Open Boats: Under Sail in Shetland

Fishing for whitefish was dominant in Shetland’s fisheries, until the 19th century. This included deep-sea cod fishing in open sailing boats, known in Shetland as ‘da far haaf’ .

Charles Johnson was born in Toam, North Roe, Shetland, in 1861, and died in 1938, There’s much to be said about his life – which can be researched in the Archive at Shetland Museum and Archives, in Lerwick – but perhaps it’s best to note that he was involved in Shetland’s fishing industry as a boy just before education became compulsory. He was nevertheless able to articulate his life experience in it. He did this at least four times in print, providing invaluable and rare firsthand accounts of ‘ da haaf’; commercial fishing, in undecked boats, in the North Atlantic in the 1800s.

Manson’s Shetland Almanac and Directory. Date: 1939
In this issue, Charles Johnson, who worked in Shetland’s fisheries as a boy, describes “a trip or two” at the haaf. Johnson’s writings are rare examples of first-hand accounts of Shetland’s 19th century fisheries.
Shetland Archive 4/2461/41

Here are some quotations from his piece in Manson’s Almanac, 1939, ‘A Defence of the Haaf Fishing’:

I am an old hand in open boats, fishing the haff, etc., and as writers mostly paint it black, I am able to give you a true description of the life it was, and a bad job for these Island when it was given up .

Our open boat under sail is a thing alive and only needs proper guidance.

Charles Johnson “A Defence of the Haaf Fishing”. Manson’s Shetland Almanac, 1939.

Sailing Vaila Mae, Bressay Sound, Shetland. Date: June 2018
Vaila Mae, Shetland Museum’s contemporary sixern, is taken out by local crews, who, in the summer months, use their sailing skills to share the experience of being under sail with fellow islanders and visitors.
New Connections Across the Northern Isles Photographic Archive

With suitable weather and few fish on the trading ground, fish was sought further off, up to 20 miles. The furthest off shore ever I was, and the older men said so too …

I have read that open boats had “gone the land down,” and as far as 70 miles … they had a rule to not to go out of sight of land, and in fact it was seldom ever they lost sight of more than the low lands. … It would take over 20 hours to pull 70 miles, and over 40 to pull twice that; that’s about four working days. We used to think pulling one working day stiff enough.

Charles Johnson “A Defence of the Haaf Fishing”. Manson’s Shetland Almanac, 1939.

The Sixern Industry: A Design and a Demonstrator

The Industry

The sixern Industry is a traditional Shetland fishing craft built for use as the Foula mailboat in 1891 by Malcolm ‘Maikie’ Laurenson in Scalloway. One of the later sixerns built, it was registered for fishing as LK 718 but doesn’t seem to have been used that way.

Sixareen Industry, LK 718. Date: 1891
Co-curator Angus Johnson looks over the Shetland sixern Industry, on display in the Boat Gallery at Shetland Museum and Archives.
Shetland Museum and Archives SEA 2007.19

Shetland’s open boat fishery, the haaf, had bitter aspects; hard work, debt bondage, and loss of life on a community scale. There are few accounts of this work from the view of the fishermen. Charles Johnson’s factual account is a notable example. He didn’t dwell on the negative, often defending the way of life, and refuting myths. He was proud of how difficult things had been undertaken and mastered, and the men who had done so.

Flitboat and peat workers at Vadlure Walls. Date: late 1920s
This group includes many members of the various families from the “Sooth Neuk” of Walls, aboard the peat flit-boat shared by the families from that area. The boat is likely to be about to set off in the morning to go around the heads from the Walls voe into the Gruting voe to Maraness or Olansvoe for a load of peats. This boat, is possibly the Industry, now on display in the Shetland Museum; believed to be the only full example of an original, working sixern now in existence. There will remain an element of doubt about which boat this is because another similar sixern, the Janet was also kept and used in this part of Walls. Not enough of the boat can be seen in the picture to  be absolutely certain one way or the other. However there is no doubt about the people or their purpose.
Photograph reproduced here by kind permission of Brian Wishart

The Industry saw little of the haaf life. There is a photograph in the Shetland Museum Photographic Archive showing it in happy dynamic use, racing at a Walls regatta. After the mailboat work ended, most of the Industry’s working life was flitting peats across the Waas voes. It was referred to as da flittie and rarely by an official name. It continued to be useful long after other sixerns had been left rotting, or turned into roofs. The Tait family were careful people who maintained it. The Industry survived as a complete example of a design.

