Death by water

Now, as in the past, the sea functions as both giver and taker of life

Early on Sunday morning, a Polish yacht with seven crew was rescued 30 miles to the west of Orkney. It had been due to arrive in Aberdeen the previous day, but had lost radio contact and had not been heard of since Monday, shortly after leaving Keflavik in Iceland.

The yacht had been suffering engine trouble, but finally managed to restore communications late on Saturday evening. Coastguard stations in Iceland, Faroe, Shetland and the Western Isles had all tried to contact the vessel unsuccessfully, and the alarm had been raised for all vessels to keep watch for her.

The crew of the Syrenka were very lucky. Finding a vessel in the North Atlantic with no clues as to its whereabouts would be near impossible without the ship’s emergency beacon being activated. The ending of this story could so easily have been a tragic one.

For me the events were a reminder, as if one were needed, of just how vulnerable human beings are out on the sea. If technology fails, as it can and inevitably sometimes will, or if the weather turns against you, the relationship between the sailor and the sea becomes something altogether different – more threatening, and more honest, perhaps.

Living on an island means, of course, that your world is defined, in a physical sense, by the sea. But that world does not end at the shore. The sea itself is a part of island life, no less than the land upon which you live.

For as long as people have been here, the sea has provided food for them – a livelihood. It has also been their connection to the rest of the world, their highway to other places and other people. It is not a barrier, but a provider of opportunity.


That opportunity, though, can come with a high price. Death at sea has always been a familiar occurrence. The waters around Fair Isle are littered with the wrecks of ships from years past. The most famous of these wrecks is the Gran Grifon, part of the Spanish Armada, which went aground here in September 1588. On that occasion none of the ship’s 300 men were killed, though in the seven weeks that they were marooned on the island, 50 or so died from starvation.

Countless other vessels have met their ends in these waters too, and sometimes it has been islanders themselves that have been the victims. In September 1897, four island boats found themselves in danger after a north-westerly storm blew up unexpectedly. Two made it home safely, another was found the following day with four of its seven crew dead. The other boat was never recovered. Eight men were lost in total, leaving four widows, and 27 children without fathers.

People took those kinds of risks not simply because they had to. The risks were a part of their bond with the sea – a part of the bargain, you might say. There was an element, too, of the old Norse acceptance of Fate, which manifested itself in a refusal by many Shetland seagoers to learn to swim – something that continued until quite recently.

Safety today is taken extremely seriously, and accidents are far rarer than in the past. But every year in Scotland lives are lost by people on the sea, and fishing remains the UK’s most dangerous profession. The bond that people feel with the water that surrounds them is a strong one though, unbreakable even. People will always make their livings from the sea, and as long as they do, there will always be those who are lost.