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Mark Longstaff – RNZN and Merchant Navy Mariner

Mark Longstaff Ships

Mark Longstaff is a mariner who has experienced the marine industry from many angles. From Sea Cadet to full time Royal New Zealand Navy Seaman, then Part Time Naval Reserve Rating and later Officer, to sailing with me around the North Island of New Zealand. Mark re-joined the Regular Force Navy as an officer, working up ships crews as part of the dreaded “Green Team” ensuring they were ready for action at sea.  Marks dedication saw him rise through the ranks to command his own ship. Then funding his own way through civilian courses like Dynamic Positioning, he moved on to the Merchant Marine and coastal Oil Tankers. Listening to Marks enthusiastic tale of his life at sea, will give you an idea of the pluses and minuses of the life of a mariner.   


LINDSAY: Today I’m interviewing Mark Longstaff. A mariner with a huge wealth of knowledge due to his diverse experience on the sea. His career path starts with the New Zealand Naval Reserve while also working as a fireman. For those wanting to work on the sea listening to Mark’s story should help you learn a bit about the options available.

Welcome to the interview Mark.

MARK: Good evening Lindsay. It’s good to hear from you again.

LINDSAY: We’ll start off the way I normally do by taking you back to where you were young. Would you be able to share with us when you first started getting interested in the sea and boats.

MARK: Well it’s taking me back quite a bit. Now being coming up 62 this year. It does go back a bit. My interest in seafaring goes back to when I was a 12 year old third former. Year nine or year seven or whatever it was. I don’t know what you call it. Anyway, about 12. We were pretty poor at the time and had no cash etcetera and living with my grandparents. I happened to walk around the corner and here was a fellow dressed in a sailor suit. What on earth are you doing in that rig “I’m a sea cadet.” “A what?” “A sea cadet” . He told me all about it and the next thing I was a sea cadet myself. Probably some of the best days mucking around on boats and doing all sorts of things. It was days before OSH (Occupational Safety and Health Service) took over and also girls took a bit of focus amongst the thing. It was a boys own type thing. We had Lyttelton Harbour had the place in Sumner Redcliffs with division there. In the old days we used to go over to Ripapa Island with our own launch and sail boats and all that over there. There was a Russian scare disappearing gun fortress. You can imagine the fun we had there and that was good. So that was the start of it.

Then jumped school at 15 before sitting school cert which wasn’t a good move really I suppose. I used to go off to school in my uniform and disappear around the corner, get changed, catch the train, go to Littleton and I started working in the dry dock over there as a labourer. I had hoped to be a chippie but some other kid got that just before me. Not long after that I ended up joining the Navy as a seaman. That was 1972. That was quite challenging for a young fellow, but all good stuff.

LINDSAY: You joined the Navy and you would’ve gone through all the basic training where they taught you to look after yourself and there was all the fitness and everything associated with that.

MARK: I was thinking about that this morning how even though I only managed to stay for about four years until my father died back in Christchurch and I went back home, the time there is still so undoubtedly etched in who I am, what I am, how I do it. It seems like just yesterday. That’s probably - and I’m not alone I know this - everybody who’s been through it. It wasn’t that I was tough it was just solid, great stuff. We met mates, we worked together as a team, you had to meet targets, fitness and timeliness and rarchiness and all those sorts of things with your mates, but seamanship aspect of it was what I really enjoyed.

Once we’d done your basic training for three months we went and did seamanship training for three months. I ended up on the old survey ship The Lauchlan which was a World War II river class frigate which was converted in the 50’s to a survey boat. That was my first experience as a full time seafarer. Very hard work with the technology of the day I must admit.

LINDSAY: Yeah. Back in those days they were still using horizontal sextant angles and what-have-you weren’t they. Good old school seamanship is a good foundations for everything else that followed I’m sure.

You left the Navy when your dad got crook and what happened next?

MARK: The first thing I did was sign up to the Naval Reserve in Christchurch which was a division called HMNZS Pegasus named after the bay where Christchurch is - Pegasus Bay. There’s four naval reserve divisions. They were the start of pre-war - World War II and provided probably most of the sailors from New Zealand at World War II. The divisions had a really long, proud history. They generally had the 72’ motor launch - harbour defence motor launch which I’m pleased to see there’s a few getting repaired up here now. In fact the one we had at Pegasus was called HMNZS Kuparu which is the Maori name for John Dory.Some guy’s watered and he’s been re-cladding the hull and everything else, I don’t know how much time and money’s gone into it I don’t know, but Paea has been done and a few other people are putting a labour of love into it. We started off with those boats and mostly heading off to around to Akaroa and things like that, but we head off at the Sounds and joined with the other boats from the other divisions. A couple of weeks in the Sounds - Marlborough Sounds that is. Fabulous place. Fabulous time for seamanship training whatever. Then I went there was a Naval Seaman and then we got hydrographers came down with their new Takapu Tarapunga which were 23 metre steel hull aluminium survey ships.

HMNZS Tarapunga

LINDSAY: A couple of my old ships.

MARK: Your old ships indeed. Gave us a bit of a start off taking us to sea now and again with those things ready for our four patrol boats that each division got. Pegasus handed back Kuparu and we ended up taking up Kiwi - HMNZS Kiwi. I would without doubt say most of the people in that division, it was the love of their life. She was so pampered and looked after. That was a pretty cool boat.

