Address to Graduation Dinner – NZ Maritime School

First of all I would like to thank Captain Tim Wilson Director of the NZ Maritime School, and Captain Chris Barradale of New Zealand Maritime School for inviting me and my wife Jenny here this evening – and for giving me the honour of being your guest speaker.  I would also like to acknowledge Captain Ben Johnson and Captain John Franklin of the Company of Master Mariners and all the lecturers and staff of the NZ Maritime School.

Can I also at the outset extend warm congratulations to you the graduate students and sea officers for all for your hard work and success in attaining your certificates of competency – the all important ticket – and especially the award winners here this evening.

Can I also and especially acknowledge Captain Tim Wilson for his achievement over many years building up the the international reputation of the NZ Maritime School through these much more difficult times.

Mike Lee, Joshua Rodgers top student 1st Mates' studies, Director Captain Tim Wilson


When Chris Barradale asked me to speak here this evening I asked him – what would like me to talk about? And his suggestions were:

“1)   Your transition from ship’s officer to landlubber; 2)  Involvement with the Port; 3)      Chairman of the Auckland Regional Authority; 4)   Transport Committee and future wharf access; 5)   Waterfront development and future of Ports of Auckland.”

In other words the story of my life – almost – in 15 minutes.

Luke Grogan winner of Captain Worth Prize for top Mate/Master.


(Captain Worth’s son Geoffrey was a shipmate and good friend of mine. He also became a captain.  He was killed in the Persian Gulf in 1981 when his ship Pacific Protector was attacked by aircraft during the first (Iraq-Iran) Gulf War).

Thankfully Chris has mentioned quite a bit about me and my background in his very generous introduction so I won’t have to go on so much.

First of all I was a ship’s officer – but a rather unique species – a Radio Officer – and thanks to advances in technology now an extinct species (in a way rather like a Chairman of the ARC – why does this keep happening to me?) And truth be known if it wasn’t for the onward advance of technology I might be still at sea.

In regard to the Maritime School (or Nautical School as it was called when I was at sea) just about every deck officer I sailed with on the NZ coast and indeed offshore was a graduate of this school.  The School then had a great reputation – under the leadership of the formidable Captain Alec McMillan – whom I was surprised to learn only passed away last year.

There are some interesting stories about the school I still remember from my seagoing days.  Back in the early 70s when I first went to sea – an enormous amount of time seemed to be spent in the pub.  And the Nautical School seemed to have an important adjunct in a downtown public bar known informally as crank case corner.  This was on the corner of Queen Street and Fort.  It was officially called the ‘Lion Tavern’ but the older guys insisted on calling it the Imperial which I guess had been its original name. There were three big bars on the ground floor and a more salubrious lounge bar upstairs usually with a gent playing the piano.   A remnant of this establishment still exists with a TAB, bar bistro and a backpackers upstairs.

The seafarers, mates, engineers, stevedores, insurance wallahs etc would gather in the middle bar – every day including and especially it seems Nautical School students.  There was a blackboard on the wall emblazoned with the motto – Meliore Contende (‘strive for better things’) and on this wall would be chalked brief messages like 2nd Mate needed for run job from somewhere, R/O wanted Luhesand, 3rd engineer Tawanui and so on.

I suspect the high attendance of Nautical school students at crankcase corner before after and especially during their study leave contributed to a number of interesting stories about the school in those days.

Example: A young man up for his second mates was asked during his orals. Instructor:  ‘You are at anchor on an open roadstead and the wind gets up – what do you do?’ Student: ‘Pay out more anchor cable’.

‘Very good’ says the examiner.  ‘Ok wind increases – what do you do now’?  ‘Pay out more anchor cable’ the reply.  This was repeated ‘Ok,’ says the examiner (by now becoming a little frustrated)’ the wind is now up to gale force what do you do now’?  ‘Pay out more anchor cable’ comes the reply.

Says the irritated examiner ‘Tell me ,  Smith (I wont give the supposed name of the student) where are you getting all this anchor cable from’? Came the reply: ‘same place where you’re getting all that wind.’

Another story – this one I have on the best authority is absolutely true.  A young officer who hadn’t been doing particularly well during his orals (possibly because of too much time at crankcase corner), was asked: ‘you have a fire on board, you have a dry powder extinguisher, how would you use it to tackle the fire’?  The student who had clearly not swatted up dry powder extinguishers responded– ‘as per the directions on the extinguisher’.  The examiner sensing he had his man cornered, responded, ‘ But the main switchboard is down – the ship is blacked out –   it is too dark to read the instructions – what do you do now’? The student replied  ‘I would hold the extinguisher up to the light of the fire and then read the instructions.’

