A “dreadful gale” came upon the northeast coast on 1st January 1844, catching the local fishing community by surprise. Fortunately there was no loss of lives during this storm but there were many lucky escapes, including the rescue of all the crews from nine Aberdeen fishing boats which ultimately sank in the storm.
As far as the boats from Findon, Portlethen and Downies were concerned; some of those had very lucky and adventurous escapes during this storm. The boats from the local ports left the shore on New Years Day morning and became caught in the storm at a distance of about twelve miles off land. All, except five, of these local boats were able to make land at various points along the coast but word soon spread to the villages that there were five boats from the area missing and so followed an anxious wait of 24 hours, without any news, for families and friends of the crews.
The crews of the missing boats were vainly struggling to reach the sanctuary of Stonehaven harbour when aid arrived in the form of the vessel Thetis of Dundee which appeared on the scene, Captain Aitken and his crew managed to rescue the bedraggled fishermen and soon had them all onboard. Attempts were made to rescue the small boats themselves and they were taken in tow but due to the violence of the gale they broke from their fastenings and soon thereafter “stove in” and sank.
The rescued men were landed in Arbroath, where they received hospitality and kind attention from the local people. The crews warmly expressed their thanks to Captain Aitken, to the authorities in Bervie and Montrose, and also to the authorities and people of Arbroath for the way that they were treated during and after their rescue. Word spread to Findon, Portlethen and Downies the following day that their men were safe and well and would soon return home.
The account of the rescue of the crews from the nine Aberdeen boats that ultimately sank is more detailed and dramatic, and since that rescue occurred off the coast at Findon Ness I can include and record this as a “local” account. In reference to these boats I’ll quote directly from The Aberdeen Journal:
“The poor unfortunate fishermen, after struggling for hours against the tempest, lost all hope of outliving it. Their boats were fast filling with water, and becoming entirely unmanageable; and, even had there been any possibility of working them, the poor men, with a few exceptions, were unable to stir themselves – they had become completely exhausted and so benumbed with the piercing cold, as to be incapable of handling their oars. Death, in two forms, was staring them in the face, certain in the one or other. There was help at hand, however, when least expected. The Greyhound cutter, on this station, commanded by Lieutenant Dooley, while running before the wind, came on sight of the boats, about eleven o’clock, off Findonness, and bore up to them.
The great difficulty consisted in taking the men from their frail crafts. Some of them were old and feeble, and in such a state, from wet and exposure, that made it necessary, as seamen say, to “parbuncle” them; whilst the storm had risen to such a height, that the mainsail of the cutter was carried away, and her work of mercy, in some measure, retarded. A trysail, was, however, soon hoisted in its place, and, after an hour or two, the whole of the poor men were stowed away in warm berths or dry clothing, and all their wants most kindly attended to by the warm hearted commander and his gallant crew. Nor did their endeavours cease with the preservation of the lives of the fishermen; every attempt was made to save their property likewise. The boats were all made fast astern by a five inch hawser, but the increasing storm dashed them one against another, stove them in, and soon rendered it necessary to cut them adrift. The cutter then made for the Frith of Forth, and the whole of the fishermen were landed at Leith, on Tuesday morning.
The vicinity of a vessel of this class to the boats, in their unfortunate condition, was most providential. A trader, even had such been at hand, would have availed but little. Even had all been got on board – which would have been very doubtful – many must have perished through cold, from the want of those necessaries to their restoration which abound in a roomy, well-furnished government vessel. Lieutenant Dooley most attentively took the earliest opportunity of communicating to Provost Blaikie the welcome intelligence that the poor fishermen were all safe.
To Lieutenant Dooley the highest praise is due, for his prompt and humane exertions which, under Providence, were the means of saving so many lives, and thus preventing widespread domestic calamity”.
There is a footnote to this story. A suggestion was made that barometers should be made available and put on public display in a prominent position within the fishing villages. All parties would then have it within their own power to observe the “rise and fall of the glass” before making a decision whether to put to sea or not. Barometers were generally accurate and reliable and were already being consistently used by the farming community.
This suggestion must have been seen as a good idea because barometers were put in place. In the villages of Portlethen and Downies there were barometers that were in position for public viewing until recent times. The barometer in Downies disappeared sometime in the 1960’s but the one in Portlethen village still exists today although it is now walled off and is within the grounds of a current villager’s private residence.