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Marine

Don was a maritime legend and early game fishing charter skipper

Don Ross passed away 3 April 2019, aged 96, but his launch is returning for the Kubota Classic Tournament.
 |  Ron morgan  | 

A celebration of Don’s incredible life was held on 6 August, 2019 at the rooms of Mercury Bay Game Fishing Club. 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 Mercury Bay Game Fishing Club, 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 every day, 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 the Lady Jocelyn’s regular trips during the school holidays.

The Lady Jocelyn called into Opito for wool and delivered supplies to the residents. She carried butter, fertilizer, crayfish, general cargo and passengers, leaving from Hobson wharf and travelling overnight. This happened 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.

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 the guns involved boating to gain access to these sites. Don was called back to Auckland to help repair American merchant ships coming back in a damaged condition 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 and 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.

During the early years some of the other launches the writer remembers 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).

His advice to the writer 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 .

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 as a skipper’s trophy.

Don sold the Miss Lidgard in 1981 and the launch has been restored by an ex-neighbour Paul Spooner in Paihia (see page 7). 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 utilising the lost skill of sculling (using one oar from the stern) and attracting the dolphins that were at the time residing in the Whitianga Harbour by attracting them with a bell.

During his lifetime, Don 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 a field as the Three Kings.

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.

Don’s other roles:

• Relieving skipper for the Lady Jocelyn.

• Royal Akarana Yacht Club Captain for Whitianga and a life member of this club .

• Representative for Mercury Bay on the NZ Game Fishing Council.

• Harbour Master for 13 years.

• Sea Search and Rescue Co-ordinator for Mercury Bay for 30 years. His knowledge of local waters was often called upon in emergencies even after his retirement.