Profile: Bring me that horizon

After 23 years and an estimated 400,000km sailed on NIWA’s flagship research vessel Tangaroa, Captain Evan Solly still relishes the prospect of each new voyage.

After 23 years and an estimated 400,000km sailed on NIWA’s flagship research vessel Tangaroa, Captain Evan Solly still relishes the prospect of each new voyage.

From the wide arc of RV Tangaroa’s bridge, Evan Solly has witnessed some incredible sights.

The genial Nelsonian was Leading Hand in 1991 when Tangaroa, pristine and state-of-the-art, left Norway and circled the globe to become the pride of New Zealand’s fisheries research fleet.

In the years since, he’s ventured from the sultry tropics to the heaving Southern Ocean. He sailed on NIWA’s inaugural research voyage to Antarctica – an “amazing” experience – and has returned to the ice many times since. He helped oversee Tangaroa’s multi-million dollar refit in Singapore in 2010, and has circumnavigated New Zealand more times than he can remember.

All the while, he’s observed and assisted the work of New Zealand’s leading marine, fisheries and coastal scientists “from the most privileged perspective possible”.

“It’s a unique and amazing lifestyle,” he admits. “Few other roles can compare.”

Parallel courses

In many ways, Solly and Tangaroa have charted parallel courses since 1991.

Before Tangaroa was built, Solly spent his formative seafaring years on the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries’ research vessel James Cook. But it was in the familiar surrounds of the NIWA flagship that he gained the skills, expertise and certifications needed to scale the ranks of Leading Hand, Third Mate, Second Mate, Mate and – since July 2012 – Master.

At the same time, Tangaroa has supported an increasingly diverse and complex range of research and commercial work. The introduction of new technology, like the DP2 dynamic positioning system fitted in Singapore, has also created new roles and challenges for the crew.

“My role has changed and grown as Tangaroa’s role has changed,” Solly says. “I’ve had to stay familiar with the vessel and all her workings.

“Sometimes she’ll still surprise me with something, but over the years we’ve got to know each other pretty well!”

Seafaring genes

Evan Solly was born into a family of seafarers. His father and grandfathers on both sides of the family made their living on the ocean.

“I was aware from an early age of the excitement – and the challenges – this lifestyle presents,” he says. “It can be tough on family.”

Most of the time, Solly says, he doesn’t dwell on the risks associated with negotiating some of the most unforgiving waters on the planet: “I just plan for them.”

“If you prepare well, if you make sure the vessel is well-maintained and ready, then Tangaroa makes you feel pretty safe out there.

“But,” he admits, “when you’re in Antarctic waters, where the weather can be horrendous for weeks on end, you become most aware of your isolation and vulnerability. You become aware of how far away from family and civilisation you are.

“Without the patient support, belief and understanding of my partner Sandi I could never have achieved what I have. It takes a special kind of person to handle the pressure this profession puts on a relationship. Sandi is absolutely amazing.”

So what motivates Solly to remain at Tangaroa’s helm?

“Every voyage is different,” he says. “Every journey gives me that sense of anticipation of something new to see and do.

“In the early days,” he adds, “we were doing mainly fisheries research, and one voyage tended to blend into another. But as NIWA’s science has expanded, Tangaroa’s workload and the environments we visit have diversified significantly.

“We’re supporting different aspects of oceanography and geology; we’re undertaking varied commercial work in some amazing places.

“I get such a unique perspective on the planet, particularly around the coastline of New Zealand. It’s still my favourite part of the world. It’s so lovely; so interesting.”

He recalls a secondment to NIWA’s coastal research vessel Kaharoa to help BBC and Discovery Channel TV crews capture images of giant squid, using a manned submersible vehicle.

“I was operating off the Kaikoura Coast at night, with dolphins swimming all around me. I remember thinking: it doesn’t get much more special than this.”

Solly maintains a keen interest in the science. An increasingly complex and demanding job means there’s not as much time as there used to be to ‘pick the brains’ of the scientists on each voyage. “But the work they do is fascinating and so important. Each project offers special challenges to me as captain, and it’s very satisfying to play my part in what they’re trying to achieve.”

The perfect foil

Off the water, family life in Nelson and the DIY demands of a 140-year-old house keep Solly well and truly occupied.

“It’s the perfect foil,” he says. “Apart from walks on the beach, I try to stay away from the sea as much as possible. The time I have between voyages is all about family, all about relationships.

“It allows me to keep the right perspective.”

Evan Solly and NIWA’s research vessel Tangaroa have got to know eachother pretty well. (Dave Allen)