Anyway to comply with Captain Barradale’s speech instructions, I should about my transition from sea farer to landlubber.  I started off at sea in 1972 and 1973 on the government owned islands trader Moana Roa running between Auckland and mainly the Cook Island.  I later joined Jardine Mathesons (Indo-China Steam Navigation Company) of HongKong early in 1978 – sailed in bulk carriers on world-wide tramping.   I stayed with Jardines until the mid 80s – and hard-nosed capitalists as they were I have to say they were excellent employers.  During that period I also had a brief stint with the Union Company in Ngapara running between NZ and Australia – I didn’t stay long and went straight back to Jardines.  I then joined OCL in 84 and I was in the container ship Aotea running between Auckland and Japan.  I then in 85 joined the NZ Shipping Corporation.

In 1989 the New Zealand shipping corporation was reflagged, manned with non-union Spanish  and British crews and then sold.  This was a very traumatic time – even to remember it now.   I was caught up in the inevitable the industrial strife, picket lines etc.   The Merchant Service Guild was admirably led by Captain George Kaye and though we won most of our industrial battles – especially in court – we were unable to save the Shipping Corporation from being broken up and sold off.  Looking back that was the time in my life when I transitioned from being a standard sea-going type to someone more actively political.

It is sad even now for me to think of what happened to the NZ Shipping Corporation.   Looking back I believe the company wasn’t that well managed or well led, but I think the fault can be shared around everywhere in the work force from the top to the bottom.  What was needed was someone to be motivating the employees shoreside and seagoing personnel about how this company was owned by NZ, and how critical its success was to New Zealand. Anyway in the end NZ Shipping Corporation and all its assets was sold off for the laughable sum of $8 million dollars.

Of course at the same time communication technology changes were underway and Medium Frequency and High Frequency communications  by morse code were about to be superseded by Satellite communications.  I took the redundancy and went off to Auckland University and study for a Science degree.

Anyway I still managed to get the odd job at sea during university holidays and my last job was on the pipelaying barge Balder owned by Heerema a Dutch company, laying the pipeline between Maui A and Maui B in 1991-92.  It was during this time that a by-election was called for the old Auckland Regional Council for the Auckland Central seat in which I had lived (on Waiheke Island) for some time.  I was always interested in conservation and environmental matters so I stood – and to cut a story short – was elected.  So I paid off the Balder and a few days later was sworn in as an elected member of the ARC.   I was then immediately thrown into the hurly burly of regional politics.  The issue I walked into at the time was the proposed sale of the Ports of Auckland or rather the 80% shareholding – the other 20% was owned by the Waikato Regional Council.  The government of the day had ordered the ARC to sell the Port and it seemed a majority of the largely conservative ARC members were willing to oblige.   But for me it brought back the trauma of the sale of the NZ Shipping Corporation and so fighting to stop the sale of the port was something I was willing to do. The Council’s financial advisers Fay Richwhite were looking at a price of $200 million (which was hopelessly undervalued).  However my election campaign for the ARC did two things.  First of all it raised the issue of the port sale – previously under the radar as a political issue which was taken up by talkback radio, especially Radio Pacific.  Secondly my election shifted the political balance on the council.

The Talkback radio campaign (By Pam Corkery) led to a massive public petition – so after several weeks of debate 2or 3 of the previous pro-sale elected members began to waver and change their minds.  In the end a notice of motion which I jointly sponsored with fellow ARC member and good friend the late Bruce Jesson to resolve not to sell the ARC shares in the Ports of Auckland was carried after a long dramatic debate and in the full blare of publicity – but by just one vote.

Since that time well over a Billion dollars in dividends and capital repayments from Port profits have been returned to the region.  This was used in the first instance to pay off debt – but then to invest in transport and other infrastructure.  The current renaissance in commuter rail services in Auckland, including the Britomart Transport centre, the 30 or so new rail stations and a whole fleet of refurbished rolling stock,  and soon a brand new fleet of Electric Multiple Units, would have been impossible to even contemplate let alone achieve without the ownership and the wealth generated by the Ports of Auckland.

In 2004 as sometimes happens in politics my fortunes dramatically changed when I went from being a political back-bencher to becoming chairman of the Auckland Regional Council.

One of the first major decisions and a somewhat controversial one (though very popular with most Aucklanders at the time ) was our decision to buy back the 20% of shares privatised by the Waikato Regional Council in 1994.

100% ownership of the Port would give us much greater control of the Port.  It would also enable us to extract the 18ha Wynyard Point Tank farm land out of the Port and begin to redevelop it.

This we proceeded to do.

One of the reasons for taking the 17 ha Wynyard Quarter land away from the Port was that we believed the demands of redeveloping this area was taking a huge amount of time and energy which was distracting the Port Company from its core business – servicing ships and their cargoes.

