In a lifetime of fishing Stuart Reardon reckons he has used up about six lives.
Like a cat, he may have three left but time is running out.
Aged 66, with a body that is feeling the rigours of 45 years of hard labour at sea, he is the last trawlerman fishing into the once bustling fishing port of Wellington.
He is still wiry and strong but the nerves on his fingers are raw, sensitive to salt water and slippery fish, and one of them is missing, amputated after it became gangrenous due to a fish spine under the nail.
He skippers Winbill, owned by Wellington Seamarket principal Tony Basile, fishing into their three retail shops in Wellington and servicing their online customers.
The main target species is tarakihi, Wellington’s go-to fish, trawled from the fresh, clear Cook Strait waters around Baring Head, Cape Palliser and along the southern Wairarapa coast.
It is usually a three-day turnaround and the fishing is good. Reardon rates it as good as he has seen in his long career.
It is a slick operation that serves the Wellington market well from the Cuba Street base, a shop on the Lambton Quay mile and busting retail in Lower Hutt, specialising in selling whole fish and cutting to requirements.
The fish are chilled in an ice slurry as soon as they are caught, unloaded at Waterloo Quay in the heart of the city, processed and on sale the same day.
Reardon has fished for the Basiles for more than three years, almost a record in an at times turbulent career across a multitude of vessels.
He gets on well with the family and deals closely with Tony Basile and his son Dion and the staff.
He and his two-man crew, currently Kelvin Thomas and Mark Jennings, are on 30 percent of the catch after expenses and say they are treated fairly.
The respect is mutual.
“He’s a good man,” Tony Basile says of his skipper. “That’s all I can say.”
Winbill has sufficient quota to fish all year round.
“After all these years I reckon the fishing has got better,” Reardon says.
“We always get a bag somewhere. There is not a lot of pressure on this area now.
“A lot of recreationals will say different but that is the case.
“We had a shot in Palliser Bay. Normally you will get one or two cases of snapper on the west coast. We had 65. It was all snapper. We’ve never had snapper like that before. The currents are warming up.”
On this early winter morning sitting in Winbill’s neatly kept wheelhouse, Reardon has returned a day early in the face of a solid southerly with another good catch.
The swells were big – six metres – but with little wind at first and in two-and-a-half days they landed 200 cases of tarakihi (about six tonnes), with some hapuku, rig, skate, red cod and gemfish for good measure.
“My experience is on the mud,” Reardon says. “We don’t tow over three hours, the fish are in better condition that way. The tarakihi are big. We’ve never not got tarakihi there.
“We are not seeing any sign of depletion. A lot of that is that the boats are not hammering it all the time. Brian Kenton’s Bicante goes up to Turnagain but we’ve pretty much got it to ourselves.”
In the early 1980s Reardon supplemented his fishing as a part-time barman at the working man’s watering hole, the Waterloo Hotel across from the wharves opposite Wellington Railway Station when the weather was bad.
It was a hard case, hard drinking venue where railway workers raffled sugar sacks of water cress.
He was working there in 1981 on the day of a mass Springbok tour protest when a huge brawl broke out in the public bar.
“The protesters came in one door and the pro-tour rugby crowd another. Fists were flying. There was a lot of broken glass and a lot of fighting. We pulled the grill down over the bar and served the beer through it.”
Back at sea, he went pair trawling on Seaway out of New Plymouth and then bottom longlining on Fellowship with Dick Williams, taking the boat down to Greymouth from Auckland.
On July 13 of that year, a black Friday, he used up at least one of his lives.
He was mate on board Sealord II, a stern trawler skippered by Barry Gardner with five aboard, when it approached the notorious Grey bar in a huge sea with a full load of hoki – 40 tonnes plus.
Cascade had already made it in as Sealord followed, taking a couple of big waves over the stern.
The river was in flood and it took half an hour labouring from the entrance to the turn into the shelter of the lagoon.
That was when the motor stopped. The anchor was dropped but it could not hold in the fierce current and the vessel went out sideways through the breakers. The anchor then held but not for long. There was a boom as the chain snapped and the vessel was pounded as it drifted on to Cobden Beach.
A rescue helicopter arrived and three people were taken off one at a time in a lowered net.
