Maritime mates Barnaby Perkins and Alisdair MacDonald are both 68, both began their seafaring careers in 1964 and both hail from the United Kingdom. It was 30 years ago when their paths first crossed, not sailing the high seas, but tramping the high slopes of Mount Taranaki near to where the former sea captains now live with their families. What, I wonder, led them to pursue a career on the ocean waves?
“It seemed like a good idea at the time!” chuckles Bristol-born Barnaby, “but it was also a family tradition. I was interested in ships anyway. During the sixties, it was a matter of getting away to see as much as the world as possible, it was an adventure.”
“Global air travel wasn’t around then so you had to run away to sea. In my first two years I went round the world twice and visited all sorts of exotic places that I wouldn’t have otherwise been able to.” Alisdair grew up in a small fishing town on Scotland’s west coast where most of the men ended up working at sea. He fetches his log and notes that his career started on 11 August 1964, joining a ship in London before setting sail for Asia.
“It was a big shipping company with around 30-odd ships, and was based in Edinburgh,” says the skipper. “Sailing out of London, a round trip to the Far East would take around four-and-a-half months. A lot of the companies at the time would regularly go away for a year, but ours was a lot more civilised! Our leave was always generous, too.”
Barnaby fell in love with New Zealand very early on. “It was a big favourite,” he says. “I got here at the start my career and I kind of made up my mind then that I would come here to live.” I suggest there’s a certain romance to the notion of sailing.
“When you’re 18 you’re not really thinking about the romantic aspect,” says Barnaby, “but I suppose it is romantic. At the time, though, it was more about adventure.” And was there a girl in every port? “All I can say about that without incriminating myself too much is that there is a slight bit of truth to that!”
Barnaby, now retired, first became a captain in 1975. He’s also worked as a consultant and taught here and in the United Kingdom and was previously head of faculty at a maritime college in Newfoundland, Canada.
Alisdair too is now retired, though still helps out on a floating storage tanker close to where he lives. Both men spent their seafaring lives mostly aboard cargo ships and say the industry has changed almost beyond recognition.
“GPS navigation has been used for the past 20 years,” Barnaby tells me, “but I recently read that the American navy, realising GPS can obviously be shut down at any time, are reintroducing celestial navigation. That’s the way we used to do it.”
It’s just one of a collection of skills that the men fear are dying out. “A skilled captain needs common sense and good seamanship,” says Alisdair. “If you have those you’ll never go far wrong.” I ask if he feels a certain spiritual connection with the sea. “I’ve enjoyed my time at sea for sure,” he tells me. “And I’ve never wished to have done anything else. It was a good life.” It’s a sentiment echoed by his friend and fellow skipper. “I do feel a strong connection with the ocean, but it’s more of a nostalgic thing now,” Barnaby says. “More of a connection with the my seafaring years past, of that sense of freedom, of adventure.”
The odd storm certainly added to those adventures. “I used to revel in severe weather conditions when I was a youngster,” says Barnaby. “I remember bouncing around in a typhoon in Yokohama and thinking about how glorious it all was, but the same situations nowadays would worry me as I know how fragile life is at sea. As an interesting comparison, I was flying up to Papua New Guinea once to join a ship and I got talking with the chief training pilot, a Welshman, for their airline.”
“His career had been about as long as mine and I asked him how many life-threatening experiences he’d had in the air and he said none, whereas I’d say there were three or four times where I thought, ‘that’s it, it’s curtains’. You do hear stories about ships disappearing, the ocean can be an alarming place at times and I’m quite happy to stay away from it now. But, given the chance, I’d certainly choose to do it all over again.”