Carolyn Collier at work. Photos: Mytchall Bransgrov

Graduating from Otago Polytechnic Carolyn Collier entered the workforce with a fine arts diploma to her name. However, glazing toilet bowls was not what she had in mind. "It was at the Benhar potteries in South Otago and was the only job available in my field.

After three years as a "scarfie" I couldn't see myself living in Balcutha!" In 1982 Wrightson-NMA Fisheries of Dunedin was advertising for a trainee net maker. Curious and with nothing to lose, she applied.

"Turns out they didn't want me because I was female; they felt it wasn't women's work and in those days you didn't know any better; you certainly didn't say anything, so I just walked away but a few weeks later they rang me up and asked me was I still interested."

"It was pretty poor pay and no one it seemed would take on the work. I knew nothing about the fishing industry, absolutely nothing. There was the 34m Otago Challenge skippered by Johnny Gaye but I didn't actually know what a trawler did but it was a job and a long way from Balclutha and toilet bowls."

In 1980 Fletcher Holdings merged with Challenge Corporation acquiring Wrightson-NMA Fisheries as part of the merger. The arrival of the Otago Galliard and Otago Buccaneer in 1982 signalled the start of the New Zealand fleet expansion into the deep water. In 1983 a young English lad with a spring in his step and a glint in his eye arrived from Hull seeking his fortune in this fisherman's 'Eldorado'; a south pacific paradise of coconut palms and girls in grass skirts or so he thought, oh and a little known fish called the orange roughy.

"He was the new third Mate on the Buccaneer and I used to watch him 'swanning' up and down the wharf thinking he was Jack the Lad. He'd be looking at me; I'd be looking at him, sort of thing. We eventually got talking and, well, one thing led to another."

Carolyn and Steve Collier married in February '86. "There was no trip on, trip off back then so it would have had to have happened during a three day port call. I know we had to be sure the boat would be in when we set a date, which was in effect like asking the company for permission to get married!" So, back to the net maker thing. Graham Turner and an American Mark Doty taught Collier how to build and mend trawls but two years later they left, leaving her in charge.

"I learnt the basics from them but also from the old guys who came out from England; they'd show you things, give you a few tips but a lot of it I just observed and had to figure out for myself. The trawls were pretty basic which was probably a good thing too as I was still relatively new to the game. We started with the Alfredo 3s then got into some Japanese trawls for the squid.

Remember those aluminium floats that would implode because they were fishing a lot deeper here than back in the UK?" "We did build complete trawls but quite often we just bought in the 'heads' and then built the 'bellies' behind that but the crews also did a lot of the work; I would give them a bale of material and they'd put the rest of it together themselves.

Of course, they did their own repairs on board. You can still see the Koreans, the Japanese and Russians with their gear stretched out on the wharf but it's not something you see much of these days." Collier spoke briefly about the level of these skills in the industry today. "Because there really isn't any net making or net mending training in New Zealand I don't think there are the deckhands on the boats with those skills and to be fair, if there is, often they don't have the time so it's easier for them to give it to a shed to sort out."

"It's also difficult finding the number of staff, and the right staff, to handle the amount of work we have especially when a certain 'someone' keeps stealing them for the boats, ha ha! I'll get guys straight from a fishing school or off the street and if they're any good I'll train them up to where they're becoming handy to have around then he, my husband who is a vessel manager for Sanford South Island, pops in and 'oh, by the way, would you like to go to sea' and off they go."

Collier went to sea, once. "I wanted to see first-hand just exactly what the boys do, what they put up with out there, how all this gear works. We got to Taiaroa Head and began punching into a force 10 gale, so needless to say the next two days was spent staring down a toilet bowl; a glazed one too. I thought I was dying and I seriously considered a change in career right there and then. But I came right and after a couple of weeks they gave me the honour of 'taking the tow'. I think it was the worst tow of the trip; very little fish and one very big tin can. I got lots of ribbing for that."

When Sealord bought Fletcher Fishing in 1991 Collier stayed on until she had cleared the net shed of everything and closed up shop. Finding himself 'on the beach' hubby Steve took a job as Skipper on the 43m H&G vessel San Waitaki operating out of Timaru and Collier devoted her time to raising a family although she did "keep her hand in" making cargo nets for Tranz Rail. In 2000 the Colliers moved to Timaru.

