Fifty years at sea come to an end for New Plymouth marine pilot

Captain Mike Birch, on the bridge of the Finnanger last Friday, has retired after 16 years as a marine pilot and a further 34 years at sea.
Captain Mike Birch, on the bridge of the Finnanger last Friday, has retired after 16 years as a marine pilot and a further 34 years at sea.

After five decades at sea, it’s fair winds and following seas for Captain Mike Birch.

“I’m coming up 65 and I’ve had a good career,” the newly retired British-born sailor said. “It’s been in the family. My grandfather had a shipping company in Liverpool.”

Piloting the cruise ship Masdaam into Port Taranaki was going to be his last hurrah, but he came back to cover another pilot and his final job was piloting the oil and chemical tanker Finnanger last Friday.

“I had mixed feelings really – the ship is the same but just feeling that I won’t be doing this again and enjoying every moment of it.”

Birch went to merchant navy training school, the ‘HMS Conway’, when he was 14 and first shipped out at age 18 to join British and Commonwealth, an amalgamation of several companies. 

He went on to crew on passenger and cargo ships and the tanker Hector Heron, visiting ports in South Africa, east Africa and India. 

“You learn the base skills of ship handling while bouncing off the top of storm waves. In those days we didn’t have modern-day electronics so good seamanship and safety were reliant on the expertise of the shipmaster knowing how to handle a ship.”

He got his second mate’s ticket and went on to join Maersk, getting his Master’s ticket and his first command after five years. He went on to become a pilot at Portsmouth and then harbour master at Portland before moving to New Zealand.

“There’s been huge changes in shipping, becoming more modernised. Electronics have come in; there’s less maritime experience expected nowadays and more computer-type learning.

“You went to sea, you went to a port and you might be there for two weeks, but now it’s all rush, rush, rush.

“Pilotage is specific to a port – so each time I changed ports I had to retrain.”

He said Port Taranaki has storm conditions with large swells for much of the year.  

It takes about three hours to bring a ship into port, including preparing the paperwork, doing all the manoeuvring and then securing the ship on the dock, and then about an hour and a half to two hours to take it out again.

“It’s a short but intense pilotage ranging from open sea to limited space in a matter of minutes. Climbing up the rope ladder from the pilot launch to board the ship, and then taking control to manoeuvre, is not for the faint-hearted.”

Birch was also the pilot who reported SG Pegasus shipmaster Saurabh Kumar Singh for being drunk earlier this month.

“I’ve never experienced that before but from my point of view it was a case of passing on my concerns to the authorities.

“I left the ship and the Maritime NZ and the police dealt with the issue.”

He said it would be a change, no longer constantly checking the weather conditions, but he is looking forward to taking his motorhome around the country with wife Karen. 

“It’s been a good career.”