Long-time Putiki Bay resident Dave Collins has spent half his life at sea. 

His weather-worn face and tattooed forearms would encompass the stereotype if one were to look up ‘old salt’ in a hypothetical dictionary.  He was born on upper Queen Street and moved to Te Awamutu after his mother married an RNZAF Airman. In 1951, when he was around 8, he was hospitalised with pneumonia, and his mother and stepfather brought him to Waiheke, where he has remained since. Dave’s birth father, John (Jack) Stanley Collins, served in World War II in the RNZAF as a Flight Sergeant. His tours in the Pacific theatre included stints in Torokina, Bougainville, and towards the end of the war, Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands. His Mother and Stepfather owned a general store in Ostend, eponymously named Coffey and Collins. His stepfather also had a milk run and, latterly, a government mail run. “I remember as a boy picking up the milk from Seaview road-Syd Newtons’ farm”, recalls Dave, fondly.

Dave attended Ostend Primary School and, to this day, keeps in touch with several of his childhood chums, who are still around today. ‘You can’t kill weeds, they say,” chortles Dave. In those days, teaching in New Zealand very much followed principles derived from the ‘motherland’. “Lessons were very Victorian,” says Dave. “My teacher in those days, Miss Ponsonby, was very much from the British Empire way of doing things”.Waiheke High school’s lessons were held in the hall on Onetangi. Approaching his 17th birthday in 1959, Dave decided to leave school and shun the family business to seek a new adventure. In 1960, two days before his 18th birthday, Dave decided to join the Royal New Zealand Navy.” He says, ” I joined the Navy so that I didn’t have to work in the shop my whole life and do the hard work me dad was doing, ” Along with some other likely lads, plans were made to seek more worldly vocations. Dave says, “We discussed getting off the Island. One friend named Clarke joined the Army, and another, John, joined the Merchant Navy.

Initially serving on frigates HMNZS Royalist; HMNZS Pukaki; Auxillary Naval ship Tui; HMNZS Lachlan, a hydrographic Ship, and at port in Ships company at shore bases HMNZS Philomel and HMNZS Tamaki. Dave still has some great photos of these vessels thanks to his mother’s diligent documentation.” Mum kept a scrapbook while I was in the Navy”.He explains he was the “youngest leading hand in the Navy at one stage, but I didn’t get far. I got in too much trouble; I enjoyed too much rum! That’s what I was told- it was the best part of it.” Dave’s first Ship, the light cruiser Royalist, took the Governor-General up to Samoa for independence celebrations and had to weather a cyclone on the way. The Royalist also made her way to Pearl Harbour for exercises with the U.S Navy- the first New Zealand ship to participate since the end of WWII. The Tui was an ex-mine sweeper, a fleet auxiliary vessel that did research work in Pacific Islands. Dave says, “they put me on as a medic as they were dealing with explosives”. Dave’s favourite frigate was Pukaki, built by Britain for convoy escorts in the North Atlantic. It saw action in the Korean War in 1950. “We called ourselves the Fighting 424(after the Ship’s Pennant Number F424). On other occasions, the f****** 424!! It was good close comradeship with the guys on it,” says Dave.

He met his now-wife Elaine, who Dave describes as “a fantastic cook” while in the Navy. They had three children, Glen, Dawn and John. He fondly recalls his Navy days despite infractions that ultimately saw him leave the service. “I had a problem with authority; they wouldn’t let me sign on again,” Dave says wryly. By his admission, he drank too much and the powers that be lost patience.” By the end, they’d had enough of me, so I left. I don’t like looking back; I like to go forward, aye. The whole thing was Queen, and country-nothing else existed, that’s the way it was”.A short stint building followed his discharge from the Navy until Dave had an epiphany and realised” the sea was in my blood” In 1968, he got into commercial fishing, working on trawlers in and around Waiheke and Auckland. “Big catches were always attractive to me, and I thought I was going to make a bloody fortune, didn’t I”. 

Over the next few years, Dave plied his trade on vessels Kai AtaAvaAorangiSan Elizabeth and San Rosa and assimilated into the fisherman’s Guild as a paid-up union member of the New Zealand Share Fishermen’s Association.He served under skippers Angus McIvor, Peter ( Pedro ) Riley and Fred Hughes. In 1969, he took great inspiration from the teachings of Tom Pook, skipper of the Clematis, a Marine Department vessel who he met in 1969. On the 6th of April 1970, he achieved his Master Restricted Limit launch Certificate, and by 1972 he was acting skipper of Tio, which harvested rock oysters. It was here; that Dave first encountered legendary Waiheke Oyster fisherman Jim Ngapo. The two would become great friends, and in 1973 Dave was confirmed skipper of the Tio, with Jim progressing on to crewing his own boats. 

