Harbour Information

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Courtesy Flag

Flag, Red Ensign


58°06.67N 003°38.56W


AC 0115 Moray Firth; AC 1462-6 Helmsdale; C23 (Imray) Moray Firth to Fife Ness (with harbour plan of

Rules & Regulations

None known


Narrow, shallow entrance channel (buoyed). Creel markers to SW of the Harbour entrance.

Tidal Data Times & Range

HW Helmsdale is HW Wick + 0025 MHWS 4.0m MHWN 3.1m MLWN 1.5m MLWS 0.6m

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General Description

New Harbour Master Donald Sutherland (part time) 01431 821692 mob 07767 311213 VHF 13 (when manned)

Helmsdale is on the Caithness shore of the Moray Firth about halfway between Inverness and Wick, being about five or six hours from either (maybe a bit longer to Inverness when you add in Inverness Firth).  Because of this, it is an ideal place to stop if you are day hopping along the coast; it’s also about six hours to Lossiemouth.  It used to be better when they had a full time HM and the dredging of the entrance was more regular; now it is a bit iffy for a keel boat. They haven't seen a dredger here for at least ten years and it is now definitely a half tide harbour.  Keel boats will be unable to tie up on the pontoon because, although they do sink into the mud, they do not sink to their hulls but remain balanced half in and half out. They have had a silting up of the entrance to the inner harbour here; It's OK in the inbound channel but as soon as you turn to starboard for the Inner harbour there's a sand bar.  They are quoting 2 hours either side of HW for entry in with a "normal" yacht.  It's a Catch 22 situation; there aren't enough visitors to generate the funds for dredging and it gets more silty, which further reduces the visitors, and so on.

So, we have a narrow channel with up to 1m above CD depth, leading into a narrowish harbour with a pontoon which has two to three moorings for visiting boats. In strong SE winds it is, as you can imagine, not a good idea to attempt entry.

There has been a settlement here since early Christianity, through the Viking raids, continuing through the Clearances of the early 1800s to the herring boom of the second half of the nineteenth century and on to today.  The first bridge was built in the early nineteenth century, the area was developed and a village laid out to attract fishermen to settle here; mind you, due to the Clearances carried out by the landowner, Lord Sutherland, it was a case of settle here, elsewhere on the coast, or emigrate to the Colonies.

The people in this part of the world still smart about the Clearances which were carried out by the landowners (mainly English) who cleared all the inhabitants inland  out of their small dwellings and off their little crofts  to make way for the more profitable enterprise of raising of sheep in the first quarter of the nineteenth century.  This was only fifty or sixty years after the ethnic cleansing following the 1745 Jacobite rising; not a good time for the clans.

Anyway, I digress; before the herring & white fish boom there had been salmon and trout fishing in the estuary and long line fishing in the bay so when the boom did start there was a skill base to develop it. The harbour was built and opened in 1818 and that is the harbour we see today. The road bridge was built much later in the 1970s during the building of which the ruins of Helmsdale Castle were completely bulldozed; how they got away with that I don’t know but it had been a ruin for over a century so it was probably thought about time for it to go!.

There are the remains of the old harbour just beyond the bridge but don’t even think about going there; it is completely silted up and disused (apart from a couple of old clinker built dories) and the piles forming its outer walls are jagged sharks teeth waiting to puncture your hull.

Much information about the village is on their very good website and we have given a link for that; suffice it to say that it is a vibrant community, the people are hospitable and you will find ample opportunity to just sit and while away the time beside the harbour, chatting to older inhabitants about “better times”

There is a Dylan Winter Keep turning Left video of this coast; Helmsdale is at minute 22.50


There is also drone footage at  (8) Helmsdale Harbour Sutherland drone aerial video clip helmsdale00000322 - YouTube


Your first approach here will be interesting!

There is no buoyage in the approach and there is now a sector light where the old lead-in lights were. It is a RWG based on the 313°T but the old orange daylight boards are still in place as additional aids to the sector light.

As soon as you are passing the Starboard Pierhead execute a sharp turn to starboard to enter the inner harbour.  I have now emphasised this after Mark's comments below; it really is a case of "Pierhead Abeam Sir!"  "Hard a' starboard Mr Christian if you will"

Once inside the harbour, depending on how well your boat behaves at slow speed you may have to employ paddlewheel effect to turn it round to face outbound. If there is a Nor’ westerly blowing you’d probably be better to come alongside starboard side to, as that can be funnelled down the glen behind the village.

Berthing, Mooring & Anchoring

As had been said, the visitors berths are at the eastern end....

.... of the pontoon and it can get pretty shallow there at LW Springs; you’ll stay afloat with a three foot draft but anything more than that and you settle into the mud. You should take this into account when mooring because if you get blown too far off the pontoon before you settle you won’t be able to reach the shore.

The time when there was no Harbour Master has passed and now they have managed to get a part time HM, Donald Sutherland, who will charge in accordance with the Highland Council charges. He's "part time" in that he is responsible for all the wee Highland Council harbours on this coast so may be away during the day covering those.  You will find honesty envelopes as directed by a board at the pontoon gangway. The harbour dues are on a sliding scale from £15.82 for under 5m, £22.40 for 5 to 7m and £26.36 for 7 to 10m.  You'll be pushed to get anything bigger in here.

