Joanne - Sea Pilot /Poutikanga Whakahaere Kaipuke

It’s in my blood. The love of the ocean. My great grandfather was a marine engineer and so was his father. Dad worked at the shipping office in Lyttelton and my brother Peter went to sea.

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.

Growing up, I didn’t realise women could have a career at sea. When I finished my last year at high school, dad showed me a magazine. It had a picture of a woman named Rosie - who I later got to know - on the cover. She was working on a ship. I thought, well, that would be pretty cool. My first written job application proudly stated, “I’m a member of the Lyttelton Sea-Ventures. I have recently received my charge certificate, which enables me to take charge of a small open boat under oars.”

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.

You have to be happy in our own skin and character to work on a ship. You’re out on the ocean for long periods of time and you can’t just up and leave. People find out pretty early on if they aren’t suited to the sea life.

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.

A skipper I know talks about choosing your battles. She says you can’t go into an industry as a minority and expect to change everything. She’s right. It takes time for people to get to know you, and you them.

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.

I was the first woman in New Zealand to get the certificate. There were obviously women at sea before I was, but because I went overseas I got a lot more hours in quickly. It was so exciting back then. I still have a folder filled with the cards and congratulations. I remember Dad being particularly proud of me. As he would say, it’s a certificate - not just a ticket!

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.

Lyttelton needed two new pilots and they called me up. It was strange at first, living on land. I was always on the edge of my seat, waiting until the ‘holiday’ was over and I’d get back on the ship. After a while, I realised it wasn’t that bad. I loved going away on road trips. But the best part was being able to go to my own home each day after work. I haven’t moved far really, just across the road from where I grew up.
There were definitely sacrifices I had to make to live the sea life, especially in terms of relationships. I didn’t get married until I was 40 and hadn’t been in many long term relationships before that.

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.

Now I’m what you call a ‘sea pilot’. I’ve been helping ships traverse Lyttelton Harbour for almost 16 years. Our pilot boat is called Canterbury. A lot of people think we just drive the small boat around, but that’s not quite the case.

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.

To get on and off I have to climb a rope ladder. The pilot boat will come up beside the big ship and I’ll have a few minutes to get down the ladder and into the smaller boat. Both vessels will be moving at a reasonable speed in the water. It can really get your adrenaline going.

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.

I have a crib on Stewart Island. I’ve been going there my whole life so I have a lot of good friends that live there. One of them has a mussel and oyster farm so I help out on the barge and do bits and pieces. They all head away on cruises and overseas trips all the time. I don’t have any desire to go overseas. I’ve done that. New Zealand is an amazing place and I’m happy cruising around here. Besides, I’d never move away from mum. She and the rest of my family are worth more than anything. This is our home.

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:

- Try the Careers NZ website, the link will take you straight to more information about being a sea pilot. Their 'How to enter the job' section has a lot of really good info.

- 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.