"I remember one day Steve asking me to show someone how to do a multi-plait splice. Sure; I mean I used to teach the tug boys in Dunedin how to do a really nice splice but I didn't have a fi d so I wandered in to Hampidjan to borrow one and long story short, I've been here ever since." "It was good. Truth be I needed to get back into it but it was a whole new era from when I finished up in the 90s. There were new trawl designs, new materials and new ways of doing things. Hoki was now the main species and I was working not only with the deepwater boys, but also the local inshore boats, as well as overseas vessels like Koreans, Japanese, Russians and Norwegians, you name it."

What impact have synthetic materials had on net design? "Huge! It's now all about reducing drag, fishing more efficiently, saving fuel, selectivity. It's exciting and innovative. Stronger lighter materials, bigger mesh where you can, working with tapers to improve the water flow, flat or round braid; all of those things come into effect when designing or modifying an existing design. Dyneema, Helix 'S' and 'Z-lay' self-spreading rope, T90 and DynIce to replace wire; no more wire rope Gilsons! Safety is a huge issue today." Far more important than it was 30 years ago. Looking at a trawl bundled on deck or wound on the roller and visualising how it looks and behaves in the water can be difficult. Collier shares my belief in the value of a visit to a flume tank.

When I was with Fletchers, I went to the Flume tank at Launceston. There were a few models you could get your teeth into which was a start. I've been to Hirtshals four times. I think it's very, very important that skippers, mates, bosuns; in fact anyone who has anything to do with their use or design should go to a flume tank to see exactly what effect they're having when they make those adjustments to door settings, layback etc."

When it comes to net designs Collier says New Zealand is kind of unique. "Hampidjan trawls designed to work in Europe for northern hemisphere species do not necessarily work well here so what I do is work with each vessel, the species they target, what grounds they work and then design a trawl from there. We mainly work with the Albatross, Champion and Lionesse trawls. Then there are the scampi trawls, two-panel trawls and high-lift four-panels trawls, all 'tweaked' to what the skipper wants. In Australia we have versions of the Albatross and Champion working very well again modified to suit their conditions."

Trawling has been with us since the 14th century. During the reign of Edward III a petition was presented to Parliament in 1376 calling for the prohibition of a 'subtlety contrived instrument called the Wondyrchoum', an early version of a beam trawl. Will we still be trawling in years to come? "Thirty years ago could I have envisioned the developments in materials we have now? No, so what developments might I expect to see in the next 30 years I wonder? I don't believe we'll see the end of the 'trawl' as such or that trawl designs are going to change much either; where improvements will be made is making them more efficient with less impact on the environment.

"Let's be honest, the media only reports the negatives especially when it comes to fishing but most fishermen I know are passionate about looking after the environment." "I believe the big changes will be to the ground gear and how we use it.

"Also trawl door design is a big business because it's one of the major contributors to drag and as we know drag costs us money. Semi-pelagic doors, upright doors, composite doors with steel frames and plastic panels, flying the doors off the bottom for minimal bottom contact; all that sort of thing."

Hampidjan are agents for Poly-Ice and Thyboron trawl doors.

"Hampidjan sold the Poly-Ice side of their business to Thyboron so now they make both brands in their factory in Denmark. It makes it more cost effective and with the facilities we can have a 7m2 door made in a week, then shipped to NZ." So where to from here?

"Oh I don't know, I'll keep going while I can and while I still enjoy it. Back when I started it was unheard of for a woman to work with nets. Harry Smith used to employ people by the size of their hands; a big hand and you were alright, every finger a marlin spike.

I don't have marlin spike fingers, ha ha. Fishermen would ring up wanting to talk to someone about nets, yes I'd answer. No, I want to talk to the boss. I am the boss. Oh. It wasn't a job I ever envisioned getting into. I just wanted a job that didn't involve toilets and wasn't in Balclutha; a job that would earn me enough to get me away on my big OE... and I'm still waiting to do that!"

"When a skipper rings up and tells you that his gear's going bloody good, that he should have done it years ago, well that's a good feeling. Giving them a trawl that fishes better and lasts longer; there can't be a better reward."

By Chris Carey