On those boats I’ve been right around New Zealand at every port including the west coast bar ports and down to the snares and up to the three kings. Everywhere. I would almost say everywhere. I really got to learn our coasts significantly. That was one of the beauties of being a reservist is that the Navy had got rid of all their boats and hadn’t really used any apart from the surveyors for many a year. They’d all focused on the big ships. The reserve got to do the inshore work. That was I find really good experience. Good navigation skills. I still think my pilot vision’s pretty well right up there with the best of them to be honest. Nowadays there’s so much electronics but my speed, time, distance and clearing bearings and wheel overs and all that are pretty damn good still. I even tried it with the tankers later on.

Yeah, so a good training ground and that was the thing that enabled us to progress to an officer's role. As well as doing the patrol boat stuff I’d make myself available when I was a fireman. I took work for people and they’d pay me back and get time to go away. In fact my wife told me the other day I had 100 days at sea as a reservist when she was home with the three babies. I was pretty keen. Paid a few bills too of course.

LINDSAY: So what you’re saying there is that the reserves wasn’t a full-time job. That’s something you did pretty much in the weekends or whenever you could get time off work. Your normal work at that time - that stage in your life was full-time fireman. Is that correct?

MARK: Yeah correct. They had a pretty good shift system of - which they still do - two days, two nights, four days off routine.

LINDSAY: So it’s a pretty flexible scheme in the fire brigade. You can take on other people’s shifts when they need time off and…

MARK; Yeah and I miss it greatly. I could do with that now I can tell you.

LINDSAY: Yeah okay. Very good.


MARK: I ended up going on Otago to Australia and getting leading seamen's tickets all sorted out there. Then commissioned as an officer in the reserve.

LINDSAY: The naval reserve also allowed you to have paid time in the Navy full-time in the Navy didn’t they?

MARK: Yes.

LINDSAY: Okay so how many weeks a year was that?

MARK: Well you’re entitled to I think it was 20 days or something, but because a lot of people didn’t do that amount of time they were able to swap time across to those who were doing the time. Some of it was a bit unofficial but we managed to do it.

LINDSAY: So long as they kept within budget I suppose.

MARK: Yeah. I’d use other people’s sea days and worked pretty hard at getting up and got my watch keeping ticket with the survey boats, and then the patrol boats of the day and then got a command after a couple of years there, so I worked pretty hard at that one too. I used to do that as a sub lieutenant when I wasn’t able to pick it up because I wasn’t a lieutenant which was the minimum rank. I got an acting lieutenancy after that and the next thing I was driving these boats.

LINDSAY: When you say, “driving these boats”, how big were the boats and…

MARK: This were these 23 metre.

LINDSAY: How long did it take you to get up to that point in your career?

MARK: Well once I was commissioned it was probably just over two and a bit years really.

LINDSAY: Okay - so pretty quick. That doesn’t come without quite a bit of study and homework.

MARK: As I was saying before I skipped school before I sat school cert so after I got my leading seaman thing and on Otago - the Frigate over to Australia, they said, “Well why don’t you commission as an officer?” and I said, “Well I can’t. I haven’t got the education.” They said, “Well why don’t you get it?” So for the next year and I must have been about 28 at that stage, I spent every single hour you could imagine doing maths because I’m still a mathematical dyslexic, but I taught myself and I would say pretty much zero. Counting on my fingers was about my limit. Seaman maths books - they were full of drawings but I had to learn up to school cert and taught myself right through and got an A+ in maths. That plus a few other bits and pieces got us the education requirements for becoming an officer. That worked well and I haven’t looked back because it’s kept me in employment right the way through.

LINDSAY: You must have really wanted that really bad to put that much effort into it.

MARK: Yeah. Same time as I was a sea cadet I remember in the library at school was the Nicholas Monsarrat- The Cruel Sea. I read that and I’ve still got a copy down below. That just really set me alight of thinking about the sea. Not so much the warfare side, but just the stories of the seafarers and the hardship and it sort of continued.

LINDSAY: It’s a common thread that a lot of people that I interview. Reading the books really inspired them to a life on the sea.

MARK: Yeah. Actually that group of books I actually now have quite a collection of that period of the battle of the Atlantic, and western approaches. I tell you - you read through that stuff and gosh they must have been good seaman. They must have been good seafarers alright, as well as brain and hard nuts.

LINDSAY: They were tough in those days. The days when men were made of steel and ships were made of wood.

I just want to take you back to the different ships that you’ve been on. Just tell us a bit about the ships themselves. What their role was and what role you had on that ship. Starting with your first ships - the naval reserve ships.

HMNZS Lauchlan

MARK: Oh they were a bit later because my first ship was Lauchlan because my first sea time was with the Navy. There I did the old survey ship Lauchlan which was full on seamanship. Because it was such an old school ship, the wheel was as big as me. Then you had to turn the Telegraph by hand and the Rev Counters by hand. The rope work required - lots of splicing, lots of block and Tackles . Even launching the sea boat was a wooden boat you had to turn out by winding handles and working the blocks and Tackles.

HMNZS Waikato

The next one was Waikato. The frigate. Waikato and became a naval seaman on board. We went up to Hawaii to RIMPAC and at the time of the Pearl Harbour fleet training group. We had four months up there through Pago Pago and based out of Pearl Harbour.

