At the age of 16, John Teaurima left his home island of Mangaia on the MV Mataora to Rarotonga.
Forty years later, 56-year-old Police Senior Sergeant Teaurima is still on the waves, the longest-serving crew member of the police patrol boat, Te Kukupa.
Teaurima signed up for the police force in 1984. Four years later, applications went out for a crew on the new police patrol boat to be donated by the Australian government the following year.
He was accepted and began training at the Tamaki Navy base in Devonport, New Zealand for four weeks. “It was very cold and tough,” he remembers.
Training continued with more courses in Melbourne. “We were taught protocol, language – and proper eating habits like using a knife and fork,” he smiles.
In 1989 he spent the longest period of away from home during his career; from January to June, he undertook naval training in Western Australia.
Teaurima missed his family, and his girlfriend Maria Taripo, who is now his wife and the mother of his two children.
During one of their sea trials they came across terribly rough weather. “I didn’t sleep well, it was so uncomfortable you could hardly sleep and I was sea sick.”
There were times he was nervous and scared.
“It was very hard in the first years, then not having enough skills; but attending classes, courses and training, we got through.”
His confidence boosted, once the training was complete.
For the handover of the patrol boat, the crew flew to Western Australia and sailed her to Sydney.
Due to a shift in political power, with the Cook Islands Party taking control of government, the sailors were ordered to return home.
After further negotiations, the team were finally flown back to Sydney to bring Te Kukupa home.
In 1990, Teaurima and Maria were married, and that same year their son was born, and 11 years later they had a daughter.
Teaurima is appreciative of the continuous support his wife has given him over the years, and acknowledges how tough it would have been for her when he was away at sea.
It was hard at first, says Maria.
Being married to someone who is away at sea can be difficult, but you get used to it, you adjust, she says. “We know what it’s like, this is maritime life.”
Te Kukupa and its crew are away at sea for up to 100 days a year.
It is hard for the younger couples, Maria adds, so she talks with the women to give support.
She recalls the earlier days when Te Kukupa would return, and the crew would continue to have get-togethers.
“After being at sea together, they get home on land, and still want to be together,” she says shaking her head and smiling.
Cyclone season are the toughest times for her, particularly when there is a warning bulletin.
When the kids were little, she would feel scared, when he was at sea.
“I’d call my family, my friends to tie down the roof of our home,” says Maria. “And we, the wives, we check up on and visit each other. We learn to be together, to support each other as a family.”
At sea during these times, John Teaurima says the crew would get worried too. “You don’t know what will happen, I thank the Lord when the cyclone passes by.
“I worry about my wife, my family. It’s hard, it’s a challenge.”
With the cyclones and more extreme weather, Teaurima says pills for sea sickness are a must for him.
“You have a responsibility to the crew, the boat, you have a job to do. You can’t be getting sick.”
But just as his wife provides leadership for the younger wives, he provides leadership for the young men on Te Kukupa. They call him “King” – not just because of his chiefly lineage, but also his continued commitment to serving his people.
“Safety is paramount, we don’t want the crew to be injured, we work smarter these days,” he adds.
As first Teaurima, then Te Kukupa, celebrated 30 years at sea, dozens paid tribute – including police minister Mac Mokoroa: “The King is the man,” the former police officer said, “humble and gentle.”
Teurima says the earlier crews have set a strong foundation for the boat.
So does he feel the country is prepared to receive the new bigger patrol boat in 2020?
“We are ready, the foundation has already been set, it is getting stronger and stronger,”
He supports the proposal to keep the name Te Kupapa II for the next vessel.
Today they have just 13 crew, the smallest crew the vessel has had in its entire history. But at 30 years of age, Te Kukupa is in pristine condition.
“As you can see now, I’m bigger than the crew,” he laughs.
He says to the young sailors: “When you see running rust on the boat, think about a patient who has had an accident, if you see blood you apply first aid. Do the same thing on the boat.”
“They are my family too, Te Kukupa is my second home.”