Ben Yates


YOB: 1974
Experience: Kayaking Guide
Regions: Canterbury, Marlborough, Fiordland, Tasman
Interview Location: Milford Sound, NZ
Interview Date: 06 February 2016
Post Date: 01 December 2017; Copyright © 2017 Ben Yates and Steve Crawford


CRAWFORD: Alright Ben, let’s start with the first thing that you indicated in your introduction - you were born in Canterbury?

YATES: That’s correct. 

CRAWFORD: And what year was that? 

YATES: 1974. 

CRAWFORD: At what age do you remember first spending a significant time around the water?

YATES: Being an inland Canterbury boy, at a very early age we had kayaks, and so we would paddle from an early age in our summer holidays. Once we were a few years older, we spent some time around the coast of Canterbury.

CRAWFORD: When you first started spending time around New Zealand marine coastal waters, where would that have been?

YATES: Christchurch, Lyttleton, Akaroa. Some of the smaller little island and areas around the coast there. And Kaikoura. And we also had a bach [cottage] in the Marlborough Sounds

CRAWFORD: How old were you when you started to spend time around the Banks Peninsula?

YATES: From about 7 to 12, I suppose. 

CRAWFORD: Did your family have a crib there?

YATES: We were living in this area for a few years, and then we moved to Canterbury. But we still had friends remaining, so we still spent a lot of time in that area. 

CRAWFORD: Roughly, what was the age when you didn’t need adult supervision?

YATES: I was about 10 when I started hunting. I was already in the outdoors, doing my own thing. 

CRAWFORD: So, from 7 to 10, what were the different types of activities on and around the coastal waters?

YATES: Little bit of kayaking, bit of sailing, fishing. I’d be off the coast from time to time on boats.

CRAWFORD: And when you say fishing, do you mean rod and reel fishing?

YATES: Yeah, rod and reel fishing. Whether it was off the wharf, or a little dinghy, or from time to time in smaller boats. 

CRAWFORD: These were mainly family trips?

YATES: Yeah, family and friend trips. 

CRAWFORD: How would you describe the split in those activities? Were you mostly boating, or mostly swimming?

YATES: I didn’t like to swim a lot, but there would have been people in the water for most of those activities. I might have been swimming, from time to time. 

CRAWFORD: You were mostly on the water, in a kayak or a boat?

YATES: Yes. 

CRAWFORD: Sail boat, power boat?

YATES: Power boat, mainly. 

CRAWFORD: When you were on a power boat, were you boating for the sake of boating, or were you fishing? What was that split?

YATES: Just pleasure boating a lot of the time. 

CRAWFORD: What kind of seasonality was there in your boating activity. Mostly in the summers, when you were a young fella?

YATES: Yes, I would say so. 

CRAWFORD: And during those summers, roughly how many weeks do you figure you would have spent on or around the water?

YATES: Between seven and nine weeks. We would have been around the water a majority of the time, because of where we were living. And we would have been swimming in the water as soon as it was warm enough. So, 12-13 degrees as a kid, and you’d be happy to be swimming.

CRAWFORD: Pretty much all the holidays and weekends and whatever?

YATES: Definitely.

CRAWFORD: Pre-teens and early teens, I’m guessing you were still needing transportation. When did you become mobile?

YATES: I did move inland, with less time along the Kaikoura area. At 16, I started hitching.

CRAWFORD:  Were the activities pretty much the same, but in a different location?

YATES: No, they were more beach-based actually, or swimming from a beach, as opposed to boating. 

CRAWFORD: And what other types of beach-based activities, other than swimming? Did you do any kayaking, that type of thing?

YATES: Yeah, but not a lot. There would have been more with a ring, going out in the surf and floating around, what have you.

CRAWFORD: Did you do any surfing?

YATES: No. In a kayak yes, but not on a surfboard. 

CRAWFORD: When you finally got to the age where you could drive, was that around 16?

YATES: Yeah, about that. 