Dave on patrol in a dinghy off Waiheke. Photo Supplied by Dave Collins

Dave even penned a poem about the Tio

A small ship was designed by the powers that be

The Marine department in 1953

Constructed from the forests of the Kauri tree

Guaranteed not to fall apart

Well fastened by shipbuilder’s art

Massive great frames and keel

Outfitted with Kelvin engine, gauges and steering wheel

Six-inch by one-inch planks from stern to stern

Provided an income for artisans to earn

The only reason she was made

Was for the lucrative government rock oyster trade 

The name they gave her we well know

The good ship Tio 

Fifty feet length overall

Mast and derrick stood proud and tall

Twenty feet across the beam

Made her bigger than she would seem

Four foot six was all she drew

A complement of eleven was a total crew

Straight up and down when on the mud

Like a huge barrel or bathtub

Skipper and mate were permanent crew

With a seasonal cook on board for me and you

She rolls like hell in a coastal swell

Designed to work in shelter we could tell

Ancient petrol start Kelvin

Would fart clouds of black smoke and make a din

To wake up the viaduct was a joke

Out on deck you might choke

In winter at the viaduct every Friday there to unload

Up to five hundred sacks to hit the road

Crew and pickers at Gleeson’s add to the swell

Six o’clock closing was merry hell 

In 1969, through his association with Tom Pook, Dave began inspecting catches for the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries (MAF). After returning briefly to fishing in 1970, he was offered a formal position of Inspector of Fisheries within MAF and was appointed in October 1972. Starting on the princely sum of $3541. “The money was regular and came in handy,” says Elaine. “That was good money in those days, added Dave, “fishing can be feast or famine!”

After initially utilising the Tio for inspection purposes, In 1976, Dave took the helm of Tokatea, a Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries (MAF) surveillance vessel. The framework of fisheries enforcement was not the formal, authoritative structure seen today. Fisheries officers were recruited from the ranks of working mariners-hardened sea-dogs equipped with knowledge of catch limits and capable of handling themselves in tense situations. Dave says, “recruitment was a bit looser in those days, no formal training courses, you basically got warranted and were working”. 

Dave’s experiences on the high seas working for MAF produced several wonderful stories. Before the introduction of catch limits, severe pillaging of Mussels and Toheroa took place throughout the 1970s, and Dave was kept busy doing surveillance and inspecting the catches of local fishermen. He often found himself enforcing fisheries law on people he knew pretty well, and perpetrators, on occasion, attempted to blur the lines between friendship and the law. In their excellent new book, True Tales of New Zealand Fisheries Officers, former officers Don Armitage and Duncan Chisholm invited Dave to share yarns about his exploits:”Every day was not the same. The only constant battle was the battle of stealth cunning and wits,” says Dave. “There’s nothing better than seeing the sunrise after a long night of radar watching and easing of tension. This was before GPS and cell phones, and the boats were habitually poaching. The poachers’ boats were faster and more suitable to handle rough seas than the Tokatea, and a total success rate was not possible. We were well equipped, though, and learned through trial and error to perfect a system from initial sighting to apprehension.

“We apprehended an average of one trawler or a Danish seine a month, as well as handling a multitude of less adventurous inshore infringements. On one occasion, a very small trawler unknown to us moored at the end of the Matiatia wharf, and there was no one on board that we could see. That evening we received a message from Elaine informing us the local vet had rung to say there was a trawler poaching in the Bay. It wasn’t long before we sighted her, and (fellow Fisheries Officer) Steve Whitehead went over the rails with his notebook and pen in hand for details of the skipper and crew. “Steve ascertained that the skipper and his mate had spent the day in the bar at the Onetangi Hotel.  When they enquired where the troll line was, they claimed some local told them that they control right up to the beach. Now I knew that there were some nasty blokes frequenting the Onetangi Hotel, but this was a new low. I looked at the name taken and saw that the skipper’s name was Bardwell. I hailed him and asked if he was Captain Bardwell’s boy? He looked to be about the right age. His father served through World War II and was a captain of HMNZS Tamaki at the rock when I was under training and later in the ship’s company. He was the type of captain I would have served to the death, an honourable man, and I expected the acorn not to fall far from the tree. “That’s the gist of what I told the magistrate during the court case and came away with a verdict of not guilty. ‘Please give my regards to your dad’, I said as I left court.”   

