‘I looked down to the shore side and saw a sea of black oil. I said “we’re off” and we went up in a double hoist’


GENERAL manager of ports and harbours operations Jim Dickson presided over his last meeting at Sella Ness a week ago.

Sitting at the head of the polished table in the upper room in his uniform, he conducted the routine business of the harbour board. With around a dozen people and fortified by pungent coffee, he discussed the need to stabilise the Peerie Dock at Symbister, the progress of dredging in Scalloway harbour and the future uses of the terminal.

But this was no ordinary meeting for Mr Dickson. It would be his last one, chairman of the board Alastair Cooper pointed out, and he thanked Mr Dickson for his “honest and frank” contributions to harbour business and for “always being available”.

For his part, Mr Dickson said he had enjoyed every minute of his time at work. He would retire, then go New Zealand and then – he would see. Work would be a “bit of a miss”. Retirement from the place where he had spent the last 28 years, the last five in the top job, did not seem to be a prospect the fit 61-year-old was relishing.

This week Mr Dickson was back in his spacious office, complete with leather sofa, coffee table and framed photographs of ships and helicopters, recalling his career. “I’ll have to clear my desk,” he said, without enthusiasm.

Mr Dickson came to live in Shet­land in 1965, when as an 18-year-old he had moved from Falkirk. His father had been in the RAF and his mother is from Whalsay.

After training at Leith Nautical College he sailed with BP tankers for 10 years, from 1965 to 1975, based in the Isle of Grain, working his way up at sea to chief officer. A further spell of studying followed when he gained an MSc in maritime studies from Cardiff University, then spent five years working for Chevron Petroleum.

He married Peggy Duncan from Ollaberry and had two children, son Sean (who was involved in the Bourbon Dolphin rescue and is now second mate on an Australian anchor handler) and daughter Lauri, who works for the council. Mr Dickson was later widowed but now has two grandchildren, Steven and Sara. He came to Sullom Voe Terminal at the height of the oil era, starting as a pollution control and safety officer in 1980 in the Marine Opera­tions Department under Captain Bert Flett.

It had been an exciting time, however bad it had sometimes been.

The worst time was undoubtedly being winched onto the oil tanker Braer in 1993 in an un­successful attempt to attach a tow rope as the vessel was being blown to shore.

Mr Dickson had been at home in Brae that night shortly after New Year when the phone rang at 5am to tell him about the damaged tanker. Search and rescue helicopters had already taken the crew off the vessel and she was now unmanned, drifting shorewards in south-easterly hurricane-force winds.

By the time he got to the scene it was “painfully obvious” the Braer, rolling beam-end to beam-end in a 15-metre swell and pitching violently, was coming ashore. Mr Dickson, accompanied by two Sullom Voe pilots, volunteered to go with the coastguard helicopter Oscar Charlie – their plan was to winch down to the foc’sle head and attempt to drop the anchors.

Mr Dickson and helicopter winch man Friedie Manson were winched down onto the stern of ship, which was about a mile offshore by this time and “moving dramatically”.

Mr Dickson said: “It was not possible to drop anchor because it was too dangerous to try to get onto the foc’sle head, we would have been swept away, the swell was breaking over the main deck of the ship.

“Then we wanted to see if we could hitch a tow onto the offshore anchor handler Star Arcturus which was close by – she would fire a rocket line to us, we would take the rocket line and pull in a rope to attach to the stern mooring wires, then the Star Arcturus would pull the stern wires to herself and attempt to tow us into the wind.

“It was a strange feeling being on board. I went on the bridge, there was nobody there and the radio was squawking away.

Star Arcturus fired the line and it landed on top of the lifeboats. We retrieved it and took it to the poop deck – we had to heave by hand as there was no power. The Star Arcturus was attaching the messen­ger rope when suddenly – bang – we’d come ashore. We’d been so preoccupied we hadn’t realised. The mainmast was wobbling with the vibration.

“I looked down to the shore side and saw great masses of black oil, just a sea of black oil. I remembered the incident in La Coruna when spilled oil caught fire. I said to Friedie ‘we’re off’ and we went up in a double hoist.

“As well as the oil the ship had 4,000 tonnes of bunkers. I expected it to go solid like boot polish.”

High profile missions such as these are unlikely to be carried out personally by Mr Dickson’s suc­cessor as the MCA now has its own emergency response tug based in Shetland waters.

Apart from that, the job description is changing. For the last five years, since he took over the helm at ports and harbours from Captain George Sutherland, Mr Dickson (like his predecessors) has had three jobs – general manager, harbour master and pilot master – and has reported directly to the chief executive.

This will be streamlined into the combined role of harbour master and pilot master under the wing of the council’s infrastructure services, coincidentally just as a new boss starts in that department.

This “big change”, said Mr Dickson, reflected the changing level of activity in the harbour, which has decreased markedly from the time he started work.