LINDSAY: RIMPAC is an exercise with other nations isn’t it? That’s where the Navy’s get together and they practice warfare.

MARK: Yeah, and the thing that amazed me even back then - I was a radar plotter and used to do my watches in the operations room where the ships basically fought from…

LINDSAY: So you were on the frigate and you did these exercises up in the South Pacific and got to see a bit of the South Pacific.

MARK: Yep and Hawaii was a good place for sailors in those days - the young fellas. The timeline was Elton John’s Yellow Brick Road and Deep Purple - Machine Head, and Ziggy Stardust, and all the big music in those days. That was pretty cool.

Anyway, back home and did a few more trips around Asia and that, and then that’s when I left, came home and joined the reserve. That’s when I got onto the old motor launch. As I say they’re being done up. Beautiful old boats - World War II launches. Harbour defence supposedly but the Navy used them for 40 years as their coastal fisheries boats. New Zealand’s… and survey, the two original Takapu and Tarapunga were those and…

LINDSAY: Mmmm, wooden boats.

MARK: So really weren’t designed for a New Zealand coast but we made them work and still do. That was good seamanship.


Then moved into the bigger 23 metre, twin engined patrol boats from there on and we moved from doing basic seamanship and fisheries patrols into mine counter measures. That was something I really sort of clicked into with enthusiasm. Mainly through - you’d know him - Charlie Morrison.

LINDSAY: Yep. Charlie.

MARK: Chief Drog and Sewell Mack and did a lot of Sidescan Sonar work and they fitted the ships out with some pretty good, sophisticated sonar gear and we used to do what they call a Q route. All the ports were surveyed - the idea being if somebody comes along and says “I’ve mined your ports” you are very vulnerable to not being able to operate that port. The last thing you want is a containership going, “Bang” and nobody will come to you and your economy is gone just like that. The time and energy required to clear it would be astronomical and you would have collapsed the supply in that time. The idea was to know what was in a particular route. We’d survey a 300 metre sway out to the 100 metre mark and a zig-zaggy route that was a secret, and know exactly what was in nearly every square metre of it. Generally go for somewhere it’s less number of objects and that was the route selection. Then you would survey it properly and because you had that database of information, every so often you’d come back to that port and do another sweep of it to make sure nothing has changed. If you did find things you’d go around and box them, try to see what it’d look like through the sidescan, but later on in my life I ended up as captain of the dive ship. We had a container we could throw a Sidescan over the back, do the same thing and then what we found, we’d either stick the remote operated vehicle - ROV down - or sends divers down and they would blow it up, clear it or do bits and pieces. You know, so we knew what was there.

LINDSAY: And they were very sensitive those Sidescan sonars. I remember they actually managed to find a whole lot of unexploded mines leftover from World War II in the Hauraki Gulf.

MARK: Indeed. I remember that well myself.

The part that I was alluding to was I remember being up in the bar up in the Naval base in the good ol’ days when everybody used to go in the bar and drink - now everybody buggers off home, which is probably a good thing. I was as a reservist up there at the time when the commodore comes in and talking to the other senior people saying, “Gosh I just had this phone call from a fishermen saying ‘If you promise not to prosecute me I was fishing inside a no fishing zone and I found some stuff I think you’d be quite interested in.’” It turned out to be these World War II minefields which they’d sunk by rifle fire and forgotten about them. It was something like 368 mine-like objects which had to be located and observed to see whether they were volatile or not. They were saying - the poor old Harbour Master of Aucklands going, “Can’t you find a minefield off Tauranga? This could close my port.” That took long enough and they were pretty happy they were unearthed but it would just destroy their economy straight away.

LINDSAY: So it’s pretty effective form of warfare.

MARK: Yeah.

LINDSAY: So what happened next? What ship did you move on to after Manawanui the dive ship?

MARK: Back when I did all the patrol boats - because when I left for Christchurch and went up to Hamilton, then Tauranga and because there wasn’t divisions in those places I stayed with the Navy reserve but I’d just go around to the different four divisions and drive each one of them patrol boats for a period.

HMNZS Manawanui

After that I took my long service leave from the fire brigade and became a navigator on Manawanui the dive ship which was going up to Singapore for three months. My poor old family mustn’t have had a lot of holiday time because I was always at sea but that’s when I realised how big Australia was because Manawanui only does nine knots. She’s an ex north sea dive ship type tender and…talk about a slow boat to China - well it was about two weeks to get up there. Did quite a lot of diving with Singaporeans who now left us leaps and bounds off their technology and what money they’ve spent, but we sort of started them off. One of their royal navy helicopters splashed up there unfortunately and lots a couple of the crew and we were quite involved with getting them back.

RNZN Sail Training Craft

Then came back from there and that’s when I did an around North Island yacht race with my yacht trip with a sail training craft. I remember you in that, I was one of your watchkeepers. I had this guy Rennie Van Der Velde in the Wellington to Auckland - he realised I was a fireman and he was an officers postings officer. He had a job…Before I left lieutenant commander in the navy to be the navies Damage Control Fire Officer. He must’ve thought, “Mmm yes lieutenant commander, any branch, fire experience…I wonder if Mark’s interested in a job.” He was having trouble filling it and asked me, “Do you want to do the job.” At that stage there was quite a bit of industrial action in the fire brigade and I thought, “Why not!” That’s when I went back to the Navy.

