As most of us celebrated Christmas lunch at home with our families, our fishing crew at sea on Christmas Day were very well looked after.

As the man in charge of feeding the crew aboard Sealord’s state-of-the-art vessel Tokatu, Dean Gibbons knows how lucky he is to be cooking with catch straight from the ocean and takes great pride in making sure everyone’s tastes are catered for. He always cooks fish on Christmas day, not just because his crew members – especially those from the Philippines – love it to be on the menu, but also because he has access to the freshest seafood on offer.

“It’s great cooking with such fresh fish,” he says.

“I don’t know any other way now because I’ve been doing it for so long.”

Having been on the boats at Sealord for 16 years, he has spent 10 Christmas' at sea. His planning for the special day starts weeks ahead, especially considering there’s no dashing back to the shops for forgotten items off the list.

“As well as fish, I’ll serve ham, turkey and lamb, with new potatoes, six salads and also veggies, as well as plenty of desserts – I love baking special desserts,” he says.

His final produce order is submitted a week before sailing, and at Christmas time always includes some extra treats for everyone - usually a box of chocolates. He also makes a special effort to mark the occasion by decorating the mess and galley with lights and a tree from home.

“I’ll be cooking for 48 crew members who’re working different shifts, so it’s the only day when lunch will be the same as the later meal – so that everybody has a chance to have Christmas dinner and the special pudding and treats - so for me it’s quite an easy day. There’ll be so much variety, the crew won’t have to eat the same thing twice.”

Added to this there’ll be special sauces, mince pies, and traditional Christmas fruit cake.

With over 20 of the Filipino crew returning home finally in November after being aboard for ten months due to Covid restrictions, he even cooked an early Christmas dinner last year, so those who’d miss out on the boat’s feast during the December voyage could get a taste for Christmas at sea aboard a New Zealand vessel.

“The Filipinos really loved the turkey,” says the father of three adult sons.

“It’s really important still for them that I also include fish because most of them love it - and we have such a great variety to cook with. We get some great catch – recently I had 10kg snapper to work with. I fetch the fish straight from the factory, whole, and fillet it myself because everyone working in there is so busy.”

He always takes great pride in the variety and quality of what he produces from his spacious and gleaming stainless-steel galley, whether it’s Christmas or not.

His career in catering began in 1990 when he went to Australia to stay with his uncle. The 19-year-old got an apprenticeship that included one day a week at chefs’ college on a four-year course. When he returned to New Zealand, in 1994 he desperately wanted a job on a deep-sea fishing boat but just missed out on an opportunity aboard a vessel. Instead, he found himself catering for over 600 residential university students, overseeing the team in the kitchen, then moving to the Air Force Base at Woodbourne. He spent three years there, until his boss at the time – who knew someone at Sealord – asked if anyone wanted to try out on a boat.

He couldn’t believe his luck. A fan of recreational fishing and attracted to fishing vessels by the pay and time off, he was delighted to land the job on Rehua.

The crew show great appreciation for his food, though it’s quite a different experience as a cook on a floating factory, he says. “It’s a bit different to cooking in a restaurant where people take a while over their food – these guys tend to eat so fast because they’re here for maybe ten minutes then want to either get back to work or go to bed. They’ll say thank you though – there’s a few who always makes a point of thanking me.”

Having experienced cooking overseas, he much prefers working with New Zealand supplies. “New Zealand produce is so flavoursome – the fish is delicious and there are so many varieties, the potatoes are much nicer to prepare, and even the carrots are sweeter and juicier.”

He enjoys fishing in his off time too when he returns to Turakina, near Whanganui, going out on his boat Scars1 – named after his first granddaughter Scarlet. As much as he plans his Christmas meal in advance, he won’t know until closer to the day what fish he’ll be cooking as that will depend on where the vessel heads. “New Zealand fish I think is the best,” he adds. “I love working at sea – I was attracted by the money, but it’s like having a really close family.”

Over on Amaltal Enterprise, Rebecca Hawker headed out to sea again in the second week of December and she was well prepared for Christmas lunch.

While Hawker now heads the vessel’s galley, the Motueka woman has been in the industry doing a variety of jobs for 11 years. She started with Talley’s onshore in processing, and then moved to the vessels. She admits she didn’t like being in the factory on the boats as much but loves where she is now. It took her five years as ‘Galley Girl’ doing the 2am start for the 4am breakfasts before she graduated to head of the galley, where she starts at 8am and works through until midnight.

Amaltal Enterprise had 42 crew hungry for Christmas lunch and she knows there will be plenty of leftovers for dinner. She went 100 percent traditional and there was truckloads of it.

“You’ve got to make it special. All they have is work. I try to make it so they don’t feel they are missing out. They’re all very young out there now. You know, 17 to early thirties. And their mums have done everything for them, so I really want to make it like home for them.

“They all continue working on Christmas Day, with no time off, so that’s another reason I really want to make it special for them.

“We set the tables, we have Christmas crackers, a Christmas tree and lights, and decorations, and last year I blew up 200 balloons. Even if there is a birthday throughout the trip, I make sure I have decorations for that as well. Last Christmas on the boat we had two birthdays the same day as well, so we made sure to celebrate those as well.

“They really love it. Even the big, tough boys with their stickers, their tattoos on, they love it too even if they pretend not to. They’re just boys.”

Last year they had turkey, champagne ham, pork belly, roast chicken, roast vegetables and six salads.

“Oh, and we have to do garlic prawns for them, they love those.”

The crew also get hors d’oeurvres when they arrive and have a huge spread of desserts that Hawker makes for them.

“I have such a sweet tooth I have to make lots of desserts, so they get at least seven. I do brandy snaps, pavlova, trifle, sponge rolls, truffles, and berries.

“It is insane. It takes me three days to prep the lunch.” 

“I have to brine and salt the turkey and make the stuffing – usually I do most things by myself but one year the engineers had some time, so I got them to carve the meat – the filleters were too busy in the factory.

“We even have non-alcoholic champagne corner.

“And we have the Christmas carols going. The boys say they don’t like them, but they have to put up with them because it wouldn’t be Christmas without Snoopy’s Christmas playing.”

- Fiona Terry (Sealord, Tokatu) and Lesley Hamilton (Talley's, Amaltal Enterprise)