Masters of the river

Waikato River harbourmasters Richard Barnett and Kim McKenzie.
CHRIS HILLOCK/ Waikato Times
Waikato River harbourmasters Richard Barnett and Kim McKenzie.

Disintegrating human beings have been a big part of Kim McKenzie's life but you would never, ever know it. Because he is world-class happy. Not just first-baby or big-promotion happy, or even the kind of happy Richie McCaw will be on October 23. More waking up in a penthouse strewn with guitars and models and looking in the mirror and remembering you're Keith Richards happy. Every day, pretty much all day, is a good day at work.

The 64-and-a-half-year-old is Environment Waikato's harbourmaster for the river between Taupo and Hamilton and on the West Coast, including Kawhia to Mokau. And he likes his job a lot.

Last October he flipped backward off a truck and broke his fall on to concrete with the back of his head. So hard that he split his skull up to his eye sockets and so bad he spent three days in a will-he-or-won't-he ward in Auckland. He recovered.

"I was devastated when I couldn't get to work. They would only let me back for 10 hours a week and then 20 hours a week.

"It just ripped me apart."

Work involves 900-1000 hours on the water a year, clearing navigation hazards, enforcing boating rules (keep right on the Waikato), rescuing people, making sure they wear lifejackets and making sure those who don't wear lifejackets are returned to their families, eventually.

The dead humans can come out eyeless and falling apart. He was harbourmaster at Raglan for years and saw a lot there; as a police volunteer he saw a lot more and now he's doing this and there's still more.

It must bother him? "Why should it? You just get on with life. After the last ones, my boss said: There's counselling and all that there if you want it. And I said: For what? It's part of the job, you do it." He cares, angrily, about life.

"For God's sake, put this in there, man: If they wore lifejackets, I guarantee [the gnarled fist hits the riverside picnic table with a crack that raises dust] it's going to save 90 per cent of them. It might not save you in the lakes, because they are so cold, but you would be found a hell of a lot quicker. Last time, we never found bugger all until they floated."

He carries a jar of Vicks that he smears under his nostrils on the body jobs. The older cops share it immediately. The younger cops share it the next time.

He was an engineer on a trawler once and has the ink that goes with that, both as a CV and a logbook and a showcase of the development of the art of tattooing.

There's the girlie with the boobies retro-covered to assuage sensibilities of long-ago Hamilton Boys' High School masters and a barely readable time-honoured homage to mother and father, self-done, real young, with a matchstick and needle. A back mural in honour of the Harley-Davidson product, a swallow that's seen a lot of faded summers, an inexpert tiger that looks like a stoned house cat and a modern and exact giant weta creeping up an inside arm.

The other harbourmaster, Richard Barnett, doesn't have any visible tattoos but he is an unmistakable water dog, too.

With four and a bit years in the job, he has responsibility for Lake Karapiro and from Hamilton to Port Waikato.

He's a Hamilton local with a background in manufacturing and a long-time boatie. Kim's job evolved from stuff he was doing anyway that they slapped a harbourmaster tag on. When Richard came along, the job had its formal title and he applied and got it.

By now there's about a hundred years of river experience on the slipway and every single one has a lifejacket on before he gets a toe near the wet. Already the missing lifejacket mystery on the dead non-professionals bewilders Richard as much as the others and he's noticed a pattern. "They somehow get the idea the river water is a little more benign than the saltwater, when in fact more people drown in freshwater."

He tells the story of stopping people unjacketed because they were "just going over to the bach" – an echo of the "just going down to the shops" excuse for not wearing seatbelts that disappeared somewhere in the 1970s. He can see the parallel. "To a lesser extent, it's what the police traffic safety service has to deal with. The vast majority of people are really good when you pull them up and point out what they are doing wrong. The odd one gets excited about bureaucracy and council involvement and so on."

Last summer, he picked up an armada of kids who were trying to float down the river from Mercer when one of their variety of floaties stopped doing its thing.

"It was late in the day and a strong westerly can really whip up. I grabbed them aboard and they were freezing cold and pretty happy to be out of the water.

"People underestimate the river, even if it's only something like that – a float on the water in summer."

Surveys are run at the big boat shows that indicate a majority in favour of licensing recreational skippers.

But, realistically, he doesn't see it happening soon.

"Maritime New Zealand is often quoted as saying where skipper licensing and boat registration are required in some Australian states, they haven't seen a big impact in the number of fatalities.

"The best reason for doing it would be to make sure that skippers had the knowledge and skills to do what they do safely. If it didn't achieve that, there would be no point in doing it. It would have to be led by central government and there is just not the will to do that."

He's been lucky enough to avoid dead people for now, though a recent job involved towing a smelly ex-cow from under the bridge at Pukete to the arms of a luckless council funeral crew.

The guys see some fun things on their duties: A couple arguing while he pays out the tow rope and she is on the throttle – the resulting splash predictable, the woman, heedless, continuing to argue as hubby gets smaller and smaller.

There are accidentally glimpsed scenes of tenderness on the water, too, between creative, consenting adults who love each other very much and are also often surprisingly bendy.

But today Richard and Kim and part-timer Dave Clapham are teaming up to fetch a barge from Tuakau and shunt it upriver. The vessel is a 24-metre-long steel slab with two 20-tonne diggers on it and it's hard work for the boats. Richard pulls and Kim pushes, one boat's nose in the air like a spaniel pointing at a game bird the other dug in as if it's hunting rabbits. Kim's a marine engineer and organised a fix-up of the barge himself at a saving of more than $700,000 to ratepayers.

The harbourmasters bend props all the time in their close-in work and he repairs those, too, otherwise costing the taxpayer about $400 for each one.

Everyone involved in the dangerous industrial task is happy. Richard says Waikato-ites don't know what they're missing. "It's really only since I've been in this job that I've seen the recreational value of the river. Being a Hamiltonian, it wasn't something I looked at and said: That's a great bit of water. But I do now. There is room for much more activity."

Kim's trucked around the stretch all his life. Did he ever wish he'd spent his time on the Seine or the Amazon or the Nile – some storied and epic tract that bounded great nations and carried millions across the dreams of empires? Nope. There's not even a breath of a hesitation. "This river," he says. "I'm happy with this one."

Waikato Times