Thursday, 27 July 2023 - 9:59am

Farewell to a salty sea dog

5 min read

News article photos (3 items)

Sergeant John Saunders hits the 'retired' button.
Some versions of John Saunders from over the years.
Snapshots from John's career.

SPECIAL REPORT: Sergeant John Saunders has retired after 47 years in Police, 34 of them on the water. Here he tells Monique Caddy about a career which involved notable sinkings, rescues - and even pigeon post.

When John Saunders graduated from Police College in 1976, all unmarried police officers assigned to Auckland City District were sent to stay in barracks. Thankfully, he says, he was posted to Ōtāhuhu so avoided barracks life.

He served the Ōtāhuhu community for 11 years before forging a 34-year career in Auckland’s Maritime Unit, making him the longest serving maritime member in Police history.

“I’ve always had salt-water coursing through my veins, since I was a boy,” he says.

“Not long after I joined Police, we established a Police Sailing Team in South Auckland which gave me the opportunity to help out on Deodar I. Eventually, in 1989, I was appointed to a full-time position and I’ve never looked back.

“However, I was worried my career was about to end before it began..."

A few months into the job, in December 1989, John watched Deodar sink before his eyes.

“I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. My mate and I were standing on Queen’s Wharf watching the Tosa Maru, a Japanese boat, being tugged into its berth.

“There was a miscommunication between the tugs and the bow of the Tosa Maru swung out and hit the stern of the berthed Deodar – it just crunched a massive hole in her hull. Water was gushing in.

“We jumped on board, desperately trying to salvage as much gear as we could - I’ll never forget it.

“We had a police phone line connected to the Pier Master's hut on the wharf, and the phone started to ring so I instinctively picked it up. 


The sunken Deodar I is raised.

The sunken Deodar I is raised.

“It was a routine call from one of the launchmasters so you can imagine his surprise when I said ‘Get here quick - we’re sinking!

“In those days we had to beg and borrow any marine equipment we could get our hands on, and I could see us losing all of it - including my new job that I loved so much.

“Deodar I sank to the bottom of the harbour so only her masts were visible. I was devastated.”

A Navy floating crane hoisted the vessel out of the water.

“We borrowed a temporary boat from the Naval Air Support Unit and we’d just secured a six-metre inflatable which had to keep us going until we could raise enough money to replace Deodar I.” 

Deodars I, II and III.
Deodars I, II and III.

John is one of only four police officers in the Auckland Maritime Units’ 81 years to have served on all three Deodars.

Deodar II was a single-hull aluminium vessel based on a US Coastguard model, and was in commission for around 14 years before the current Deodar III double-hulled catamaran replaced her. “It was a day I’ll never forget,” says John.

John considers himself lucky to have had a job he loved so much. He has many stories.

“Many moons ago, ‘district constables’ used to provide us with water reports from the Firth of Thames,” he says.

“They weren’t actually constabulary Police staff, they were more upstanding civilian members of the community - they didn’t have radios so used homing pigeons to get their reports back to land.

“In the 1980s, protests against nuclear-powered ships weren’t uncommon, and they were always challenging to police at sea.

“I remember once we picked up three heavily pregnant women from Waiheke Island, all in later stages of labour. That was an intense trip with only three staff on board – I opted to take the wheel that day. 

“We got them all to hospital in time, but I recall stories of at least two or three babies being born onboard Deodar I and II.” 

The night of the Rainbow Warrior bombing in 1985 stands out. “I was still stationed in Ōtāhuhu but had a keen interest in the Maritime Unit. In those days there was no night shift within the unit, so that was a major catalyst to establish night shifts.”

John says the strong camaraderie is one of the main reasons he stayed with Police so long. 

“Camaraderie is created through lived experiences with your mates and reminds me of ‘The Longest Tuesday’ – a term we created when we were despatched to a job east of Whangārei Heads. 

“We’d finished too late to head back to Auckland so had to berth in the Bay of Islands that night. At 6am we were called to assist with a search for a missing fisherwoman further north in Matauri Bay.  

“We searched ‘til dark so had to berth at Opua Marina and buy emergency food and toothbrushes and fill Deodar with diesel to be able to get back to Auckland the next morning. 

“However, we’d had a system change-over and our police credit card didn’t work so my colleague had to use his personal card to fill the tank – it came to a cool $6500. 

“Unbelievably we woke up to fog next day which delayed our trip home again and we arrived back on the Thursday afternoon, so we dubbed it The Longest Tuesday.

“We never knew what was going to happen, and I loved that.”

John in his natural environment, aboard Deodar III.

One incident that stays with John is Operation Waikato Bar, the rescue of two adults and a child whose boat capsized. They managed to call for help but didn’t know their location. 

“It was a real joint agency success story. We redirected Eagle from another job, who eventually located the trio, established comms with Westpac and Surf Rescue while Eagle lit them up for lifeguards to search in the darkness.

“They got all three on board, but one patient arrested twice and the body temperature of the child was below 19 degrees. All three survived and made a full recovery.

“It’s a remarkable story and luck was surely shining down on the trio that day.”

It's such stories that made the job so rewarding, says John.

“There are the stories that rip your day apart and they stay with you, but you try to remember the good jobs and do your best to forget about the gritty ones.

“It’s been a great career.”