Naval man on active service at Mururoa Atoll's nuclear testing site key figure in city's Anzac commemorations


Ski Wisnesky left the navy as a chief petty officer, now as a landlubber he's ranked commander.

How could this possibly be? On the cusp of Anzac Day Our People made it our mission to find out, our interest sparked by this man's presence centre stage at every military occasion within this district.

In his Persil white naval uniform, impressive row of medals, golden shoulder epaulets and braid across his cap, he's an impressive military figure.

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Last Anzac Day he led the parade, this Thursday he'll be the mayor's civic service escort which makes it timely to get to the bottom of how he made this quantum leap from a below decks non-commissioned officer to commander.

Ski's happy to unravel the conundrum. He'd been "decommissioned" several years, and a member of the ex Navalmen's Association when he was invited to replace Rotorua's official regional naval representative who'd died suddenly.

"I asked 'would I get paid?', the answer was 'no' but that the position came with the honorary rank of lieutenant commander [he's since gone up a notch]. I'm not big on ranks, they come with the territory, the navy was good to me, I felt this was a way of paying back."

The role means he represents the Senior Service at military and civic occasions, with the additional role of mentoring youngsters who could be future naval material.

"It's wonderful, guiding them about the values, discipline, the structure military life gives you."

That part of his naval persona's not a million nautical miles away from his day job. Ski Wisnesky's been WINZ's Rotorua-based regional director for 18 years.

We're calling him Ski because everyone else does. His given name, Keith, is virtually lost in the mists of time, vanishing when as a 16-year-old from Kurow, the South Island town Richie McCaw put on the map, he signed on to become a sailor.

"I don't exactly know why I chose the navy but as a kid I used to go out on Oamaru port's dredges, it was fascinating so I guess that had something to do with it."

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And that name abbreviation?

"Everyone in the navy gets a nickname, Ski's traditional for anyone with a ski in their name."

This Ski's paternal antecedents were Polish, he's a fourth generation New Zealander.

Once enlisted he joined the navy's electrical training school, the first three months spent at boot camp copping his share of punishment.

"I was lippy, mouthy. That was soon knocked out of me by being made to carry buckets of water and sand uphill, things that taught character development, team building."

His first sea-going deployment was in HMNZS Otago's engine room.

It was at the height of the Malaya confrontations with communist insurgents.

"We were on night patrols, intercepting junks between Indonesia and Malaya."

Otago sailed on to support the Ghurkhas in Borneo.

"I was just an able seaman, I wasn't academic, didn't get School Cert, tried again in the navy, missed again."

After stretches ashore in maintenance workshops he was back at sea on the brand new HMNZS Canterbury heading for Mururoa Atoll, France's Pacific nuclear testing site.

He's low key about being part of a historical event that was under intense international scrutiny and the protests it generated.

"What impressed me were these small yachts the protesters were in - their sheer guts."

And, yes, he did see a bomb detonated, "I've got photographs of it somewhere".

"Despite all the protective gear the 500 New Zealand naval men were wearing, half are now dead [from suspected radiation exposure], so far I've escaped any side effects, touch wood."

By the time of his Mururoa deployment he was married and a father.

"When I was about 8, I went to a Māori concert, we didn't have many Māori where I came from, I told my father I was going to marry a Māori girl. I did."

While based ashore he took on a hodge-podge of additional income earners, walking 45 minutes to one as a barman "rain or shine, I tell young people 'God gave you legs, use them' ... people say I'm a workaholic".

We'll pick up that thread later.

In 1979 he dropped anchor in Singapore, seconded to New Zealand Defence HQ, a posting where his family came too.

"My wife hadn't wanted to go, when we left she didn't want to leave. She loved it especially the shopping. She came home with 31 pairs of shoes."

For two years he was O/C housing, working across Singapore, Penang and Kuala Lumpur.

"Houses came fully equipped down to the house girl, gardener and a dog."

By the time he was back on the ocean the Falklands war was in full cry.

New Zealand naval vessels were supporting the British but at a distance, patrolling the Indian Ocean off Tanzania, Kenya, Zanzibar.

Berthed at Mombasa Ski and seven mates hired a van heading for a game park.

"We were living on beer, Christmas cake and sandwiches, 500 miles form Mombasa we'd almost run out of petrol, couldn't get any because the pumps had been attacked, we were in Maasi territory, had to go to the governor's office to get a chit for only 20 litres."

The adventure which followed would fill a Boys' Own omnibus, culminating with the Kiwi sailor boys locked into a game reserve.

"Our van was so packed one guy slept on the roof, we woke to see we were surrounded by elephants. It was just 'oh my God', absolutely amazing."

On the home front his wife and children moved to Rotorua, he joined them when, after 22 years active service, his discharge papers were signed.

"I was driven by the notion once I passed 40 it would be hard to get a civilian job."

It's from here on in his workaholic reputation was cemented. He coupled his Labour Department job, initially overseeing PEP work schemes, with hotel and motel night work and as a periodic detention weekend warden, existing on minimal sleep.

Ski had a goal, he wanted a farm, buying and developing his first in 1992, others followed.

He and his present partner, Gloria Wilson, now own two, breeding herefords. He combines farming with his WINZ leadership.

All of which is a long way from our initial Anzac Day starting point. We return Ski to its continuing significance.

"It's the day we think about the sacrifices our forebears made, I think about my railwayman father working on trains in Egypt when an engine was hit by a bomb; the sheer number of New Zealanders who served overseas and didn't return, they're the people we remember."

SKI (KEITH) WISNESKY
Born: Kurow, 1946

Education: Kurow, Oamaru South School, Waitaki Boys' High

Family: Partner Gloria Wilson. "We have a beautiful blended family, Māori and Pākehā."

Interests: "Whānau, farming. I go out in before dawn feeding calves, nature's beside me, it's another world." Work, naval appointment, mentoring young people.

On his Anzac Day role: "I'm proud to be representing the navy, it taught me so much."

On his life: "It's been awesome."

On Rotorua: "There's so much variety, culture here."

Personal philosophy: "If you can work, you should."