LINDSAY: When you say, “Back to the Navy,” you went back to the regular force Navy….

MARK: Yeah regular force. Full-time. Yeah. With three kids we moved back to Auckland and bought a place in Devonport which was lucky I did when I did, because it’s worth a fortune now. My wife said, “I thought it was a shore job.” Myself and my Warrant Officer Nick O'Carroll who’s an absolute treasure which is when he said “and that’s who I was working with” as my sidekick that’s when I said “Yep. I’ll take it.” Great man at sea. We got on really well for three years. It was a three year posting.

LINDSAY: You were talking about running the fire school where everybody in the Navy has to go through to get their firefighting skills?

MARK: Not really. I was the head of the Navy’s policy and operations and stuff and the school was one of the parts of that.

LINDSAY: Ah okay. So you were even above that…

MARK: So I worked for the commodore as operational team training and policy and stuff, procurement - so it was quite a full on job. I ended up going to the UK within seven days of arriving. Just moved house, three kids, primary school, intermediate and high school, and I disappeared to the UK with the Navy for January through to May. I did an awful lot of courses at their fire school which is absolutely amazing. Then I went down to Portsmouth and down to Plymouth. and became a part of the sea training group. Which was a huge organisation of about 250 specialist officers and Warrant Officers run by an admiral. It’s sort of internationally known - recognised as probably the top sea training group. We went through quite a few ships while I was there doing full work up - which is start them easy and then just build the intensity of the complete warfare and seamanship and all that sort of stuff.

LINDSAY: So you’re talking now about the dreaded Green Team?

MARK: The Green Team yeah. We’d have probably about 20 people - staff - put on by boats in the morning. One of the trips I did was right through the six week training period was HMS Exeter and I think their captain was only about 36, 37. A real young man. Every Thursday would be known as the “Thursday War”. Any ship that was in the vicinity of the south west coast there used to get pulled in and they’d create a very ornate exercise scenario. There’d be air strikes, then submarine, maybe some beach landings for the logistics port ships and the other ships would have to screen them. Each week there’d be one or two ships coming up to their final assessment so the team would be on them and really wind them up big time, with long overnight exercises. The others would be whatever stage they would be in, you know the intensity that they got of training and development. It was all about developing a crew from zero right through to fully operational ship ready to go and deploy into a high level intensity zone.

LINDSAY: Now a lot of people listening to this probably aren’t really aware of the detail that you go into there when you’re working up a crew. Can you tell us some of the tricks and scenarios that you confront these crews with to make sure that they’re ready for sea?

MARK: A warship anyway is built up of quite a…Why do they have so many people, because there’s so many different systems and parts that require operating. There’d be what they call the “Command Team.” Part of that would be the Officer of the Watch and Bridge. The Officer of the Watch that was up there when you’re in a warfare state closed up in two watches ready for heightened activity or even at action stations - the officer of the watch really drives as the eyes of the ship, but he’s communicated and directed by the operations room down below and by the warfare officer. Warships always work in a task group from a central command - senior officer there and whatever their task might be. It might be protecting a tanker or a carry-all or landing ships, or whatever. There’d be a task that they’re actually got to do. Could be anti-submarine warfare or air strike, gunfire ashore to support a landing - whatever that might be for the task of the ship, and they work in conjunction with the others.

Anyway, the command team down below they’re looking at all the screens and sonars, and radars, and planning what they’re going to do and how they’re going to do it with the other ships and support. So there’s that part. We’d have trainers - the “Green Team” as you called them because they used to wear green overalls. They’d be specialist radar people and warfare officers and stuff that would be in injecting scenario parts into it. Either synthetically or real assets such as aircraft coming in. You had squadrons of jets that they’d used for doing air attacks available. The propulsion systems - they all had to be optimally set so you’re screaming around doing 30 knots. They had all the chilling units to keep the radars going because they’d build up a lot of heat. The cook’s still cooking but they also man the magazines and the guns.

We’d have a team of about 10 to 20 sea trainers and during the warfare scenario which is all set up, at the critical moment when the aircraft had done the airstrike and the operations guys get a chance to track and get the weapons locked on and all that sort of stuff, then eventually near the end of that serial - so you don’t want to put them off considering all the money spent on aircraft or submarine or whatever, that’s when the last strike you would synthetically inject two, over the comms or throw a bomb over the side sort of thing. Pretend you’ve actually had a strike from the aircraft or a missile. I did it with the Australians for three years as well - all of their ships and I would have to say that the kiwi boys would probably be - it was the attitude that won them through. Back in ’73 when I was in Hawaii, Americans couldn’t believe how good the kiwi’s were and they just loved us. I think nothing’s changed. We still give it absolute bunger and that’s the attitude and effort that goes into it, and the teamwork. In training of course that I think sort of makes us stand out really.

LINDSAY: I’ve been through a few of those scenarios with the Green Team onboard and the way they orchestrate the whole evolution - there’s no doubt that stress levels are high, fatigue is high and it’s absolutely awesome to be a part of. You really learn a lot that way, especially in the debrief afterwards.

MARK: Yeah. The teams out there that are creating all this havoc and mayhem, but as the specialists of the different disciplines - the seamanship might be a man overboard in the middle of it - so what’s the priority? It is getting the man overboard, launching the sea boat, and you’d set up casualties - really good mock up injuries. There would be a lot going on but what the sea trainers would be doing is observing what you’re doing and then after each drill you’d break it down in different areas and talk to the kids, and give them a really good constructive debrief. Knock them down, “This was wrong and that was wrong, but you did this well and focus on this.” So the next day when you run something again you’re looking for those improvements. It a continuous drill really isn’t it.

