Caithness Field Club

Life-Saving At Wick
Andrew Anderson

Although the RNLI was set up in 1824 by Sir William Hillary it took many years before any kind of standard level of life-saving became nationwide. After the initial burst of enthusiasm, the financial support dwindled away. Lifeboats fell into decay through lack of maintenance and large stretches of the coast had no real rescue service.

On the 6th September 1838 the Forfarshire, a new passenger steamer on passage from Hull to Dundee went ashore during a gale on the Farne Islands. Many were drowned but twelve people including a mother with two young children were swept on to the rocks. Next morning they were rescued by a small boat crewed by Grace Darling and her father, the keeper on the Longstone Lighthouse. There was a national outcry when news reached the mainland of the disaster and of " a girl having to do menís work". Because of the publicity, donations poured in, new appointments were made in management and there was a surge in the rescue efforts.

Although at that time, Wick and many other coastal towns did not have a lifeboat, there was no shortage of brave men, who at a momentís notice would take over an available shoreboat and strive to rescue those in distress on the sea.

As early as 1828, Wick men were awarded medals for gallantry. Mr Andrew Lake, the Chief Coastguard Officer at Wick, received the Silver Medal for his part in rescuing the crew of the brig St Nicholas when it was wrecked. Mr Robert McAlistair and eight local men were honoured for saving the lives of three men when the brig Thomas Dougal was driven ashore near Clyth. James Wishart was also awarded the Silver Medal when he waded into the breakers to rescue the mate of the sloop Anna.

In 1846 James Bremner (boatbuilder, architect and wreck raiser) designed, built and funded a new lifeboat for Wick. Unlike all other lifeboats in service this lifeboat did not rely on sail and oars but was propelled by two paddle wheels, placed amidships and turned by a system of cranks and levers and operated by eight men. During trials this lifeboat covered more than a mile in six minutes but was difficult to control in rough seas. There is no record of this lifeboat ever being used on an actual service.

It was the tragic events of Saturday 19th August 1848 which finally led to a lifeboat station being set up at Wick. Friday was a fine day with a gentle breeze and the fishermen set out for the fishing grounds as normal. Later, however, the wind shifted to eastward and steadily increased until a full gale was blowing. By the morning, the seas were mountainous in the bay but with nowhere else to go, although many crews attempted to run the harbour entrance, few were successful. Many boats were dashed to pieces on the rocks and despite the heroic efforts from those on the shore, thirty seven men were lost.

As a direct result of this tragedy a lifeboat station was established, not by the RNLI, but by the British Fishery Society. This Society had been founded in 1786 to look after the interests of fishermen and had already built most of the harbour at Wick about 1808 and also erected many houses in Pulteneytown. The lifeboat cost £169, was 28 feet long, powered by 12 oars and arrived inWick in November 1848.

On 8th September 1857 the lifeboat was launched from the Salmon Rock in very heavy seas to go to the aid of the Dutch galliot Vronia Santina which had anchored in a dangerous position. Capt. John Tudor with a crew of fourteen headed out through the breaking seas, but in spite of tremendous efforts were driven back on several occasions. A high sea then struck the lifeboart, sweeping three men overboard, breaking all the oars and driving the lifeboat ashore behind the North Quay. Two of the men were rescued by means of ropes and lifebuoys thrown from the shore but sadly the third man, Alexander Bain, was lost Ė leaving a widow and seven children. Capt. Tudor was awarded Silver Medals by the RNLI and Board of Trade for his gallantry.

On 20 November 1860 a heavy swell in Wick Bay prevented the sloop Maria entering the harbour and forcing her to seek shelter in Sinclair Bay. During the night the wind increased to full gale with hugh breakers surging up the bay. Capt. Tudor set out for Ackergill in a horse drawn gig with lines and lifebuoys. Meanwhile arrangements were made to haul the Wick lifeboat overland to Ackergill as Wick harbour was closed due to the weather conditions. On arrival, Capt. Tudor , realising that immediate action was required, took charge of the "bull" boat belonging to the Caithness Steam Shipping Company and with a crew of nine set off from Shorelands beach. The two members of the Mariaís crew were rescued as waves swept over the two boats just as the Wick lifeboat arrived at the beach. Capt. Tudor and his crew received medals from the RNLI and the Board of Trade.

