It is his hands I notice first. They are small, the fingers delicately occupied. In company shirtsleeves, he is sitting in his captain’s chair and he is working the joysticks of this tourist boat.
The chair is deeply upholstered in fawn leather and it holds him firmly and comfortably. Here is a man at home in his world.
I am standing in the doorway of the wheelhouse, curious to see how the boat is run. It is really a small ship – 56 passengers this trip.
The captain, for this is he, carefully maneuvers us past a set of all-too-solid rocks. I want to say ‘then he relaxes’ but I never see him when he isn’t relaxed. A wide oval face beneath a wind-blown shock of silvering hair turns towards me and grins broadly – a wide welcoming smile. “Come in, come in. Come out of the weather.” A heavy New Zealand accent.
He sits before two large screens showing gps and radar positions, plus digital readouts of the minute details of both engines. Irreverently I wonder whether he has digital readouts for every piece of equipment on the ship including the toaster in the galley. Here is a man who can handle the technology, a seaman who has dispensed with a ship’s wheel and runs this large, elegant machine with two joysticks and a mouse. Clever.
Clever, yes, but he needs to be more than clever, he needs to be master of this environment. Technology is not enough. We are in the very south west of the South Island of New Zealand. This stretch of water is where the great explorers of the 18th century – the English, the French, the Dutch, the Portuguese all tried to gain a foothold. And on this particular stretch of coast, nobody did. It is uninhabitable. The rocks, the lack of soil, the way the vegetation grows. Their density and their lack of anchorage to the rock beneath mean trees eventually grow too big to hold on and fall to the waters below taking other trees with them. In this rain-forest environment, the whole fecund process starts all over again – first moss, then smaller plants and so on. This is raw country where the weather and the waters are unpredictable – hidden rocks, variable currents. Up-to-the-minute technology or not, it takes an experienced seaman to navigate here.
We have one, in this shortish, slightly over-weight – (I notice the cake and the coffee brought up from the galley!), genial man. He doesn’t stop talking. Here is someone who really enjoys this place and his work in it and wants everyone else to enjoy it too. He talks of the marine life, the terrain, the history. He talks about this boat and previous boats and adventures that occurred. He talks to his passengers but he also takes time to run through a crew-member’s questions about an upcoming exam. They go through the various readouts on the screens and worry over minute discrepancies. He acknowledges, with slight irony, that now everything is monitored, the minutest changes are noted and worried over whereas before nobody would have noticed unless there was an obvious, major problem.
I am sure he has a wife, a car and a lawn-mower at home and knows other sides of life, and maybe, just like the rest of us, he isn’t the perfect paragon of virtue, but here he is in charge. He has accepted responsibility for his passengers, his crew and his boat. He steps up to the mark every day. There is art as well as science to his work. He shares his enjoyment. I admire the guy. Good on him.