Sixareen Industry, Walls, Shetland. Date: late 1890s
Sixareen Industry under racing squaresail at Walls.
Shetland Museum and Archives 02473

The Vaila Mae

The new Shetland Museum and Archives opened in 2007. It incorporated the old Hay and Company boat building shed. In 2008 two skilled workers, Jack Duncan and Robbie Tait built the first sixern there for over a century. It was based on the Industry, and work done by Adrian Osler, but made a little longer, the full thirty feet, or around 9 metres. Traditional Shetland boats were built without the use of written designs. Each boat was a potential design for another, interpreted by knowledgeable men. Design by demonstration. To view a filmed recording of the building of the Vaila Mae, click here.

The name Vaila Mae came from Vaila Mae Harvey, a young woman who had recently died of cancer. Naming a vessel after a cherished female was a very traditional Shetland act. The Customs and Excise boat register shows 338 variations of Ann or Annie, for instance.

Shetland Museum floating collections, Hay’s Dock, Lerwick. Date: June 2018
Showing the yoal Laura Kay, sixareen Vaila Mae, and motor boat Pilot Us, in Hay’s Dock, looking out onto Bressay Sound and the working harbour at Lerwick Port.
New Connections Across the Northern Isles Photographic Archive

The Vaila Mae is a companion to the Industry, seen in the dock tied up, but also hauled up on the beach, the stages of a sixern’s yearly cycle. Better still, in summer it can be seen working.

The Vaila Mae in Action

The Vaila Mae is demonstrated in gentle conditions normally. Her stability holds up well, and the big sixern accelerates fast. Capable under sail, it is a safer boat than might have been expected. During Shetland Boat Weeks, August 2017 and August 2018, the Vaila Mae was used as often as possible. Shetland Boat Week participants with little or no experience of being under sail experienced the large wooden boat in the best conditions, an important goal. Most people don’t need to go any farther.

Sailing crews do need to go farther. The men who had extensive experience of sixerns are long gone now. They were rare in Shetland as long ago as the 1940s. Today, crews using the Vaila Mae have test pilot functions, comparing what’s known from tradition, the limited amount of written material, and what they know from other vessels in the Shetland family of wooden boats.

How a boat operates in the best conditions isn’t always the best guide to a boat. Shetland Boat Week, in August 2018, saw a Force 9 gale rise up in Bressay Sound. Weather changes quickly in Shetland. Whilst members of the public couldn’t join them, the crew could train and find out what was possible. They took the Vaila Mae from Hay’s Dock to the North Harbour of Lerwick and back. They learned a lot. To watch a recording of this event, click here.

How much should sails be reduced for weather? They took in two reefs out of three. The following week, with building confidence they took in all three reefs in a further exploration of the design. Despite the strong gusts and violent flans of the Force 9 the Vaila Mae felt safe, responsive, and buoyant. It made 9.6 knots, and looked well in action. People took pictures, the crew looked exhilarated.

Skills and Training

The Industry and the Vaila Mae represent a body of skills. When Jack Duncan and Robbie Tait built the Vaila Mae what they did was thoroughly recorded. That meant treating the building process in ways that would have been inconceivable to the sixern builders of long ago. Writing things down, drawing plans, and digital recordings.

There’s another body of skills involved in operating the boat. Unpowered except for human effort and sail, the Vaila Mae demands a knowledge of sea, wind, and design. The sixern’s clinker-built hull has capacities and limits, so do the sails, rigging and ropes. As Charles Johnson said, it is “a thing alive.” The dialect terms used in handling the boat and communicating in it move away from their dry life in lists and diagrams, and become meaningful, and immediate.

Sailing Vaila Mae, Bressay Sound, Shetland. June 2018
New Connections Across the Northern Isles Photographic Archive

Shetland people still use these seafaring skills. Today they can be spread widely through our society. There are more women crew than ever before. Training in the Vaila Mae is a good way to acquire or extend abilities, and to become as proud of them as Charles Johnson was.

To see a film of Ailish Parham and fellow crew members sailing Vaila Mae, and hear Ailish speaking about how sailing is part of her belonging with people and place in Shetland click here.

Please cite New Connections Across the Northern Isles (2019) when referencing materials from this virtual museum.

Find out more

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