Sailing into Nelson could be treacherous back when Amanda Kerr’s ancestors first made landfall. Now she helps make sure boaties come safely home from sea.
Kerr hadn’t long been in the role when she was called out to help rescue four paddle-boarders in strife near the rock; visitors to the area and not wearing life jackets, they were being carried away from the beach by a strong current and high winds.
“When things go wrong at sea, they do so really quickly, so it could have ended very differently,” she says. “I often wonder what it was like back when those first big sailing ships were coming in; there wouldn’t have been much room for error. I think [the wreck of the Fifeshire] is part of the reason I feel so honoured to be in this role, where our whole mandate is safety.”
Kerr spends much of her time working with recreational water users, making sure they’re aware of the importance of essentials such as life jackets, flares and vessels having functioning navigational lights. She travels to local schools towing her boat on a trailer to spread the safety message, and has introduced a Women on the Water programme, teaching the basics for survival at sea.
One of only a handful of women nationwide in such a role, Kerr is just 1.52m (five feet) tall, and her diminutive stature attracts a few raised eyebrows from boaties when she pulls up alongside them in her powerful boat, the Kaiarataki O Otemaiea, an 8.5m Rayglass Protector. But Kerr was out on the water before she could walk – just two months old when she first went sailing with her parents on a boat made by her jeweller father. “A lot of my role is building relationships, which I really enjoy,” she says. “Our emphasis is on education, as opposed to enforcements.”
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The teaching side comes easily to Kerr. Before joining Port Nelson in 2017 as a casual tug-boat reliever, she was a senior academic at the Nelson Marlborough Institute of Technology, heading a trades certificate course.
“I’d always tell the students my dream job would be tug master. After about three years of saying that, I realised I was the only one who could make it happen.”
So at the age of 43, Kerr – who’d raised her now-grown son Tim mostly as a single mum – set about getting her skipper’s ticket. While still working towards it, she applied for a role as a casual reliever on the boats at Port Nelson, and was made deputy harbourmaster just a few months later.
“I’m really passionate about both the water and education,” she says. “So the fact that I can teach safety at sea, while I’m on it, is the perfect mix. Playing a part in people coming home safely is a wonderful feeling.”