When the boat comes in

By Alan Perrott

Military-like precision and black humour make up for the Coastguard’s no-fishing rules

Coastguard crew members Elliot Brown, James Turner, Graeme Ogg and Stephen Maisey at work on board one of the Auckland Coastguard boats. Photo / NZH
Coastguard crew members Elliot Brown, James Turner, Graeme Ogg and Stephen Maisey at work on board one of the Auckland Coastguard boats. Photo / NZH

They reckon everyone's looking at us because they think we're cops.

I'm not so sure. I think it's more that we're the only boat on the gulf without a fishing rod and, unless you're a ferry, any vessel cruising without a hook, line and sinker on board is suspicious.

As it turns out, my new shipmates from Auckland Coastguard aren't allowed to fish when they're on duty, a state that includes any moment they're either standing, lying or swaying on a Coastguard boat, night or day, at sea or in dock.

It's all about maintaining an image of diligence, which, of course, means they often end up pointing wistfully at anywhere fish may be lurking.

Well, that or practising man-overboard drills and playing Cribbage. Okay, I didn't see anyone actually playing the game but I totally spotted a board hiding under some aged mags.

Anyway, I've blagged a day-trip aboard the good ship Lion Foundation Rescue to see what these plucky volunteers get up to instead of fishing. This is the last of the rolling three-day shifts that have kept our coast and 100,000-odd boats well-guarded over high summer.

Happily, nasty winds either side of Christmas kept most of their more likely customers ashore, so skipper Graeme Ogg, 56, and his crew of Elliot Brown, 25, Stephen Maisey, 30, and James Turner, 26, are in a relaxed mood.

They began work at 6am and won't clock off until ... well, they never really do when they're at sea. Even when looking out the window they're checking for people trying to wave them down.

At least the morning's a cracker - the gulf is hard, fast and flat, and the only blurs on the horizon are from sunscreen dribbling into my eyes.

It would be the most perfect form of perfection if it weren't for the racket. Our radio is tuned into the worst talkback station in the world. It's constant radio jabber of people telling Coastguard who they are, where they are, where they're going and what they'll do when they get there.

Oh, for a little Smokey and the Bandit "10-4 good buddy" CB rubbish.

Still, it's nice for them to think someone's looking out for them and, after a few hours, I follow my crewmates' lead, stop hearing words and start listening for inflection. Any hint of urgency, panic or explosions sends our pulse rates up and sunnies down.

But there's little urgency in our first job of the day. We leave the Mechanics Bay base to rendezvous with Great Barrier Coastguard and tow a boat back to Half Moon Bay, in time for its owner to get to a funeral. Does that make it a matter of life and death?

It's an eye-opener all the same. My past experience with the Coastguard had them painted as a maritime Dads' Army, full of jolly salts looking to fill their spare time with a bit of derring-do alongside like-minded jokers.

Not any more. The modern incarnation seems headed toward the United States model of military-like precision with lashings of black humour and inappropriate comments. They train rigorously, are qualified in all manner of nautical expertise and their flagship boasts heavyweight technology.

True to his role, Ogg can bark an order Bligh-style, while the return echo from his underlings gives every indication of a well-rehearsed team.

When they're not here Ogg runs his own flexible packaging company, Brown (with a masters degree in marine biology) tests and monitors new Telecom products, Turner (with a degree in information systems) works in IT, while Malsey is a window-tinter who considers the Coastguard his unpaid career.

They all fell for the sea as young boys, and it shows. Take the drill mentioned earlier. One second we're waxing over the migratory habits of orca, the next Ogg's screaming "man overboard!" in my face.

I look for something to mop up my coffee as everyone goes to action stations. One swivels on the spot with an arm jutting in the direction we've come from as the boat turns under him, another takes the wheel while making an emergency call to base, and the third's at the stern with rescue gear while tossing a buoy over to track any drift.

It's done in seconds as Ogg sits in his Captain Kirk chair, smiling like a proud dad.

The next shout is more welcome: "dolphins!"

Now this is Coastguarding. Dozens there are, grooving alongside our bow and riding the pressure wave out the back. Glorious, so we slow to enjoy the show.

And, finally, we reach the lame-duck launch, hook her up and drag her home. The return leg is a pleasant, if interminable, journey for everyone - except the family of blue penguins we rudely woke up and a few fellow boaties.

This must be exactly like being a cop on the motorway. Some boats are almost swamped by their own wash as they slow down after spying us.

Look, people, Coastguarders are not police officers. All they can do is scowl then rescue you when your stupidity does you in.

Anyway, Lion is a big boat. Ten years old and with so many nautical miles she's been around the world twice, she has a deep hull and handling you wouldn't believe.

After dropping off our charge, one of the crew takes the wheel and, with no room at all, basically spins Lion on the spot and chugs back out to sea.

It's balletic precision on a surface moving in three dimensions.

But there's no time for any "well dones", as the wireless starts shouting. There's a broken-down boat heading for rocks under the harbour bridge.

Orders ring out and, as I find something to mop up my coffee again, the lads crank the engines up to, erm, ramming speed. The game's afoot, or awash anyway.

We arrive to find the kindly Dawn Breaker has taken the hapless runabout in tow. They're scratching their heads wondering what happened as they'd just had their engine serviced. "Happens all the time," I'm told.

Righto, it's been a long day. Not as action-packed as it might have been, but we all agree that's a good thing. People must be heeding the messages.

I'm stepping off Lion as the radio goes again - a boat on the rocks in Islington Bay. There isn't even time to shake hands as they set off, their shouts fading into the distance.

My timing is excellent, as the next day I hear their evening was full-on without much time for sleep. All hell always seems to break loose from 7.30pm, when work-weary dads head off for a quiet fish without checking fuel, sobriety or the weather. Men can be a particularly dumb breed of cattle.

Luckily, all of them that night got to fish again, even if the blokes helping them might rather have been throwing a hook over the side themselves. Just once.

- NZ Herald

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