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- About two and a half hours’ drive west of Melbourne, not far inland from the majestic Great Ocean Road and some of Australia’s most-loved surfing locations, is the site of the Mortlake South Wind Farm. The two-year project symbolises a major cultural push within ACCIONA: towards renewable energy, sustainable development and…surfing! We spoke to surveyor Mick Kates about the job, and the lure of a well-earned holiday.
The Mortlake South Wind Farm is halfway between the towns of Mortlake and Terang, in the heart of southwest Victoria. There’s 35 turbines going in at the site: they’re each 186 metres high, and at full capacity will be able to power 115,000 homes over a 25-year lifespan. Remarkably, all this is being achieved on less than 1% of the 6,000 hectares that have been leased for the project.
The wind farm is a $272 million commitment for ACCIONA, which will have knock-on benefits for the local community – in employment and regular grants - and for the state more generally. ACCIONA’s subsidiary, John Beever Australia, is doing the civil and electrical works: it’s the first time the infrastructure business has delivered the civil and infrastructure works for Energy.
Surveyor Mick Kates is employed by Survey3D but contracted to John Beever Australia. He’s been based in southwest Victoria, living in Warrnambool, for nearly twelve months now. Mick’s from Callala Beach, near Jervis Bay on the NSW south coast. “I’ll be here in Warrnambool till June,” he says, “but I’ve got six weeks of leave coming up so, I’ll head back home, do a week of skiing in Japan and a few weeks of just surfing and hanging out on the coast.”
Mick has a knack for making his job sound simple (it isn’t). “I set everything out,” he explains. “Where’s it go, how high, how’s it fit in with this other element? I load up the machines with files that tell the operator where all the features and infrastructure are. And after the works, I do an ‘as constructed’ to see how the finished work conforms to the design.”
It’s a busy role, on a busy site. Although it’s beginning to wind down now, at its peak there were 100-120 workers, and five surveyors, on the job at Mortlake. “Now it’s just me,” says Mick. “So the pads are done, and the roads to them are done too. Next is the underground HV line from Mortlake to the Terang substation. After my six weeks off, I’ll be working on that. That’ll take me through to June.”
One of the many good reasons for chatting with Mick is his long history as a surfer. ACCIONA has recently partnered with Surfing Australia to create the unique Feeling Swell program. As the name suggests, Surfing Australia is the peak body for Australia’s surfers, and it does a lot of work in promoting the sport to kids, and in particular, getting girls involved. And when surfing makes its first- ever appearance at the Olympics later this year, it’ll be Surfing Australia in the background, building a team and hopefully a permanent place in Olympic competition.
Where ACCIONA and Surfing Australia share common ground is in the idea of building a healthier and more sustainable future. So the Feeling Swell program aims to bring everyday people to discover a love of the ocean, leading ultimately to sustainable development, clean beaches and healthier lives. There are a lot of parallels between the two organisations - while Surfing Australia works to include women in surfing through its Shore Thing program, ACCIONA’s doing likewise in construction through the 2020 and Project Loreto initiatives.
For Mick at present, participation is proving, well, a bit of a sore point. “I’ve had no surfs at all while I’ve been here in southwest Vic,” he laughs. “I’m working Monday to Friday, and there just hasn’t been the time. But I’ve got that holiday coming up and I’ll get stuck into it then. I ride three different boards back home: a 5’6”, a standard six- foot thruster and a 6’4” for bigger days.” And if you’re thinking those numbers sound small for a fifty-seven-year-old, “I’m only sixty-five kilos, and I’ve been that weight since high school.”
Mick’s Project Manager on the Mortlake job is Ninna West. Although she’s not a surfer herself – mountain-biking is more her thing – she’s heard enough of Mick’s stories about surfing to understand the obsession. “Mick’s great,” she says. “He’s so affable, always got a story to tell. But he really cares about his work – once we settled into a routine at Mortlake, he just took charge, went above and beyond, taking on responsibilities that extended well beyond our expectations of him.
“It’s a big, fast-paced job,” she continues. “It can be tricky striking that balance between keeping the work going, and the demands of the quality team and the documentation side of it. Mick sits in the middle of all that, between groups with competing priorities, and he handles it really well.”
Mick’s got family back home; a wife and two young adult daughters. He says his girls will have a go at surfing now and then, borrow his boards if it’s a hot day. But they’re more skiers than surfers. “My local wave’s Wreck Bay, widely known as Aussie Pipeline. If it’s bigger, I go up to Gerroa. I’ve been surfing in and around the area since the late seventies. I know the local Aboriginal surfers at Wreck Bay (the Wreck Bay Mob), and we get along really well.
“I fell into surveying at a young age – I was working in construction and it looked like more fun. I started with the old tech, using a ‘chain’, a thin wire with metres marked out on it in bronze. You had to calibrate the thing to the ambient temperature. I have a natural affinity for numbers – I can solve an addition problem in my head before you can get your phone out and use the calculator. I can retain number strings like my tax file number or credit cards.
“I wouldn’t say I’m an enthusiastic adopter of tech though. When I get home from a day’s work, the last thing I want to do is get on a screen. I like talking to people, solving problems with them, organising things. I prefer being out in the field to working in an office. But I do love the plotting tech that we use in the machines. Sometimes the guys who operate them are unsure of the gadget that’s staring back at them, so I go through it with them and explain it. It’s a people job, not a tech job.”
It’s not hard getting Mick talking about his love of the job. “I enjoy being out in the middle of nowhere surveying,” he says. “It feels like the solitude of surfing, in an odd way. And when you download a plot and every tiny element drops perfectly into place – it’s so satisfying. I’ve had the chance to work Barrow Island, at the Argyle diamond mine, in the Kimberley. I’ve worked in every state of Australia, across thirty years now. I get paid to look around the place.” He hesitates, like something’s bugging him. “I just can’t take a board with me…”
The Mortlake experience has been wonderful, according to Mick. “There are jobs I’ve been on where there’s a 200% turnover of staff – it’s not uncommon to find workplaces where people simply don’t want to be there because of the way they’re treated. But this mob are great: Ninna, who I work for, is from Jindabyne, over my way. Getting invited to do the next job (at Warwick) is a feather in the cap, too.
“There’s a culture on this job where you can speak up and say ‘hey, we need to do it this way,’ and they’ll listen. And it matters: if you get it wrong and you run over time it can cost a fortune.”
This weekend, Ninna’s off to Newcastle to speak on a women’s panel at the Australian Boardriders Battle. The panel’s called ‘Engineering Confidence’, and it ties in with ACCIONA’s support of world tour surfer and engineering student Isabella Nicholls. “This is personal to me,” says Ninna. “I know how hard it is to strike the right work/life balance. I’m really excited to be a part of the discussion.”
Meanwhile, Mick’s trying to impart that same balance. “I’m trying to get one of my daughters to go into surveying. It’s kind to the body, and demanding on the brain. You do a hell of a lot of walking, so it keeps you fit. I’ve seen the look on people’s faces when they have to get up in the morning and go to a job they hate. That’s never been me. I love it.”
This article was written by Jock Serong, a novelist and freelance journalist who writes in the surfing, travel and literary media. He was the founding editor of Great Ocean Quarterly and is senior writer at Surfing World magazine. His most recent novel is Preservation, based on the true story of the Sydney Cove shipwreck.