Highland Council Harbour dues web site

http://www.highland.gov.uk/downloads/file/536/harbour_dues_2013  (don't worry about the "2013" in that link - it leads to the 2022 prices)


There is shore power, but no water, on the visitors’ berths (the water is on the NW pier, though you might with judicious use of a hose get water from the sink in the shower block). The toilets are around the back of the tall building directly over the road from the pontoon access bridge. You will need the code to get into those and that is held by the harbour master; oh, and take a torch after dark because there is no lighting round there.

Diesel is available from a large tank at the end of the NW pier but if you can’t find the HM you’ll not be able to get any. There is no petrol between here and Wick.  You used to be able to get both Gas & Gaz at the hardware shop on the main street (on the way to the fish and chipper) but that has now closed. There was a rumour in Spring 2016 that the garage may be reopening in the next year or so it's worth checking.

There are also a couple of reasonably well stocked mini markets as well as a butcher, the hardware store and a Post Office (which acts as an ATM for most debit cards)

Eating, Drinking & Entertainment

As, in the days before the railway, this was on the Royal Mail Coach route to Wick it is still well endowed with pubs/hotels/restaurants as well as having an eat-in fish and chip shop.  There is a coffee shop co-located with a modern museum down by the river (which is worth a visit) and if you are of an historical bent you will find much to interest you.

Restaurants & Places to Eat in Helmsdale  - Tripadvisor

Naturally it wouldn’t be Scotland if there wasn’t a golf course and the salmon/trout fishing is said to be excellent here (but you need a licence). There is a fishing tackle shop here and Prince Charles has fished this river.


Your Ratings & Comments

Written by Don Thomson 3 | 30th Jun 2022
I reviewed these notes at the end of June 2022. As far as I can see Navionics have not updated the sector light but , be advised that the HM has maintained the old Lead-in boards. The hardware store has closed so no gas.
Written by Don Thomson 3 | 26th May 2021
I've just noticed that this years Navionics chart has not updated the information on this harbour so does not show the sector light.
Written by Don Thomson 3 | 24th May 2021
I reviewed these notes in May 2021. I've made the instructions clearer by emboldening them. It really does require a sharp turn to starboard as you pass the Pierhead. Prices have gone up a bit but nothing else has changed.
You NEED to CUT THE CORNER when turning Stb into the harbour entrance!
Written by Mark Harbour Master Sailing Challenge | 23rd Feb 2021
Sep 2020. My boat draft 1.65M. To repeat the instructions above, you need to turn sharp to Stb as soon as you pass the pier head - i.e. cut the corner into the harbour!
We came in about mid flood - about an hour too early! We stuck to mid channel and then turned to Stb once we were opposite the centre of the entrance and we touched the soft bottom. We carried on into the entrance and needed to do a 90' turn to Stb and then reverse into the visitor space Stb side to, on the inside of the wall, immediately to the West of the entrance. We just about touched the bottom at LW but it was fine.
The council HM is Donald Sutherland (07767 311213) is very friendly but not always at the harbour. Lots of people in the village will watch you enter the harbour - especially if you enter too early like we did!
Interesting history in the village and the whole way along this coast.
The RWG sector light to approach the channel from the sea is now operational, but we did not use it as we were concentrating more of centering ourselves on the mid channel by eye.
1 of 1 people found this helpful
Written by Don Thomson | 10th Apr 2018
1.) The buoys in the approach (1 X SHM and 1 X PHM) were swepped away several years ago and it is planned to replace them with a sector light

2) Depths have now reduced in the Inner Harbour Entrance to CD ie zero at LAT

3) Prices will increase for 2018; not yet promulgated.
Written by Don Thomson | 4th Apr 2017
For Mathew. Strictly speaking Helmsdale was part of the Sutherland Estates. They are now lumped together as Caithness and Sutherland and Easter Ross. Helmsdale is claimed by both the Sutherland and the Caithness websites! I'm not taking sides!!
Written by Don Thomson | 28th Mar 2017
By Don T March 2017. I've just talked to the HM here reference the buoyage outside Helmsdale. He tells me that he is still waiting for Lochinver to send a boat to replace the Red Can buoy but not only that, the Green one is now on the beach. So no buoyage outside Helmsdale
1 of 1 people found this helpful
Red Lateral MarkMissing
Written by Matthew West | 1st Jun 2016
As of at least 1st June 2016 the red lateral mark mentioned is missing. I recommend making sure you have identified the transit to enter the harbour at the green lateral mark if entering around low water as the channel is very narrow.
1 of 1 people found this helpful
Sutherland or Caithness?
Written by Matthew West | 31st May 2016
According to the local museum, Helmsdale is in Sutherland rather than Caithness.
Update Spring 2016
Written by dononshytalk | 5th Apr 2016
These notes were reviewed by Don in April 2016. They dredged a couple of years ago but it is silting up again so it's still shallow at the visitors pontoon at LWS. The prices have not yet been posted by the HC but I am told they will remain the same as last year.

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