The way of life involving Lerwick harbour has been well documented over the centuries by much better qualified individuals than me. Lerwick was given the name ‘LeirVik; (muddy bay) by some of its first explorers the Vikings, from across the North Sea to the East of us. However it was the Dutch fishermen in the 17th century who discovered Shetland’s rich fishing grounds, and ultimately responsible for the development of the natural sheltered harbour and the actual town of Lerwick. Overlooking Lerwick Harbour is Fort Charlotte which was reputedly built during the First Anglo Dutch war and held off a Dutch fleet in 1667. My own personal connection to the fort; it is recorded that my parental ancestor Saunders Tough was stationed there after he fought at the battle of Waterloo.
My own first hand experiences of Lerwick harbour has been touched upon in past blogs, however my everlasting memory of life involving the harbour took place in the late 1960s or early 70s, before the building of the Burra bridge. It was at the back end of the summer that I was awakened in the middle of the night by persistent banging on the caravan door I was staying in at the time. It was a policeman and he was looking for the caravan owner my dad who also part owned the family fishing boat the Dauntless. He said the Dauntless was in danger of breaking loose from its moorings in the harbour and being driven against a much larger vessel the steel built North Isles ferry, Earl of Zetland. I explained dad was in Burra Isle, as was the rest of the crew. The policeman insisted I accompany him to the quayside. It was when I left the caravan I realised how serious the weather was, a fierce gale from the North East and driving rain. Down at the pier the waves were so severe they were breaking over the pier and here was the Dauntless swinging back and forth in the storm holding by one rope forward. There were two Lerwick port staff along with another policeman standing on the pier, I asked ‘why did they not board the Dauntless?’ and was told it was not their concern and, in any case, it was too dangerous. I asked where would I find heavier mooring ropes and was told in the forward rope locker in the bow. I waited my chance between waves and managed to jump on deck, eventually opened the locker, climbed down and found a heavy rope which I passed up the hatch and on to the deck. I was trying to throw the rope ashore when a familiar blue car a Morris Cowley drew up opposite me and out came my father in- law to be and foreman of the Malakoff slipway. He took one look at me and burst out laughing and then proceeded to jump aboard, climbed up the wheelhouse and somehow opened a window and disappeared inside. Minutes later the engine started and he shouted orders to me and the audience on the pier to let go the one last remaining rope. We made our way in the teeth of the gale to the lea of the Malakoff slipway pier and in total that night we moved three boats to shelter. He said he would drive me back to the caravan, when I calmed down and stopped shaking with a mixture of fear and cold, asked him was this a normal activity for him. He replied now and again he would check the local boats in bad weather. He never looked for thanks or payment and when he received the award B.E.M. for service to the fishing industry I totally understood why the fishermen held him in such high regard. He was a great servant to the fishermen of Shetland. Over the years I occasionally would mention our experience of that night and he would always break out into his renowned laughter. I must have looked a comical sight soaking wet and totally out of place in what for me was a totally alien environment of breaking waves and a hostile sea.
Our fishermen have to brave what can be at times severe gales and heavy seas which can often happen very suddenly. They are comforted by the fact if they were to experience difficulties help is on its way. Shetland has two Severn Class lifeboats, one on the West side and the other the RNLB Michael & Jane Vernon stationed in Lerwick on the East coast.