In 1872 the British Fishery Board built a boathouse for the lifeboat on the upside of the Service Bridge. It had doors at both ends and the lifeboat was either launched off its carriage directly into the river or, as more usual, taken out through the rear doors and along the streets to the outer harbour, being recovered later from the river in front of the boathouse. During the summer season, because of the large number of fishing boats in the harbour, the lifeboat was kept on the Salmon Rock and launched from there.

During a violent storm on 23rd December 1876 the schooner Emilie of Wolgast with a cargo of coal from Sunderland was driven past Wick and went ashore north of Ackergill Tower. Waves were breaking over the Emilie and a salmon coble was brought overland from Ackergill. Capt. Cormack, the local boatowner, with nine volunteers set out for the Emilie and took three men aboard. Realising that the coble was grossly overloaded, Capt. Cormack turned for the shore, but a trailing rocket line became entangled on the keel and the coble overturned. Four local men including Capt. Cormack, and five from the Emilie lost their lives.

Following an enquiry into the disaster, it was decided to set up a lifeboat station at Ackergill. The site and materials for the boathouse were provided by Mr G Duff Dunbar of Hempriggs and the boathouse was built by Mr Charleson for £320. The new lifeboat, 30 feet long, 8 oared and costing £275 arrived at Wick railway station on 14th March 1878 and was paraded on its carriage through the streets of Wick on its way to Reiss beach.

In 1895 the RNLI took over the Wick lifeboat station and on 10th December of that year a new lifeboat was christened John Avins at a ceremony in the Rifle Drill Hall.

On 11 April 1905 it was seen that four of the local fishing boats were in difficulties in Wick Bay. They had gone to sea earlier in the day to collect lines but a heavy swell had sprung up in the bay making it impossible to enter the harbour. Three of the boats headed northwards but the fourth remained just off the mouth of the bay. The Ackergill lifeboat, Jonathan Marshall Sheffield, under coxswain Thain was launched and escorted the three boats to a sheltered anchorage in Sinclair Bay.

Meanwhile the Wick lifeboat, John Avins, under coxswain McKay was alerted to help the fourth boat which had signalled for assistance. The John Avins had just cleared the harbour entrance when it was struck on the beam by a succession of very heavy waves. The lifeboat was driven towards the river and despite tremendous efforts by the crew, was smashed against the North Quay. Four of the crew were swept overboard but were able to get handholds before the lifeboat was swept up the back of the quay. All were hauled to safety as helpers rushed to the scene with ropes and lifebuoys. The crew they tried to save eventually reached Occumster.

The badly damaged John Avins was replaced by the reserve lifeboat, Oldham, until the harbour improvements, then being planned, had been completed.

In 1913 the RNLI decided to base a motor lifeboat at Wick and the station was temporarily closed. A new boathouse with a deep water roller slipway was built in 1916 on the Salmon Rock at a cost of £4,000 and although work had started on the new lifeboat in 1915 it was not completed, because of delays due to the First World War, until 1921.

On 8th August 1921 the new lifeboat was formally christened Frederick and Emma. It was a 45 feet Watson with a 60 horsepower Tylor petrol engine and cost £7,141. It also carried a full set of sails in case of engine failure.

Its first call was to the SS Munin of Bergen which had gone ashore on the eastern side of North Ronaldsway, over seventy miles away. After punching through heavy weather for eight hours they reached Stronsay only to find that the vessel had refloated and made its way to Kirkwall. They arrived back in Wick after twenty four hours having covered a distance of 113 miles.

On 28th March 1936 the 2500 ton Finnish steamer Osterhav, struck rocks in dense fog just south of Duncansby Head. The Osterhav was eventually beached in Sinclair Bay and the twenty nine crew members landed at Ackergill by lifeboat.

On 19th August 1939 a new lifeboat for Wick was formally christened City of Edinburgh by Mrs Steel, Lady Provost of Edinburgh. The lifeboat was a 45 feet Watson, driven by two 40 horsepower Ferry VE4 diesel engines, with a speed of 8.5 knots and a cost of £8,155.

While battling their way north through very heavy seas on 21st September 1942, the tug St. Olaves with barge under tow went ashore near the Ness of Duncansby. It was pitch black with heavy waves and torrential rain sweeping over both vessels. Thirty one men cowered for shelter as Neil Stewart, recently appointed as coxswain, and his crew battled to save them. For this service in extremely difficult conditions, Neil Stewart was awarded the Bronze Medal of the RNLI and William Mowatt the Institutionís Thanks on Vellum.

