By Lachlan Forsyth
"I'm in a speedboat, I'm coming to get you!"
It was my workmate Billy Paine, and it was possibly the strangest thing anyone had even said to me, but it had already been a fairly mad, hectic day, so I proceeded with the conversation.
"Hang on, what? What are you on about?" I cried.
"I'm coming to grab you and Matt and the card, otherwise you're never going to make it!"
I had one leg on a rocking boat, the other on a rickety wooden wharf, and I was weighed down by about 30kg of TV equipment. I squinted into the bright sun and peered across the harbour, and there he was - TV3 cameraman Billy Paine, bouncing furiously across the choppy waters of Tauranga harbour in a small speedboat, cellphone clamped to his face and waving like a maniac.
Billy was on his way to valiantly rescue fellow cameraman Matt Hunt, although really he was only interested in the P2 card inside Matt's camera. It was 6:46pm, and we had just a few minutes to send our story, saved on that P2 card, back to Auckland via satellite in time for Campbell Live's 7pm timeslot. From my precarious position between boat and boardwalk I watched as Matt dived into a waiting taxi and disappeared in a cloud of diesel fumes towards the live point, and told Billy that his mad but brilliant efforts were no longer required.
Truth be told, I didn't actually believe this. I still had no idea if Matt would get there in time, but we'd committed to this plan, now we just had to hope it worked.
It was five hours earlier when Matt, myself, and Campbell Live editor Cath Hallinan had jumped from a charter boat onto the floating rear platform of the Gemini Galaxsea. We were in a sheltered bay off Motiti Island, and Skipper Graeme Butler was going to take us towards the Rena, an enormous container ship wedged on Astrolabe reef off the Tauranga coast, and through the oil slick that had seeped from it in the days since.
Graeme was a man born to spend his life on the oceans - a salty old sea dog with a beard like a gorse bush, the type who makes his tea with saltwater and has a back-catalogue of sea-shanties committed to memory. He was also a man dedicated to the ocean and the bounty of life it supports. He told us he'd begin by getting us some good pictures and steered us towards one of the magnificent work-ups going on nearby. Hundreds of seabirds were bombarding the blue waters, and they teemed as the masses of kahawai below jumped and wriggled about. It was magnificent. He was wearing sunglasses so I couldn't be sure if he winked at us, but I'm sure he did. Still, he smiled at us, and spoke of the blue whale and calf he'd seen in this spot just a week earlier. I could hear the excitement in his voice as he described the joy of being out on these sparkling waters day after day.
Graeme was angry
But despite his excitement, Graeme was angry. Angry that this incredible ecosystem was being put at risk because some damned fool had steered an enormous container ship into a tiny, sunken reef at 17 knots early on Wednesday morning. There were 1700 tonnes of heavy fuel oil aboard the Rena, already ten tonnes had escaped, and just that small amount was enough to form a grotesque five kilometre slick that was already soiling and suffocating wildlife.
"It's already in the foodchain... Plankton, fish... Once it's there you can't get rid of it," he warned.
We could smell it before we could see it. A heavy stench of oil that burned the throat and made the head pound. The normally blue waters were dotted with blobs of black, and everywhere we looked an oily film was smeared the water's surface.
Matt and I got to work - an interview with Graeme, a piece to camera on the bow, shots of the hulking cargo ship off portside - and as we went we passed the cards to Cath, who'd set up an editing laptop below deck, so she could start sorting pictures.
Maritime New Zealand had imposed a 1km exclusion zone around the ship, but even from a kilometre away the Gemini Galaxsea was dwarfed by the hulking Rena, which leaned perversely on an absurd angle. Helicopters buzzed above us, an Air Force Orion lazily circled the scene, and boats buzzed about the freighter, presumably checking for signs of weakness in the thick red hull.
Thick, heavy, black
I clambered down to the rear platform and trailed my hand through the water - a foul, sticky clump of oil immediately wrapped around my outstretched fingers. It had the appearance and consistency of marmite - thick, heavy, black - and as I pressed my fingers together I could feel how dense and tacky it was. It wasn't hard to see how it could so easily smother and suffocate anything unfortunate enough to come across it.