Just about everything you see today at Wynyard Point (including the trams) was planned and financed by the ARC Group prior to the Super City from capital originating from the Port.  But the Wynyard Quarter contains a much greater ingredient of public open space and amenity than could have been enabled under a strictly commercially focussed development by Ports of Auckland.

The other decision which again generated quite a lot of public interest was the joint ARC/NZ Government purchase from the Ports of Auckland of Queens Wharf.  The motives for this was based on multiple reasons.  First of all politically we have had to contend with a quite insistent but uninformed school of thought (if I could call it that) that argued we don’t need a port in Auckland and that the 2 kilometres occupied by the commercial port should be turned into more apartments, parks etc.

Queens Wharf was planned to becoming surplus to Ports operational requirements being used to store imported cars, and imported fruit notably bananas.  We wanted Queens Wharf for two reasons 1) open it up to the public and 2) reconfigure it as the main cruise ship terminal.   The idea rather than accepted the assumption that ships have to be separated from the public here was an opportunity to get the public back onto Queens Wharf with ships.  There was another reason of course and that is the government was keen to make Queens Wharf the number one fan zone and as a site for the famous ‘Cloud’ for the Rugby World Cup.

In April 2010 we completed that transaction and reopened Queens Wharf (3 ha) to the public for the first time apparently in 90 years.  Queens Wharf succeeded admirably as a fan zone despite all the critics back in 2010 who said no one would turn up.  In fact on a number of occasions too many people turned up and extra fan zone space had to be allocated.

Coming back to its ongoing use cruise shipping is in a remarkable renaissance of passenger shipping.  From a handful of visits 10 years ago 101 cruise ship calls are booked for 2012/13.  The Council will fund a new cruise ship terminal of some $25m based on Shed 10.

Eventually Ports will move off Captain Cook Wharf which interestingly enough was used as an overflow fan zone during the Rugby World Cup.  If it does then I would argue that Captain Cook wharf when opened to the public be still used for commercial shipping – the type of shipping which doesn’t required to be kept behind high security fences such as required post 9/11  – ships such as cruise ships, other passenger vessels, naval vessels. research ships fishing boats etc.

But just this evening where I was at Queens Wharf at a function on the Chinese space tracking vessel YuanWang on Queens Wharf West – it was great to see a cruise ship Pacific Pearl on Queens East and lots of people wandering around the wharf looking at the ships.  That was our original vision and its very satisfying to see that vision come to fruition.

As regards the future of the Ports itself – I believe we need to remain on guard against those who continue to lobby for the commercial port to be shut down and transferred to Tauranga.   While Tauranga is and always will be very important New Zealand port , the Auckland Port is uniquely placed and has the major competitive advantage at being situated at the front door of the CBD of NZ inc.

POAL handled $26.4 billion of NZ imports/exports in 2010 which is equivalent to 16% of national GDP.  This includes $9.6 b in exports and $16.8b in imports.  This equates to 31% by value of NZ total trade.  In comparison Port of Tauranga handles 16% NZ trade and interestingly enough Auckland International Airport handles 15% (by value) of NZ Trade.  In addition POAL supports 22% of the Auckland economy and sustains 187,000 jobs

More than this we need to remember that New Zealand is an island nation-  a trading nation.   Shipping is the life blood of our economy.  Furthermore Auckland is a Harbour City – a Port City.   The City grew from the port and economically, Auckland is still critically reliant on the Port and maritime trade.  The south shore of the Waitemata Harbour after all was selected as the site for New Zealand’s capital by our first Governor, Captain William Hobson, who happened to be a Royal naval officer,  precisely because of the excellence of the Harbour.

Finally coming back to sea-faring and to the graduate officers here this evening – I must confess there is hardly a day that doesn’t pass when I see a ship out in the stream and wish that I was on her.  My time at sea, the places and things I visited and saw,  the people I worked with and became close friends with but never saw again, and most of all the humour and comradeship is, very much part of who I am and something I will never ever forget.

As the famous poet and essayist of the 18th century Dr Johnson once wrote: ‘Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier, or for not having been at sea.”

As sea officers you have a great and honourable profession – one to be really proud of.  Once again congratulations on your success and best of luck in your future sea-going careers. Thank you.

You may also like...

2 Responses

  1. Gerard Hill says:

    Michael , a very well crafted and I imagine a well spoken speech . Some content from the heart , more form experience,but most importantly a love of Auckland and{ like myself an adopted city} your deep understanding that Auckland would be a never become a city, and in future , an international city without a port. Congratulations on your achievements and may they provide inspiration to future generations of New Zealand mariners.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.