved at this sudden flurry of activity.

The New Advance was swung out on its divots and lowered into the water before being positioned alongside us in front of the crane.

Sheila and Brian waved as they made their way along the coastal path on the opposite side of the valley. The small group on the quayside chatted and said their goodbyes as all the bags were stashed inside the large metal safe. Sheila and Brian arrived and their rucksacks completed the load.

The bike was tied up against the boat's right hand rail and with everybody aboard, we set off around the little harbour wall and out into the open waters of the Atlantic. The swell was similar to the crossing two days before and the boat bobbed and weaved through the waves.

There were seven passengers on the return voyage. As well as Sheila and Brian, another couple sounded like they came from West Yorkshire and an older woman was with a young girl. The girl looked decidedly pale as she clutched a precautionary sick bag. It was however, very enjoyable sitting in the open at the back of the ferry, braced against the rocking and rolling. I watched the spray froth by whilst sheltering behind the large metal safe, the sky and sea merged at a dark horizon.

Mainland Shetland grew in the distance and eventually we entered the calmer waters of Vaila Sound and navigated on towards Walls. The ferry circled round to the left and lined up with the pier. We all climbed up the rusty ladder onto the concrete dockside and waited for the metal safe to be swung ashore. The bike was handed up and I eventually retrieved the bags and prepared for the final cycling leg to Lerwick. I paid my five pounds to Gordon, said good-bye to my fellow travellers and set off for the shop.

I'd been looking forward to the fresh westerly breeze blowing me back to Lerwick. In the event, the short trip to the shop proved this to be be purely wishful thinking. If anything, the breeze was coming directly from the east and progress was unexpectedly slow. The ferry crew followed me to the shop in Gordon's pickup.

It seemed a good idea to top up supplies; chocolate, bananas and milk replenished my stocks of carbohydrate. The man in the shop was now a familiar face and he commented that it should be a pleasant day for cycling and that I'd probably end up wetter on the inside than the outside on my trip to Lerwick. How wrong could he have been.

The headwind was ridiculous. Whilst the 24 miles to Lerwick should have been relatively easy, the weather was deteriorating fast and the couple of hours expected was now looking more like four. It was midday though, so there was still plenty of time, in theory.

Having cycled the route many times, I could foresee the four impending climbs ahead and mentally split the journey up into manageable chunks; the level run to Tresta, Tresta-Wadbister, Wadbister-Veensgarth, Veensgarth-Bridge of Fitch, Bridge of Fitch-Lerwick. The rain started and added insult to the headwind's injury, speed was cut to less than seven miles per hour on the flat. Then the Garmin ran out of power and died a few miles short of Bixter, I was cycling 'blind'.

The gradient started at Tresta for the long climb over to Weisdale and it was a struggle to maintain forward motion. It really was fairly unpleasant and visibility was cut by the spray from passing vehicles. The countryside was lovely though and views improved in proportion to the elevation. After a long steady grind, the summit was rounded and the long run down the valley side was the reward. This was largely north and after rounding the voe, largely south; welcome respite from the wind.

The whole scenario was repeated for the climb out of Weisdale, beginning at the Nesbister turning. Its a strange thing but I tend not to take photographs in bad weather. As a result, such days seem to disappear from the record leaving an impression of constant sunshine. This day was a case in point, I was soaked to the skin by the time I reached Veensgarth.

I noticed another touring cyclist behind me as I started the climb by the Herrislea House Hotel. He and his partner had been touring the northern islands and were now heading for Quarff. They decided to stop at the hotel for refreshments. I decided to turn on the Garmin to make it record the present location using its meagre battery life, then it died again.

After the slightly scary run down to Bridge of Fitch in the rain, spray and fog, I decided to stop in a lay-by above the golf course. The last of the emergency tea was very welcome and I marvelled at the flask's enhancement of my touring kit. A few chocolate lumps later I was grinding up the last hill before Lerwick.

In the appalling weather, it seemed like a good idea to turn right at the top onto Ladies Drive, following national cycling route 1. This not only avoided the traffic but also allowed for any possible embarrassment following wet braking difficulty on the descent. The welcome sight of Holmsgarth ferry terminal hove into view but to my shock, horror and disbelief, the ferry was obvious by its absence.

A million thoughts and fears flashed through my head; had it disembarked early; was I late; was it still in Aberdeen; had it sunk? In a slight but growing panic, I sprinted into the car park, propped up the bike and ventured into the terminal building.

Two leather clad motor cyclists were walking away from the check-in desk and told me helpfully that I'd missed the boat. The nice lady at the desk calmed my fears, the ferry was in fact out on event taking people on an afternoon cruise around Bressay. It was due back at 4.00 pm and as if by magic, it appeared behind her through the window.

The motor-cyclists were giggling as I walked back to the bike, they'd thought they'd missed the boat too. Spookily, they were from Bradford as well and were on a tour of the northern islands. One of them pointed at my bike and said "you're the guy with the blog!", he'd recognised the bike. I was beaming inside, I'd finally met one of my readers. I used the last drop of the Garmin's battery charge to record the end of my Shetland tour for 2013.

Boarding would be at 5.00 pm for the 7.00 pm sailing. I was dripping everywhere so decided on a change of clothes. Having retrieved the bag from left luggage, I dried off and got changed in the toilets, I felt far more comfortable. Eventually the departure hall filled up with passengers, I recognised a few of them from my travels. The nice check-in lady told me when it was time to take the bike through for boarding.

The Hjaltland steamed out of Lerwick on time. A little group gathered at the stern to watch Lerwick pass by, although the view was largely dominated by the floatel Kalmar tied up in the harbour. The 220 cabins, 2 restaurants and eight recreation rooms provided extra accommodation for Sullom Voe oil workers.

It was cold and dark with torrential rain, the islands were soon lost in the cloud.

Last day