On 3 rd March 1959, the 1800 ton SS Stellatus of Helsinborg struck the rocks near Freswick. With the engine room and forward hold flooded, the lifeboat rescued the crew of twenty six and landed them at Wick.

In 1968 the City of Edinburgh was replaced by the former Clacton lifeboat, Sir Godfrey Baring. On 27th March 1968 the Hull trawler James Barrie, ran aground on the Lowther Rock in the Skerries. One of the engines of the lifeboat was disabled when a rope fouled the propellor, but with great skill in a very confined space, twenty one men were rescued as conditions deteriorated. The James Barrie sank the next day after refloating.

On 30th September 1970 Princess Alexandra named the new lifeboat Princess Marina after her mother. It was a 48.5 foot Oakley, powered by Gardener engines and fitted with the latest navigational aids at a cost of £72,000.

On 17 February 1981 the local pilot boat Avenger, escorted a cargo vessel out of the harbour and across the bay. On the way back, the pilot boat with a crew of three was disabled when a nylon rope became wrapped round the propellor. Weather conditions were deteriorating rapidly with a south easterly wind whipping up heavy seas. The crew of the Avenger were able to drop a small anchor but there was a real danger that they would be driven ashore near the North Baths. Because of the serious situation the Princess Marina with coxswain Donald McKay and a scratch crew, drove the lifeboat between the casualty and the rocks into the surf and the Avenger was towed clear.

On 25th June 1984 the relief lifeboat Royal British Legion Jubilee, (later involved in the drugs incident) was alerted when a salmon coble was disabled near Ackergill and was anchored in broken water amongst the rocks. Heavy spray was sweeping over the coble and an attempt was made to float a line down to it but this was abandoned when the lifeboat went aground. When refloated and in deeper water a rocket line was fired and manoeuvred so that the men in the coble could attach a towline. The coble was then towed through the surf to Ackergill harbour. For this service coxswain Donald McKay was awarded the Bronze Medal of the RNLI.

On 16th September 1988, a new Tyne lifeboat was named by Mrs Bright Gordon, MBE. The cost was £556,124.

In extremely heavy seas and a force 9/10 ESE gale on 5th March 1991 the P & 0 ferry St Rognvald was left without compass and steering when the wheelhouse was swamped near Duncansby Head. Conditions in Wick Bay were bad with 18 feet confused breaking seas across the slipway and a suitable moment had to be judged for launching the lifeboat. Meanwhile the ferry was rolling heavily and shipping huge seas with the crew gathered on the afterdeck and the ferry circling to port. Four men were lifted off by helicopter in appalling conditions before emergency steering could be rigged. At one time the ferry was within Ĺ mile of the rocks but with instructions and guidance from the lifeboat, was gradually edged from a very dangerous situation to a safe anchorage in Sinclair Bay. For his outstanding leadership during this service Coxswain Walter McPhee was awarded RNLI's thanks on Vellum.

On 11th May 1992 in a force 6 southeasterly wind and a six feet swell the lifeboat was launched to the aid of the fishing boat Wave Dancer, with a crew of two, ashore on rocks near Staxigoe. The X boat was manned by Ian Cormack and, although at the limits for such a boat, managed to throw two lifejackets aboard. With great difficulty a tow line was then passed by Ian Cormack to the stranded vessel. The Wave Dancer suddenly sank as it was pulled clear and the two men were thrown into the water. With great skill and determination in difficult conditions, both men were recovered by the X boat and taken to Wick. The RNLIís thanks on Vellum were awarded to coxswain W McPhee and Ian Cormack for this fine service.

On 20th September 1997 Wickís latest Trent lifeboat was named Roy Barker II by Miss Jane Spears. It has a speed of over 20 knots and cost £1,580.000.

In the Old Parish Church on 31st October 1998, the 150th Anniversary Commemoration of the Wick Lifeboat Station was held and a vellum to mark the occasion was presented by Mr A M Mackenzie on behalf of the RNLI During that time over 400 lives have been saved Ė a splendid record of service by generations of men from the Wick area, and one which is being continued today by the dedicated crew of the present modern, high-speed lifeboat.

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Published in 2000 Bulletin