Marine trades and the natural selection process

The rudder shaft was well seized in the tube.  “We’ll get the bastard” growled my boss, as I held the solid stainless steel drift on top of the  offending shaft with both hands, gritted  my teeth and looked away.

The sledge hammer came through a full arc, and missed the dump entirely, to connect with my forearms at full force. Luckily, when you’re 23, you have rubber bones, so you run your arms under a cold tap, (not sure how that was supposed to have relieved the pain), and go back to have another crack at it. We got the bastard out on the second attempt.

Earlier that week we slipped a vessel unfamiliar to us. Standard practice was to tell the apprentice to strip to his “gruds”, and swim under the boat to inspect it, and ensure it didn’t become “bilge-bound” as it was eased up the slip. This was normal procedure, (summer or winter). Damage to the bilge planks involved a costly repair, and was not an option.

A normal working day commonly involved constant close brushes with potential injury. But this was some time ago, we were young, and as such, had fairly quick reaction times. Deep underneath, we were uncertain about our chances of survival beyond the age 40. The workings of the boat building industry, and its sub-trades, encompassed a lethal combination of rather testing things...

Walked with gait

Firstly our mentors. Our bosses were invariably short, gruff, and about 2 axe-handles in width across the shoulders. They spoke in an odd combination of swearwords and technical terminology. They walked with a gait, which made them look partially inebriated. We were never sure why, but this seemed to be a common theme amongst older marine tradespeople. Their forearms reminded me of Popeye’s, and they were masters of monosylabic, dry observations. They didn’t suffer fools, and were quick to throw a hammer through the workshop radio, if the music didn’t appeal to their palate. This included all music with the exception of anything from the early 60s.

Physical exertion

The normal daily routine involved trying to out-work the boss, who came from a generation of men who refused to display any weakness. Hence it was not uncommon to spend a 9 hour day grinding anti-fouling off a boat, or hand-planning a 50 foot hull, or board-sanding sometimes every day for a week, or lifting and milling massive baulks of timber for hours on end. Typically if you performed adequately, nothing was said, but if the boss shouted you a couple of cold quart bottles of DB beer on Friday at the end of the working week, your performance was probably deemed to be “a bit better than a poofter.”

The tools

Much of the workshop machinery was capable of terminating your life, or at least your limbs in a nano-second. A bench-saw could spear you in the stomach with a kick-back of timber if you didn’t line things up properly. A buzzer would take all your fingers off if you tried to “buzz” a piece of timber that was too short. Stand to the side of a large bandsaw, and you would be speared by the blade if it broke on a difficult cut. Spindle moulders...well, if the blades flew out, you were dead. Square-head thicknessers, ditto. Routers were clamped upside-down in bench vices for most moulding work, with great risk to fingers, and electric planes could shave off a section of body flesh in a second. Skill saws and chainsaws could kick back and cleave your limbs or skull quicker than you could blink. Grinders could jam up in a tight space, and kick back into your face or legs.

And that was only the machinery. Scaffolding was a big player in the natural selection process. Commonly, it was knocked up out of 4x2 timber and planks, or 44 gallon drums balanced on top of each other. It was “one hand for the tool, and one hand for yourself”.

It wasn’t entirely uncommon for scaffolds to partially collapse while mowing down a gun’ale with an electric hand-plane. We were quite adept at grabbing the edge of the boat and trying not to connect with the electric planer as the scaffold tumbled away. Some jobs would involve using power tools while standing in the water out of the end of slipways. Electric shocks were entirely commonplace. We would try to gauge the risk factor by trial and error. A good kick of an electric shock was a bit of an indicator that we might need to wear thicker rubber footwear in order to complete the job.

Dust and aroma

Dust masks were largely unheard of until the 1980s. As boat builders, we breathed in quite an array of fine dust. Kauri, mahogany, teak, totara, tanalised kahikatea, iroko, Karri and spotted gum were part of the daily “aroma”. Dust from many lead-based paints, fibreglass dust, antifouling dust and carbon dust. Tanalised timbers were full of arsenic, and we machined countless lineal metres of this material.


Quite a nasty line-up really. We regularly used epoxy resins and solvents, carbon tetrachloride, acetone, turps, meths, polyurethane thinners, and isocyanate based products. Polyesters, Methyl ethyl ketone peroxide (we nick-named Irish eye drops because one drop would blind you). Epoxy hardeners proved to be the most lethal even though they were relatively inert smelling, followed closely by isocyanates, which put an almond-like smell through the workshops and hardstand areas. Naturally, the Accident Compensation Commission became very shy of the resultant casualties of these chemicals as the toll mounted up. So many workers were alienated, and suffered in silence with job loss and sometimes relationship breakdowns as the cocktail of solvents were increasing in the industry. Interestingly, not all workers were affected too adversely, but at least 50% were forced out into other careers, or, in some cases, were no longer able to work at all.

Hard on ears

Then there was noise...machinery and electric hand-tools made for a noisy work environment.  Commonly workers in the industry had to wear ear-muffs dawn till dusk, otherwise significant hearing loss was a guarantee. Communication was commonly by an array of hand signals, largely based on the signals that evolved as related to our regular work with crane drivers.

Moving boats

The marine trades regularly involved crane lifts and moving of vessels up to about 600 ton. There was little room for error when slipping a 600 ton vessel. A 10 degree list to one side could collapse a slipway cradle. We checked vessel list usually by eye as a boat was slipped. Often uneven slipway rails meant several adjustments were required as the boat was hauled. It was possible to crane 25 ton boats up and over a slipway apron, but once in a while the crane would sometimes tip and threaten to fall on the boat. As apprentices, we were always on board the boats to position the lifting slings, and always ready to jump for our lives if the crane came down upon us. Once on the hardstand, we would position or construct a cradle, while the vessel swung close by in the strops. Just one slip by the crane-driver would have resulted in serious injury during parts of this process. We fashioned Tauranga’s first travel-lift utilising a redundant hopper from the wharf, a tractor, and a hydraulic drive system. This rudimentary contraption lifted all of the local pleasure-vessels for many years, with a zero injury record in thousands of hours of operation.

Under the radar

During the 1980s a government department called OSH started to take an interest in health and safety in the trades. It created an interesting division. On one hand you some small business managers trying to stay under the radar, (because safety procedures invariably cut into the already slim profit margins), and on the other hand there were the workers, who needed the job security to feed the family, but also needed to preserve some semblance of health and some sense of longevity. Consequently health and safety evolved rather slowly in some of the marine trades.

As time went by, industry and trades in general shifted from the “Gung Ho” status to the regulated status as we see today. As much as my workmates largely survived the old school work environment, there were some casualties, and some mental health issues, more especially from excessive exposure to epoxies and isocyanates.

Some would say that the natural selection process was alive and well in the early days of Tauranga boat building and it’s sub-trades. Amazingly most workers have survived to well over 40 years of age, and most got to reproduce. Some of us even have sons in the industry, but nowadays they are much less least likely to experience scaffold collapse. And the other hazards tend to be better managed nowadays, (with considerably greater operating cost accordingly).

I still see my old boss regularly, 40 years on. I still have “the stainless drift”. We still both have all 10 fingers and are both still on the “right side of the grass”. And we have sons in the industry. I’m unsure what Charles Darwin would have to say about our role in the natural selection process.


There are no comments on this article.

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to make a comment. Login Now