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Historic Fishing Boats: Focus on Isabella Fortuna recent update

1st January 1970

Recently awarded Regional Flagship status for Scotland, the Isabella Fortuna is of historic importance and is the last remaining herring fish boat of her kind. Based in Wick and lovingly cared for by the volunteers of the Boat Section of the Wick Society , she has recently undergone some major restoration work and will be attending the Portsoy Boat Festival in June to show off her fresh new look.

In this feature, we take a look back at the history of this classic Scottish ‘Fifie’ as well as some of the restoration work that has been done plus we shine a light on the important conservation work undertaken by the Wick Society.

A History of the Isabella Fortuna

Launched in September 1890 and built by James Weir of Arbroath, Isabella Fortuna was commissioned by local fisherman John Smith. She was originally named Isabella and was intended for drift-net and line fishing for herring. The vessel remained in service with the Smith family for 86 years out of Arbroath harbour.

At the time of her launch she was the largest yawl in the area with a beam of 3.96m and a length of 13.26m. Built from larch on oak, her draft is 5.6 ft with a tonnage of 11.07.

Isabella was originally powered by two big lug sails (a dipping fore lug and standing mizzen lug), a jib and five oars. However, as motorisation became available she was soon upgraded and, in 1919, a 15hp Kelvin engine was fitted.

The Smith family too were adapting to modern life and their own methods of fishing changed to , first ring net and then, seine-net fishing. As a result, greater engine power was needed and, in 1928, a Kelvin K2 44hp engine was installed. Perhaps to celebrate this, her name was changed to Fortuna; name for the Roman goddess of luck.

Not quite delivering enough in the water, it was only four years later before this was upgraded again. In 1932, Fortuna was given another upgrade with a Kelvin K4 66hp engine. The same engine continues to power the renovated Isabella Fortuna to this day (see ‘Restoration Project’, below_.

Isabella Fortuna: Restoration Works

The Smith family retired from fishing in 1976 and a local enthusiast ,Hobson Rankin, purchased the boat from them. Attracted by her fine lines and her immaculate condition, the Smith brothers were keen to sell the Fortuna to someone who would appreciate her heritage and maintain her to the same high-standards the family had done over the years.

Originally wanting to keep her as a traditional motor fishing boat, Rankin soon became aware of the importance of the Fortuna as he further researched her history. And so began the first stages of the boat’s ongoing restoration project.

His first task was to restore her original lug; no mean feat when you consider that the fore mast alone is 43’ long! Rankin was able to find a suitable length of timber from the St. Fort Estate in Fife who provided a Douglas Fir specifically for the Fortuna. The 30’ bowsprit and mizzen mast were both replaced with telegraph poles.

As for the sails, Rankin himself hand sewed all three from 14 oz cotton canvas giving a spread of 1,330 sq. ft of sail.

This project took four years to complete but, finally, in 1980 she was ready to take to the sea once more. To celebrate her return and to honour her heritage, she renamed the Isabella Fortuna in 1980 to incorporate her original name.

However it wasn’t until 1997 that she was purchased by the Wick Society (see ’The Wick Society (Boat Section)’, below). The organisation paid £6,000 for the vessel to the, now, co-ownership of Rankin and his associate, Michael May. In recognition of the importance of the Isabella Fortuna to the community, Rankin donated his proceeds from the sale back to the Wick Society. This allowed the volunteers to kickstart their restoration work and has helped promote Wick’s rich fishing industry heritage.

The vessel underwent her first major restoration between 1990 and 1997 work in a project headed by two directors of the Wick Society, Tony Sinclair and Malcolm Bremner. Both men continue to be involved with the project and have been driving further restoration work since the society’s acquisition of the boat some twenty-two years ago.

The continuous programme of restoration and renewal is largely manned by a team of enthusiastic local volunteers who dedicate their spare time to the Isabella Fortuna.

The boat represents an amazing opportunity for volunteers to hone the traditional skills of boat maintenance and workshops are run by local boat builders to assist in this task.

Over the last two decades, the Isabella Fortuna has benefitted from these skills in a number of renovation projects. She certainly offers a challenge with her continuous programme of work which takes up the time of a huge team of volunteers. To give you an example of exactly what is involved, this is just one season’s work detail completed by the Wick Society’s members:

  • Deck replacement and caulking
  • All new decking primed and painted on the underside
  • Hull, stringers, scuppers, commons, hatches, waterline, bottom (anti-fouling) yellow line & deck (anti slip paint)
  • Bilge alarms and all 3 bilge pumps wiring checked and updated
  • Bilges cleaned
  • Lighting batteries relocated in new glass fibre box, all cables adjusted to suit
  • Engine room all cleaned and spares checked out
  • New storage containers and all spare oil and cleaners stowed away.
  • Engine checked, seacocks, stern gland, hydraulic steering checked and greased, oil level checked
  • New storage area at fore end of engine completed
  • Alternator checked and belts adjusted
  • Starter checked, thermo start heaters checked
  • Batteries checked for water level and all terminals greased
  • Hull inside the engine area all coated with bitumen paint
  • Toilet checked, both inlet and outlet checked and greased (in OFF position)
  • New rigging storage area aft in engine room
  • Forepeak and part of the hold area all cleaned out

Part routine maintenance and part ongoing upkeep and restoration this work is in addition to keeping up with the modern safety measures to which the Isabella Fortuna must comply.

