It was a laugh when we started. Mike and I really didn’t know what we were doing. When you’re going for flounders you’ve got to set the net pretty low, and every now and again you get five tons of muck instead of any fish, or you might find some fish but you’ve got to hose them out. Neither of us could mend the net, not in a hurry anyhow. We blundered on like this for three months. One night, it was about 11 o’clock, we were still out in the bay there, with the lights on, hosing mud out of a trawl. When you’ve got a heap of mud in a trawl, you can’t get the whole net in because of the weight, so you’ve got to put a strop round it, lift a bit up, empty that, then put another strop on, and get that bit out, and so on. It’s called fleeting up, and you’ve got to do that about five times to get it all on board. It’s a lot of work. We were struggling again.
We saw some lights coming towards the boat. This boat pulls up. I love them at night. This was the romantic part of fishing: yellow oilskins on the crew, orange floats, painted boat, orange netting, kauri deck, absolutely dark, but where the wheelhouse is there’s a port light on. It pulls up pretty close to us, a voice comes across from the wheelhouse: “I can’t bear watching you two stupid bastards going broke any longer!” It was Jack Flowers. He was a great old bugger. Old Jack smoked like a chimney, like most of us. We used to call his boat “Nicotine.” She was actually the Nicolene.
“What the hell are you doing there?” he asked, and I replied, “We’re trying to mend this net.”
“Have you had any tea?” “Urn, no.”
He said, “Look, I’ll meet you behind the islands over there in half an hour. Come and have tea with us. In the meantime John here will give you a hand with the net.”
The next thing there’s a huge puff of black smoke, the boat swings around and puts its stern within six inches of ours, and John, his crew, steps on to us as if he’s walking down High Street. He just laughs at this hole we’ve been making with a whole lot of five-legged meshes. He gets his knife and cuts away our mess—about an hour’s work—gets a knitting needle and it’s all done in five minutes. We get in behind the islands and old Jack, out of a tiny little gas stove, brings out meat, gravy, three vegies and roast potatoes. I sat down at this meal and thought, I’ll never keep up with these guys! They can build boats, slaughter a pig on the beach, cook a fabulous tea, work a radio, navigate as well as catch fish. It was really quite daunting.
I’d been hearing rumours of the bonanza happening at the Chathams, but I was too naive and inexperienced to even consider it, so we bumbled on trawling for about a year and a half,going broke. Then Eric turned up. He had emigrated from Denmark with his wife. I had worked in Denmark and could speak a bit of Danish, so I made it my business to talk to him. He went over to the Chathams on a plane to do his own research. He came back and said, “Hey, Richard. They’re making money like water over there. You must go.” I was too chicken. I couldn’t face the risk. But I knew he was right.
Then the boat’s engine flew to bits, which really forced my hand. I realised I’d completed primary school in the Bay, and if I was ever to hold my head up as a real fisherman, as opposed to a Nelson puddle-jumper, I was going to have to do something. I said to Mike, “I think we’ll go to the Chathams. We need the money.”
Mike said, “What do you know about crayfishing?”
“A lot. I’ve been lobster fishing in England, and that’s exactly the same.”
When I’d bought the boat I’d got 20 cray pots thrown in. I said, “We’ll go down to the Sounds and have a practice run with those old pots we’ve got.” So we loaded up some bait and the pots and headed out.
We found a spot. The sounder showed a few rocks on the bottom. I said to Mike, “Right. Get that pot ready and put some bait in it.”
I jiggled about, looking at the sounder, and I said, “Right, chuck it over!”
Mike slung it over the side, the rope went whizzing after it, and over went the float. We were both watching. The float went glug, glug, glug and disappeared. We never saw it again. That was the first pot we’d ever set. I hadn’t worked out how much rope we needed. Mike looked at me in disgust and said, “I thought you knew about this!”
We spent five days down there and never caught a single cray. I said, “Well, now we know what we’re doing we’ll go to the Chathams.”
We spent a lot of money getting the boat in top order. We couldn’t afford to break down over there, because there were no real repair facilities. When we first got over, everybody was waiting for the run to start, but we couldn’t afford to wait, we had to get started. We put our pots out around the bottom end at a place called Cape L’Eveque. We were down there and had the radio on 2045, which was the frequency they used, and I heard, “Mayday! Mayday! Mayday! This is the Seaway, Seaway. The main engine has stopped, we’ve got a lot of water in the engine room. We can’t start the auxiliaries to run the pumps and we’re drifting on to the Mum Murus.”
