10th-15thJune. We enjoyed our few days in Wick, taking a break from passage-making, waiting for crew, and discovering a new place. The 7,000-strong northern Caithness town, which lies just south of John o’ Groats, has seen changes over the last few decades, with the reduction in fishing, the decommissioning of Dounreay nuclear power station (and submarine power test station) and focus in the energy industry moving to wind power.
On the South side of the river Wick is Pulteneytown, designed by Thomas Telford in the 19thcentury as one of the first industrial new towns, built – together with the harbour – to develop the herring fishing industry. The streets and buildings have not changed much: Upper Pulteney is built around an attractive grassy square, now planted with trees but originally providing space for drying fishing nets. Lower Pulteney is the area round the harbour with rows of cottages, including a substantial number now taken over by the Beatrice Offshore Windfarm Ltd as offices, warehouse and workshops. Beatrice is the largest offshore wind farm in the UK.
The lifeboat plays an important part in the town, and we met several of the lifeboat crew going about their day jobs, all willing to share their experience and offer advice about sailing on this exposed coastline. Saturday was a big day: the annual RNLI harbour day, so we joined in the fun. Despite cold and fog, there was a good turnout to watch a pipe band, Scottish dancers and the local boxing club, and to chat to one of the windfarm employees about how the build and then maintain the turbines (there are twelve wind farm boats currently operating out of Wick). We were able to go on board the Wick lifeboat (Trent class, 22 years old, beautifully maintained) and the Longhope lifeboat, over from Orkney to lend support (Tamar class, super high-tech). It was moving to meet several people who lost fathers, uncles or grandfather in the 1969 Longhope lifeboat disaster which was being specially remembered. We were struck how the lifeboat and its community of volunteers and supporters is central to the identity of places like this.
In the evening, the fish market was turned into a dance-hall and the lifeboat crew provided a barbeque (steak marinated in cider and then flamed with Old Pulteney whisky!) and bar. Six or seven visiting yachts had made it over from the south coast of the Moray Firth, less than usual due to the weather, and many were clearly regular visitors. We felt incredibly welcomed and hosted. The evening event was evidently fancy dress; we lacked wacky attire but we boogied away with a couple in Swiss costume, admired the dancing stamina of a French onion seller (assistant Coxswain on the lifeboat) and his partner in Spanish costume, and chatted to ‘Elvis’, our neighbour on the pontoon, complete with blow-up electric guitar and his friends. The party went on until after 2am – we retired much earlier as we were setting off the next day.