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'Spent more time at sea than onshore': Jim Huffstutler

Though’s he’s lived in New Zealand on and off for 50-plus years, Jim Huffstutler remains a
very proud — and tall — Texan. PHILIP CHANDLER talks to the former oil man and Vietnam War veteran on the eve of his 80th birthday and finds out how he ended up in Queenstown

Think Texas, think oil.

It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that Queenstown’s most well-known Texan, Jim ‘Huff’  Huffstutler, who turns 80 next week, spent his working career in oil prospecting.

Specifically, he was involved with offshore seismic exploration for about 49 years — using
seismic energy to probe beneath the ocean floor for oil.

His dad, an electrical engineer, had been in the same business in the United States.

‘‘When I got to 18, he looked at me and said, ‘well, son, the free meals are over, there’s a 20 by 40 foot barge on Lake Texoma, and you’re on it’.’’

An early scary experience was working on a boat in Oregon, in the US, that ran onto some
jetties and started sinking.

‘‘The Coastguard came out and got us, the scary bit was waiting around in the boat, up to your waist in water.’’

During the Vietnam War, in 1965, he enlisted with the US Air Force.

After being stationed in the US, he had six months’ service in Guam, from where he flew on
six bombing missions as an air craft electrician — ‘‘you don’t see much in a cigar tube with no windows’’.

Resuming his career in ’69, a year later he reached NZ, which, when growing up, he’d never heard of, for a survey off Taranaki.

Due to a lung collapse, he spent three weeks in a Nelson hospital.

‘‘With all these cute little nurses running around I thought, ‘shit, I wouldn’t mind living here’.’’

In ’71 he was back in NZ, working for Hunt Oil Company’s exploration company’s Great South Basin survey, south of Stewart Island.

During a break in Invercargill he met his first wife, Jo, so that became his new home.

However, he continued travelling the world, working in almost every ocean and sea, while the north-east of England became his second home.

His main job was looking after oil companies’ interests on the vessels they chartered, with
health and safety a big focus after the Piper Alpha oil platform exploded in ’88.

But he also did some oil rig positioning and offshore surveying.

‘‘I’ve spent more time at sea than I’ve spent onshore.’’

Between times, he set up a recording studio in Invercargill — ‘‘I’d been involved with
sound recording in our local church, growing up’’ — which helped foster musos like the band, Pretty Wicked Head.

The Sunday before each Christmas he’d throw a party for everybody who’d recorded in the studio that year.

He’d invite a lawyer friend, Bruce Boivin, from across the road, ‘‘to have on-site representation for our dope-smoking musicians’’.

When his and Boivin’s marriages broke up, they’d come to Queenstown for the weekend before both settling here.

Boivin, in fact, introduced him to his current partner, Kay Edwards, about 25 years ago.

Huffstutler pulled pin on his career after turning 70, as his employer at the time couldn’t get insurance any longer for him to travel offshore by chopper.

In his retirement, he’s become a prolific volunteer at sports events and particularly for National Fieldays at Mystery Creek, Hamilton, where he’s regularly brushed shoulders with Prime Ministers of the day.

He’s continued to be a dab hand with computers and the like, having witnessed huge changes in technology over the years.

‘‘I’ve got more technology in my phone than I had in my first satellite navigation  computers.’’

He’s done rental car relocations and airport shuttle driving and recently worked as an extra for locally-shot TV dramas, One Lane Bridge and Under The Vines.

Huffstutler’s also well known for his Uncle Jim’s Texas Chilli Powder, which he first made when living in England.

Keen on a drink or two, he’s a regular at Queenstown’s Thursday Club and at Returned and Services’ Association gatherings the following night.

He’s also a proud father of Anna, Casey and Stefan.

And he loves living in Queenstown.

‘‘When I was growing up, in August, being rather hot in Texas, we would go up to Colorado, to the mountains, and I always thought, ‘well, I’d love to live in the mountains’, so this is the closest we can get in NZ.’’

scoop@scene.co.nz