Last updated 26 November 2022
A walk along Wakefield Quay to the Sunderland Marine Pier to view the displays and sculptures reinforces the historic links of both New Zealand and Nelson to the sea. It starts with the bronze sculpture of a migrant family arriving in Nelson around 1842 together with their possessions and the tools they brought to create a new life. This is sited adjacent to the early settler’s memorial wall with engraved panels which create an overview of Maori and European migration and settlement in the area. Panels also identify each of the ships, and their passenger manifests, that arrived from 1841 to 1850.
In the nearby garden a carved wooden sculpture, Navigator 3 by local artist Tim Wraight, features a globe on top of a Totara pole with the work incorporating some key elements relating to early Maori, early European and current ship navigation and also carved rope forms on the support post [flax (harakeke), hemp rope and steel chain on the support post].
Continuing along past other nautical themed works brings you to the National Seafarers’ Memorial, a powerful and poignant bronze sculpture by Nelson artist Grant Palliser, which depicts a sailor at the helm of a ship on a turbulent sea and scanning the way ahead. This memorial is to seafarers who have lost their lives at sea and was commissioned as a National Memorial by the New Zealand Fishing Industry through the Seafarers Memorial Trust. (The Art of Wakefield Quay-theprow.org.nz)
The Port of Nelson is the largest offshore fishing port in the Southern Hemisphere, landing in excess of 200,0000 tonnes of fish a year. Those employed, either directly by Fishing Companies or in support organisations, make up an estimated 26% of the total workforce in this region. A drive around Port Nelson and its industrial areas shows the importance of both fishing and shipping to the Nelson economy. Add to these other supporting operations, such as King Salmon’s processing operations in the Tahuna industrial area and Cawthron Institute’s operations in the Wood and Glenduan, and it brings the economic importance of the industry into perspective.
It is fitting therefore that the memorial is based in Nelson and adjacent to a site which was a landing place used by Maori and some of the first European Settlers.
Mike Smith, who is the current Chair of the Seafarers’ Memorial Trust, grew up in Sunderland in England, from where his grandfather went to sea and his father worked in a shipyard. He started his working life as a fisherman later becoming involved in marine insurance. On moving to New Zealand he set up a marine insurance company.
"In 1996 a staggering 23 seamen lost their lives at sea. This became the catalyst for my initial approach in 1997 to Sir Peter Talley of Talley’s Group Ltd (knighted in 2015) to gain support for the project to establish the Blessing of the Fleet event."
Coincidentally, the Rotary Club of Nelson also approached Peter Talley around this time to check if such an event had been considered and advise its willingness to support any initiative.
A committee was set up, including the then President of the Rotary Club of Nelson, Alex Rutherford, to establish the event with the scope of the project encompassing the design and construction of the Quay and commissioning of the memorial sculpture.
"When a life is lost at sea, families do not have a grave they can visit as part of grieving, so this memorial and pier were designed and built with that in mind."
The first "Blessing" event was held in 2001. In 2020, the Blessing was still fresh in peoples' minds when a container ship collided with a fishing boat in Wellington harbour, causing a further loss of 5 lives. The "Blessing" events captured public support and have continued annually with the 20th anniversary celebrated in 2021.
The event includes a fireworks display on the Friday night before the Blessing on Saturday. The ceremony in 2021 was supported by the Motueka brass band and the Nelson College for Girls choir.
Sea cadets and representatives of the Royal New Zealand Navy lined the pier as an honour guard as the prayers and the blessing were conducted by various Nelson religious leaders.
In addition to the fishing trawlers and armada of other watercraft also attend, ranging from the Port Nelson tug to stand up paddle boards. The crowd are also entertained with demonstrations including a mockup of firefighting of a fire on board a trawler and a recovery of an injured seaman off a trawler the Nelson Marlborough Rescue Helicopter.
Though the event is free to the public, funds are raised for the Memorial Trust to stage the event through donations, the sale of fish and chips (2 pieces of fish and chips) for a nominal $3 charge and the auctioning of fresh fish including Salmon.
Major sponsorship support is from Talley Group, Sealord Group and King Salmon including generous donations of their products.
The Rotary Club of Nelson continues to support the event with members cooking and selling the fish and chips at the event. The club also gave a grant to support the Wakefield Quay redevelopment handled as a separate development.
After a break due covid, the event will again be scheduled for the 2023 year (date to be set). Though originally timed around the start of the Hoki season, the event has been brought forward to an autumn timing when the weather is more stable.
As long as men and women go to sea to fish, they will face the risks that come with that so this will remain an important event to remember those who perish at sea, to celebrate the work done by Fishermen and the contribution of the wider industry to our way of life in Nelson.
When you visit the pier, take time to read the names of the families that have contributed the seating and fit out, all of whom have been part of the industry success story.