Don Ross - a maritime legend

Percy the cat with Don, Whitianga.

A celebration of Don’s incredible life was held on August 6 at the Mercury Bay Game fishing Clubrooms.

Earlier his funeral was held at Katikati but as Don had resided in the Mercury Bay area for many years and was a life member of the MBGFC it was fitting to recognise his lifetime achievements at Whitianga as well.

Don and his family first moved to the area to a farm at Opito Bay. Don and his sister Sylvie attended Kuaotunu School on horseback daily which must have been some challenge. Living so close to the sea a lifetime affinity was assured with Don’s love of boats developing during this time. Adding to this love was the captain of the Lady Jocelyn befriending and mentoring Don and taking him to Auckland on her regular trips during the school holidays.

The Lady Jocelyn called into Opito for wool and delivered supplies to the residents. She carried butter, fertiliser, crayfish general cargo and passengers leaving from Hobson wharf and travelling overnight until 1960 when road transport improved.

The family moved from Opito in 1936 to Auckland where Don worked and excelled as a cycle mechanic and as a professional road cyclist. After Don left school he completed an apprenticeship as a Coppersmith saving his money to purchase the Elvie on which he honed his sailing skills and experience.

Time in the army

Don was called up for Army service and was required for gunnery maintenance ultimately being posted to the Marlborough Sounds where guns were placed on headlands to protect the waters from enemy attack. This suited Don as servicing involved boating to gain access to these sites.

Don was called back to Auckland to help repair American merchant ships coming back damaged from the Pacific.

Don progressed from the ‘Elvie’ to the “Venture’ a much bigger keeler then to the ‘Ngaroma’ his first game fishing boat. It was in the Ngaroma that Don, Joan and daughter Lyn travelled to Mercury Bay in 1949.

This move started a long association with boating and success as a charter boat operator in game fishing in the area. He had to supplement income in the off season working on road maintenance, as a welder, deckhand, and fisherman. It is interesting to note that Don being an innovator devised methods to deploy up to 1200 hooks per day while longlining which was considerably more than the usual used by local fishermen of the time.

During the early years some of the other launches remembered are The Marlin, Norma, Tuatea, Lady Claire, Lady Jess, Caroline, Barbound, Ronomore  (Row no more)  Ngaire, (first female skipper in NZ)  La Mona and the Three Kings. Two other smaller launches that impressed the writer during these years were the Scampa an early runabout and the Bernadine (restored and still in Whitianga).

Don landed some massive black marlin over his time such as 769 lb in 1961. It is interesting to note that relatively few blue marlin were landed by Don and checks of the pectoral fins from many photos confirm they were black marlin. His advice for game fishing was “Go to the restaurant“ the fish will get hungry and come to you at some stage of the day. The restaurant being Sugar Loaf Rock, Richard’s Rock, Castle Rock and the Outer and Inner Banks of Red Mercury. A modern day equivalent of “the restaurant’ would include Don’s favourite areas as well as the Hook, the Footprint, the Alderman pins and knoll and the Mercury Knoll.

Marlin success

The comparatively large number of black marlin landed could be attributed to the methods Don employed which was often drifting or slow trolling close to deep foul or structure. He had a device very similar to a modern day downrigger which he used successfully in many fine catches of black marlin. While using this technique he also slow trolled baits on the surface. The heaviest black marlin landed with Don was 813 lb in 1965.

Some rival skippers would infer that Don was rather frugal in not covering huge distances trolling but his catch rate was reflected in being the top charter skipper for 21 years.

Don progressed to the “Miss Lidgard” a converted vessel from the whaling venture on Great Barrier Island and enjoyed the comfort, speed and safety of the twin Austin engines which gave the launch a speed of 18 knots. She was one of the first high speed game fishing launches in NZ and was especially popular with visiting international anglers.

A notable catch was the first broadbill for the club caught by Ken Collier 462 lbs in 1967 (surface trolling) winning a trophy donated by Rowley Smith for the skipper catching the first broadbill. The family donated this trophy back to the club and will once again be competed for being awarded as a skipper’s trophy.

Don sold the Miss Lidgard in 1981 and the launch is being restored by an ex neighbor Paul Spooner in Paihia. He then enjoyed many excursions on the keeler “Tere Manu“ (still in Mercury Bay) and then the launch “Endeavour“.  He was often seen heading to his mooring utilizing the lost skill of sculling (using one oar from the stern) and calling the dolphins that were at the time residing in the Whitianga harbour by attracting them with a bell.

Don during his lifetime was a pioneer diver experimenting with homemade diving equipment and a hand operated air pump adapted from an old army gas mask.

He worked locally on the Miss Lidgard to service local lighthouses and with the Fairmile Ngaroma to service lighthouses as far afield as the Three Kings.

He was relieving skipper for the Lady Jocelyn.

Don was the Royal Akarana Yacht Club Captain for Whitianga and was a life member of this club.

Representative for Mercury Bay on the NZ Gamefishing Council.

Harbour Master for 13 years, and Sea Search and Rescue co-ordinator for Mercury Bay for 30 years. His knowledge of local waters was often called upon even after his retirement in emergencies.

After his retirement Don was often seen near the wharf, dressed with one of his beloved hats chatting with both locals and visitors. He readily offered advice and shared his vast experience and knowledge.

During later years Don and Joan relocated to Katikati to be with daughter Lyn and Merv Stockley. (Joan passed away in December 2012) until he “slipped his mooring” on April 3 of 2019.  His contribution and service to the community and boating fraternity will be remembered and his legacy will remain for all time.


A Bow Wave of Dreams, A tribute to Don Ross   
I saw you there in your land lubbers pants, your feet no longer bare.
No Captain’s hat upon your head, no wind in your silver hair.
You sat in front of the fire that day, and dreamed of the light on Mercury Bay.
Of screeching gulls, and windless lulls, of anchors dragging, and fish nets snagging.
Of steering wheels, of rocks and keels, of screaming reels and fresh fish meals.
Of hapuka heavy on the line, of making it back to Joan on time.
Of a small girl sleeping at home in bed, with sandy toes and sun-kissed head.
Of dolphins riding on the bow, of sunburnt legs on a glistening prow.
Of the splashing sound of just one oar, of Nautical miles and Maritime law.
Of the bloodied mouths of mako sharks, of red and green lanterns in the dark.
Of whales and gales and flapping sails, and marlin standing of their tails.
Of your little brother, Ian, abandoning ship, hanging on by his finger tips.
Of phosphorescence unworldly glow, and the crystal clear waters of Opito.
Of a hundred and eighty degrees of sky, and of every boat you chose to buy.
Of repairing ships from torpedo attacks, and seagoing people who never came back.
Of diving bells and dangerous swells, and radios playing `Pearly Shells`.
Of all the heroic rescues you made, of flying fish and accolades.
Of sadly searching far and wide, as time ticked by and all hope died.
We remember you Don, how you were so brave.
How you could read each tide and each wave.
In your black jumper and shorts and your canvas bag.
You were so full of fun and such a dag!
You’ve slipped your mooring, the tide is right.
Miss Lidgard sets sail into the night.
With port on your left side and starboard on your right.
Captain Don Ross fades out, out of our sight.

By Jann-Marie Ross (Don`s niece)


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