“Urrrrgggh”, says the First Mate. “I don’t feel very well. Urrrrrrrgggghhhh!”
“Shall we have a bite of breakfast?”, I say hopefully.
“Urrrrrggggghhh”, she says again. “Don’t mention food to me at the moment. Can you bring me one of the buckets?”.
We had left East Weddel Sound at 0500 that morning to catch the south-flowing tide to take us almost all the way to Wick before it turned northward again. In the Sound it had been sheltered and the water relatively calm, but once we had gone beyond the point of Burray Ness, the full force of the swell that had been building for the last four or five days from the easterly winds had caught us on the beam. Even though the wind had now gone around more to the north-east and wasn’t particularly strong, the swell had persisted and Ruby Tuesday had wallowed each time one of the long waves went underneath us. Even I started feeling a bit queasy.
I bring one of the buckets to the ailing First Mate. “Urrrrrrggghhhh”, she says into it. I look the other way.
My hunger eventually gets the better of me, so I put the wheel onto autopilot and go downstairs to get a bowl of muesli, fruit and yoghurt. I bring it back to the cockpit and tuck in. I feel a bit less queasy, at least.
“Are you sure you don’t want any?”, I say. “I can make you some. It may help you. I feel better already.”
“Urrrrgggghhh”, says the First Mate. I take that as a no. Poor old thing – it isn’t much fun being seasick, but there isn’t much I can do.
The wind freshens and we skim along nicely on a broad reach doing about 7 or 8 knots. In the distance we can see the Pentland Skerries and give them a wide berth to avoid the overfalls and eddies that the CCC Sailing Directions warns about. After some time, we alter course to the south west to head directly for Wick.
The problem now is that the wind is directly from behind and the genoa flaps uselessly in the shadow of the mainsail. I decide to goosewing, and pole out the genoa to one side and the mainsail to the other to present as much sail area to the wind as possible. I clamber on to the foredeck to rig a preventer line to stop the boom from gybing – swinging uncontrollably from one side of the boat to the other very quickly – when a gust of wind catches the sail and the very thing that I am trying to stop happens – the boom whizzes across, and although it misses me, the mainsheet catches the side of my face and whips my glasses off and grazes the skin, drawing blood.
“Be careful!”, calls the First Mate from her sickbed.
It’s good advice, but looking at her with blurred vision and blood dripping down one side of my face, I wonder if its timing could be improved on. Luckily my glasses are hanging from my neck, albeit sad and bent. Since losing my previous pair of glasses overboard in Foley harbour last year, I have taken to wearing one of those little neck cords attached to my glasses to stop the same thing happening again. At least it has worked this time.
I clamber back into the cockpit as best I can. With the wind now behind us, the wallowing is less, but the pitching from bow to stern is more. We carry on at a reasonable pace until the coastline of mainland Britain comes into view. We are through the infamous Pentland Firth!
Then the wind stops altogether. Not a breath. I hope that it might just be a temporary lull, but unfortunately that seems to be it for the foreseeable future. We switch on the engine and motor the last few miles to Wick. As we approach, I realise that the First Mate is still in no state to help and I am going to have to tie up at the marina by myself. Getting in to the marina should be no problem, but docking is much easier with two people – one to keep the boat under control and the other to handle the ropes and tying up. I may have to do both. I radio ahead on the VHF to the pontoon manager to see if there is someone who can assist. In the meantime, I get the fenders tied on and the mooring lines ready.
There is no answer from the pontoon despite my calling several times. Then suddenly there is a voice.
“Ruby Tuesday”, the voice says. “This is supply ship Rix Lynx. The marina manager is usually not here on a Sunday. Perhaps I can help?”
I ask him if there are places left for visitors at the pontoon.
“We are actually in the harbour itself, but looking across to the marina I can see some spare spaces”, says Rix Lynx.
“Will there be anyone there to help me dock?”, I ask. “I have a sick person on board and am essentially single-handed.”
“There seem to be some people around. I am sure they would be happy to give you a hand”, says Rix Lynx.
I decide to go for it. The water is much calmer inside the breakwater, and we take it slowly as we turn a sharp right angle into the outer harbour and then a left into the marina. On the way, we pass Rix Lynx, and wave to her. I am not sure if anyone sees us. There is a space next to a boat with a Norwegian flag. More Vikings, I think. But they hear us arriving and come out to help, and soon we are tied up. Back on dry land, the First Mate shows a speedy recovery and is soon in conversation with the Norwegians. They are very friendly, and I wonder if Vikings just have a bad press. It’s been a long day, so we decide to relax in the cockpit in the sunshine and have a glass of wine.
“I hope ya don’t mind, I hope ya don’t mind ….”, sings a crewman on the offshore supply ship opposite us, sponging its windows. I briefly wonder what he did with the money that his mum gave him for singing lessons, as it is not clear if even Elton John would recognise the song, but I decide it is the mood behind it that is the most important. He sounds happy. Even the local cormorant seems to like it.
