Wild West adventures at sea

11 Jan 2022

Wild West adventures at sea


The old saying that sailors “know that the sea is dangerous and the storm terrible, but they have never found these dangers sufficient reason for remaining ashore”, seems like an accurate way to sum up long-time Whitianga local, Gary Dowling’s close to 40-year career sailing the seas. 

Found sometimes having a quiet beer at Smitty’s or going for a peaceful bike ride along the shoreline, Gary, an unassuming and somewhat private character, has a series of out-of-this-world stories to tell about his experiences as an international chief marine engineer that could blow a Hollywood big screen movie out of the water. When asked about his adventures at sea, he smiled while looking out the window towards the ocean and answered, “It’s like the Wild West.”

Initially deciding to follow the career path of a marine engineer as a means to travel the world while being paid and having a work rotation of six months on then six months off, Gary did not realise at the time it would also be a life of extreme and drastic situations. 

Gary was assuring that these eye-opening experiences “have all turned into fond memories”, however he admitted that he might have “gotten a bit more than what [he] bargained for”. 

Gary knew he was hooked from the moment he sailed under San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, his first ever venture out of New Zealand as a fresh faced 22-yearold. It was also his first time crossing the equator. This meant whether he liked it or not, being a pollywog, a sailor who has never crossed the equator, he had to undergo an infamous initiation known as the King Neptune ceremony that every true sailor must face. This led to a day full of rowdy antics at the expense of the pollywog and an expensive night of the bar tab being footed by the new sailor as well. “I should have known from the start that I was in for a wild ride,” Gary grinned.

As dangerous as a high bar tab may be, Gary’s initiation would never have prepared him for what could only be described as being thrown into the deep end of life travelling across international waters. His experiences ranged from dangerous encounters with illegal immigrants trying to smuggle their way into America hiding among the crates on the cargo vessels he worked on between Ecuador to Miami and being chased down by Somalian pirates off the Ethiopian coast, to a vessel hitting an iceberg in Antarctica at 14 knots. “That was a hard case, that one,” Gary admitted in a rather casual manner for what would be a terrifying ordeal for most. “That’s why I call it the Wild West, you never know what’s going to happen at any given moment. No one knows what the true sound of silence is until they venture out to sea with nothing other than the thrum of the engine in the background. It is the most peaceful sound you could imagine. Then, of course, this can all change with the seas or, you know, a spontaneous pirate attack.”

One of the most challenging moments in Gary’s career was the time the main engine of the vessel he was on failed when they were on their way to deliver bananas to New Zealand and were left to drift aimlessly for 11 days in the South Pacific Ocean close to the Henderson and Pitcairn Islands. On the fourth day, it became obvious that the vessel was in serious risk of running aground onto Henderson Island as it drifted closer and closer. “We were miles from anywhere, no one would have been able to come help us in time,” Gary said. “The crew came up with the bright idea to tie down the heavy duty tarpaulins that are usually used for securing cargo onto the deck and hoisted it up with a crane, making sails on three of the ship’s cargo cranes, resulting in us sailing past Henderson Island and avoiding collision. We were finally able to get the engine running again and make it to New Zealand in one piece, however 28 days late with goneoff bananas.”

Similarly, a few other memories were made through some highly dangerous biannual trips between South America and South Korea. It is mandatory before setting sail to have the bottom of the ship checked by divers in case anything that doesn’t belong underneath was strapped on. 

During one such trip, after approval from the local authorities was granted, the ship set sail, briefly stopping in the USA and Japan before arriving in South Korean to unload its cargo. As Gary was doing his mandatory checks, his flashlight exposed a massive cylinder shaped container that was attached to the side of the ship. Alongside him at the time of this discovery was a highly ranked employee of the company the ship belonged to.

“He was a really dodgy fella,” Gary remarked. “He immediately ordered for the container to be removed and for it to be destroyed in the engineering room of the ship before the Korean dockmaster was to get air of it - a container coming straight from South America, which seemed to have had its contents emptied at the stops made along the journey. I’ll let you have a wild stab in the dark at what used to be stored in it.”

Gary considered the time they rescued a group of men stranded on the Guañape Islands who were on the brink of death as possibly his most memorable sea story. Also known as the “Guano Islands”, these islands, just north off the coast of Peru, are known for their bird droppings that are layered more than 100ft thick. The islands are also an infrequently visited bird sanctuary.

Having a passenger ship full of bird enthusiasts, they stopped by these islands not expecting to see another soul. Consequently, it was a massive shock when the passengers found four men that had been stranded there for nine days hiding from the sun in the wreck of their boat without any water or food supplies left. “They would have 100 percent died if we hadn’t showed up right at that moment, I don’t think they would’ve lasted too much longer to be honest,” Gary said. “It was lucky for them, as no one heads out to those islands ever, there was no radio signal and it’s very far away from the mainland. They were also in a very old, beaten up tiny wooden boat that you wouldn’t even want to take out of the Whitianga harbour.” 

After stocking up their non-existent food and water supplies, Gary and a few other engineers fixed up and refuelled the men’s boat. After they had eaten and drunk enough water, the men hopped into their boat and finally made their way back home alive. “I’ve never really been too phased by the dangerous experiences per se, when you’re in the moment you're not really thinking about it, just what you’re going to do about it,” Gary said. “Seeing those people saved from nearly dying to then speeding off home, is just a reminder that it’s all just one big adventure really.”


Pictured: Whitianga resident and chief marine engineer, Gary Dowling.