Meet Mat Savage

Meet Mat Savage


The Balmain Shipyard has a level of mystique about it. So does Mat Savage, who works at Balmain Shipyard and who loves life on the water. Jayne Cheeseman had a chat with Mat to dig a little deeper and discovered that he’s worked and traveled through all but one continent, couldn’t live anywhere but Sydney and participates in the Cancer Council’s yearly Shitbox Rally.


First of all what is your official title and what does it involve?

Technical Superintendent. The Technical Superintendent’s role is to be an intermediary between the vessels and the yard. Basically, talking to the floating staff to find out what’s going on on the vessels and when you book it (a vessel) in here at Balmain to get stuff repaired. We’re the sort of technical side of things to ensure that what the trades do is the way we want it done and whether it complies to the regulatory requirements. We deal with Lloyds and RMS for the Manly boats. On the smaller boats it’s always just ‘now’ answers. So, I make sure the boats stay in survey so that the repairs  done on them are done to the right standard. We also filter what the floating staff tell us and turn it into information the yard can use.

That’s a huge job.

Ah, it’s not that bad. It does get busy. Particularly Roger because he’s got half the fleet. But you do get busy days and unfortunately we get three hundred and sixty five days of it because we don’t get a day off from the phones. Not a day would go by where you don’t get a phone call from work.

How long have you been at the ferries?

I’ve been at the ferries twice now. I came here in 2001 and stayed until 2008. And then I went offshore onto what they call an FPSO which is Floating Production Storage and Offtake, where they turn a huge oil tanker into an oil rig. Rather than an oil rig where they either drill or pump the oil out of the ground and send it straight ashore, we actually pumped the oil out of the ground and processed it on board, as in, removed all the water and everything else that’s in it, stored it on board and then another tanker comes in behind us and we pumped across to that tanker.

Were you Superintendent?

No, I was an engineer on board that.

Ok. And the first time you were at the ferries?

No (laughs). The first time I was at the ferries I was an engineer.

Was this always a role that you had envisioned doing?

Not a superintendent role. I had aspired to be a chief which is a role I filled a few times. But no, I’d never intended to be a superintendent. In fact, I couldn’t spell superintendent until four years ago (laughs).

What drew you to the ferries in the first place?

There’s an attraction to the ferries anyway. One of the times I first came to Sydney, I was living in Fairlight. I had a lovely flat right on the waterfront, looking out through the Heads. It is now owned by Jeffrey Wiggle (Jeff Fatt of The Wiggles), but I used to sit there and watch the ferries go past and I thought, “That seems like a pretty good role”. Then, I was working offshore on a ship and I got an email from a friend when the Collaroy had its incident off Manly, it actually drove up on the rocks. My friend said, “They’ll probably be looking for staff soon”. I then saw an ad and applied for a job as an engineer at the ferries. However, I was away when they rang me and asked me in for interview and I was away when they told me “Yes, you’ve got the job… but you have to start this week”. I said, “I’m three months away”. They said, “Well, bad luck”. Later, I was on the train and got a phone call saying “Can you be here on Wednesday?”.

I started there, worked away quite happy on a mixture of inner harbour and outer harbour. I enjoyed the outer harbour, but found it a bit lonely working out there. As you can imagine, I like to talk a fair bit, so I was happy on the inner harbour on the supercats. We had a great crew and worked for three years with the same crew. It was great.

Mat Savage Balmain Shipyard Sydney Ferries

Mat at the Shitbox Rally

What were you doing before the ferries?

Before the ferries I was working on white boats, as in luxury white boats. Although, they weren’t so luxurious. Mine was the Lone Ranger, the sister ship to the Arctic P. Kerry Packer’s old boat. It’s an old ocean-going salvage tug that had been converted into a pleasure boat. I travelled around the world a couple of times on that for three years. But just prior to the ferries I was working on a 180ft version of the same thing; a 1960s built ocean-going salvage tug. I was Chief Engineer on that. I had finished a yard-period in Genoa and the engineer had resigned in the yard period. I knew the vessel anyway, so they flew me over to take over the yard period, then took the boat through Gibraltar, Canary Islands, Puerto Rico. I got off the boat at Puerto Rico after five months, I was only meant to be there for two so I was pretty keen to get off. I was also pretty upset about being there for five months with my wife back here. That’s when the ferries contacted me, so I stayed here.

You’re from New Zealand. When did you come to Sydney?