Dave and his mate Jimmy Ngapo set off to inspect oyster leases in the Mahurangi Harbour on another early morning. “Tokotea’s double, side-band radio was not working, and the lads went into Matiatia to use a telephone box to ring supervisor Neil MacDonald and inform him they would be out of touch.”Exposed by the dawn light was Dorothy, “a good-looking Danish seiner”, according to Dave, sitting inside Otata Island (part of the Noises Island group). “I’ll be buggered,” said Dave to Jim, “she’s fishing!”. By the time Dave and Jim came upon the Dorothy, they observed a healthy-sized bag of snapper alongside. “The boat’s captain, Paddy, yelled out, “I knew I should have stayed in my bunk this morning”. Dave knew Paddy well. “It’s a hell of a thing when you catch one of your mates, even if by accident,” . “Jim went on board Dorothy to take details while I backed off to take bearings and some very good photographs. Paddy was asked to take Dorothy back to the viaduct and wait for someone from Fisheries to meet him. 

Ever since Dave has referred to the area as Paddy’s Paddock. 

On another occasion, Dave and crew inadvertently put a dent in a Marijuana enterprise. “While out on a diving tender, we were keen to catch big packhorse crayfish at the Moko Hinau islands.” The Skipper Greg Richardson was a good friend of Daves.”One of the members went ashore in search of native snail shells. Upon the straggling manuka, he found a marijuana plantation of considerable dimensions, ingeniously hidden from terrestrial aerial view.”The local Policeman Lindsay Proctor got interested, and he, Dave, and Greg took the Tokotea back to the islands to investigate and destroy the plantation. The plot was up on a ridge between moumou Passage and Cathedral Cove. There were large blue plastic drums with fertiliser, sheets of black plastic to catch rain and strung camouflage netting. 

“Taking the plots apart was hard and sweaty yakka”.” we pushed, pulled, rolled barrels and plastic rubbish sacks full of weed down the steep bank and shipped it out to the Tokotea”. “Steve took a picture of Lindsay sleeping on top of the big black bags of weed wearing his red jockeys. This was placed on a corkboard at the local Police station on Waiheke. Some months later, they had their official opening, and the minister of police came to open it. Unfortunately, the photo was still on the corkboard and was seen by the minister and his entire group!” On patrol in 1985, Dave and crewmates came across an act of terrorism. “We had a few when returning from sea in the Tokotea as we passed a buoy we thought that we smelt diesel. The sea was abnormally calm due to a massive fuel spillage. “Someone is in trouble”, we thought as we approached Marsden Wharf to our berth. There, in front of us, was the Rainbow Warrior, sunk and laying on her side with her mast across part of the fairway to our berth.” 

On 1st October 1986, Tokatea was decommissioned. Along with it, Dave and other Fisheries officers were relieved of their duties in wide-sweeping changes to the enforcement arm of the Ministry of Fisheries. “They decided to get rid of us all and hire some ex-Policemen to do the job.” In November 1986, Dave decided it was time for a new challenge and invested in the Galilee, which in a former life had worked as a cray boat in the Chatham’s. It was repurposed as a diving and fishing charter boat, keeping Dave and Elaine gainfully employed until it was sold, in 2015, to the Catholic Bishop of Gizo in the Solomon Islands. It now operates as a missionary boat for Bishop Capelli’s diocese and covers over 100 islands in the region.In between running the charters, Dave gave back to the Island he loves and served a three-year stint on the Waiheke Community Board from 1998 to 2001. He is not actively retired; the front of his Wharf Road property is adorned with ropes, dinghies, paddles and rusted anchor chains salvaged or spirited away from any number of ocean-going workhorses. The cloakroom hangs wet-weather gear ready for the next adventure or to help out his mate Glen with his mooring barge. 

The view from the kitchen of Dave and Elaine’s home of 50 years looks out over Putiki Bay, a constant but beautiful reminder of one man’s connection to the sea over a life that Dave describes, with typical humility, as “not too shabby”.

This story originally appeared in Waiheke Weekender.