CRAWFORD: What happened then? How did that affect your ability to engage in coastal water activities?  

YATES: I don't think I had a lot at that stage. Apart from going through high school at Christchurch, and we would go down to the beach, from time to time. Visiting these different places to go for swims.

CRAWFORD: Ok. What was the next major change in the amount of time or activities that you spent in New Zealand coastal waters?

YATES: Three years of an outdoor recreation course, based out of Timaru at Aoraki Polytechnic.

CRAWFORD: How old were you when you went there?

YATES: 18 to 21.

CRAWFORD: That was for a broad range of different outdoor activities?

YATES: All sorts. 

CRAWFORD: And of those, is that where your specialization in kayaking came in? 

YATES: That’s where I’d say I became a kayaker. As opposed to kayaking from time to time. You know, your own gear, and desire to frequently get out there. I was surfing the sea or river. 

CRAWFORD: Did you do that, knowing you were going to become a professional in outdoor recreation?

YATES: I chose kayaking and rock climbing as the two main subjects to study for that reason. But I also deemed them to be something that increase the chances of a job. 

CRAWFORD: Ok. You graduated from the course at 21. What happened then?

YATES: I did about a year or so at the YMCA in Christchurch. And then after that, I went to Queenstown, working for the bungee-jumping company for a couple of years. And after that I left and went to Milford

CRAWFORD: During the time in Christchurch or Queenstown, were you still spending significant time around New Zealand coastal waters? Or were you kind of an inland boy for a while?

YATES: Water-based things while I was in Christchurch, going to the beach, especially in summertime. A little bit of kayaking, a little bit of sailing. Not super-regularly, because I was instructing high schools, so things that weren’t really ocean-based. 

CRAWFORD: Then in Queenstown, were you mostly dealing with inland lakes and rivers then?

YATES: Correct. 

CRAWFORD: What year did you move here to Milford Sound?

YATES: 1997-98. We were working in-season, so the summer season of 97-98. 

CRAWFORD: When you came here first, where did you work?

YATES: I worked for Rosco’s Milford Sound Sea Kayaks. When I first started, there wasn’t really a winter job here for the coldest months. I started guiding from Queenstown where I would fly into Milford and do guiding trips in wintertime, and then fly back again. And then I wanted to stay in Milford, and they said "Well, let’s see if we can run all winter." So, I told them I would stay in the winter as well.

CRAWFORD: When did they start running all winter?

YATES: Probably 1999. After my first season, I wanted to stay all year round. 

CRAWFORD: From that point you have been living and working out of Milford Sound full-time? 

YATES: Totally. 

CRAWFORD: What is your split in activities now? Kayaking is an important part of what you do professionally - what other types of coastal activities are you engaged in as well? 

YATES: For the time in Milford, it was predominantly kayaking. 

CRAWFORD: Are we talking 80% of your time? 

YATES: I was probably on the water about eight days a week. 

CRAWFORD: Ok. Of those eight days a week, was there a seasonality to the kayaking jobs that you were doing? Was there still more work in the summer - more than there was in the winter?

YATES: It was dependent on your guiding, and your desire to go. If you wanted to guide, and you were good enough to do what you wanted to do, and you wanted to stick around, there’s probably a job. If you were able to cover all of the different tasks required. I’d operate small boats, I’d operate and manage a small kayaking business in here. And run solo, which I was able to do after the Polytech course. 

CRAWFORD: Ok. For your kayaking work, roughly how many hours on the water?

YATES: We’d do ten days on, four days off. And in your ten days, you would run a trip from about 7:30 to pick your clients up. If you could get them organized, you could be on the water in 45 minutes, and not return until after lunch. And then you would have other trips, which would be either round Deepwater Basin, or all the way out into the fiord and surf back. 

CRAWFORD: The point is, you were pretty much on the water all day?

YATES: Yep. To give you an idea, one season for Rosco I did 27 days in a row, had half a day off, and then another 18 days straight on the water. 

