Hands off the bananas

CLEAR DIRECTIVES: Captain Michael Webb, of the fuel tanker Kakariki, has made the sea his home since age 16.
CLEAR DIRECTIVES: Captain Michael Webb, of the fuel tanker Kakariki, has made the sea his home since age 16.

Michael Webb sat in a stinking, sweltering hut in Cuba with his equally forlorn shipmate.

They had committed a terrible crime. Both were charged with stealing produce from the republic - bananas.

Webb, now a captain, laughs when he tells the story.

"We climbed up the tree to pinch some bananas and these Cuban police officers told us to vamoose. Being 19, young and bulletproof, we waited until they went around the corner and went back up the tree. They came running around the corner with guns," he said.

The ship's steward was dispatched to pay the fine - whiskey and cigarettes.

The produce thieves high-tailed it back to the ship and were told to don full uniform and be ready to report at the "old man's cabin" within 10 minutes.

"It was a case of ‘Yes sir, we are idiots, sir'," said Webb, 64, standing to attention as he recounts the dressing down.

As they left the cabin, he swore the captain was smiling.

Captain Webb, less of a larrikin these days, is known for being firm and fair, with a wicked sense of humour.

He is in charge of the Kakariki tanker ship, which hauls up to 48071 tonnes of fuel around the country.

Rules are strict because of the explosive cargo.

Few non-crew ever get to go on board but The Press was invited for a behind-the-scenes view of one of the largest ships on the coast while it berthed at Lyttelton.

No cellphones are allowed and cameras are strictly forbidden without permission. The vessel has 10 levels, the five upper decks containing sleeping and recreation areas, galley, bridge and control rooms.

It has five layers of thundering engines so deep the bottom cannot be viewed from the top of the metal stairs leading into the belly of the beast.

On one of Webb's previous vessels, when he was younger, there was a fire in the boiler.

"From memory, three incredibly drunk engineers put the fire out," he chuckled.

Times have changed.

There is a strictly-policed two-can daily alcohol limit on board, Webb said.

On the way to the bridge, chef John Harvey is spied whipping up spinach cannelloni in blue cheese sauce, veal cordon bleu and New York cheesecake.

The bridge is deserted because the ship is berthed. Out on the ocean, an alarm sounds every 12 minutes and a siren waking up all on board goes off if the officer on watch does not press a button.

Navigators on the Kakariki still use paper maps with pencilled plot marks. Webb expects his crew to know how to use a sextant despite electronic satellite navigation being available.

Webb has been at the helm of six ships since running off to sea at age 16, when he realised he was not going to be a footy star.

He briefly thought he might try his hand at teaching.

"Why would I want to teach a bunch of ratbags like me and my mate Ray Glove?"

As it happens, he caught up with his old mate Ray Glove last year, for only the second time since those days. Webb now looks back with pride on a fulfilling maritime career.

The Press