Mar 22, 2010
You've got to believe in fate. How else can it be explained why, in 1960 when a fresh-faced 17-year-old Ray Barlow sailed on his first voyage from England as a cadet on a cargo ship, it berthed at Port Taranaki?
And how else can one explain why, when a couple of years later his ship again berthed at Port Taranaki, Ray Barlow attended a dance at the Star Gymnasium in New Plymouth and met his future wife?
There seems to have been a constant connection with New Plymouth, which in recent years has culminated in Ray Barlow being a member of the executive team at Port Taranaki Ltd, as both the harbourmaster and operations manager.
He retires as harbourmaster next month.
Now it's all going to end. Captain Barlow officially retires on April 16 - at about the same time his wife Shona retires from her job as a specialist nurse at Taranaki Base Hospital - and they will then be able to spend more time together.
The harbourmaster role has already been handed over to the port's marine services manager, Captain John Ireland. On his retirement, Captain Barlow's operations manager role will be incorporated into a new management structure within the port company. Then it will be all over - almost.
"There are a few bits and pieces people still want me to do, so I won't be gone completely and I'm going to carry on as the patron of the New Plymouth Yacht Club, where I intend doing a lot more sailing. But I think at my age I'm going to be more like ballast than sailor," says Captain Barlow, who turned 67 on Friday.
Ray Barlow was born north of London in the Blitz in 1943. When he was nine his family moved to Bristol, close to the port of Avonmouth. That proximity to the coast sparked no interest in seafaring till the young man was about 15, when he watched a television documentary about a pre-sea school at Southampton.
"That triggered something, and I decided to join the school," he recalls. "I spent a year there learning about boat handling, navigation and other seafaring skills, and then I joined the Blue Star Line as a cadet."
His first voyage on a Blue Star vessel was on the New Zealand Star. That was the ship that visited Port Taranaki in 1960. Captain Barlow says he cannot remember much about that first visit, apart from the fact he saw Mt Taranaki and the ship unloaded general cargo from Britain.
But he remembers another time he visited New Plymouth, this time on another Blue Star ship - the Australia Star. He went to a dance at the old Star Gymnasium and met local girl Shona McIntosh.
That was in 1963. In October that year he immigrated to New Zealand and joined the Union Steamship Company, and in 1965 the couple were married.
That year Ray Barlow also got his mate's ticket - entitling him to be second in command on the ships he sailed on - and it was not long before he was appointed the youngest chief officer in the company.
The couple went to Britain in 1967 so he could gain his master's ticket. Once that was achieved, his first command was aboard a tanker making its maiden voyage. That led to his gaining experience with tankers, all of which was to prove valuable on their return to New Zealand in 1970 - because he moved straight into this country's burgeoning energy industry.
"I moved right into being skipper on the Min Tide and the Canadian Tide, the two support vessels for the Sedco-135F, which drilled exploration wells off the South Island and the appraisal wells out in the Maui gasfield," he says. "I'll always remember arriving for that work - we got off the big jet after flying in from the UK, and I was immediately flown to the West Coast in a light plane then helicoptered out to one of the support vessels."
During the time drilling the Maui wells the support vessels were based at Port Taranaki, and Ray Barlow got to know the port's harbourmaster John Flett and his assistant David Giles. This led to a job offer with the port when the drilling rig was relocated to the North Sea after the Maui operation.
He was initially mate and then master aboard the port dredge Ngamotu, and once he received his ship's pilot licence in 1972 he worked as a pilot as well, carefully guiding big ships into the port's rather compact harbour in Taranaki's often boisterous weather.
When Captain Flett retired, he was appointed deputy harbourmaster, and in 1988 he was made harbourmaster when Captain Giles retired. Former operations manager Peter Holmes retired at about the same time, so he took up that role as well.
Since then, Captain Barlow has played a major role in substantial developments of Port Taranaki, and - fittingly, since he is a pilot - he is happiest to talk about his involvement in developing the port's fleet of tugs and pilot launches.
"I wasn't here when the port ordered the tug Maui-1, but I was the first person to drive it because the person who was supposed to do the job got sick," he recalls of the oldest of the port's fleet of four tugs. Then when the Rupe was built in 1984 to help handle the bigger ships that were to arrive as a result of the Think Big energy projects, I did the delivery voyage from Port Chalmers. We purchased Kupe from Wellington a few years ago, and the latest tug, Tuakana, was built in Northland.
"And then there's our pilot launch, Westgate. Do you know it was the first rigid inflatable boat to be used as a pilot launch in the world? I'm very proud of that boat - it cost $1.5 million to build in Australia, and two years later we picked it up for $250,000 at a mortgagee auction when the company that owned it went bust."
Another pilot launch, the Rawinia-2, was built two years ago and he had a major role in deciding on its design specifications.
During his career with Port Taranaki, he has used the pilot launches and tugs to guide more than 3000 ships in and out of port. And that's even after taking into consideration that he has not done much piloting in the past three to four years. "The ladders get a lot higher as you get older."
Piloting is an art, he says. It takes years to train for the task, which is just as well considering that some chemical tankers being guided in and out of the port probably carry a value of as much as US$100 million (NZ$140m). "When you think about it, berthing a ship is actually a controlled collision with a wharf," he says.
Captain Ray Barlow says his career with Port Taranaki has been satisfying and full of challenges.