On the fourth pass, the net and chain wrapped around the stricken vessel’s mast and the pilot dumped it before his machine was dragged into the sea.
Reardon had to clamber up the mast and free the net. He managed to do so but once the net was reattached he jumped into the sea, preferring to be plucked from the water rather than the heaving boat.
Two days later on the Sunday, the crew used up another life.
Headed to Christchurch in a Mini, they stopped for a session in Jackson’s Hotel. On the west side of Porter’s Pass they rain into a snow wall. They were picked up in a Land Cruiser but crashed into the back of a car in whiteout conditions. A Ministry of Works truck with a snowplough then smashed into them from behind.
“That was a weekend to remember,” Reardon says.
“We thought it was just a joke.”
It was not so funny when he was lost overboard on Grace Mary while gill netting for ling in the Hokitika Trench well offshore.
It was pitch black in the middle of winter when some retrieved gear was being transferred to another vessel, Souvenir.
The other boat came in too close to the stern and a rope out of the net spreader caught Reardon in the chest and flung him into the sea.
He was still hanging on to the rope when he came up, bobbing like a float in the frigid water.
The crews could not see him in the dark but guided by a light by the hydraulics he was able to swim 30 metres back to the boat and was hoisted aboard, shivering and shaken.
“It’s been an interesting fishing life,” he says in masterful understatement.
Following the Sealord sinking, he got straight back on the horse in the form of another Gardner boat, Lady Dorothy.
Then it was on to Joe Gilman’s Buchaneer II for the tuna season and then Bob Fishburn’s Towai longlining for ling.
In 1987 Reardon did his coastal master’s ticket and second class marine engineer and took over his first vessel as skipper – Steve Winchester’s Silver Foam trawling for flats down to Jackson’s Bay.
Following his Grace Mary dunking he chased tuna board Golden Star for Sealord and then ran San Constanzo for Tom Fisburn out of Greymouth, trawling and tuna fishing.
He twice won the Silver Watch Prize – a Rolex – for biggest tuna.
He was hit by a big storm, 75 knots of sou’west in Bruce Bay, and brought the damaged San Constanzo back to Greymouth and transferred to Marconi …” a good sea boat, the crew were tremendous and we delivered good loads of fish into Talley’s”.
Ned Smith’s Liberator was next after a couple of years.
He admits he was a tense, demanding skipper and went through a lot of crew. He regards drugs, methamphetamine in particular, as a scourge and refuses to let anyone cross a yellow parking line on the wharf to his boat if they are suspected users.
But following some serious family drama where Reardon administered rough justice that the law took exception to, he spent nearly four years in Christchurch’s Paparua Prison.
He emerged wiser and sadder and went back to sea, aboard Esperance in Mangonui and then as solo skipper on Moana longlining for snapper out of Auckland and Whitianga.
Then it was down to Napier running Danielle for Nino D’Esposito’s Hawke’s Bay Seafoods, Trial B gillnetting for moki and rig, Pacific Trawl and two years longlining for bluenose on Moon Shadow.
He delivered Corinthian from Auckland to Golden Bay and trawled there, fished for tuna out of Nelson on Tenacity and, finally, in 2018 took over his current vessel, Winbill, a 17.9 metre stern trawler side lifter built in Auckland by Vos & Brijs in 1977.
He lives in Napier with second wife Robyn, whose name is tattooed on his neck, and wants to hit the road in a newly acquired house truck.
“This is a young man’s game,” he says.
He has perfect recall of a fishing way of life that is fast disappearing as he reels off all the boats and owners and adventures he has known.
That precision extends to his whakapapa, which he traces back to 950AD, before the Maori migrations.
He is descended from whalers. The whalebone archway at Kaikoura’s waterfront cemetery – Takahanga - was donated by his grandfather Tom Reardon, who fathered nine boys and nine girls.
His great great great grandfather Patrick Norton whaled out of Te Awaite in Tory Channel from the late 1820s and married Makerita Tangitu (Te Atiawa).
Another more recent ancestor, great uncle John Reardon, was the first Kiwi to die in World War I, aboard an Australian submarine.
Reardon’s own varied voyaging is coming to a close, it is nearly time to drop anchor.
- Tim Pankhurst