Paddler's passion on water

Freedom: Andy Blake, of Wellington Canoe and Kayak at Oriental Bay.
Freedom: Andy Blake, of Wellington Canoe and Kayak at Oriental Bay.

Andy Blake can peel a potato within the blink of an eye and he even claims to have developed a second pair of eyes in the back of his head.

They're among the skills he's gained during his 20-plus year career as a chef, firstly in the New Zealand Army and then at Upper Hutt's Rimutaka Prison.

And though he'd always wanted to be a chef, Mr Blake has now hung up his apron to immerse himself in what he describes as his biggest passion - kayaking.

''When I left school I did pest control, learning how to kill animals, then in the army it was how to kill people, in the prison service it was learning how to manage people and then I decided to have a whole career change and get into kayaking.

''The food industry is a very tough industry. It's very stressful, it doesn't pay well and the hours are anti-social, which isn't good for family life, but I gave it up simply because kayaking is my passion - my heart is in kayaking.''

Mr Blake speaks enthusiastically about his recent business venture, Wellington Canoe and Kayak, one of eight shops of its kind throughout the country.

With almost two decades paddling experience behind him and a number of qualifications to boot, including the highly regarded Sea Kayak Outdoor Association of New Zealand guides certificate, kayaking is where he feels completely at home.

From his Ngauranga Gorge shop he sells and rents out canoes and kayaks and also runs skills courses for individuals, groups and schools.

It's also home base for the Yakity Yak Sea Kayaking Club, which has more than 150 members and often organises trips around the country.

Much to Mr Blake's delight, a lot of his time is spent out on the water, whether it be taking skills courses, guiding night paddles around Wellington Harbour or heading to one of his favourite kayak fishing spots.

''This week, for example, on Monday I was one-on-one training with an intellectually handicapped person, on Tuesday it was surf night at Titahi Bay giving customers free demos, Wednesday was a one-one one rolling practice in Oriental Parade, today we ran a skills course for Scotts College and this weekend we're running another skills course.''

Passing on his passion for the water, and the outdoors for that matter, is what he loves most.

In fact, he reckons it's infectious he even convinced his business coach to take up a sea kayaking course and her husband loved it so much he's since been out night paddling on Wellington Harbour.

For Mr Blake it's the freedom he loves most about kayaking, the ability to put as much stuff in your kayak as you can fit and just disappear.

''New Zealand has more coastline than America, lakes, rivers, estuaries everywhere, so it's easy to immerse yourself in the outdoors here, and from some of the sights I've seen and the places I've been to, you'd be a kayaker tomorrow, you'd be hooked.''

So far Mr Blake has circumnavigated DUrville Island, Stewart Island, Kapiti Island, Great Barrier Island and the Bay of Islands. Offshore, he's paddled the Kadavu Island group in Fiji and the Solomon Islands, where he took four of the locals through their New Zealand kayaking instructors sea kayaking assessments.

His favourite paddling locations, though, are Stewart Island and Fiordland, one highlight being a solo trip across the South Island's Lake Manapouri and over to the West Coast.

''That trip took three and a half weeks. I paddled around, camped and hunted on my own - it was an amazing recharge.
''I didn't see anybody, there was no-one to talk to. Some people say they couldn't spend that much time alone, but if your own self turns you off you've got to start asking questions!

''What I did miss was hokey pokey icecream, fish and chips, steak, Thai green curry, gingernuts - you start craving those things after a while.''

There have been many other highlights paddling the waters around New Zealand, where Mr Blake says he's seen some amazing sights.

''I saw a whale two weeks ago paddling around Great Barrier Island, I've kayaked with dolphins in the Milford Sound we had 60 to 80 dolphins - all around us jumping out of the water.

''I've drifted down a river in Fiordland getting closer and closer to a stag standing in the middle of the river, I've paddled Marovo Lagoon [the largest saltwater lagoon in the world in the Solomon Islands] which was dotted with islands, palm trees and monkeys, and I've seen the mirror image of paddling in a lake in winter with snow falling on my kayak.

''I've even been towed around DUrville Island while fishing in my kayak, in 3m swells with my spray skirt off and seeing flashes of silver, which I think was a big kingfish - it actually broke my friend's fishing rod in half!

''The stories are many and the experiences a far cry from those in his previous life as a chef.''

He recalls his time in the army, where on deployment to Bosnia his job was to single-handedly feed 250 soldiers three meals a day on his rostered shifts.

''It didn't really matter how many I was feeding, it's a matter of timing, menu and numbers. You learn to get the amounts just right. We had to learn to work fast  I can peel a potato as quick as a flash, a carrot in record time and my knife can move like a blur.''

On top of that, being in the army Mr Blake was a soldier first, which meant he still carried a rifle everywhere, wore a flak jacket and carried out vehicle checkpoints and demining, just as all the other soldiers did.

He remembers another challenge, this time at Ngaruawahia at Turangawaewae Marae in 1991, where he and eight others cooked for 5000 people at an indigenous peoples conference.

And when he cooked for the Sultan of Brunei at the mess in Hobsonville in Auckland, a few minutes before dinner was to be served three extras had to suddenly be catered for at the top table.

''It doesn't sound much but at that level three people is a reasonable amount, because it changes the timing of everything.''

Then there are the prison days, where Mr Blake worked at what is best described as Rimutaka Prison's staff college, similar to a function centre, which featured a 120-seater restaurant, computer suite and accommodation to house the prison officers undergoing training.

''We did all the catering and trained the prisoners up as cooks. Three of us instructors managed 15 inmates who came in every day. I'm 5ft 9, and 63kg, I have a background in martial arts and I have my army training so I don't get intimated too easily.''

But Mr Blake says sometimes it was intimidating: ''You're in a kitchen with 21 knives and 15 inmates, sex offenders, murderers, rapists, and they're all working beside you with a knife.

''I was very paranoid at first, but I had this naive world view that if you treat someone well they'll treat you well, and that's what happened. But you do learn to develop a second pair of eyes in the back of your head. You become very good at reading people's body language, and you take nothing on face value.

''You're always making sure they're not trying to pull wool over your eyes.''

And he experienced only one real altercation.

''An inmate was having a bad day, so he came to work with me and took his frustration out on me.''

With his cheffing days well behind him now, Mr Blake is firmly focused on his future.

''I'll do what I'm doing now for the next 20 years without a doubt. 'Life's a stepping stone. If you hate your job just change it, and if you haven't got the skills, get the skills. 'Don't complain about it because we have choice. We are the masters of our own destiny and kayaking is definitely mine.''

Fairfax Media