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Features / Former harbour man will be ‘sadly missed’

Jim Dickson recharging his Nissan Leaf in Lerwick, in March 2013. Photo: Hans J Marter/ Shetland News

FORMER SIC harbourmaster Jim Dickson MBE, who was winched onto the Braer oil tanker before it crashed onto the rocks in 1993, has died suddenly at the age of 69.

He was heavily involved during the busiest period in the local authority’s harbour operation at Sullom Voe, beginning work there in 1980 in the marine operations department as a pollution control officer.

Dickson went on to become general manager, harbourmaster and pilot master, taking over the reins from Captain George Sutherland in 2003 before retiring in 2008.

After visiting Whalsay regularly from an early age to spend time with relatives, he moved to Shetland in the mid 1960s, and married Ollaberry woman Peggy Duncan. They had two children, son Sean and daughter Lauri, before he was widowed in 1996.

Dickson died suddenly on Saturday morning and is survived by his partner Ingirid Eunson as well as his son and daughter and grandchildren Steven and Sara.

Sutherland paid warm tribute to Dickson, saying he was not only a former colleague but also a neighbour and a good friend who would be “sadly missed”.

“He was a very sound professional and a man who had an excellent reputation,” he said. “He was extremely good at what he did, and a pleasure to work alongside. We had many good times together – I shall miss him.”

Dickson began his 28-year stint with the SIC at the start of the eighties having trained at Leith Nautical College before going to sea with BP as an apprentice cadet. He then completed a maritime studies course which led him into shoreside administration.

Sutherland recalls first coming across Dickson when he was working at Hudson’s offshore service base in Sandwick.

“In due course he came to work with us… we worked more or less side-by-side, and he worked for me from 1986 onwards,” he said.

“He was a true and valued colleague, a safe pair of hands, always to be relied upon. And he became, in due course, probably one of the world’s top five anti-pollution control people, and was recognised internationally for his ability and expertise.”

Dickson did “an enormous amount to secure the environmental protection of Sullom Voe” at a time when the terminal was processing around two million barrels of oil a day (the volume today is a fraction of that).

“It was a time when there were too many careless mishaps with big ships, lots of accidents and oil spills worldwide,” Sutherland reflects. “We were on top of the game, managed pretty much to keep it clean – due in no small measure to Jim’s knowledge, expertise and effort.”

The Braer came to rest at Garths Ness. Photo: Malcolm Younger/Millgaet Media

In January 1993 one of those careless mishaps did occur when the Braer oil tanker ran aground near Quendale in stormy weather.

While it was many miles outwith the port’s ambit, Dickson volunteered – accompanied by two Sullom Voe pilots – to go with the coastguard search and rescue helicopter.

He was winched onto the stern of the ship in the hope of dropping the anchors, but with the sea swell breaking over the Braer’s upper deck it was not possible.

Dickson told The Shetland Times when he retired nine years ago that it had been “a strange feeling being on board. I went on the bridge, there was nobody there and the radio was squawking away.”

As they attempted to attach a messenger rope they felt a bang and realised the tanker, laden with 80,000 barrels of crude oil, had come ashore and they were swiftly hoisted to safety.

“The ship took to ground, the helicopter lifted them off,” Sutherland said. “As a result of that, Jim was awarded an MBE, and I think it was richly deserved for all the efforts.”

The pair were closely involved in managing the marine response afterwards – it was “something we’d been preparing for years, so when it came you just got on with it”, Sutherland said.

When he retired the Sella Ness operation was in the midst of restructuring, with responsibility for ferries being returned to the local authority’s infrastructure department. That left Dickson to take over the ports and harbours operation, and Sutherland said he was “clearly the right man and a safe pair of hands to pass it onto”.

Dickson lived just a few hundred yards from Sutherland, who said the pair regularly bumped into each other on the road and at the Delting marina where they both had boats.

He spent his retirement pursuing his interest in renewable energy, installing a small wind turbine next to his house, and had an electric car “before almost anybody else did”.

He also ran his own wildlife watching and sea-angling company, Shetland Marine Charters, which offered boat trips from the marina in Brae.

Those pastimes formed part of “his continuing interest in protecting the environment, as well as it making economic sense”.

Another former colleague, North Mainland councillor Alastair Cooper, described Dickson’s death as “very sad news”.

“Jim was a very good officer, very committed to his work,” he said. “The one thing with Jim was, if you wanted something done, he was a good organiser. He had a lot of good qualities.”