After 30 minutes I ducked into the lower cabin to go through Graeme's interview and start sculpting a story. I spooled through the interview, straining to hear Graeme's words over the engine's drone, but quickly picked out the best soundbites and start constructing a narrative around them. It was difficult work - the Gemini Galaxsea lurching and lolling on the waters, and all the while the engine loudly droning away. I had no idea how Cath was doing it, I was struggling to stay vertical let alone write legibly and there she was, doing sound mixes and butting together sequences and cutting away - seemingly all without a care in the world.
With Cath blissfully beavering away Matt and I retreated to the back of the boat to record a voice. Again, the engine noise was an issue but our solution was to throw a TV3 jacket over the top of my head to muffle the drone, and hope that Matt's condenser mike would do the rest. It wasn't perfect, but we figured that it would give Cath a base to work on and we could easily record a new voice in a quiet spot once we got to land.
Always we were conscious of time. I asked Graeme when we were likely to be back. He grimaced at my daft land-lubber question - there's no such thing as an exact timeframe on the water - but he humoured me and reckoned a bit after six. I soon learned why it had been a daft question.
We rounded to Rena and headed back towards Tauranga around 4:30pm. This was good - the combination of sail and engine should get us back with plenty of time to spare.
What we hadn't expected though was the headwind that had whipped up. The engine was struggling against it and we were barely moving through the water. Transferring to another boat would be impossible - the waters were choppy, and it would be too dangerous without being anchored. Cath had finished cutting the story, our gear was packed away, but for the next two hours we could do nothing but hold on, and hope. It was excruciating.
I passed the time by stressing some more, and after a fair bit of that glanced at my watch. It was 6:15. I asked one of the crew how far away we were from berthing. He told me 30 minutes at the very least. Suddenly, missing our slot was looking like a very real possibility. All our work that day would be wasted. I called Campbell Live Producer Pip Keane, and told her to prepare for the worst.
It was now 6:35pm, we were still rounding The Mount, and at least ten minutes from Salisbury Wharf, the closest point we could jump off. I could see 3 middle aged women walking on one of the tracks around the base...they were going faster than we were. We called a cab to wait for us at Salisbury Wharf, but it was going to be tight - horribly so. We made our plans - Matt would jump in the cab and go at great haste to the live point. Cath and I would grab the gear and follow him.
It was 6:45 when we sidled up to Salisbury wharf. Matt promptly bounded from the boat, and as I went to follow him, my phone started to ring - it was Speedboat Billy.
I told him to turn around and get ready to grab Matt's card, hung up, profusely thanked our friendly crew and promptly vaulted/collapsed onto the wooden wharf.
Cath asked two locals for a taxi number, but rather than offer up a phone number one of them kindly offered us a ride. That would be a further stroke of luck. As we were arriving at the feed point my phone again started buzzing - Matt had made it, but we had some time to eat up, could do a live cross in two minutes? I dropped the bags, and sprinted towards the live camera, shoving my earpiece in and letting the camera boys hook me up to comms and frame up the shot. I could hear John finishing up an interview, very shortly he'd be coming to us. A combination of stress and sprint meant my heart was pounding rapidly, but I somehow got my breathing under control. John threw to me, and we chatted for a while before I introducing our story. Director Dan let us all know we were clear, and I almost collapsed with relief.
It's a funny thing, television. It's a form of media that requires so much energy, so much effort for just a few minutes of finished product. On a hectic October afternoon aboard a rolling boat we had made 3 minutes and 38 seconds of television, and I couldn't have been prouder.
The reason lay beyond my right shoulder, 12 nautical miles off the Bay of Plenty coast, atop a tiny sliver of rock. A 47,000 tonne container ship, barely visible from the shore, but requiring widespread and ongoing media attention and scrutiny - whatever effort that may take.
Now you've read Lachlan's behind-the-scenes blog, watch the video.