We grew up in Lyttelton, a small port town in Christchurch. As a family, we were always involved in sea scouts and loved anything to do with the ocean. My brothers and I would go rowing and sailing and fishing out on the harbour.
Looking back now, I was a bit of a hard case. I must’ve been a brave 18 year old. When I went for my first job, the big captain interviewed me. He said I’d get broken fingernails, all that sort of stuff. I loved fishing and boating. I didn’t care about broken fingernails! I ended up getting the job, but the contract I signed was laughable. For example, it stated, “He will faithfully serve the company values, and he will not visit hotels, drinking saloons or gaming houses when onshore.” Their company regulations stated all women should be off the ship by twenty two hundred hours. Despite this, the crew was pretty good to me. I was the only female so they gave me separate accommodation. It was all quite new for me - as it was for them.
I didn’t find it lonely onboard and I never really craved female company. I was so busy learning my job I didn’t have time to think about it. In saying that, the sea life is a social one. It’s full on working together and living together for months at a time. You make a lot of good, close friends. I’ve met and worked with people from all over the world. I shared a cabin with another woman for eight or nine months. As you can imagine, we got to know each other really well. I hadn’t seen her in 20 years until this February, when she turned up at my door for a cup of tea.
I get on well with the guys. I’m lucky with my size and height, being taller than most people always helps. I learnt early on to not be bothered by some of the stuff that went on, especially the posters the guys had on their walls.
As a woman, it was really hard to move up the ranks. It was like there were banana skins scattered around the deck, tripping us up. It took years to go from third mate to second mate, to mate. Someone would have to die for anyone to get their job. I ended up going overseas. It took too long to get anywhere in New Zealand.
My biggest accomplishment was getting my Foreign Going Masters Certificate in 1990. It allowed me to be a captain on a ship anywhere in the world - more or less. It’s also a prerequisite to the job I have now.
When I went to sea it would be for most of the year. The only time I had off was two or three weeks per year. I remember going home for that short amount of time and my mother checking me for tattoos. A lot of people couldn’t cope with being away for so long. Communication was really hard with no internet or cellphones. We wrote a lot of letters. It was an exciting day when the parcel containing letters from home arrived at port. When I was captain, I went down to the crew newsroom with this large, heavy package in my arms. I opened the door and everyone looked up at me with big, eager eyes. I put the the parcel on the table in the middle of everyone and ran out of the room before they dived in, shredding it apart to get at the letters.
In those days it cost US$5 a minute to use the satellite phone, if not more. Eventually, I found myself ringing home just to find out what had happened on Coronation Street. That’s when I realised how much I missed New Zealand. It was time to move on.
Before my husband passed away we talked about having kids, but he couldn’t have any. It hasn’t bothered me too much because I’ve got so many nieces and nephews, even a great nephew! My brother lives in Christchurch with his two children and I love them to bits. I’m also Godmother to four or five kids. Sometimes I think, damn, who’s going to look after me when I’m older? I’m sure someone will! None of this has ever made me regret the life I’ve had.
I go out in it, then climb up onto the big ship to meet with the captain. I look at the tides, how much water there is, how many ‘takes’ there are, plus a lot more. The captain gives me the comm, which means I take control of the ship. There are the helm orders - which is the steering - and the engine orders. I take into account all of these details and more. To do my job, you need specialised knowledge of the harbour. Often the entrances into port towns have confusing, small passages of water which only a local pilot can navigate.
When the sea is a bit rough and the ship is rolling, it starts to get exciting. I got drenched the other day. The boat was banging against the waves. You get used to it after a few years, but it gets harder and harder as I get older. My bad ankle causes me to be a bit unbalanced.
In my spare time, before I got this ankle injury, I used to do a lot of walking and kayaking. I took a photo once when I was kayaking. It was a beautiful day in the harbour and there were these lovely reflections on the rippled water. I tried to recreate it in a painting. A lady who lives in Lyttelton teaches a group of us friends. We mainly do acrylics. It’s nothing serious, just a good catch up really. We all live here - three of us are on the same street.
How do I get into this career?
Joanne spent 17 years at sea before she got into her current job, so we're not saying you could walk into a job like this - it takes time. Here are some places to start:
- Another idea is to research local ports, call them, and ask if you can go in for a day or a week to see what the job is actually like. This will allow you to quickly figure out if this sort of job is for you. This is called 'informational interviewing' and there are some great on how to approach this.