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Something in the Water

Cityscape hits the high seas with New Zealand’s first and only female marine pilot and Lyttelton identity Joanne Laing to talk charting your own course.

What attracted you to the sea?
Growing up in Lyttelton – I was born and bred in Lyttelton and was involved in the Sea Scouts. We used to go sailing and rowing on the harbour and my brother was at sea and my father was involved in the industry. We also spent our holidays at Stewart Island; that was influential in me going to sea, as I learned how to row a boat there.

How did you become a marine pilot?
When I left school I did a year at polytechnic doing a science technician’s course and Dad showed me a picture of Rosie Yeandle in an article – she was the first woman to go to sea in New Zealand – and he said “They’re taking on women, why don’t you try this?” I didn’t really do too much about it; then two other guys from Lyttelton were quite keen and we all got together and we all applied and we all got accepted. I did a three year apprenticeship as an apprentice deck cadet with the Union Steam Ship Company. You did everything from painting, cleaning and tying knots through to study, and you had to complete so much time at sea before sitting your Second Mate Foreign Going Certificate. Once I got that, I was made redundant! Then I got a job with P&O New Zealand on a container ship running between New Zealand and Japan as Third Mate. After I did my Chief Mate Foreign Going Certificate I joined Jardine Shipping on general cargo ships around the world. I think the first ship I joined was as Second Mate; you’re in charge of all the passage planning, and we were going up the Amazon River and it was all unmapped. In 1990 I had enough sea time to do my Masters Certificate – it takes about 10 years to get your Masters. After years of travelling I decided to get a job back home in Lyttelton as a pilot in 1997.

Tell us about your first command
My first ship as captain was with Jardine in 1993. I joined the ship in Gothenburg in Sweden, we went down to Antwerp and the other captain handed over command to me as we were leaving Antwerp under pilotage and we ran aground in the Western Scheldt River about three hours after I first took command. We had to get salvage tugs to come in and pull us off, and in the next port the whole ship was arrested for payment for surety of salvage – that was pretty full on! Baptism by fire. I continued on for 5 years with them before coming back to New Zealand.

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What does the job involve?
In New Zealand, any ship over 40 metres in length or 500 tonnes gross requires a pilot to take the con of the ship – we’ve got local knowledge of the port and we know how the tugs operate. We go out to the ship and climb up the ladder on the side, greet the captain and get the details of the ship. We tell them where they’ll be berthing, the pilot takes the con and I give the helm orders and engine orders – talking to the tugs, the guys on the wharf and advising the pilot.

Who has inspired you?
Rosie, being the first – she sort of paved the way for the rest of us to go to sea, really. It wasn’t something I thought I’d do when I was 5 years old.

What was it like being one of the few women in a primarily male-dominated industry?
It hasn’t been too bad, mainly because I’m bigger than most of them and it does make a difference I think. As long as you get stuck in and do the job, there might be a bit of resistance at first, but if they see you doing the job then things work out.

What’s a bad day in the office like?
Weather is probably the big thing. In January last year we had a big easterly storm, about 50 knots northeast, which is pretty full on. We had a car ship and bulk carrier and we got the car ship to do a turn just to try it and she had a pilot ladder over the side and she rolled so much the pilot ladder just smashed on the ship’s side, so we couldn’t board if we wanted to. We had to abort, which is quite a big decision to make.

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What are some of the quirks of Lyttelton Harbour you have to look out for?
It’s a straight forward channel, but it’s quite a difficult turn into the inner harbour. In Lyttelton we’ve also got the dry dock, which is a little bit unusual for ports to have – that’s always an interesting job.

What was it like being selected by artist Julia Holden for her Through the Glass Ceiling portraits alongside Kate Sheppard and other notable Lyttelton women?
It was pretty humbling, quite neat actually. They’re a great bunch of women.

What advice would you give young women looking to get into the industry?
It’s a great industry and it’s changed so much in the last 36 years since I went to sea. Back then it was huge thing to phone home when you made port; nowadays most ships have WiFi and you’re sending emails.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
New speed is better than old speed. You don’t want to be going too fast – keep your speed down and if you need to get out of trouble you can give her a kick ahead and wheel hard to starboard or port – I think that can cover a lot of things.

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