CRAWFORD: Right. Was there a natural split between the trips that you’d be doing? Were there some that were relatively close to the head of the harbour in Milford Sound, and others that were more adventurous, at a more expert level?

YATES: Certainly. Morning trips were predominantly calm in the summer, peak season, due to the katabatic winds that we get here, and height of the mountains that draws the seabreeze in - up to 20-25 knots pretty solidly, all through summer. To get people that had not kayaked before, or not so experienced, to take them out early in the morning and have them back before the 1 o'clock roaring breezes.

CRAWFORD: How far out might you go on those morning trips?

YATES: If you had a good crew, you’d go out to Harrison’s, which is 5-6 kilometres out.

CRAWFORD: That’s where the Discovery Centre is?

YATES: That’s correct. Up one side, across the fiord, hook around, back down, across the fiord, and back. 

CRAWFORD: That would be a typical, intro-level morning session?

YATES: Between 11 and 14 kilometers total. 

CRAWFORD: For more serious kayakers, what might you do?

YATES: Once the day breezes picked up, load some kayaks onto a fast boat, race out, put them down at the end of the fiord, and use those same katabatic-generated winds to surf back until sunset.

CRAWFORD: How long would that take?

YATES: Depending on how good the clients were, if they could catch every wave, you could keep up with the tour boats. 

CRAWFORD: Really? So, you’re talking about 10 knots? 

YATES: You’re talking faster than 10 knots. 

CRAWFORD: Wow. Did you spend any significant amount of time outside of Milford Sound? Did you go down to Doubtful Sound, places like that?

YATES:  I’ve been through all of the other fiords, in and around. I spent two months on a Dolphin survey boat, in and out studying them.

CRAWFORD: Dolphin survey boat run by whom? By DOC [Department of Conservation]?

YATES: By a chap who was also doing a bit of a study on Dolphins, that’s his passion. A chap that’s over in Dunedin, by the name of [Dave Grunden]. 

CRAWFORD: Ok. Was he doing this because of an academic interest?

YATES: I believe so, and also personal.

CRAWFORD: Was it also an eco-tour operation that he was doing? Or was this straight-up research?

YATES: Mainly research. 

CRAWFORD: Ok. That was roughly when?

YATES: That was after I finished in the fiord, so roundabout 2000-01. No, it was actually after that, maybe it was more like 2003-04. It was research based every six months. He would sail all the way down to the bottom, and then go in and out of every single fiord - noting where the Dolphins were. We’d spend about two and half weeks in Dusky and Doubtful. Be watching the four main different pods that were around here, and how they moved around, when they interacted, what their daily behaviours were, water temperatures, how they were feeding. 

CRAWFORD: You were doing this as a guide, or as a paid assistant, or as a volunteer?

YATES: A volunteer, basically. Yeah, he said "Hey. 400 dollars worth of food. Do you wanna come along?" I’d helped him the previous umpteen years. But being involved in the kayaking operation here, I could never go. And then after I’d finished working for Rosco Kayaking, the opportunity was here, and it came about. 

CRAWFORD: How many times did you do that Dolphin survey?

YATES: Just the once, unfortunately. 

CRAWFORD: And that was 2003?

YATES: I think about 2003, yeah. 

CRAWFORD: How many years did you work for Rosco's? 

YATES: Off and on, over five years. 

CRAWFORD: Then you had a break, it happened to coincide with the Dolphin survey along the Fiordland coast. Then what happened?

YATES: And then after working here I went to Abel Tasman, and guided there for a short period of time - about one season. 

CRAWFORD: This was based in the national park?

YATES: That’s correct. Mostly do trips on the short section. And again, the more experienced guides get to run multi-day trips which can end up all the way into Golden Bay. 

CRAWFORD: How long did you guide up at Abel Tasman?

YATES: That was for six months.

CRAWFORD: One six-month period?

