Swapping the wheelhouse for an office was a career move Colin Smith expected would take some getting used to, yet the ocean-loving fisherman of over 32 years took to life on land like a duck to water.

When Smith was offered a non-vessel role at Westfleet Fishing over five years ago, he wasn’t sure it was the right move, but decided to take a leap of faith. Instead of yearning for life at sea, he has relished the wealth of extended learning opportunities it’s afforded him. And now his move, not to mention his breadth of wisdom, is set to benefit the industry as a whole, as a new executive member of the New Zealand Federation of Commercial Fishermen (NZFCF).

Smith had been at sea since the age of 18, racking up a wide range of experience - including inshore, deep-sea, hand lining, surface lining, drop lining and even pāua diving - culminating in seven years as 1st Mate on Westfleet’s Tasman Viking, fishing for alfonsino and orange roughy out of Nelson. He’d decided the time was right to move on, but Managing Director Craig Boote had other ideas, having spotted Smith’s potential and offering an opportunity on an essential mission. Taking on the compliance role for a business that fishes off the West Coast with vessels going over the infamous Greymouth Bar was enough to tempt the Napier-born lad from finding pastures new.

Some warned it would take years to adapt to a desk-based role, but Boote encouraged Smith to expand his horizons through further study – a move that’s led him on a whole new journey of discovery, including an extended love of learning – something he says would shock his teachers from school as he’d never been academic as a teenager.

The compliance role was interesting for Smith, with six boats at the time to oversee.

“I did that for eight months and then he offered me the GM job. He’d seen something in me that I hadn’t seen and by encouraging me to do the courses, helped prepare me for a new direction. I could never have sat down here with a deep-sea Skipper’s Ticket and pretended to know anything about office work, how a business runs or how a business is structured.”

Smith has studied a number of topics, including business management, accounting, project management and human resources. “These days I’m what they call ‘a spreadsheet fisherman’,” says the 56-year-old with a laugh.

“It’s amazing how you can tell from a spreadsheet what the boats are doing – the figures tell a story. Once a course finishes, I can’t wait to start another one. I thought I was just a dummy at school, but now I study and I love it - it actually drives me.”

This is quite a departure from the years at sea that have led to an extensive CV with experience on many vessels.

His first trip from Napier was aboard the inshore vessel Dawn Breaker as deckhand.

“As a lad I loved just staring at the sea, going down the Marine Parade and looking at the ocean. My parents would buy fish off the boats for dinner and I used to watch big ships disappear on the horizon and wonder where they went. None of my family are fishermen or sailors, and I’d never been on a boat before, but I just thought I’d give fishing a crack. I joined up as a deckhand with Richard Barnett Fishing, just to see what it was like.

"I loved going out on the little 40ft set-netter for moki. The trips weren’t long, just two or three days, and the skipper would take a bag of lollies and that’s how you’d judge how long you’d be at sea – by the size of the bag of lollies. To be at sea was fantastic. The money just came with it, but my first call was to be at sea.”

Following that he moved to Nelson, the country’s biggest fishing port, and also spent some time working out of Wellington. Within four years he was a skipper – of the Challenger 11 pāua diving vessel. In his earliest years he also worked extensively with Denis and Michael Wells. “That was before the quota system,” says Smith.

“We went all round New Zealand and could catch fish anywhere. For a young lad to get paid to go to all these ports was quite exciting.”

Later, also with the Wells brothers, he enjoyed fishing in the South Pacific. “I remember the first long trip I did, which was for four months albacore fishing. It was just zinc, sunglasses, shorts and jandals. Those times in the South Pacific were probably my favourite fishery. Every trip when we were drop lining outside the EEZ we would spend two days outside the line, grid-searching for new features. That gave me a buzz. On a few new features we found the bass were so big they were the size of cows.”

It wasn’t until he was working on Sealord’s Lord Auckland in 1994 and went to sit his deep-sea Mates Ticket at the age of 29 he realised that although he’d never intended to, he’d made the sea his life.

“The tutor said ‘welcome to your career’ and that’s when I thought, maybe you’re right.”

By 1996 Smith was doing his deep-sea Skipper’s Ticket.

