Shetland is set to host a major international festival at the end of July with the arrival of the Tall Ships Race. The impressive fleet of ships competing in the race will bring with them an array of entertainment from headline music acts to family activities. 

The Tall Ship Races is an international ship racing competition for young people organised by charity Sail Training International which takes place every summer, docking at ports around north-western Europe. 

It’s not all about sailing though, with a huge music festival and entertainment schedule alongside the race and ways to get involved while staying on dry land. 

Lerwick is anticipating thousands of visitors coming to take advantage of everything the festival has to offer. Here is what can be expected from the four-day event and how to get involved. 

Read more: Watch: Tall Ships Races 2023 in Shetland live stream

What’s on other than the race?

The Tall Ship Races is about much more than the ships themselves - the main attraction for most of the visitors is the festivities taking place around the race. 

For the duration of the four-day festival, there will be activities, entertainment, and gigs every night. Music headliners include Celtic band Peatbog Faerie on opening night, Tide Lines on the Thursday, and renowned fiddle player Catriona MacDonald on Friday who is originally from Shetland and considered amongst the leaders at her instrument in the world. 

Alongside the gigs, the festival offers a range of more relaxing activities. Throughout each day of the festival activities such as mini golf, a flying seagull street show and craft activities are on offer. There is something for everyone - whether that’s the ‘chill out zone’ or the DJ basement zone open until 3am. 

Is the festival family friendly?

The festival is “100% family friendly”. Alongside the musical talent there are free family entertainers including circus performers, a Jack Sparrow lookalike, Shetland Vikings, face painting and fun fair rides shipped in from Codona’s family amusement park in Aberdeen. Glasgow Science Centre will even provide an educational activity in the form of a 'tech net', which has already been enjoyed by Shetland's schoolchildren in recent months. There is even a visit from a Jack Sparrow lookalike who has amassed over one million followers on TikTok.

The Alexandra Quay area of Lerwick is to be dubbed the “Costa del Fun” with rope making workshops and demonstrations organised by Orkney Navigation School.

Where to get a glimpse of the ships?

Prior to the resumption of the race on 29 July, when the vessels will depart Lerwick Harbour for Arendal in Norway, there will be a ‘Parade of Sail’. This occasion is what Tall Ships describes as “a watery equivalent of everyone having a look at the horses before a race.”

It is also possible to see the ships in several guest ports before the fleet arrives in Lerwick. This is because the Shetland checkpoint actually marks the completion of the sole non-traditional segment of the race. The sail from Fredrikstad in Norway to Lerwick counts for the 'Cruise-in-Company' leg, where the ships are not actually racing competitively. This is beneficial for people in Scotland looking to see the ships up close since it allows the crews to dock at various guest harbours on the way. These are located in Cullivoe and Baltasound in the North Isles of Shetland, as well as in Orkney and Aberdeen. Visiting these locations before heading to the beginning of the festival on 26 July may offer those interested the chance for a closer glimpse of the vessels.

All the live action from the race can be followed via livestream. 

How can I get involved?

For those who want to take things further than just enjoying from the side lines, there are opportunities to volunteer at the festival in a range of positions with varying time commitments. 

These include event information advisors, who will be based at information points providing updates on the festival schedule and what is going on as well as selling programmes and merchandise. 

Those who want to get closer to the action itself may prefer to volunteer working with the Sail Training International and VIP liaison, supporting the main team in charge of the race with providing local information and potentially admin support. 

There are also a range of practical jobs, with the Tall Ship Races seeking drivers, stewards and marshals, and volunteers to run the crew centre which provides Wi-Fi, tea and coffee to sailors.

Can I hire a boat?

To truly do the Tall Ships Races in style, there is the option of hiring out decks of the ship while they are docked for private functions. Ships have varying facilities and are charged per hour, usually with a minimum of two or three hour hire. 

If you would rather steer the ship yourself than lie on the deck in the Shetland sun, ships in the race have spaces left over alongside the young trainees for people of all ages to join and enjoy the same thrilling multicultural experience. Bookings for these excursions can be made with individual ships.