Light fantastic

Last updated 05:00 08/03/2014

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"Fifty years as keeper of the lights" heads a two-page story by Havelock electrician Gordon Berry.

The story is his own and summarises the 50 years he spent installing, using or maintaining "aids to navigation" in the Marlborough Sounds. He wants it to be part of an autobiography for family members but it might evolve into a book for general readers. One he wrote for his first boss Donald Todd's family, The Sea is My Wife, was published in 2008.

Gordon joined Donald's business, DC Todd Ltd, as an apprentice electrician. Duties were both land-based and off-shore which suited Gordon, who had spent his life playing and working around water and boats.

"I'm one of the few people that got time off for my skipper's ticket and marine engineers ticket - plus time on for an electrician's ticket," he says with a smile.

Gordon had intended joining the navy but after passing the entry requirements, he caught chickenpox and was unable to attend the scheduled intake. When the navy was taking its next batch of recruits, he was already working for Donald.

It was DC Todd that introduced "aids to navigation" lights in the Marlborough Sounds. Before they were installed, boat skippers relied on their compass, the stars and hill lines as guides. They deserved something better, Donald decided, and so he had his team install the first battery-run, mechanical navigation light just inside Cullens Point.

The battery would go flat every 10 days, though, so each week a newly charged car battery was fitted and the tired one taken away to recharge and reinstall seven days later. Gordon says the old light, still operational, will be donated to the Havelock Museum later this year.

When the Marlborough District Council accepted responsibility for the region's aids to navigation, it employed Gordon to continue the work he knew so well. Ongoing installation, pro-active maintenance and emergency replacements ensure navigation aids keep shining at Port Underwood, Queen Charlotte, Pelorus, Greville Harbour, around French Pass and at Okiwi Bay.

Work days are dictated by the weather.

"We had to go to areas other people stayed away from . . . we didn't go if it would be dangerous."

Gordon also serviced lighthouses in the lower North and upper South islands for Maritime New Zealand. Access to those was usually by 4WD or helicopter and included a few "hairy" moments, like helicopter tail rotors hanging off cliff edges, but Gordon loved every moment.

"There was the challenge of achieving the work, I enjoyed being out in the nice fresh air and seeing places I hadn't seen before."

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Really bad experiences were few and he prefers to remember the fun times, anyway. Like when the DC Todd team spent too long servicing a Hoods Bay beacon in Havelock Harbour.

The tide went out and the boat sank into the sand.

"Don, my boss, said: ‘If somebody goes past, get the broom and scrub the bottom out . . . make it look like we were here on purpose!'."

And not be rescued?

"Oh no, we just had to wait for the next tide to come in."

Growing up in Havelock, his childhood was spent in and around the water and that association won't be ending now that he's retired.

He and wife, "first mate" Theresa, own a 9-metre yacht, Anna Jane Houghton Caute, named after Gordon's great-grandmother who lived at Mahakipawa.

Anna Jane will let them explore Queen Charlotte Sound, visit d'Urville Island, Nelson and the Abel Tasman.

"And as Pelorus Boat Club members, we want to spend a night on each of the club's moorings around the Sounds. There are 85 in total."

Work assignments have not ended either because Gordon, a registered electrical inspector, will keep giving refresher courses to electricians, service technicians and line mechanics in Marlborough and Nelson.

- The Marlborough Express

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