Smooth pilot keeps Auckland safe

By Andre Hueber

Five-year-old Akarana undulates violently as she hurtles around North Head into a monster swell.

The photographer and I turn a shade of green and cling on for dear life, but Ports of Auckland senior pilot Captain David Payne stays as cool as a cucumber. For him it's just another day at the office.

"It can be very demanding but, at the same time, exciting and dynamic," he says. "There's always something going on. No one day is the same - and just take a look at the view."

Captain Payne, 46, makes this trip as often as four times a day, regardless of the weather. He's a tall, commanding man who has been steering ships in and out of the Waitemata Harbour for a decade.

All vessels heavier than 500 gross tonnes are his responsibility in the Auckland and Onehunga harbours - from ammunition ships at Kauri Point and super-yachts at the Viaduct, to giant cruise liners at Princess Wharf.

Recently, Captain Payne joined Captain John Barker as one of Auckland city's two senior pilots. It's a supervisory role which sees him responsible for a team of four pilots.

The Bucklands Beach resident grew up in a family of boat enthusiasts and spent 14 years at sea, reaching the rank of master, working in Hong Kong, Vancouver, Singapore and the UK.

He returned to New Zealand in 1994 and spent five years at the port of New Plymouth.

His skills have been honed around the world but the opportunity to work in his home port - New Zealand's largest - proved irresistible. The Auckland port operates around the clock  to ensure the city's trade flows smoothly.

The waves die down as we make our way into the Hauraki Gulf, and Captain Payne shows us one of the thousands of buoys that mark the shipping lane. Each one is solar-powered and synchronised via GPS at the Ports of Auckland building at Mechanics Bay. He points out dangerous spots - the southern corner of Bean Rock and the Bastion Point reef - and explains how the shipping channel is occasionally dredged of silt and rock from lava flows to ensure

it is deep enough.

Until the 1960s, the Hauraki Gulf was the only route out of New Zealand - and although it became less busy with the construction of Auckland International Airport, Captain Payne says there has been a revival of passenger-ship traffic in the past five years. "They've lost their mystique since the world's become smaller, but they are becoming more popular."

This season alone, we've had 92 of them. I put it to him that it's travel for the rich, but he disagrees. "There's a cruise ship for every budget and a number of commercial vessels also offer passenger berths."

He says container ships have become bigger but the biggest - up to four football fields long - wouldn't fit into Auckland.

"You can't compare Auckland to ports in New York or Southampton - they're just massive - we don't have cranes big enough to reach from one side to another."

He says shipping companies ration the size of the ships they send to New Zealand according to trade, with bigger boats during the kiwifruit and dairy season.

A small dot appears on the horizon, becoming larger as we close in on it. It's a refrigerated cargo container ship called Asian Orchid, which has spent nine days at sea, bringing bananas and pineapples from the Philippines.

Captain Payne explains how we'll board the ship by rope ladder while moving at a speed of 8 knots. "It's easier to board a running vessel; you don't get as much movement."

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I'm nervous because he's just told a story about how a ladder disintegrated while he was climbing it and he crashed onto the pilot boat almost breaking his back. The accident,  18 months ago, left him seriously bruised. An investigation found the rope ladder had been stored in a locker with corrosive chemicals.

"It was a case of poor maintenance," he says. "It was pure luck I landed on my backpack."

The photographer and I try not to look down as we make our way up and are greeted by a smiling Filipino crew. They seem pleased to see new people and have prepared egg and luncheon-sausage sandwiches especially for our visit.

"I'm the first person the ship's master sees in New Zealand," Captain Payne says. "We're the first taste of what he'll expect around the country - we like to keep it at a very high standard."

He takes us to the bridge and consults with the Japanese captain, before poring over charts and instruments. It all seems second nature to him.

"It's about being clear, concise and authoritative - and about taking control of a situation to make sure you have a positive outcome.

"I'm assessing the environmental situation, checking speed, relative motion, the course, how much leeway I've got and making sure we turn at the angles required.

"During the day I can rely on instinct but at night I have to keep a closer eye on the instruments."

After a few smooth twists and turns we're cruising past Takapuna Beach back towards the harbour.

We're met by two tugboats which push and pull the Asian Orchid into the commercial port. Captain Payne is busy communicating with pleasure craft,  tug operators and the control room to ensure everyone is in the loop.

The ship makes a perfect approach before the Captain has a brief break and does it all over again.

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- The Aucklander

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