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Mark in early days aboard the Happy V

No hats or hi-vis in early days – Mark with Shandy Pope on Happy V.

Aboard the San Pelorus with barge Hercules in early 1990s.

The San Nikau about to be launched.

It’s a good job, 35 years on – Mark Whittall.

Mark Whittall

From butchers’ boy to mussel boat skipper...

Mark Whittall left Marlborough Boys College 35 years ago at age 17 and was working in the Havelock butchers’ shop when he was offered some work on a Sanford mussel vessel.

Thirty-five years later, he’s still working for the company and has been skipper of the San Nikau for nearly twenty years. It’s a life he wouldn’t trade.

Every day there’s something different. Golden Bay mussel farms have now been added to his work across the Marlborough Sounds. Earlier he did a stint at Sanford farms at Port Levy in Banks Peninsula and off the Pegasus Bay coast.

Graham Hood was the skipper on the Wai Iti who in 1987 offered the young butcher’s boy some part-time work.

“I just loved it. It was all done on mussel rafts in those days. Mussel lines were just getting started.”

Towing a barge, the Wai Iti would pull up alongside a raft and lift the single dropper lines from the perimeter of the raft. Sacks would be filled with 35kg of mussels before being stacked on the deck and taken to Havelock; from here, they went directly to restaurants and other outlets.

There were 7 or 8 people on the vessel, with declumping taking place on board as well as sorting, stacking, sewing and filling sacks.

Today there are only three or four staff working on board the San Nikau with Mark.

“I’ve seen a lot of changes over the years. One of the biggest has been to health and safety.”

When he started there was no hi-vis PPE, hard hats, warning signage or SOPs.

“We were just given a pair of gumboots and leggings.”

He’s seen and experienced a few nicks and minor injuries. “But I’m lucky enough to have never had or seen a major injury.”

Luck may have played its part, but Mark says that record also reflects the changed focus on health and safety which he welcomes.

“You are only as good as the risks presented by your worst worker.”

Another change he applauds is the focus on the environment.

For more than 20 years, beach clean-ups have been part of the routine on vessels he served on but this now extends into stopping anything going overboard, and even trialling compostable ties.

The beach clean-ups continue and a lot of it is not from marine farms. Plastics collected from whatever source are separated for recycling.

“Everyone on board is well aware of what we need to do. I think the Sounds, in particular, is an awesome place and we want to keep it that way.”

In August, Sanford presented Mark with a certificate marking his contribution to the company over 35 years. He has no plans for a change, enjoying the security of working for a major company which has never laid him off or stood him down.

Apart from three months OE in 1997, he’s been with Sanford throughout serving on the Wai Iti, Happy V, San Tai, Pelorus Trader and San Pelorus before the San Nikau.

His skipper on the San Pelorus was Bruce Sampson from whom Mark learned a lot.

“That’s where I found a passion for collecting spat and intermediate seeding.”

He was encouraged to get his skipper’s ticket and went on to skipper the San Pelorus for some years before in 2001 being asked to skipper the multi-purpose San Nikau when it was launched.

“That’s what I’ve really enjoyed and why I’ve stayed on.”

He’s trained a lot of people in his time who’ve gone on to be skippers and industry managers.

Mark also says he’s been lucky to have a string of managers who he has enjoyed working with including Chris Godsiff, Vaughan Ellis, Bruce Cardwell, Zane Charman and Dave Herbert.

“They’ve been a big part of my life.”

He acknowledges the 4 on/4 off routine is not for everyone but he and his wife Donna have remained happily married through it all, raising a combined family of six children.

“We’ve learned to manage it.”

His own twin daughters Hannah and Sophie are both at university while son Josh has joined the army. Mark hasn’t given up all hope of a next generation following him in the mussel industry.

“Anyone that wants to do it for a living – it’s a good job. I personally love working with a small team and being outdoors.”