LINDSAY: Yeah. That’s awesome. Now you’ve done one on Manawanui, you’ve done all those workups, how to improve, be the best they can be before going on major offshore expeditions…

MARK: Deployments yeah.

LINDSAY: Deployments.

HMNZS Endeavour

MARK: Yeah after that then I was posted to the navy tanker Endeavour.

LINDSAY: Endeavour’s a resupply ship - refuelling offshore vessels?

MARK: Yeah. She’s a supply tanker that travels around with our ships but also supplies the high value assets - would be your tankers so the ships can remain at sea. We’d fuel the ships at sea underway so they could remain at sea and carry on at an area. Did a period of operations officer and then stepped up to the first lieutenant which is second in command. I did a stint in 1990 as a reservist - went over to Aussie and endeavour and got my watch keeping ticket there for the big ship. Way back as a reservist. That was during the preps for the first Gulf war with Brisbane and Sydney. They deployed up there to the Gulf with them I did Kuwait recovery. I learnt a lot there.

When I came back here the next posting as I said was the XO which I thought was pretty good because having not long before that been a reservist now 2IC of their big ship.

LINDSAY: Onwards and upwards.

MARK: Perhaps one of the best jobs I’ve ever had I must admit. Really good team. You know, those sorts of drills without the Green Team you still run those sorts of things yourself each week and create your own scenarios. But we were busy feeling ships left, right and centre, and up through Asia. Traveled everywhere. I went up to Russia and Vietnam. First visit by a New Zealand ship with TeMana to Vietnam in 44 years. Right up the Saigon River . Hosted beautifully right in the middle of Saigon. Then we’d do exercises with them and counter-host. Then over to places like the Philippines and China, Japan and Vladivostok, all around Australia. Lots of in company work around the islands here. Places like Tokalua - you know you certainly got to get about and do things.

That’s one thing that I enjoyed with the Navy is - which is different from the merchant - is that merchant ships we were going from get your cargo at A and take it to B as quickly and safely as possible, and keep it in good condition and that’s the main focus. Whereas the difference with the Navy was your job was at sea to be able to operate a task group and do whatever task that had done - and it’s generally at sea. Then you come alongside and end up engaging with the local Navy and in company - so you had time to do that.

LINDSAY: So what you’re saying is that being in the Royal New Zealand Navy was a great way to see the world because you got time off when you were alongside and the real work was happening at sea.

MARK: Going to the merchant Navy was I found - you know you get better time off, like you do time off and then time off - so the tanker I was on was six weeks on and then you’d get six weeks off - which you’d do what you like. But the six weeks on was six weeks on - so you just watch on, watch off, watch on, watch off sort of thing and I remember after the first week thinking, “Gee it must be due for a run ashore here.” Because the Navy you’d sort of get out and do a few weeks, and then come in and have a period alongside for recreation and engage with the other host nations.

LINDSAY: You’re talking about the merchant navy job - your first ship once you left the New Zealand Navy. Is that correct?

MARK: Yeah after Endeavour three years XO which was probably the record on that ship for that job. Then I went to Manawanui the dive ship again, which this time as the captain - that was excellent. Hard work to start with, had to sort a few crew issues out but we got there and we had a really good time. Worked hard and did all sorts of things.

After that - the fleet seamanship officer where I came and introduced a lot of seamanship equipment and processes and policies, I got tapped from a shipping company to say, “Would you like to come and do a relieving job as a watch keeper.” I go, “Hmmm yeah okay.” Again I took my long leave from the Navy and headed off to see - as you do.

LINDSAY: Long leave seems to be a common thread. This is a transition from one career into the next. You took your long leave from the fire brigade to join the Navy, and now you got long leave from the Navy to join the merchant Navy.

MARK: Yeah, and I think one day I’ll have a holiday. My wife’s used to it. She’s spent much of the time on her own doing holidays, but in the meantime…Practically most times I came ashore from the Navy I’d end up reserving over to the maritime school and picking off the second mate foreign games ticket and Master Home Trade type thing. I had those tickets which I looked as a next phase sort of thing when the Navy is finished with it, because it’s not a job for life.

Coastal Tanker Kakariki

I got on the tanker and that was a big culture change. Small crews. As I said, the focus on the cargo - getting A to B, focus on maintenance and standard for training and stuff was different. People tended to do what they habit, and the style that they thought they’d navigate in or operate in, as opposed to if you had a watch keeping officer turn up in the Navy from Australia, UK, South Africa or a place like that, you knew exactly the words he’d use to make a report to you. You knew exactly how he’d handle the ship.

LINDSAY: There’s an international standard. Is that what you’re saying?

MARK: Yeah. Correct. Mostly based around the Royal Navy system. Americans do it quite differently but they do that. There’s also a high level of training to go through it. A lot of it would seem over the top but the standard from patrol boat to aircraft carrier and it was the same processes. So you could just jump around and that’s what you did. At least you knew when a watch keeper turned up and he’s got a ticket you know what he’s capable of and has been assessed at. Whereas I think a lot of the merchant nowadays is done on a simulator. They might get sent off to a ship where they have a really good watch keeping officer who will take the Cadet under his wing who’s really professional with that part of it, and focused on making them work and learn. Or a lot of the time they might do their watch and then they go off and chip the paint. You know, so the feedback work and all that would be minimal. You’d try not to get engaged in that because you’re still focused on cargo.

