The Fifie Fishing Boat ‘Liberty’
by Ian Bright
Built in Fraserburgh in 1935, with an overall length of 25ft, Liberty was built and used for small-line, hand-line and creel fishing along the eastern Moray Firth coast until about 1990, when she moved to Portsoy. At that time, Liberty had a wheelhouse and rail fitted, her masts were removed and she was powered by a Perkins Diesel engine. She was then being used for leisure fishing, until she unfortunately sank in the harbour during severe weather. Sold to the Portsoy Maritime Heritage (PMH), Liberty was restored to her original form by Alex Slater and Sinclair Young in 1996 and became a popular attraction at the Scottish Traditional Boat Festival for several years.
A few years after her restoration, Liberty was invited to attend the Arbroath Seafest.
It was to take place on a Saturday and Sunday, with a reception on the Friday night. At that time, Portsoy Maritime Heritage Members were: Alex Slater, Donald Gregg, Ian Bright, George Berstan, Brian and Sue Clifton. It was agreed that Alex and Brian would sail her back the following Monday. Donald and George volunteered to take turns following the boat by road – as a safety back up it’s always good to have eyes on shore.
Alex and I were to sail her to Arbroath, setting off on the Wednesday with Alex and Brian detailed to sail her back again after the festival.
As we needed high tide to depart Portsoy’s old harbour, and the Wednesday tide would be early afternoon, we decided that we would spend the first night at Peterhead Marina and sleep between Liberty’s (very cramped) decks.
Wednesday came around and Alex and I stored our gear on board, said goodbye to the small gathering who were there to see us off. Alex turned the key to bring the old Perkins Diesel engine into life, but nothing happened! Not to be outdone, Alex put a big spanner across the starter motor’s terminal and she fired up to a big cheer. We set off, leaving Portsoy’s old harbour for our first point of call, Macduff, to refuel. Leaving Macduff, Alex went to start her up again, but had the same problem – well, not really a problem, because the trusty spanner did the job again. So, with plenty of fuel on board we set off for Arbroath. Once outside the harbour, Alex and I raised the terracotta coloured ‘dipping lug’ sail and we made good headway east, in glorious sunshine. It wasn’t long before a seal popped his head up to say hello, and we even got a distant glimpse of the dolphins.
All was calm until we were past Fraserburgh and started heading south, then the wind began blowing very strongly and we had to shorten the sail. The sea became very choppy with lots of white caps, but we made it to Peterhead without any drama (that was still to come).
We sailed into the marina and moored up next to a familiar boat. Some of you may remember John Duncanson, who was a news reader for Grampian Television and used to be MC for the boat festival in Portsoy. John then lived aboard his yacht ‘Rhos Bahn’ in Peterhead Marina, and as luck would have it he was there when we arrived and kindly invited us to sleep aboard his yacht for the night. Very nice it was too.
Thursday morning arrived after a good night’s sleep and we had a hearty breakfast cooked by John. Being well-rested and fed, we were ready to sail south. However, overnight the wind had increased and the sea looked most unwelcoming. Alex decided that it would be better if we waited until the Friday morning in the hope that the wind would blow itself out. John offered to let us spend another night on Rhos Bahn. Alex thought we might as well get the starter motor sorted while in Peterhead, so that occupied us for a few hours before settling down to a meal and another cosy night on Rhos Bahn.
Friday morning dawned, the wind had slackened and the white caps lessened, though the sea was still far from calm. A local bakery had left a pile of fresh butteries at the marina office for us, and I must say they were the best I have ever tasted. Breakfast over, we decided that it would be ok to set sail, so we thanked John for his hospitality and said our goodbyes.
The new starter motor did its job and we left the marina for the open sea. Up went the sail. We headed for Arbroath with an invite to sleep on board the Anstruther Fisheries Museum’s Fifie ‘Reaper’.
With Liberty being an old wooden boat, water constantly seeped in but was just as quickly pumped out with an automatic bilge pump . . . usually. However, the wind and the sea started getting rough again, as we trimmed the sail and headed south. After a while, we could hear a thudding noise below the floor boards, which seemed to increase and decrease with the engine speed. We pulled up the boards to discover a prop shaft mount had sheared through and needed replacing, as the shaft was now jumping up and down.
Alex radioed Aberdeen harbour and arranged for engineers to meet us there to replace the mounting bracket. Meanwhile, the water level in the boat had started rising and Alex and I had to take turns bailing water out with a bucket. This we had to do for miles until we reached Aberdeen, which was extremely relentless and tiring. Relieved, we entered Aberdeen docks, moored up and bailed the water out. The engineers arrived and replaced the broken bracket on the prop shaft.
Meanwhile, I discovered that the wires to the automatic pump had snapped, due to the prop shaft bouncing on them, so I repaired the wiring and the pump started working again. Alex said there was far too much water coming in and so he had a good look below deck to find that the stem had split and water was pouring in from there. He went to the chandler’s and bought the necessary to do a repair, along with a manual pump – just in case! With Liberty in the water Alex could only do a temporary repair. This completed, he decided we should sail on to Montrose, where the harbour dried out at low tide, to do a proper repair in the morning.
Donald Gregg, who was our eyes on the road, was in his camper van and met up with us at Montrose harbour, where we went out for a Chinese and a beer or three before sleeping in the camper. Saturday morning Donald rustled up some breakfast while I watched/helped Alex repair Liberty’s stem (the centre post on the bow/front of the boat). Repairs done, breakfast eaten, we just had to wait until the tide came in to float us off the harbour bed. We did not have to wait long, and Alex and I were soon heading out to sea again, while Donald set off in his camper van.
We had a very pleasant and sunny sail down to Arbroath, arriving mid morning to a massive cheer from the crowds. The wind being light and in the right direction, and thanks to Alex’s skill we entered the harbour under full sail, dropping it at the last moment and coming to a stop alongside the Reaper, receiving another big cheer from the admiring crowd – just magic.
Saturday and Sunday night were spent on board Reaper and Alex sailed Liberty back to Portsoy on Monday morning, assisted by Brian Clifton. They had good sailing conditions all the way and made the journey in one day. The bailing out, the need for repairs, and the overnight stays had changed this simple long pleasant trip into a real adventure. Despite all that, Alex and I were grinning for a long time afterwards.
In 2006, the Banffshire partnership helped towards the cost of a new engine for Liberty. Alas, a few years later, when Liberty was put back into the harbour after her winter storage, as the tide came in Liberty failed to float. She filled with water and was submerged, causing too much damage to contemplate an expensive rebuild. She was taken out of the harbour and then sat slowly decaying.
Thanks to Macduff Shipyards, Liberty’s engine was removed, rebuild, then fitted into ‘Obair Na Ghaol’ in time for taking her to the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee pageant on the Thames last year. Obair Na Ghoal, a replica of the 1908 Skaffie ‘Gratitude’ of Portknockie, was built by Alex Slater and Sinclair Young.
Now, thanks to the Portsoy Past & Present Community Group, Liberty has been given a new lease of life. The group has managed to get funding to create a community garden near the old harbour, where she will be used as the centre piece of the garden display.
What will the garden be called? Liberty Garden, of course! And what a lovely end it will be for this grand old Lady of the Sea.
the pride of portsoy for Liberty, Obair Na Ghaol and Soy Quine