YATES: Yep. And going to Abel Tasman, after working in Milford Sound, and not having storms that would destroy everything, or various other parts of nature that would just say 'No' to humans, regardless what you wanted to do ... I had to return back south where that sort of stuff happens. I lasted for six months there, and handed in my resignation and said "I’ve gotta get back down south, where there’s mountain and lakes, and a crazy ocean."

CRAWFORD: It was a little too soft for you?

YATES: I mean, on my first trip out I had a whole bunch of grey rents ...

CRAWFORD: Grey whats?

YATES: Grey rents. You know, when you see the old people, and they tint their hair a little bit, sort of getting close to that age

CRAWFORD: [laughs]

YATES: There was a section that we were trying to get to, called the Mad Mile, to get to a place called the Anchorage - standard day-trip. From there you’d get on the aquataxi, and people would get transported back. We’ll stay the night and move forward. And it was really windy, it was blowing some really good gusts - you’re talking 18-20 knots. But there’s patches of shelter behind rocks, etcetera. After working in Milford, I thought "I can get these guys there." I told them "It could be hard, but if anything happens the wind’s blowing perfectly back where we’re coming from - if we need to run with it." And we managed to get there, and encountered nobody else on the way up, because everybody else was parked on the earlier beaches. And I came around the corner, and they said "Where have you come from? Just around the corner?" I said "No, we've come up the Mad Mile." They looked at my clients, and they said "With them?" I said "Yep." They said "Are you that new guy from Milford?" I said, "Why’s that?" They said "Everybody else cancels on days like today."

CRAWFORD: [Laughs heartily].

YATES: ... and I decided this was going to be a pretty easy season. 

CRAWFORD: Alright, ok. After Abel Tasman, did you return to Milford Sound?

YATES: I’ve worked off and on at MiIford Sound for the last 17 years now, doing various jobs. 

CRAWFORD: When you’re not 'on' here, where else are you?

YATES: I started working for, and then bought, a whitewater kayaking business in Wellington. Which I’ve operated for the last 12 years.

CRAWFORD: Roughly, what's the split in time between the inland whitewater kayaking, and your kayaking here on the Fiordland coast over those years? 50/50?

YATES: No, no. Definitely not. Cameo trips to Milford. 

CRAWFORD: Pardon me?

YATES: A cameo trip to Milford from time to time, to do the kayaking. Not guiding for Rosco, but occasionally helping out, very infrequently. 

CRAWFORD: Ok. So, mostly inland, whitewater work during that time?

YATES: Mostly, yeah. And in my winters, my partner ... her brother owns the Milford Sound Lodge. So, I would be coming over here, staying and working here. And occasionally helping Rosco out - maybe the odd trip here and there. And I’ve worked out on fishing boats. I was at the Lodge, and it happened to be wintertime, and they were short of a crew, and they said "We’re going to do a 14-day fishing trip down the coast." I said "I'd love to." So, we went all the way to the bottom and fished.

CRAWFORD: Was that an occasional thing, or a regular thing?

YATES: I regularly would go with Crayfishermen around here. 

CRAWFORD: Day-fishing operations?

YATES: Yeah, or simple overnights. I would frequently go out, up and down the coast, helping them with the Crayfishing. Basically, from the time I’ve moved here since my time in Queenstown, Rosco said to me after two and half months "You haven’t left yet." And I've pretty much lived in Milford full-time. And on the fishing boats and Crayfishing boats. 

CRAWFORD: Currently then, over this last block of time, how many weeks of the year are you spending in Milford Sound, or along the Fiordland coast? 

YATES: This last year very little. Years before, I was here off and on for the six months working. And I would have been on the fiord, for personal reasons rather than guiding, probably every second or third day. 

CRAWFORD: Ok. I think that brings us up to the present. Did we miss any other either places where you have spent time in New Zealand coastal waters?

YATES: No, that's pretty much it. 

Copyright © 2017 Ben Yates and Steve Crawford