A Raglan identity whose love affair with Whaingaroa Harbour, net-making and fishing spanned many decades — and who effectively was the Raglan Coastguard in its early days — was farewelled with a celebration of his life at the new Coastguard base at the wharf last Saturday.
Dutch-born Bert de Besten came to New Zealand in 1950 and, after working in Hamilton for a time, decided it would be better for the family — his then wife Nora, and children Miriama and Frances (Frankie) — if they moved to Raglan. He got a job with Raglan Engineering and also as a labourer on the wharf, helping unload the many cargo vessels which then called at the port.
Celebrant Steve Soanes told the service how Bert developed a love for the harbour and would spend a lot of time fishing and netting with his father-in-law John Gillett Senior. He also developed a love for Maori food that stayed with him the rest of his life: just days before his death he asked for a feed of muttonbird, and his widow and companion of 28 years, Daphne, said he ate the whole lot and loved it.
After tiring of the engineering business, Bert bought a fish and chip business which he ran over the years at two separate locations in Bow Street. But — as Steve Soanes related — Bert also worked on the wharf for many years, as did most of the self-employed working men in Raglan.
“He had particularly fond memories of the molasses ships that came over the Tasman from Bundaberg … many a night would be spent having a few beers and listening to the Fijians (crew members) singing Isa Leii,” Steve told the service.
With the coastal cargo vessel trade in its last throes, Bert put a trip back to Holland to visit his ill mother ahead of the redundancy payout promised only to wharfies who worked the last vessel that came into port. But on his return he got the call that the last ship was in port and he got a payout of $7000 at a time when $4000 would buy a very decent home in Raglan.
Bert then tried his hand at commercial fishing, working the harbour for flounder, and Steve said it was a case of “heaven help you” if you set a net anywhere near Bert’s. But Bert was also willing to share his knowledge and expertise — where and how to fish in the harbour, reading the water conditions for mullet, where to get the odd crayfish — with those he felt were worthy of it.
Saturday’s service heard slinging nets became a way of life for Bert, and he taught family and locals how to sling, set nets and smoke fish. He also made nets for many locals, and became a dab hand at making hinaki or eel pots. The Maori folk at Waingaro where he set his hinaki nicknamed him “Mullet”.
Former commercial fisherman Aaron Laboyrie talked at the service of his fond memories of Bert smoking huge quantities of kahawai off his charters — the paying passengers wanted only snapper and gurnard — and distributing the fish around town. Avril Hawken, wife of current Coastguard president Wally, said Bert “was one of the few who smoked fish to perfection, he was one in a million”.
There was a Coastguard guard of honour at Saturday’s service for a man Avril said “was the Coastguard in the early days … the police would call him first”. Bert’s duties in more recent times were more behind the scenes — launching and retrieving the Coastguard boat by tractor, and ensuring the vessel was full of fuel and ready to go at all times — but he also drove the tractor pulling the Coastguard float in every New Year’s Eve parade bar this years.
Steve Soanes told mourners at Saturday’s service to ask themselves why they were there. “Surely it is to honour and respect that very good name Bert built up in our community and elsewhere over 83 years of life,” he said.