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 and various rumours are passing round the coast as to the depths. 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
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
Your first approach here will be interesting!
There is no longer any buoyage in the approach to this harbour. They are going to install a sector light where the old lead-in lights were. It'll be a RWG based on the 313°T but we'll get further details when they are available.
As soon as you pass the Starboard pierhead execute a sharp turn to starboard to enter the inner harbour.
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 (about £22.87) for a 10m boat, see their website for 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
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 2017 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. The Reeds says there is petrol but as the garage has closed and the nearest is in Wick (the garage at Lybster is also closed, so ignore the Reeds on that as well). You can get both Gas & Gaz at the hardware shop on the main street (on the way to the fish and chipper) There was a rumour in Spring 2016 that the garage may be reopening in the next year or so it'sworth 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)
Helmsdale Community Website
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.
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.