The town of Lerwick in the Shetland Isles is set to play host to an impressive fleet of tall ships this summer, sailed by teams made up of young people across Europe who have been given the opportunity by the charity Sail Training International

The Race will be accompanied by a festival full of exciting entertainment and music acts. However, it is not all about the glamourous and exotic – Shetland’s relationship with the Tall Ships Race has sparked an interest and passion for sailing in many of the island’s young people, who without the opportunities the charity provides through the festival, would not have been able to take to the seas which surround their home. This year will mark the third time Lerwick has played the role of host port in the festival. 

All of the action across the weekend can be watched via the live stream broadcast on The Herald website. 

Read more: Tall Ships Shetland: The Herald to broadcast this year's race

One such young Shetlander is Vaila Wright, who had her first experience of sailing through last year’s Tall Ships race. The Sail Training International charity granted the student the opportunity to sail from Shetland to Denmark, after which she competed in a race leg to the Netherlands. 

From her first taste of life at sea, Vaila discovered a new passion and will be participating in the Tall Ships this summer once more, this time in the Cruise in Company leg of the race, which is the sole non-competitive leg on the five-leg tour. This year, that means Vaila will be setting off from Frederickstad in Norway in the direction of her homeland, where a local reception will await her in Lerwick to celebrate her achievements with the packed out four-day festival.

On her ship for this year’s event, named the Indracht, a Rotterdam boat, are four other young people from Shetland, none of whom who have sailed before, and Vaila is looking forward to showing them the ropes. 

Since her first involvement, Vaila has not kept her newfound love confined to the open waters of northern Europe. After her summer of adventure, she returned to Aberdeen University in September and joined the sailing club. At home, she has also become an ambassador for sail training in Shetland, to promote the sort of opportunities she was given to other young people in her local area. 

As we speak, Vaila is docked in Athens where she is in the middle of a sailing expedition with the University of Aberdeen’s sailing club. Along with three fellow students, Vaila was spending the week navigating the waters surrounding the Greek islands – which may be somewhat calmer than those she will experience between Norway and Shetland later in the summer. 

Read more: Tall Ship Races in Shetland - Everything you need to know

For Vaila, who grew up in Shetland, the best part of taking part last year was meeting so many different people from other cultures with around 40 other boats participating with crews made up of young people from across Europe. “Honestly, out of the whole thing I just love meeting all the people because you don’t get an experience to just meet all these different cultures and amazing people that have amazing stories, and you just don’t get opportunities to make connections like these. I am still friends with so many people from last year that I couldn’t know without this opportunity. I still keep in touch with a lot of people from Oman from one of their navy boats, so that was really cool,” Vaila says. 

Sail Training International has provided such opportunities to young people in Shetland for years now, so Vaila actually knew two other people from the island who had taken part before her. It was after seeing an advert on Facebook for taster days that pushed her to take the plunge and sign up. After travelling home to Shetland for the day from her studies in Aberdeen for the taster day, she knew she had made the right decision: “I just fell in love with the idea of sailing and I just had such an amazing time, and clearly, because now I’m on the committee for Aberdeen sailing.” 

On the sailing culture she has found in Aberdeen, Vaila acknowledges that the hobby may not seem as realistic to those who have not had a charity in their hometown providing opportunities to get involved: “I think it could definitely look inaccessible at first glance because we sail around an hour’s drive away from Aberdeen and it’s quite expensive. So that’s a big blockage, really, to why people don’t go. This year, we are really trying to get as many grants and funding as possible so that people will want to join, and putting as much into advertising as we can, to get people wanting to do it this year.” 

Reflecting from Greece on what the Tall Ships Race has given her, Vaila says: “One of the main things is a confidence boost. You can really learn so much about yourself, and just appreciate life a little bit. I was just sitting watching the sunset and thinking this is the life. This is what you want to be doing. Not looking at your phone, not getting distracted. Just having a good time. And I think people forget how to do that.”