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Tonnes of fun: At the helm of Port Nelson's Calwell Slipway

Winchmaster Andy Wills in his control room at the Calwell Slipway in Nelson.

What's it like to control New Zealand's largest slipway?

It was a case of sink or swim for Andy Wills on first encountering the winch house at Nelson’s Calwell Slipway 20 years ago.

Health and safety rules were different then, and his induction involved little more than a cursory briefing on which lever to pull and when.

Protocols have tightened considerably over that time, as has Wills’ expertise – he’s the winchmaster now – but little else has needed to change. Visitors to his control room are often surprised by the efficiency and simplicity of the gear he works with, some of which may date back to the early 1900s.

The dials and gauges in the cavernous aluminium and block two-storey shed form part of a tight and efficient set-up that enables Port Nelson to operate the largest slipway of its kind in New Zealand.

Vessels are floated onto a cradle that’s attached to the winch; there’s little room for error, so accuracy is vital. Brake levers alongside the control panel on the mezzanine level lead below via elbow joints to the 2.5m-diameter drums of the winch system, which was relocated in the 1960s from an old West Coast gold dredger. Thanks to excellent workmanship and regular maintenance, it’s capable of hauling boats as heavy as 2500 tonnes up the slipway for repairs and regulatory marine surveys.

Some of the newer features include the “emergency stop” button and control room chair, salvaged from a Toyota Corolla. The expansive view afforded from this lofty perch is shared with canny starlings that nest in the framework.

“It can be noisy and draughty up here, cold in winter and hot in summer, but it’s fabulous,” says Wills, who was originally a marine engineer.

“Not everyone would be into this, but it works beautifully and I always think if it’s not broken, don’t change it.”

This story was first published in North & South's December edition.