“Every course I’ve ever done was amazing to me – I never passed anything at school, not a thing. My father was just blown away that I passed my tickets first pop. I studied really hard because I didn’t want to go and do them again and have no wage.”

Once on the deep-sea boats, Smith took an active role in health and safety.

“I actually wrote my own manual on each boat on firefighting and lifesaving so that I could tailor it to the gear on the individual vessel. I did that too on the Viking. Craig had obviously heard about it, so when MOSS came along and we all had to develop our own safety systems for vessels, Craig offered me the job.

“There were plenty of times I was gonna throw it down the ramp and say ‘Craig this is too much for me’ but I quickly had to learn a lot about Microsoft Excel and I now love Excel.”

Now, as GM and based in the company’s offices in Nelson, he does spend some of his time on the Coast, where Westfleet currently has four boats. Part of his compliance responsibilities initially involved a trip on each boat at least once a year. His first voyage in this role was on Westfleet’s smallest boat, Jay Elaine, and it was the first time he’d been over the Greymouth Bar on a fishing trip.

“I remember thinking, 'Oh my God I take my hat off to these guys’,” he says. 

He no longer needs to venture out on the fleet vessels, but still gets some time on the water in his recreational vessel, his ‘5.8m tinny’.

“My partner likes diving and fishing too – although she likes fishing more than me. I’m not really good at recreational fishing, trying to catch a fish on a hook, but it’s always fun.”

He still dives for pāua, with a mate off the Viking, but admits he doesn’t really get much spare time these days. Despite his already stretched schedule, he’s been happy to add to his list of responsibilities the place on the executive at the NZFCF, or ‘The Fed’.

“It was Craig who got me going along to the conferences,” says Smith.

“It really opened up my eyes. When the doors are shut and fishermen are actually talking to each other about issues they have, I found that really powerful to know others have got the same worries. We need shoreside people to go to these meetings to represent industry because fishermen are actually out there fishing. If we don’t attend and put our points across then people are going to make decisions without our input. I’m not the most voiced person but at the end of the day, as a group we can make a difference, and we have Doug Saunders-Loder as president to approach ministers and represent everyone’s thoughts.”

With his vast range of experience in different fisheries, Smith’s input is sure to be valued and puts him in a good position to empathise and relate to crews in many different situations.

Fuel costs were a hot topic during his first sitting on the executive, as was the extra costs of reporting and cameras. 

“I have heard that some inshore guys are thinking of pulling out,” says Smith, who also represents Westfleet at the Health & Safety New Zealand Fishing Forum.

“The problems of crewing vessels have also been a concern for many. I don’t know what’s happening because there doesn’t seem to be many youngsters coming through. When I was younger and even when I was mate and skipper, everyone had crew waiting to get on boats.

“I still think it’s a great career. My life at sea has ended up getting me all over the world – I’ve been to the Islands fishing, and Fiji, to Australia for work and even taken a boat out to Africa. Since being in the office I’ve been to Japan, Vanuatu and Hobart. There aren’t many jobs you’d get to go around the world, especially for a person who didn’t do very well at school. There are so many opportunities and also life skills to be learnt.

"People said it was lack of social media access putting youngsters off joining vessels, so we put wi-fi on our boats and the factory boats have had it for years. At Westfleet we’ve got satellite TVs too.”

He’s now enjoying having an input into Westfleet’s new $6 million state-of-the-art 26m-longline vessel which will see every crew member’s bunk have its own screen with wi-fi, and which will be one of only two longliners ever to be built in New Zealand and the biggest by nearly 10 metres. It will be called Te Runanga after the West Coast town in which Boote grew up.

“It’s exciting not just us but for the West Coast too, and it’s interesting seeing the building process from the start, from a paper plan, and getting involved in the design. That’s something else I’ve never done before and another example of how my role is very dynamic. That’s one of the things I like most about my job, as well as seeing the boats go out and achieve the budgets we’re setting on our plan. If it all works and all goes well it’s great – for me that’s the same as the feeling I’d have got from filling the boat up.

“I’d always thought I was going to retire as a fisherman, but somehow, as soon as I came ashore I never missed going to sea.”

- Fiona Terry