I first came here in 1977 when my dad was living here on a holiday. I thought the place was pretty good. Then I came back in 1988 at the end my apprenticeship and I was starting on an OEE and I was here for six months. I was working in a horrible truck workshop fixing trucks. It was a builder’s labourer working in the yard next to us, who said “Come to Avalon Backpackers, we’re going out tonight.” I went to Avalon and thought “Gee, this place is alright”. In those days there was always music up and down the Northern Beaches so I thought, “This place is pretty special”. I told myself I was going to come back and spend a bit of time in the Northern Beaches and see how it worked out. Three years later I was in London out for dinner. I was talking to a girl who said, “What are you doing?” and I said, “I’ve got to get back to Turkey for a season, I’m doing a trip through Africa and then I’m going back to the Northern Beaches to live there.” She said, “That sounds alright – where about in Turkey?” She’s now my wife 26 years later.

Do you have a favourite ferry route?

Yeah, it used to be, where you end up at Woolwich at night looking back at the city. There’s a painting that’s hard to explain – the city is blacked out silhouetted with all the lights of the building. Every night when you’re up at Woolwich that’s all you see on a dark night. All the lights reflecting across the water and the silhouetted city. It’s a bit like looking at a painting. Also, going into Manly at night.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face in your role?

It’s funny. You’d think most of them would be engineering challenges but we have so many clever people here, you’re never short of engineering answers. It’s more dealing with different needs, whether its personality needs, operational needs. Everyone has an interest and it’s getting the balance right to serve all of those interests.

I’m sure your time at the ferries has yielded some great stories.

I mean, there’s always been the horror stories. A found body in Manly and things like that. I think just those times when everyone’s working together, when there’s something on an event on. I wasn’t here for the Olympics, but that type of thing where everyone is pulling together to make things happen. When things happen in people’s families. I can’t really think of a single event. There’s always lots of good stuff.

Were you there when the body was found?

Yeah, I was. There was a dinghy blocking our way when we were going into Manly in the jet cats. So we turned the jet cat around and we were getting the dinghy on board the boat and we thought “Gee I wonder who this belongs to. All the fishing gear and everything is on it”. One of the customers said, “Well maybe it’s his”, and there’s this body floating in the water. Police came and sorted that one out pretty quickly.

The more time I spend here, the more I enjoy it. The people are a big draw here. It’s what sort of makes the job, lots of nice and always interesting people. It’s so diverse too. You’re talking to deckhands that have double degrees. You could be talking to anyone. It’s a big mixture of people. People who have had huge life experiences before coming here, people who have come here straight from school. People with 40 years of service. It’s pretty incredible.

What do you do when you’re not at work?

I’m a member of the North Curl Curl Surf Club – one of the rescue boat drivers there, I train down there and am active on patrol. My ten year old son takes most of my time and his labrador, Spencer. I ride motorbikes, but not much lately. I’ve got a boat, a 30 ft mariner that me and the family go in a fair bit. I’m always on the water as such. Last year and this year we’re doing the Shit-Box Rally.

Tell me more about that!

It’s for the Cancer Council of NSW. The deal is you buy a car worth less than $1000 and you drive it over the route they give you. Last year was from Canberra over to Hay, Broken Hill, Birdsville Track, up to Townsville via all the back roads. It was 220 cars – all these old wrecks. The idea is get yourself into buddy teams. There were eight in each team and you just head off. There’s 5 or 6 cars towing trailers to pick up the wreckage, but the idea is for you and your team to get all the cars across the finish line. It’s no race, because they’re all old cars.

Last year we did a 1976 Mercedes – an old 2.8 litre which was like driving a boat on the road – it floated everywhere and sort of just bounced along the road. It still had ashtrays in the doors and an electric sunroof which still worked. We thundered down the Birdsville Track. That was funny when you saw all the four wheel drives and people with trailers and water bottles on the roof – they’re prepared for this big crossing of the desert, and we all just flew past in these wrecked old cars, and did the crossing in one long day. You wake up in the morning and it’s dark and you’re still driving at ten o’clock at night, pulling into camp sites. It’s quite surreal when you get to the end and there’s all these lights because people are working on cars, fixing things. It’s quite a carnival feeling when you pull into these towns.

As well as raising money for Cancer Council, we pay quite a large amount for this fund for camping, and to the Country Women’s Association. The P&C do all the catering while we’re in these towns and the Rally pays quite a lot of money for these services so we also raise money for the local towns. Every town we’ve been to writes to us and asks if we’re coming back because everyone’s well behaved and they spend a lot of cash. There’s lots of beer to be drunk and people cleaning up and getting camp sites ready. It’s a good atmosphere.


You must see a lot of Australia that many don’t get the chance to see.

