The Norma Jean is bobbing at her moorings as the Kawau Cat moves in to dock. Skipper, Piers Barney is sipping a coffee and chatting with one of the crew about his family. He is able to trace his paternal ancestry back to the captain of the very first waka to arrive in New Zealand; so his love of the sea and adventure are practically part of his D.N.A.
An exceptional story-teller with seemingly boundless energy, Piers is a well known character in the area. Born in December 1945 on Motuora Island, his life on the water started at just a few months old; “My mum was a resilient woman, she used to row back and forth to Mansion House from Motuketekete Island. She kept me safe in a small washtub in the bottom of the boat. If there had of been an emergency I would have become the Moses of the Hauraki Gulf!”
Piers pulled his weight from a very early age. He clearly remembers ferrying guests between his parents boarding house in Vivian Bay and Sandspit, whilst still a boy of 10. He would stand atop an upturned beer crate to see over the helm. You would be hard pressed to find a skipper with more experience on these waters.
It was a different time, but Piers laments the lack of respect shown by some kids these days. He says boredom is a dangerous thing, and therein lays the root of youth crime and disillusionment. He takes young offenders on the Norman Jean and encourages them to take a different path in life.
For a while from in his mid-fifties he also got bored and started drinking heavily. “The doctors had never seen anyone with such terrible liver function results. I also had sclerosis and they didn’t think I’d make it through the night.”
He is now six years sober and puts the change down to having a strong inner spirit and wanting to see his grandson, Liam grow-up. His near miraculous recovery from liver cirrhosis? Well that’s thanks to his veterinarian. “I was in the vets and he had some stuff to treat animals with liver function problems. I said, right then, I’ll have a course of that. The doctors tested my liver last week and it’s good enough to transplant!”
The many stories of Piers life are photographically documented around the cabin of the Norma Jean. He was a pioneer during the early days of using helicopters in the area and there is a photo of him kissing the ground after the fuel pump gave out and the engine stopped mid-flight. There’s also a photo of the wreckage from his first ‘solo flight’. “We left the chopper running and got out to reload, the Pilot went off up the hill and I could see it started to move! I jumped in and it bloody took off! I jumped out just before it flipped and crashed. I was inches away from losing my legs in the rotor blades.”
Piers is an avid environmentalist, running charters for scientists to monitor the health of the ecosystem, snorkelling trips, shark and stingray feeding, and bird watching expeditions. “The New Zealand storm petrel nesting season will start soon. I will have people from all over the world come here to see a bird that flew back from extinction in 2003. Honestly, when they see a storm petrel it’s like you or me winning lotto. They get so excited.”
A day out never feels long enough when you begin to hear the tales of his stint in the navy, learning to drive in central Auckland after having lied about having a license, drinking Kawau Cocktails, (a mix of Methylated spirits, oysters and orange juice), fossil finds, NASA scientists, being measured up for his coffin after getting electrocuted in power lines opposite an undertakers! The list goes on, but you’ll have to book a trip on the Norma Jean to find out more about those epic adventures.