Isabella Fortuna: The Present

Normally berthed in Wick Harbour, she is a popular sight for fishing and boat enthusiasts and is a frequent visitor to local boat festivals and other sea-based events. She is also no stranger to the limelight and provides a popular photo opportunity for tourists as well as appearing on television. She has featured on the BBC’s Songs of Praise when it was filmed at Caithness in 2005 as well as on Grampian TV News and BBC’s Reporting Scotland as a lead news item.

She has also been immortalised in another of Scotland’s iconic cultural output; as a malt Whisky. The WK499 distilled by Old Pultenay is named for the Isabella Fortuna’s registration number and even features an image of her on the label.

During the winter, she is taken to an old Lifeboat shed Salmon Rock at Shaltigoe on the South shore of Wick bay where she undergoes her annual maintenance and the team can start the next stage of her regular restoration works.

As the last Fifie, the Isabella Fortuna plays an important role in promoting the history of boat-building and the fishing industry plus celebrating the unique heritage that communities like Wick have.

A part of this role is in attending public events and festivals and she is no stranger to the waters, taking to the seas on various leisure voyages as well as accompanying flotillas. She even returned to Arbroath for her 100th birthday and was joined by another restored veteran of the industry, Reaper; a 72’ Fifie.

Regional Flagship Status

This year, the Isabella Fortuna was awarded Regional Flagship status by the official voice for historic vessels, National Historic Ships UK.

The award is given to those vessels that are operational and which promote their own profile by attending public events, either locally or nationally. As a result, she will proudly be sporting a Broad Pennant when she visits this years Traditional Scottish Boat Festival at Portsoy in June. The Wick Society has also been granted £250 to be spent on some of her ongoing restoration work.

The Wick Society (Boat Section)

Now a limited company with its own board of directors and committee, the Wick Society (Boat Section) is responsible for the running of all vessels belonging to the museum as well as the Herring Mart and Lifeboat Shed.

Staffed by a team of permanent directors and a board of volunteer members, the team take enormous pleasure from their role with the Isabella Fortuna.

Likewise, the larger Wick community also provide an enormous amount of support to the project and companies & individuals as far reaching as engineers, builders, marine equipment suppliers, industrial machinists and other contractors have all donated their time and/or materials free of charge.

Without the generosity of the community, the Isabella Fortuna would not be able to pull her sleek black hull and impressive brown canvas sails through the water to delight the locals and tourists. So, from FAFB, we would like to say, a huge thank you.

Lastly, if you would like to get involved with the project, or any of the other important work that the Wick Society undertakes, then you can contact the team to join up as a member. All kinds of skills are needed and even if you have no experience in boat restoration, there is always room in the Society for other talents.

You can find further details of how to become a member of the Wick Society via their website..

Portsoy Boat Festival

The Isabella Fortuna will be attending the 2019 Scottish Traditional Boat Festival which will be held on the weekend of 22/23 June in Portsoy. There Isabella Fortuna will join other vessels of note from the region including:

  • White Wing: A 33’ ‘Baldie’ built in 1917 and was in service until the early 1980s, mainly out of Gourdon, nr Montrose. Like the Isabella Fortuna, she has now been acquired by a museum (Scottish Fisheries Museum) to preserve her heritage and is restored by members of the Museum Boats Club.
  • Marean: Built in 1949 and in service until 2000 before being converted to sail, she is based in Dunbar and has been extensively overhauled and rerigged by her new owners.
  • Fruitful: A ‘Fifie’ Yawl built in 1955 by Millers, St Monans, she is another vessel that has been restored by the Scottish Fisheries Museum.
  • Carinella: Another ‘Fifer’, built in 1961, she was restored in 2015 and was also the handiwork of Miller of St Monans

The festival is a wonderful opportunity to catch these vessels on the water as well as to see a whole range of other classes of boat from gaff cutters to Solent class lifeboats. The event attracts around 16,000 people and offers a range of activities and entertainment such as music, craft, fine food and drink plus competitions on the open seas.

The Isabella Fortuna first took part in the Scottish Traditional Boat Festival at Portsoy in 2006 and has been a regular visitor when her continuous restoration programme allows.

You can find further details and information on how to get your tickets by visiting the Scottish Traditional Boat Festival website.

Featured images are provided courtesy of the Wick Society, or are the Author's own.

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