Surveying the harbour from the north-west facing window of his office with “the best view of Sullom Voe”, it was, he said, a much quieter place nowadays.

In 1980 activity was on the increase and from the middle to the end of the decade Sullom Voe Terminal was at its height, with around 800 ships passing through per year.

As pollution control and safety officer Mr Dickson would go out twice a day on pollution aircraft, often with the late Malcolm Bray, taking photos of the tankers and gas carriers – four at the jetties and as many as 10 waiting in the harbour to load – as well as checking ships arriving and leaving the harbour for signs of pollution.

He was very familiar with tankers from his time with BP and knew the problems – tankers would sometimes dump dirty ballast, forming tar balls on the nearby beach, or there could be cargo overflows when loading. Then there was the problem with the segregated ballast system, where ballast pipe lines passed through full cargo tanks and could result in some oil being sucked into the ballast line and discharged into the harbour.

(This does not happen any more thanks to double hulled tankers, the only type of tanker allowed at Sullom Voe, where ballast is kept in the two-metre gap between hulls.) In the last four years aerial surveillance has stopped too and monitoring is done electronically, and ships do not carry dirty ballast any more. Cargo overflows do not happen now as tankers are loaded at a slower rate.

Those busy days were exciting, he said, when “everyone realised how important it [the oil industry] was”. Lots of money was being made for the reserve fund – last year, he said, it was only £4.3 million, while in the “good old days” it was four or five times as much.

Then, throughput of oil ran at 1.2m barrels per day and Brent and Ninian oils were separated – now the two oils from the east of Shetland are combined into Brent blend and “we’re lucky to see 200,000 barrels a day”.

The port will never again be as busy, he said. Tanker numbers had dropped, with the present rate of 200 tankers per year being considered good, and there had been a decrease in staff as well. Then there were 36 pilots, now there are 11, and 150 people were employed at ports and harbours whereas now there are only 92 (both figures excluding towage).

Although the number of ships had fallen the port still had to operate 24 hours a day, he said, and that was a “big problem”. Less money was coming in but the terminal’s costs had to be covered – meaning that harbour dues, worked out by gross tonnage per vessel, had to be passed on to ship owners.

And it could only get quieter, said Mr Dickson, as less oil was coming ashore. East of Shetland oil was decreasing steadily (although he was confident it would last another 15 years) and although Schiehallion and Clair, both west of Shetland, produced around 80,000 barrels and 40,000 barrels per day respectively, these were relatively small fields.

Great store was being placed on west of Shetland oil and gas and the hope was that an onshore “hub” for processing gas would be built at Sullom Voe. The only major new oil find so far west of Shetland had been Chevron’s Rosebank, and there was no guarantee it would come through Sullom Voe. And possible gas from Total’s Laggan field would “do nothing for the harbour”, although it would be good for Sullom Voe. The wet gas could be pumped ashore, have the condensate knocked out of it and the dry gas then be pumped to St Fergus.

The next two or three years would have to see a “major change” in the way the harbour was financed and operated.

Mr Dickson said: “If we continue as we are we will make a loss.” Talks with the oil industry started a couple of years ago, but had not, he said ruefully, resulted in anything “meaningful”.

But he had great times to look back on. One of them was seeing the first Schiehallion crude come ashore, and there was likely to be an upsurge in ship-to-ship transfers, starting at the end of the month.

But there was no denying oil was running out. “It’s only a matter of time until Shetland won’t have oil – that’s why I’m very keen on windmills, it could replace the oil industry and I wouldn’t mind if the Lang Kames were covered with them.”

Most of all he said he was pleased, during his time in the top job, that he had maintained a “safe and profitable operation”.

Safety had always been a priority at the terminal since the outset and had been reinforced when the Esso Bernicia collided with a jetty in 1979. We were lucky to have SOTEAG, he said, the Sullom Voe environmental association funded by Brent, Ninian and the council and reporting to the Sullom Voe Associ­ation, which had baseline data from the time when the terminal had been a greenfield site.

Safety was ensured too by the fact that all ships visiting the port had to be vetted under the SIRE (ship inspection and reporting ex­change) system, endorsed by all major oil companies, which “sorted out the baddies”.

He was also proud, he said, of having built new harbours around Shetland in his capacity as harbour­master of all the isles’ minor piers, including Scalloway. The next, he hoped, would be Walls.

Mr Dickson’s life has been the sea and retirement is unlikely to change that. “I hope to keep my connections with the oil industry one way or another,” he said, “this [ports and harbours] is the oil industry.”

More leisure will give him time for a related interest, sea angling, and going out on his eight-metre motor cruiser/fishing boat. “And I’ll be spending more time with the grandbairns and my partner Ingirid Eunson.”

The sea, and Sullom Voe, will never be far away.


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