Now the cargo, it was bloody spot on. As I said, that’s what they paid for, that’s what the whole focus is, is to get stuff from A to B for the customer - best price, time, condition. I did learn an awful lot. From the cargo aspect with fuel, working the ship, different routines. So I did that for a couple of years and kind of wish I was back doing that actually. We did all the coastal ports of New Zealand.

After that I was very keen on doing the offshore industry. That had quite a…You know from my background on Manawanui and diving, and ROV work, I was quite keen to go and have a look at that. It was quite a burgeoning business area at the time.

LINDSAY: I just heard you say something there that people probably aren’t clear on. A lot of the diving employs ROV’s which is a remote control underwater vehicle. Is that correct?

MARK: Yeah. Remote Operated Vehicle. Mostly on an umbilical cord from on the ship. Of course they vary in size. They can be a thing about the size of an old school telly, to something the size of a small truck and the price goes accordingly and the capability of course. Some of them are down thousands of metres and all sorts of manipulators and cameras. The big offshore oil boys that have got the big flash things there for sure.

So anyway, I went to Tasmania a couple of times to do dynamic positioning course.

LINDSAY: Tasmania’s Australian Maritime College in Launceston I think it is?

MARK: Launceston yeah. Funded myself which was quite an experience especially with the exchange rate and travel, and accommodation.

LINDSAY: Those courses are…

MARK: Not cheap either. Without them you couldn’t get your log book underway and start working towards your DP ticket. Did those…

LINDSAY: DP ticket - what’s that?

MARK: Dynamic Positioning Operator.

LINDSAY: What’s that involve?

Support vessel Runner

MARK: That’s for these ships…The good majority of offshore vessels nowadays, and some of the passenger ships will operate what they call Dynamic Positioning, and that’s where the ship is controlled by computers really. Computer and power is the big things. You have all your propulsion systems which would be your main engines, your thrusters, fore and aft that could be tunnel thrusters or an azimuth, pods, but they’re positioned along the ship such that you can put rotation and fore and aft movement and have the ship halter or turn to a heading and be able to sit there or move it sideways, or hold against the tide or a wind.

LINDSAY: Precision control of the ship in any direction…

Dynamic Positioning Systems

MARK: Absolutely. Yeah. Position, control and precision holdings. To get your position there’d be a whole pile of sensors which could be different GPS systems onboard and there would be things like laser ranging, hydrophones, you can lay all your sonar buoys in the sea - calibrate them to your system…

LINDSAY: You could use those totally independent of any GPS…

MARK: It’s like any navigation thing and that’s what people forget a lot nowadays is they use GPS. Look at the GPS, look at the electronic chart - it’s all the same information really might be presented in different systems, but you’re still looking at one. That’s where looking out the window and looking at a headland and seeing - I’m pointing at it but am I going sideways or whatever. That’s where you have things like parallel indexing where your depth sounder and all those different systems are telling you. You look at the big picture and you’d go, “Who’s telling me a lie here?”

Drill Ship underway

That then is all tied into your power supplies onboard. That’s one of the critical things is making sure all your power bus boards are all split correctly so if you lose…All the stuff - DP to is doubled up. Your propulsion systems - if you lose that rudder or that thruster can you stay in position. If you don’t what’s an alternative? That’s the sort of thing that you’re doing while you’re sitting under an oil rig or something like that. A few minutes off.

LINDSAY: That’s incredible actually the diversity of the jobs that you’ve done over the years.

RNZN Sail Training Craft


Also been a keen yachtie from dinghies up to the larger boats.

LINDSAY: I don’t think you must have been at home very often at all really. Such is the life of a mariner.

I want to crack on and just ask you a question that I ask everybody. Do you get seasick?

MARK: No. The only time I’ve been seasick was when I first became an officer in my first watch going around Banks Peninsula which can be pretty challenging at the best of times. That was the old days of the radar where you look through the scope - put your head on the…peek through, kept it dark. The old CRT tubes. Then going over to the chart and bracing yourselves on the rails with feet up - you know your ribs are getting crushed into the ship, dove and then popped up. I’m trying to focus and read and I’m thinking, “My god.” Next thing I barfed all over the place.

I got over that. How I managed to do it mostly was positive mental attitude. Rather than going, “God I’m going to feel sick. Oh it’s going to be rough. Oh I’m hating this.” I used to do the old, “Yahoo! This is fantastic. Woah look at the size of this one”” Just focus on doing what you’ve got to do, having a big old time, challenge yourself to enjoy it and it seemed to work quite well.

LINDSAY: Very interesting that you say that. I’ve seen various people with seasickness and some feel sorry for themselves and go downhill quite rapidly, and others have a good barf over the side and come up smiling, and they recover quite quickly. That’s quite interesting.

MARK: Yeah and keeping yourself hydrated is a biggie. There’s no doubt about that. Keep away from things like oranges and orange juice. I remember being smashed to billy-o going up Canterbury Coast and Honey Puffs….Honey Puffs in a big bowl with some milk and just chomping down on those things, because they were relatively sweet and easy to get down but not too big and quite bland really. I found that quite good tucker.

