Lifting sub-surface lines on board the Lady Marie.
Ben as Skipper on the Lady Marie.
Ben back as a deckhand.
One of the career benefits of marine farming is the chance to reel in trophy kingfish like this one landed in the Tawhitinui Reach.
A marine farming career by chance, not design...
Ben Armstrong was heading for a career in design when a neighbor's request for help on a mussel harvester completely altered his life’s direction. That nudge and some good industry mentors have seen Ben spend more than 20 years working on and skippering mussel industry vessels and now he’s mentoring the next generation.
The Marlborough Boys College pupil had been working with his father and brother, both builders, doing construction work and roofing in school holidays and then did a polytech course in design.
A neighbor, industry pioneer Graham Hood from Marlborough Mussel Co, asked the 17-year-old if he’d assist for a day on a harvest.
“My first day out was on the Intrepid with skipper Bruce Sampson. After we’d finished, Graham turned around and said ‘We need some full-time guys and if you’re looking for work, let me know.’”
Ben was hooked and worked on Marlborough Mussel Co harvesters for the next five years, moving between the Intrepid and the Kai Kutai (skippered by Kim Huddleston).
He then grabbed the chance to go on the seeding boats. With a Monday to Thursday work week, it allowed Ben to spend weekends with his then partner and baby son Sam and also to play competitive rugby; including representing Marlborough in the fast paced 7s format.
“Then I got an opportunity to work on the Lady Marie with Dean Higgins as skipper.”
Dean and his offsider Vaughan Ellis proved to be great bosses and mentors.
“They really encouraged me to get ahead.”
Ben did his skipper’s ticket in Nelson and within a couple of months was at the helm of the Enterprise for Marlborough Mussels where he stayed for a couple of years, before taking over as skipper of the Pacifica.
After Sanford bought Marlborough Mussel Co, he felt it was time to do his OE and headed for the Canadian ski resort of Whistler where his brother Richard was living. He stayed for a year doing various jobs including snow removal and running a small hospitality team. While in Whistler he met an Australian woman, Lisa McDonald.
“Luckily enough she followed me back here.”
That was in 2012 and now the couple have 5-year-old daughter Bailey and three-year-old son Max.
On his return, Sanford offered Ben a deckhand role on the Lady Marie, about a year later he became skipper.
“I actually quite enjoyed being back as a deckhand for a while.”
Sanford put a lot of new recruits on the vessel. The Lady Marie provided a good training platform as a maintenance vessel, without the harvest or seeding pressures.
“I really enjoyed that – turning the young ones into good workers. A lot have gone on to get their own tickets.”
He valued working with Grant Boyd, Sanford’s Floating and Farm Development Manager, who backs the Graeme Dingle Foundation in Marlborough and its Career Navigator programme which puts senior college pupils into workplaces to test career options. Some students came onto the Lady Marie while Ben was skipper.
“I told them how I’d started really young as a deckhand and progressed to become a senior skipper. You earn really good money if you are prepared to work hard enough – and with four days on and
Ben says the career progression starts once someone has done a three-month trial, with aquaculture companies putting young workers through training such as First Aid, forklift and Hi-Ab qualifications.
“A lot of people in Marlborough think there’s only the wine industry.”
He credits those within aquaculture such as Grant Boyd and Jonathan Large who promote the industry as a career option to young people.
“I’d like to see other companies getting onto the schools and telling them marine farming is a great career.”
One thing he’s observed in his 22 years in the industry is the change in attitudes and practices towards looking after the marine environment.
“Twenty years ago I don’t think we stopped on a beach. Now days, you see our boats and crews cleaning beaches all the time.”
The majority of the rubbish collected is not from marine farms but floats do stick out.
“No one likes to see one on a beach.”
He credits the MFA for driving the change with initiatives such as the Environmental Certification and Beach Cleaning programmes.
“The industry recognises the need to do better.’
Ben has his own opportunity to contribute with a recent move to Aroma to manage its on-water operations.
He was only in the job a month when he had a serious bout of ill-health caused by a reaction to medication prescribed for an injury.
“Aroma’s been really good,” he said, as he itched to get back to light duties.
There will still be some time skippering boats but the job is more focused on planning and management.
“I am assisting in managing the on water operations, learning from Wayne
At 40, Ben is glad to have that change.
“It’s quite a physical job out there.”
Another reason Ben chose to join Aroma was to reconnect with Merv Whipp in his role as General Manager. Merv was another of Ben’s early mentors at Marlborough Mussel Co.
“He’s always been about getting the best from his staff and supporting
them all the way.”
Having been mentored by some of the best in the mussel industry, Ben Armstrong is ready in his new role to help the next generation.
As it happens, his eldest son Sam is now in his third year at Victoria University completing a degree with a focus on design and IT.
He loves going out on the boat with his father. Time will tell if history repeats.