I knew the Mum Murus were a nasty lot of reefs off Pitt Island, so they were about 12 miles away from us. I thought, “Oh, bugger, what do I do now?” I thought, “I’ll keep quiet for a minute and see if anybody else answers.” Then this voice comes on the air: “Tell us where your pots are before you sink, John!” I mean, that’s fishing. The humour was just wonderful. We were all dependent on each other.
We did two seasons at the Chathams. Sometimes, in quiet weather, we’d set a pot in the middle of a bay with rocks all around. We’d come down the next day and fmd the weather was much worse and the bay had turned into a lavatory pan. In the middle you could see our little orange buoy. I’d say, “Oh, we’ll give that one a miss, Mike. We’ll go on and do the others.” On the way back, this pot would needle me. We didn’t need the money, but leaving it would haunt me. I’d say to Mike, “We’ll give it a go.” I’d turn round and face the sea and I’d back down and a breaker would break just underneath us. Mike would be on the stern deck with the grappling hook. All he’d have to do was throw it across between the two floats, pull the rope in, and once he’d got it over the snatch block and two turns over the capstan, I could give her 180 horsepower and tow the whole lot out just as we were riding up on a big breaker. Of course, there’d be bugger all in the pot, but it was a real thrill.
On one occasion we were in Port Hutt and ready to come back to New Zealand, but we couldn’t come back on our own, because at that stage I didn’t have a deep-sea ticket. There were a pack of cowboys on a boat called the Picton anchored in the same bay. It was a big wooden coaster and had been at the Chathams for six of the golden years. It had a crew of six, who were shareholders. They had so many parties they hardly bothered to go fishing.
I heard they were going back to Wellington, so I rowed over in the dinghy. As I got closer, I could hear a party going on. I climbed on board and asked if the owner, Joe Gilroy, was there. They said, “Oh yeah, he’s in the wheelhouse.” He leaned out and I said, “I hear you’re going back to New Zealand tomorrow. Can we come with you?” He said, “Yeah, yeah, that’s okay, Richard. I’ll let you know. It’ll depend on the weather.”
The next morning I heard the forecast: blowing hard from the south-west. I said to Mike, “They won’t be going today. We can lie in a bit.” He said, “They are, you know!” We looked out the wheelhouse, and there was somebody cranking the anchor up. I’ll never forget it. She came snorting by us and Joe leaned out the wheelhouse. He said, “Are you ready boys? Follow the bottles!”
It’s about 400 miles across. We got to Cape Palliser in a couple of days, and Joe called up on the radio, “Are you all right, boys? Can you find your way home?”
I said, “Yes, Joe. I think we can. Thanks very much. What do I owe you?”
He said, “We’ll meet up for a drink sometime.”
I made sure I never met up with that lot again. They’d cost you a fortune.
It’s wonderful to have a dream. A dream is essential for your life. I was a romantic about fishing. To me it was about wonderful colour, freedom and family boats. It was only that that kept me going with what cynics might call a floating butcher shop and a bloody uncomfortable one at that. It’s about the wavelengths of your life. Waves of great joy and sadness. You don’t know the meaning of a haven until you’ve been frightened out at sea, or what a good meal is if you haven’t been hungry. Fishing was like that. In the end I probably didn’t make any more money than if I’d being doing something else, but it came in great gulps and then there was a disaster, and it went on like that.
On the farm the worrying was an annual thing; with fishing I felt much more alive. To my mind there is no comparison.
I know I was frightened of the sea; I still am. It’s like a high cliff. You have to go and look over the edge. You’re scared stiff of the drop but you can’t help looking over I think that’s how I felt about the sea. Having had some experience with it now I’m still frightened by it but in a different way. I know how to deal with it and what I should be doing. I’ve seen seas that were embarrassing to say the least for a 120-foot line boat, and while I was sitting in the wheelhouse wondering if I’ve done everything possible, I’m thinking, “There’s only one word for this and that’s magnificent!”