Bluff's calm voice in a storm

Last updated 05:00 31/12/2013

Meri Leask, of Bluff, has been named The Southland Times' Southlander of the Year for 2013.

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HONOURED: Bluff Fisherman's Radio operator Meri Leask has been named Southland Times Southlander Of The Year.

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In a house overlooking Bluff Harbour, Meri Leask puts the kettle on.

Her neat and orderly kitchen looks for all purposes like any other but at one of the counters a VHF radio crackles with the calls of fishermen checking in for the day.

From her lounge window, she can watch the fishing boats and recreational boaties slipping out to sea.

Mrs Leask puts down her cuppa and responds to the radio call and logs the details in a note book.

"I've filled up plenty of these," she says.

For the past 34 years, the "voice of Bluff" has single handedly kept the fishing town's marine radio running - from her kitchen and on a voluntary, self-funded basis.

Her house on Marine Parade is the one behind the brown wooden fence which has all the antennas on the roof.

For more than three decades, Mrs Leask's voice has been a calming and reassuring presence on a stretch of sea which has a reputation for being one of the wildest, most notorious and dangerous in the country.

Raised in the Riverton and Colac Bay area, she moved to Stewart Island where she met her fishermen husband Ian.

"I have lived near the sea and been involved in commercial fishing so I have a good knowledge of what goes on out there," she says.

"I also think in Southland, you look after your own. I was brought up like that."

Ever since the Leasks bought the marine radio equipment at their own cost when the Bluff Coastal Station closed in 1980, and the service looked like being lost to the local community, Mrs Leask has often been the first point of contact for those in trouble at sea.

She has logged in and monitored the safety of tens of thousands of vessels in and around Bluff Harbour and has assisted in more than 110 incidents.

On a good day, between 160 to 180 calls from boaties echo in the Leask's kitchen and are meticulously recorded in the notebook beside the radio.

Since VHF's inception in 1987 Mrs Leask's station quickly incorporated all commercial fishermen using the strait as well as recreational boaties. It's a simple system, with simple stipulations.

"I expect people to check in with me. I ask for the number of people on board, where you're going, when you're due back, and that you check in again when you're back.

"I encourage people to check in with me at any time if they're unsure about the weather conditions," she explains.

"The fishermen know they can reach me 24 hours a day seven days a week," she says.

When she is not within earshot of the maritime radio, Mrs Leask is carrying a portable radio. "I've had to leave the groceries behind at the checkout after getting a call," she says.

However, answering a distress call at any hour of the day has become part of everyday life for Mrs Leask. "It doesn't enter my mind what time it is," she said.

"It was my own decision to do this and I wouldn't do it if it bothered me."

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Unfortunately, even on Mrs Leask's watch there have been several boating deaths in Foveaux Strait.

These have included six lives when the Kotuku capsized in May 2006, two lives when Extreme 1 capsized in January last year and eight lives when the Easy Rider capsized in March last year.

When asked if any one incident stands out the most, Mrs Leask says every one of the distress calls she answers is important.

"If someone's life is at risk everyone deserves the best efforts to get help to them and get them home," she says.

In a small community like Bluff, tragedy was often close to home but it was essential not to get caught up in the emotion, she says.

"You just have to get on with what needs to be done. And be ready to get the next person home."

Mrs Leask's service to the maritime industry and her devotion to keeping the waters of Foveaux safe have been recognised.

In October, she was honoured with the outstanding contribution award at the Sealord New Zealand Water Safety Awards.

The New Zealand Federation of Commercial Fishermen award for providing selfless service to fishermen sits on top of a shelf in her dining area and she has also been awarded membership of the NZ Order of Merit, a Rotary Paul Harris Fellowship, and awards from the police, Invercargill City Council and Lions club.

However, like many volunteers devoted to serving others, Mrs Leask says the accolades come a distant second to helping others. And she won't be taking down the antennas from the roof any time soon.

As long as there are fishermen and other boaties who may need a calm voice in a storm she'll be at the other end of the radio.


- © Fairfax NZ News


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