There are several supply ships tied up around the harbour. It seems that Wick is reinventing itself as the centre for the offshore renewables industry after the catastrophic decline in the fishing industry over the last century or so. Everywhere we look there are gleaming hi-tech ships bristling with all the latest gadgetry to take people and material out to the windfarms. There are still some small fishing boats dotted here and there, but the harbour really belongs to the supply ships and leisure craft such as ourselves. A sign of the times.
“That ah put down in words/How wonderful life is while you are in the world”, finishes the crewman sponging the windows, tidying up his buckets and brushes. A foghorn suddenly seems quite tuneful.
I walk into town the next morning to the opticians to see if they can straighten my glasses. On the way into town, I see a familiar face. It is Prince Charles. It seems that he has turned up to open the new Beatrice wind turbine array in the sea out to the east of Wick.
After shaking the hands of the dignitaries lined up at the door of the Beatrice building, he comes over to have a chinwag with the commoners.
When he gets close, his face lights up with recognition. “Well, well, well. If it’s not the Skipper!”, he says. “I wondered if I might see you here. How’s Ruby Tuesday? I read your blog avidly, you know.”
“We are fine, thanks”, I say. “The First Mate was a bit peaky yesterday when we were crossing the Pentland Firth. But she’s OK now. Off doing some shopping at the moment, I think. She’ll be sorry she missed you.”
“Pentland Firth, eh?” says the Prince, stroking his chin thoughtfully. “I have heard that it is pretty challenging, isn’t it? Anne’s always going on about doing it in her boat one day, but I don’t think that she has yet. Not my cup of tea, really. Speaking of tea, what about if I come down later to Ruby Tuesday for a cuppa after all this snipping of ribbons, and you can show me around and tell me all about it. I particularly enjoyed the bit where you were talking to the sheep on Scalpay, although I did wonder if you had taken leave of your senses there for a moment. But, well, I often talk to my plants to keep me sane, so I suppose it’s not really all that different, is it?”
“It’ll be a pleasure”, I say. “But we only have Earl Grey. The Darjeeling ran out last week, and the First Mate wasn’t able to find any in Asda yesterday. By the way, I hope Earl won’t be below your rank?”
“Well, yes, it is actually, but don’t worry, I will overlook it this time”, he says with a guffaw. “See you later.”
I am jolted from my Mitty-dream back into the real world by a rather large lady jostling my elbow somewhat intimately. “Well, that was lovely, wasn’t it?”, she says.
I assume she means seeing Charles and not the jostling, so I nod in agreement. “But I’ll have to wash the mugs now”, I say. She looks at me as if I have escaped from somewhere and hurries away. Probably to find some men in white coats.
I find the opticians and they straighten my glasses.
“You look like you have been in the wars”, says the lady. “Ah yes, just those pesky Vikings again”, I joke. She doesn’t know whether to take me seriously or not.
In the afternoon, we explore the town. In fact, Wick is actually two towns – the original town of Wick and the newer Pulteneytown. Wick has been around for a while – since the Iron Age at least – and gets its name from the Norse word for bay, vik, as does the word Viking itself. It became a Royal Burgh in the 16th century. Pulteneytown was built in the 19th century by the British Fisheries Society to house crofters fleeing from the Clearances looking to capitalise on the herring boom.
The Heritage Museum gives a good history of it all – its Johnson Collection is a fascinating archive of photographs taken by three generations of the local photographic business from 1863 to 1975. Like many towns we had visited, the story goes (and the pictures show) that there were so many fishing boats at one stage, it would have been possible to walk across them from one side to the other without getting your feet wet.
Unfortunately, the herring boom collapsed after WW1, partly due to overfishing, change in tastes, loss of markets during the war, and dereliction of the fishing fleet while the men were away fighting. The industry never really recovered and since then the town has gone into decline. There is a sadness as we explore the streets – many shops and houses and boarded up or unoccupied, the streets are uncrowded, so different from what it would have been like in its heyday.
There are efforts at revival – the harbour is a focus for the wind-farm industry and leisure sailing fraternity, and the town centre has been renovated. However, we read in the paper that one of the main pubs, Weatherspoon’s Alexander Bain, is up for sale, which will be a major blow. Alexander Bain was a local lad and the inventor of the electric clock. Hopefully, the new owners will keep it going, as its good value food and drink provides a much-needed social focus for the town.
Further on, we see one of the residents trying to keep the old traditions alive by catching fish from the bridge over the river. The First Mate tries to advise him that his line is on the wrong side of the parapet. For some reason he is not very responsive.
“Perhaps he is embarrassed by being told how to fish by a visitor?”, I say.
Further on, we come across a set of steps leading up to Pulteneytown. The First Mate points out a plaque on the wall saying that these were the steps that provided the inspiration to L.S. Lowry, the well-known painter of industrial landscapes, for one of his paintings. It seems that this particular one was painted in 1937 and had remained hidden for 20 years, but was rediscovered in 2013 in Edinburgh. It sold for nearly £900,000 at auction at the time. Not a bad little earner!
“Apparently not all of Lowry’s work is known, and there may be several of his paintings still out there”, says the First Mate.
“I’ll make a note to check in our attic when we get home”, I say.