Busy role at port satisfies seafarer

20:10, Feb 06 2013
ken wilson
VARIED ROLE: Ken Wilson at the controls of the tug Te Maru, one of the vessels he is responsible for as PrimePort marine manager.

Grant Shimmin speaks to a man who has happily faced a few interesting workplace challenges in recent weeks.

Ken Wilson is one person who should never be caught complaining that his life is monotonous.

Because as the lanky Scotsman himself says, he never knows exactly what the next day will bring.

"The enjoyable part of the job is the variety," says the PrimePort Timaru marine manager.

"You don't know what's going to happen. You could get a call from an agency, saying they want to bring in a super yacht in 10 days . . . "

Or there could be news of other ships, with a variety of cargoes, which are already at sea and plan to put in at Timaru.


On Monday night, it was a call of a different kind that Ken got at 8.38pm, telling him of a yacht in distress off the coast south of Timaru. Because of the conditions, the coastguard requested the use of a tug and by 9.15pm the Te Maru, with a crew made up of port and coastguard personnel, including Ken, was en route to the Viti's position.

Yesterday morning, hours after returning from a successful rescue mission in heavy seas, Ken was back in his office but awaiting news of the departure time of a cargo ship, when he would be driving (yes, that's the word he uses) one of the port's tugs. The New Laurel had been due to depart at 8am yesterday, but Monday afternoon's heavy downpour had delayed unloading of its rain-sensitive cargo of fertiliser, meaning its departure time was uncertain.

Those sorts of challenges are all in a day's work for Edinburgh- born Ken, whose role means he is responsible for "all marine-related matters" at the port. Three pilots, two engineers and four marine service operators fall under him. He is also responsible for two tugs and a pilot boat.

"It's quite varied. There's a lot of time spent dealing with legislative matters, such as making sure that our vessels comply with all legal requirements."

He also gets called on to work as a pilot on occasions.

The role of a harbour pilot is one that has come into sharp focus in the past few weeks, with the port seeing heightened activity, including two visits by the cruise ship Seabourn Odyssey, which returns on February 19, the visit of Microsoft founder Paul Allen's super yacht Octopus last weekend and the loading and dispatching of a shipment of more than 7000 dairy cows to China on the Dareen.

The port's three fulltime pilots work a roster and Ken, as the fourth, covers holidays and illness. He says there are usually two pilots on at once, one on the ship and the other on a tug.

"When we get the big MSC container ships, we put two pilots on, one piloting the vessel and the other monitoring operations."

He explains that on arrival and departure, the master of a ship retains legal control, despite the presence of a pilot.

"The pilot gives advice, having knowledge of local conditions.

"We ask to take the helm, and give courses and engine commands."

Becoming a pilot requires candidates to be master mariners, which means they must have previously skippered a boat. In Ken's case, he had vast experience on ferries, between Britain and Europe, and later across Cook Strait, before arriving at PrimePort in late 2011.

But irrespective of previous experience, all prospective pilots go through a rigorous three-level training programme.

First there's the C class licence, which allows holders to pilot vessels up to 140 metres. Qualifying requires at least 100 training trips - qualification is not automatic, candidates are continually assessed - which takes three to four months.

The B class licence, which covers vessels up to 200m, and fuel tankers up to 160m, requires another 70 trips - training trips take place in a variety of conditions, including daylight and darkness - while the unlimited licence requires at least another 100 trips. Timaru has two pilots with this qualification, with Ken, here for just over a year, and another pilot, holding their B class tickets.

Even when a pilot has reached the top rung, however, training continues to keep their qualifications current.

"Simulator work is ongoing. We simulate emergency preparedness - things like coming through the harbour entrance and the ship loses its engine.

"Our biggest problem in Timaru is the wind. The northwesterlies can just come out of nowhere.

"Doing a job, you've always got to have in the back of your head a get-out that you can immediately execute."

Despite no seafaring background, Ken says going to sea was always what he wanted to do. Joining the P&O Group as a group cadet, at 17, was no surprise. "It's the old 'want to see the world' thing. I never really wanted to do anything else."

When he joined, P&O was a huge shipping company with a "broad variety of ships", making it an ideal training ground for the cadets.

It took Ken four years to get his second mate's ticket, which launched him on a 22-year career with P&O Ferries, covering "most of the ferry routes around the UK" and rising through the ranks to chief officer, then master.

A reorganisation in the company saw him move to the Stena Line, with which he spent another four years on ferries.

Then, in 2006, he and his wife found their way to South Canterbury on holiday, their daughter having met a New Zealander playing rugby in Scotland.

Having had a look at the place, Ken decided to "inquire about a job" and found himself being interviewed by Strait Shipping, which had started an interisland ferry business a few years earlier.

"I talked to them and they said 'When can you start?' It's a job that's on the skills list," he explained.

The next five years saw Ken doing a fair amount of driving. Living in Timaru with his wife - both their daughters and their three grandchildren now live here - he was on for two weeks and off for two, so he did the six-hour drive to Picton, and the return journey to Timaru, every fortnight, before being employed by PrimePort.

"I was always hoping to get even a pilot's job," he says.

Now he has the satisfaction of an extremely varied job but also, having spent "most of my life away from home", the chance to spend a bit more time with family.

And he couldn't be happier to have ended up in Timaru. "It has everything you want, swimming complex, movie theatre . . . but it's still small. It was a fortuitous move."

His employers at PrimePort would probably agree.

The Timaru Herald