LINDSAY: Breakfast cereal. Yeah.

MARK: Yeah but stay away from acidic stuff. Positive mental approach - get up and look out the window. Enjoy the challenge.

LINDSAY: Tell us about how you deal with seasick crews?

MARK: I remember having two brothers - one an engineer, one an electrician and they used to get so incredibly sick, and I used to think,”Well why do you do this? What on earth do you put yourself through that for all the time?” We used to have a patch wimp dot they used to call them - you’d stick them on the back of your neck. They had Scopolamine in them and remember in Nelson we were about to head off around to the west coast which is again - challenging area. We’d run out - New Zealand had run out because they also used that for people on chemo or radiation to settle them down because it makes them nauseous. There was a big rush to pool them in for the hospital so there was only one left. I remember seeing these two boys sitting there, “You have it mate. No no - you have it. No - you have it.” I thought oh there’s these two brothers, “You poor sods.”

One thing I used to get the cooks to load up on was ice blocks on the old stick. Not the ice cream type ones but the frozen lemonade or something like that. Crew were feeling a bit queasy, get them on to the old ice blocks which keeps them relatively hydrated and feeling a bit happier, but also champion them along as much as possible. Keep them busy. If they’re tired - because you do get tired too. Have a good rest, come on up, do this, do that. That’s probably the best one is making sure you stay hydrated and try not to feel sorry for themselves too much.

LINDSAY: Yep. Very good.

I want to ask you, what was the worst event that happened to you when working on the sea that made you feel really bad?

MARK: The worst one was when I was on Endeavour. The tanker. We were going off for an Asian deployment for a four month period and prior to leaving New Zealand in the Hauraki Gulf here doing all sorts of drills. Just shaking the crew down, get them up to speed. A lot of what we were doing was sea boat drills. We had a seven odd metre zodiac RHIB and a hired crane we’d set up with a boat rope. We had it pretty well sorted this team that un-alerted any time of day or night we’d used to have this mannequin called Oscar which was the man overboard flag - somebody would sneak up and throw Oscar over the side and…”Man overboard, man overboard. Starboard side.” You know, what do you do. We could manoeuvre the ship appropriately and have the sea boat in the tide, out pick them man up, hooked up, holstered onboard and Oscar out being treated within eight minutes. Always under that time line. The sea boats would work on an offload release - which is as soon that it hits the water and weight comes off through buoyancy, the hook would release and it would be on the boat rope. Then the coxswain would be immediately scream away. So the ship is still doing about 12 knots at this stage. If you’d put a turn in you’d be able to create enough slick to protect the boat while you’re doing it, but you didn’t stop. So just before the boat hit the water you’d yell out, “Cock the hook!” and there’s the thing that would actuate the offload mechanisms. So the boys are extremely good at that.

You get to Sydney and one of the things we used to do was any new people…We’d have to do the…Because it was Lloyd's surveyed we’d have to do an IMO lifeboat - proper lifeboat - 50 men lifeboat launch on a three monthly basis. What we’d do is get all the new people that had joined the ship and throw them inside, over you go troop and experience launching of a lifeboat. We had something like 20 plus youngsters stashed them in the lifeboat and I remember saying to the coxswain,”Right just pull the lever.” because there’s a string inside which is weaned back through pulleys to the brake lever. Pulling the lever would lift the brake and that would turn the Davits out and then swing the lifeboat out, and then carry on going until it hits the water. Pull the pin out, operate the hydrostatic lever and the hooks would fly open and the boat would drive away. Anyway, this time I remember saying to him up about four decks up in the air - long way down, “Okay just pull it gently.” Because when they used to hit the ship's side the Davits used to put a bit of a swing on it and they’d bash into the side a bit. “Do that a bit easy could you.” So he shuts the door and it’s all in this cocoon and the next thing I see, I’m thinking to myself “I hope this is a nice smooth one.” The next thing - wobble wobble and there’s bloody great 50 man lifeboat just topple off the head of the Davits still housed and crashed on the edge of the deck and flopped another few decks down into the sea. Slowly there’s doors opening and life jackets popping open and people coming in. It was horrendous. How anybody survived it I have no idea. 20 kids in there so all sorts of support going on in recovering these guys.

Moved through to the inquiry stage. Fortunately nobody was seriously injured for any period of time. There was a few minor back injuries and things but there was a few heroic efforts inside as well and they were recognised.

It turned out when I looked at the mechanism of the…Because the lifeboats were different from the offload - when the weight comes off the open, that is generally the case that you would wait until the boats and the tide…There was a hydrostatic plunger which the buoyancy would push up which would allow you to operate the lever to operate the hooks and open the hooks up. On a lifeboat - particularly the tanker - you’ve got to have the on load release. In case you haven’t quite reached water and the lifeboat stops and stuck - you still are able to get off the falls. As I say this plunger which gravity pulls down, which has a locking device preventing you from actually operating the release lever unless you manually override it. For some reason I think these guys had been drilling with the offload for so long that the order was given to outline and cock the hook I think I said, and then the next thing he pulls the lever and he shouldn’t have been able to do that. One - the drill was wrong, but two - the mechanism was faulty from day one as it would appear. The indicator said it was locked but it wasn’t locked, and he was able to operate the thing, hooks flopped open and over goes the boat.

