Calder At Large

Peter Calder on life in New Zealand

Peter Calder: Giving berth to leviathan of the sea

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Captain John Barker boards a container ship, for what he says must be the 5000th time. Photo / Richard Robinson
Captain John Barker boards a container ship, for what he says must be the 5000th time. Photo / Richard Robinson

'This is bloody ridiculous," says Captain John Barker as he peers westward. I can see his point. The yachts streaming out of Westhaven for an evening round-the-buoys race are causing him a major headache.

At least half are on a course that will take them between Barker's boat and the wharf. Ordinarily, that would be no problem, but his boat is 266m long, 37m wide and the height of a seven-storey building. And he's trying to park it, stern first, up against Fergusson Wharf.

Before long, half a dozen of the yachts are seriously hemmed in, their skippers scrabbling to start motors as the towering bulk of the ship steals their wind and their sails flap limply. The ship's thrusters idle and the tugboats hold their place as the yachts scurry out of harm's way like so many chooks.

It is the most eventful moment in the berthing of the container ship Laust Maersk and Barker's annoyance is understandable. As one of nine pilots for the Ports of Auckland, he likes zero fuss and bother.

In this job, little problems can quickly turn into big problems.

A couple of hours earlier, the pilot boat Akarana takes me to the ship out beyond Rangitoto as it makes its dead-slow way towards the port.

"You've got a good day for it," says skipper Cam Wilson. "It's a bit different at 4 in the morning in a 40-knot northeasterly and you can't see the swells before you hit them."

As we come alongside the towering hulk, I am glad of the calm water. The skipper gently nudges the black rubber fender against the moving ship, and holds it in position so tight and steady that boat and ship are welded into a single apparently stationary unit.

The boiling foam in the watery V between them is a baleful reminder that we are at sea, though, not least because above it hangs the rope ladder by which I will board the ship.

I try not to consider the implications of failing to do this properly. I do not look down. Barker, by contrast, fairly scurries up - it's his 5000th time, he reckons.

High on the bridge, an eerie calm prevails. The ship's leviathan bulk means our movement is perceptible only by reference to the lane-marking buoys passing us on either side.

Barker, having shed his high-vis and lifejacket, is one well-turned-out mariner: in crisp white shirt and tailored black trousers, he looks like a man ready for the dance floor. Briskly, he plugs in and fires up his laptop, which is loaded with the latest hydrographic information. He confirms with the ship's master that the ship is drawing 10.3m; the channel depth is 11.7. An underkeel clearance of 1.4m sounds gut-churningly close to me, but I decide to take my cue from the plainly unfazed pilot.

I called it "his" ship above, though the master's command is never superseded. Barker never touches a control, but rather issues orders according to an unvarying formula. "Steer two-one-zero, please," he says, and the man on the helm replies: "Two-one-zero." As the ship locks on to that heading, the helmsman announces, "Two-one-zero," and Barker replies, "Two-one-zero, thanks." Misunderstandings could be costly, if not catastrophic.

Barker, a pilot for 17 years, explains that technically the crew could berth a ship, but international maritime agreements require the use of a pilot.

"We bring a lot of local experience, of tides and conditions," he says. "For a ship, time is money. The faster we can get it berthed, the faster they can begin unloading it and the faster it gets back to sea. Doing it efficiently is all part of making Auckland a port that shipping companies want to use."

The headless-chook yachts are out of the way now, and the Laust Maersk is pushed by one tug and pulled by another through a full 90 degrees. Barker stands on the bridge wing, using a hand-held radio to issue instructions to the tug captains and the bridge.

"This is what we call a controlled collision," he says, but it is no such thing. The 63,000-tonne ship, laden with 4500 containers, eases up to the wharf with the delicacy of a ballerina, coming to within 5cm of the tyre fenders without ever touching them. Within minutes, Barker has packed up and gone. Another ship awaits.

- NZ Herald

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