Blokes & Their Boats - March 2012

Alister Gilbert - a southern lad

Last updated 13:21 04/03/2012
Alistair and brother Graham on the shore at Lake Te Anau with eels up to a metre long in front and Te Kiore in the background.
Karamea arrives at the family home, where she was stripped to the gunwales before being rebuilt. Brothers Graeme and Alistair prepare to lend a hand.
Fishing is a pastime enjoyed by all the family. On this occasion Limestone Rock, Whangarei Harbour, was the location, and the boat, a veteran plywood Sunburst yacht.

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Alister Gilbert – a southern lad

Born and bred in Invercargill, Alister Gilbert’s first nautical recollection involves learning to row on Lake Te Anau in his uncle’s 12-foot clinker dinghy with his brother and father. 

He reckons that when they started, he and his brother could barely lift the oars, but by the time a few summers had passed they had become quite proficient, even rowing with a single oar against the regular squalls that flew down out of the mountains and swirled across the lake, creating a very short, sharp swell. 

Eel fishing on the banks of the Waiau River that flows between Lakes Te Anau and Manapouri was another feature of Alister’s primary school boyhood. He recalls that steep, beech-forest-clad banks led to the very narrow ledge from which they would fish. In his own words: “Anyone who has caught an eel will know how they fight and roll about on land. As a little fellow, I was seriously intimidated by this – and they take a decent knock on the head to stop them as well. We did this a few times over the years we spent there on summer holidays. The best, at over a metre, was a real handful.”

Alister and his brother Graham were still young when their father built the family’s first boat, a plywood pram dinghy. Named Te Kiore (The Rat), she was to join the family for their summer holidays on Lake Te Anau.

Te Kiore was housed in a reconstructed packing case on the shore and transported to the water’s edge on a purpose-built, two-wheel barrow. Last time Alistair passed by, he was pleased to notice that their old dinghy box had withstood the tests of time.

Later, dad Gilbert re-built a six-metre launch in his Invercargill engineering yard. Each weekend for two years the boys helped with its construction, and even had a hand in removing the German tractor engine that had become the vessel’s donk. Gilbert named it Karamea after the West Coast place his ancestors first settled in New Zealand.

Once launched, Karamea took up residence in Bluff Harbour at Green Point, beside State Highway 1, just before Bluff – a 20-minute drive to Invercargill. More often than not, weekends were spent catching blue cod – “by the bin-full”, asserts Alister with a rueful smile. 

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When not fishing, Alister would often spend a regular part of his weekend pumping Karamea’s bilges dry. Apparently the canvas canopy that protected the cockpit wasn’t able to shelter the vessel from the horizontal rains that regularly came up the channel out of Foveaux Strait. 

Adventures in Foveaux filled Alister’s early teenage years. Accompanied by his dad and brother, they would motor around the island built in Bluff Harbour to handle shipping at high tide, or drop the hinged mast (exhaust pipe) and go under the bridge at low tide, then chug down past the oyster boats. Once down the main shipping channel and past Stirling Point (the absolute southern end of State Highway 1), the choice was to motor around Bluff Hill to Ocean Beach with its boulders and freezing works, or head around the very shallow bank of rock that lies at the entrance to Bluff Harbour, and trundle across to Dog Island with its lighthouse. 

Cod fishing with hand-lines was the primary fishing activity, with any bycatch quite uncommon. Both locations were well-proven cod habitats, so returning home with a feast was standard fare. Cod lines consisted of solid white cotton cord with 2-3 hooks above 1lb cast-iron sinkers from Dad’s foundry. For bait, cod chunks were the norm.

Describing Karamea in Alistair’s own words: “Karamea was a slow boat by modern standards, but a very good sea boat.” 

A mere 4-5 knots was cruising speed, which ensured a miserly fuel consumption. The motor was forward in the bow, a rudimentary wheelhouse with a wooden seat occupied the centre cabin, and there was an open cockpit astern.

Wind against the tide often made rowing out to the boat at its mooring almost impossible. Managing the huge currents that characterise the Bluff region was as big a challenge as the fast-changing weather.

These circumstances often meant picking up the mooring was an extremely taxing job for a lad. One such occasion that Alistair recalls followed a day during which the boat had been beached for a bottom scrub ‘n’ scrape. In the course of this process the bow rail was removed for some maintenance. As the mooring was approached, as was his habit, Alistair placed his knee against the bow rail for leverage. However, in the absence of said bow-rail, he over-balanced and went straight over the side. Reckons that having his father grab him roughly by the scruff never felt so good!

Then there was the time an angry squall rushed them whilst at anchor in Foveaux Strait: 

“Another time we were fishing at Dog Island when we saw a dark-grey ashen line on the western horizon between Bluff and Stewart Island. This clearly spelled trouble, so we pulled in the hand-lines smartly. I went to my usual job of pulling in the anchor, which was then normally dropped down through the fore-hatch. On this occasion, by the time I had the anchor off the bottom, the rain had set in, so we couldn’t see the land – although the island was only 30 yards away. The wind was up and the sea breaking all around. 

Dad had started the engine and was steaming into the waves. As each wave struck, the bow would rise sharply, and the green water would wash over me and the warp, chain and anchor. Then it would drop away, leaving me momentarily in the air, holding onto the anchor and warp for dear life. I knew that if I lost control of the ground tackle it would foul the propeller and we would be on the rocks in no time. It’s amazing what you can do when failure is not an option. After a while the sea calmed enough to risk opening the hatch and getting the rope below.”

Around the time Alistair left school, his dad went commercial fishing in a 33-foot (10m) boat he’d re-built outside the family home. With the standard forward control and large, open, self-draining deck common to coastal fishing boats, Dad Gilbert made a good living from the then completely unregulated fishing industry. As a fisherman he mainly operated out of a family crib in Mill Bay on Stewart Island, where he is now buried. Using both pots and handlines, the primary targets were cod and crayfish.

Current boat for Alister – and with a 30-year pedigree – is a 12-foot plywood Sunburst yacht. Having completed a biology degree, he moved as a high-school teacher to the Bay of Islands region. Here, family summers have been shared between Oakura out of Whangarei, and Taupo and Tauranga Bays either side of the Whangaroa Harbour, with one summer even at Waiheke Island in the Hauraki Gulf. On the last occasion, rather than sailing out of the Waitemata, the dinghy arrived on a trailer courtesy of a vehicular ferry ride.

The Sunburst is mainly used to explore the sheltered waters off Northland’s east coast, and kahawai have been regularly taken on lures whilst on such expeditions, while snapper have been targeted with rod and reel during balmy summer evenings. Memorable snapper catches have been few and far between, with pannies for the BBQ the most common result: a good measuring stick is a requirement for the modest specimens caught in heavily-fished locations. 

Apart from sailing, Alister’s other nautical passion has been the underwater habitat of Northland’s sheltered eastern waters. Whilst the occasional crayfish or scallop has passed his lips after an underwater hunt, his primary diving pleasure has been to explore and enjoy the flora and fauna of our marine environment. He also reckons a feast of crayfish helped with the romancing of his wife-to-be, Jo.

Memorable dives feature a very close encounter with dolphins whilst scuba diving for scallops near Rawhiti in the Bay of Islands. It didn’t take too long to realise that the dolphins were playing with them, rather than vice versa. On another occasion, whilst diving for scallops in the Whangaroa Harbour, he was shocked to discover a large barge rumbling past just above his head, despite him flying a big dive flag.

A keen conservationist, Alistair anticipates with enthusiasm the day that the unique and at-risk habitats along our coast can enjoy protection from human predation. He reckons a barren and empty sea is of no value to anyone. 

- Fishing News

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