LINDSAY: Four decks down. Free fall.

MARK: Yeah. Down. Crashed on the edge of the deck and then down into the tide.

The funny thing is before we sailed I found that that hydrostatic mechanism had never been surveyed. I said to the captain that, “Before we go anywhere, before those boats come back on from maintenance these need to be done.” I actually halfway across the Tasman received a fax with certificates saying they’d all been done. Well interestingly enough there’s probably been damaged and killed by doing lifeboats than anything else. It’s become a worldwide problem and since them IMO has now recognised this and modified the hooks. I think half the problem is that it’s the patent problem. Where everybody’s got to build something similar but different, and crews are quite unfamiliar with it all. Individual mechanism. They’ve sort of got the idea but don’t have an intrinsic knowledge of how it works. The drills are all frequent and all just leads to Swiss cheese holes lining up routine.

LINDSAY: So that was a pretty bad time in your career.

MARK: Yeah. When I later on became a maritime officer for a year before I gave that way, when I was doing ship inspections, I can tell you what they got a fairly good looking at.

LINDSAY: I bet they did.

What are some of the happiest memories you had on the sea?

MARK: Mate that is probably the hardest question. There’s so many. It could be even doing PT - Physical Training on the bloody upper deck at 4’O clock in the tropics and looking at the sunset. I just loved that. It was mind blowing stuff. Or a good tight bit of navigation, some of the scenes you would see, the camaraderie, the crossing the line ceremony, the technical work. I think the big one is the camaraderie that you’d build. Being together like that all that time, and doing stuff, you do build a special rapport and certainly the Navy because you are so close together for so long. You’re pretty tight. You become a pretty tight bunch and understand a lot. That’s what makes it, and the different crew.

Interesting how…You’d know this too mate - some ships are good to live on and work on, but the same ship can be sometimes a good posting or a bad posting depending on the crew, and leadership and what-have-you. The leadership’s upper and middle makes such a difference to your memories of a particular ship.

LINDSAY: Very true. Absolutely true. I can remember I was in the Navy for 27 years and I remember hearing stories about various crews after deployments absolutely loving it and others not so much. That was always interesting how the Navy often balanced personalities. If they had a really people person skipper, they’d have the next in charge as a more of going the other way.

MARK: Technically focused or operationally focused or something.


MARK: Yeah. That’s one of the big things is being able to fill the gaps. I was very fortunate the CO’s I had on Endeavour have ended up really good friends with them. Good cop - bad cop jobs, there was working together. It was bloody like marriage. You support each other and cover the gaps for each other, and have a point of focus in what it is you’re trying to achieve. I don’t think it matters what job you’re in but certainly on a ship that’s quite critical that you have your vision, you know where you want to go, you know what you want the crew to be doing and if you can sell that to them.

LINDSAY: What advice can you give others thinking of a career on the sea?

MARK: To get a career on the sea can be difficult. Technology like in so many areas has removed numbers required. It’s sort of reduced the skill sets and training required because you’re pressing buttons and monitoring a lot of stuff as opposed to having to intrinsically know from depth right through. I think we’re quite lucky that some of us older boys have come through that bottom bit so when we are looking at a screen we also can look out the window and go, “That’s not right.” You’ve got that experience.

Getting into the system nowadays can be difficult. I would still suggest that if that’s what you want to do, every opportunity that presents itself whether it be working in the cafe on a ferry - go and do it. Just keep locking sea time up and in one form or another and be prepared to skip around. Always have a logbook that you can buy from a book shop. A little maritime logbook and record your times, because as time builds up and you can show this and that, people are more inclined to take you.

Get your qualifications out of the road pretty quick if you can. It’s a different world there’s no doubt about it and I don’t know that the major career opportunities are quite the same as they were, but they’re probably there if you hunt them out and prepared to work at it, and be flexible.

Time away from home is a bugger but if you’ve got a pretty motivated understanding wife…You know, I was a pretty good boy when I came home and got into things. She was very supportive. That is something well recognised in the Navy is that the family are what really makes the Navy allow to tick, and people do what they do. From that support. You’ve always got to keep that in the back of your mind as well and recognise it.

LINDSAY: So your wife has got to be pretty independent.

MARK: Yeah. My my wife… our youngest son - he’s about 28, he’s in the navy now. and she just spoke with his wife and said, “You know a lot of people get really angst with the fact that they’re going away because that’s not easy. But rather than sitting around and feeling sorry for yourself, you use that time that they’re away really positively and do projects that you want to do.” There’s always the return is difficult. They’ve been independent and doing their thing and the partner comes home and the first bit is all eutrophic and then of course the novelty wears off after a couple of days and then it’s all difficult where you’re trying to normalise and get back into who’s who in the zoo and who does what. Not taking over from where she’s been, but supporting them.

Those are skills that you need to be aware of and utilise properly.

LINDSAY: Well this has been very interesting listening to it right through your military career and then on to the merchant marine side of things, and the tankers, and all the support roles, and the training roles and things like that, that you’ve done. Absolutely amazing career you’ve had. You’ve certainly skipped around between lots of different vessels. Thank you very much for sharing with us your experience and I’m sure there’s a wealth of knowledge that we haven’t touched on. You’ve given people a good overview of different aspects of life at sea and I really appreciate that Mark. Thank you very much.

MARK: Very good. Thank you, Lindsay.

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