I saw more on that last trip than I’d ever seen in Australia. I had the idea that I’d do the Birdsville Track as an older person, towing a caravan. We flew through it in one day. It was like being at sea. All you saw was horizon all around you with no hills for hours and the cars just droning along the road. It was unreal.

How do you prepare for something like that?

You don’t, really. You just put a swag in. In saying that, we’re repairing our car for this year. We’ve gone a bit harder and got a slightly faster car because we were the slowest car in the group. The one we have now is a lot newer and faster, but on the same token I’m probably pushing the boundaries of the rules. I put a few new parts into it.

Was it the first one?

No they’ve done 6 or 7. It’s still quite new. The one we actually applied for was the year before going from Perth to Darwin. That’s the one I really wanted to do, but we got the one going through the centre, which was nice.

On the front of the car we took, there was a coffee cup. We were team Expresso. The way we made our name and extra money for ourselves was – we had a coffee maker on board. We’re doing that again this year.

Is the aim to wreck your car off even more?

Well, they auction off all the cars at the end. That money is all given to the charity. Last year was 1.6 million I think we raised.


Are you located near the water?

Yes, I live in North Curly. We look down onto the beach. I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.

What’s something we wouldn’t know about the shipyard or the shipyard team?

I don’t know! It’s probably just the sheer amount of skills that this place has that probably go, not unacknowledged by any means, but just unknown skills from the machinists, the electricians to the boilermakers, the shipwrights, there are some amazing skills here. What would take a mere mortal  a long time to fix, these guys can stitch up pretty quickly.

It’s such a unique place. Is there anything other’s might not know about you as well?

I’m scared of spiders (laughs). I’m a Kiwi. I’m not that complicated, really. Married, one kid, a dog.

I’ve spent a lot of time travelling. I’ve been to a lot of countries in the world.

You said you went through Africa?

Africa, with the wife. I went from here, across to Timor. Backpacked up through all the islands. Flew from Jakarta to Singapore, caught the train to the top of Thailand, flew to the UK, then down to Corsica, sailed to Turkey, sailed back again, sailed up to the French canals, then via Cyprus, Yemen all these other places down to Kenya and physically backpacked and hitched all the way from Kenya down to Cape Town. I got bilharzia in Africa which put me in hospital for 15 days and I dropped down to 50-something kilos. It’s a horrible intestinal worm you get from a river that flows away from the sun. That knocked me flat. We came back here. I went back to New Zealand and got a job for a few years, then I jumped on yachts again, so I sailed a brand new alloy yacht, Imagine, which at the time was the tallest single-master sloop in the world. I sailed that up to Greece from Auckland via Bali, all these small Indonesian islands, the Seychelles, Maldives, Red Sea, back up to Greece. I came back again where I started on container ships where I went up around Japan, which is where I got my tickets. Got on a boat in Cape Town and went around the world about three times, up through Alaska, Aleutian Islands, down Reunion, Galapagos Islands, Panama, through the Caribbean.

It sounds like the only continent you haven’t visited is Antarctica!

Well that’s where the boat was supposed to be going! The guy we worked for was a very wealthy American guy. A really nice guy. He used to own Progressive Motor Insurance. We were on our way to Antarctica, I was going to be the Chief on that journey, something I was looking forward to. We got as far as Galapagos, and unfortunately the boss’s girlfriend fell off her motorbike – Lauren Hutton, do you remember her? Revlon face of the 80s, first model to have a gap in her teeth. She fell off and put ribs through her lungs. She went to St Barts to recuperate and he sent the boat to St Barts to stand by her. My wife was also on the boat at that time. We left the boat and traveled through South America for six months. That included getting as close to Antarctica on land and then back up the  coast, flying to Easter Island then back to Sydney.

Would you ever relocate?

I think Sydney is home now. For sure. Of all the countries I’ve been to, Sydney’s got the best balance, although I hate the traffic. The best balance of weather and beaches and lifestyle. When we are training, we run on the beach most mornings. You’re running on the beach and the sun is coming up and you’re thinking, “People pay to go to holidays like this and this is five minutes from my house.” It’s a pretty special place to live.

You’ve got a pretty great office view too!

I can see the sun coming up through the harbour bridge every morning and you kick yourself. I’m sitting here drinking a coffee, watching the sun come up. You can’t even find a cafe with a view like this. Looking out onto my favourite boats and the sun coming up through the bridge – I always start early in the mornings for those reasons. You can get a hold of the day rather than the day getting a hold of you. Then I get to knock off a little bit earlier and go home and pick my boy up from school. It’s not a bad balance.

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