Thursday, 21 March 2019

WHITIANGA WEATHER

A ferryman’s tale

After 16 years and nine months of transporting people, bicycles, prams, fresh produce, takeaways and a myriad of other things across the Whitianga River, well-known and much-loved Whitianga ferry driver, Eric Mair (pictured), has retired earlier this week.

Having worked most of his life on the water, Eric approached Dave Pierrepont (who was the ferry owner for many years) after a day trip to Whitianga in 2002 and asked for a job. He and his family were living in Auckland at the time, where he was working as an air conditioning technician. “I longed to get back behind the controls of a boat, and fortunately Dave was all too happy to accommodate my request,” says Eric.

The Stella B and the larger Mercury Star were the two ferries in use when Eric started working for Dave. “While I was used to driving boats, it was a new experience getting familiar with navigating the river,” says Eric. “One thing you learn is that you don’t teach the river, the river teaches you. You never stop learning in a job like this.”

Sometime later Eric also began skippering the Glass Bottom Boat on a part-time basis. “That was before scenic boat tours to Cathedral Cove became such a huge tourist hit,” says Eric.

In 2015, the Diana-Rose, the ferry that’s mostly used these days, was put into service. “A lot of thought went into the Diana-Rose,” says Eric. “She can transport twice as many people as the Mercury Star, which is very helpful over the busy season. She’s also level with the wharf, so it’s much easier to get bicycles and prams on and off the ferry.”

Eric has accumulated some interesting memories throughout his years on the ferry.  

He recalls how it was a regular occurrence for coffins to be transported across on their way to the cemetery at Ferry Landing. “Very carefully, of course, and always feet first,” says Eric. “I’ve also seen my fair share of hens’ parties and stag dos over the years.”

When the Mercury Star was the primary ferry in use, Eric used to row out in an aluminium dinghy to where she was moored. One morning, he lifted up the dinghy to find some people asleep beneath it. “They had a few too many the night before and missed the last trip across the river the previous night,” says Eric.

It also wasn’t unusual for impatient passengers to try to step off the ferry before it had completely reached the wharf. Needless to say, some of those passengers were left very cold and wet.

Eric says that he has seen a significant drop in intoxicated passengers trying to board the ferry in recent years, especially during the summer holidays and on weekends when big events were on in Whitianga. “People are behaving a lot better these days, which I think might be due to a stronger police presence,” he says. “It’s really pleasing to see.”

Eric often gave younger children the opportunity to steer the ferry on their way to school. “They would rush onto the ferry to get to the wheelhouse first” says Eric. “Some of those children ended up working as ticket clippers for us over the school holidays, and they became really good at helping to drive the ferry.

“I remember many of the children from when they were just starting out at school and now they’re adults, some with boats of their own.”

Eric and his wife, Dellas, plan to travel around their New Zealand in their motorhome and to visit family and friends more regularly. They have grandchildren in Wellington and Whitianga. Eric hopes to fit in some salmon and trout fishing along the way.

“I’m very pleased Dave gave me a job all those years ago,” says Eric. “I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my time on the Whitianga River. I’m left with wonderful memories and the knowledge that Dellas and I will always be part of a very special community.”

Assuming Eric Mair (who retired from driving the Whitianga Ferry on Monday this week after 16 years and nine months in the job) worked an average of 48 weeks a year and five days a week, he worked a total of 4,020 days as the ferry driver. Further assuming Eric worked a seven-hour shift every day he was on duty, and crossed the Whitianga River between the Whitianga Wharf and the Ferry Landing Wharf (a distance of approximately 270m) 10 times every hour (five times either direction), then he travelled a total distance of 75,978km on the Whitianga River during his career with the Whitianga Ferry. That equates to almost twice around the world. These assumptions do not include the many trips Eric made between 1:00am and 3:00am to ferry Corogold concertgoers from Whitianga to Ferry Landing in years gone by. 

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The Mercury Bay Informer is a highly popular community newspaper, based in Whitianga. The paper is distributed throughout the Coromandel Peninsula, coast to coast from Thames to north of Colville.