The Radio Hauraki revolution

Jan 25, 2017 General Interest

It was probably New Zealand’s rowdiest revolution. The weapons of choice were guitars and drums, not bombs or guns, and the populace backed it to the bitter end. Words by Lindsay Wright, images News Pix/ NZ Herald.

Most of the action – Pirate Radio that Rocked vs a Grandmother Government that created obstacles to muffle it – took place on the waters near Great Barrier Island where veterans of the original Radio Hauraki crew recently gathered to reminisce and relive the glory days of radio.

Radio Hauraki first found a voice in 1965 when New Zealand journalist David Gapes returned home after a stint in Sydney. He’d seen how broadcasting operated there, shared between the public service Australian Broadcasting Commission and several privately-owned stations.

Here, the New Zealand Broadcasting Commission held a monopoly on the airwaves and resisted would-be privately owned broadcasters with an arsenal of technicalities and obscure parliamentary powers.

“In New Zealand,” Gape is quoted as saying, “we had inflicted on us the radio of the 30s. There was no pace, no liveliness – in fact it was just deadly dull.” Six o’clock pub closing laws were still in effect and Sunday entertainment was frowned upon.

Radio Caroline was already up and rocking near London, breaking the BBC stranglehold, and it inspired Gapes to do something similar here. He saw no reason why a boat couldn’t be moored outside the three mile territorial waters limit. With over half a million people in Auckland the Hauraki Gulf was the logical site. More potential listeners lived in the Hauraki Plains and Thames Coromandel areas.

So Radio Hauraki was born.

C.H.Dobbie, a technician on Tiri 2 working in the Radio Hauraki studio. Filed April 1968 - Scanned print

C.H.Dobbie, a technician on Tiri 2 working in the Radio Hauraki studio.
Filed April 1968 – Scanned print

Funded by four young men with savings earned in their brief working lives, with no corporate sponsorship or funding. It became one of New Zealand’s great success stories – the little radio station backed by the people. It overcame maritime, technical, legal and commercial obstacles to become the only pirate station in the world to force a law change which enabled it to broadcast legally from land.

A mooring site was identified outside the three-mile limit; between Great and Little Barrier Islands and the Coromandel Peninsula. Lawyers assured the would-be broadcasters this would place them beyond Government court action.

Estimates from English pirate stations indicated they’ need $100,000 – $400,000 for set up costs. “My wife Wendy and I had about $2,000,” Gapes said. A reporter mate could chip in another $1,000.

Auckland’s commercial station 1ZB had a two-year queue of advertisers and Gapes believed that international tobacco companies would come on board after the NZBC had banned their advertisements on TV before 9pm.

The fledgling broadcasters sought the advice of marine surveyor Captain Warwick Dunsford who put them onto Jim Frankham, head of the Gisborne freight company A.J. Frankham. He happened to be very supportive of the keen young crew and offered a generous deal to let them use a small wooden coaster on the cheap.

Using strictly-controlled overseas funds and import provisions, transmitters and other broadcasting gear were obtained and trialled: record turntables wouldn’t work in a rolly, sea-going studio, so hits of the day were gathered on tape. NZBC technical staff slipped over to help out after hours and disgruntled NZBC announcers began to offer their services.

Their planned vessel, Hokianga, was delayed by contractual obligations in Gisborne and Frankham offered another ship, Tiri, laid up in Auckland. “She’s pretty scruffy,” he cautioned.

“The 30m Tiri lay alongside the wharf looking like she was ready to sink out of pure exhaustion,” author Adrian Blackburn wrote in his book Radio Hauraki – The Shoestring Pirates. (Hodder and Stoughton 1974). The 35-year old ship was powered by a 170hp 671 GM diesel and suffered from a slew of structural problems inflicted over a lifetime of hard work and neglect.

Historic Auckland: Radio Hauraki. The Tiri stuck under the drawbridge of the viaduct by her mast. Radio Hauraki - pirate radio station 24 October 1966 New Zealand Herald staff photograph. NZH  7oct06 - AFLOAT: Bottom right, the Tiri's mast is stuck under the drawbridge in 1966. PICTURES / HERALD FILES NZH 06Mar14 -

Historic Auckland: Radio Hauraki.
The Tiri stuck under the drawbridge of the viaduct by her mast.
Radio Hauraki – pirate radio station
24 October 1966 New Zealand Herald staff photograph. 

But the Hauraki team rolled up their sleeves and put her right. Volunteers toiled long hours at dirty, menial work for little or no reward – but to cock a snook at the Government and hear their kind of music on air.

A 45.7m steel lattice mast was fabricated and a 50kVa generator, cashiered from Coromandel township, was fitted to handle broadcasting and ship’s power demands. Passersby stopped to watch beside Tiri’s Viaduct Basin berth as the scruffy, polyglot crew ground, hammered, welded and painted on the old ship.

Plans were laid to remove her propeller so she would become a ‘dumb’ barge – thereby eluding expensive ship manning and marine department survey costs. Marine department surveyors, under orders from Wellington, continued to be obstructive and the Hauraki team laboured on to meet their petty requirements – often having a whip around between themselves, supporters and spectators to feed themselves.

They became the self-labelled ‘Good Guys’ – a tag that stayed with them during the station’s broadcasting career. It also implied the faceless suits busy creating obstacles behind closed doors in Wellington were the Bad Guys.

In September, 1966 the team received a mortal blow in the form on a marine department order declaring the ship unsafe to proceed to sea without serious danger to human life. She was to be detained in port. It also decreed that Tiri could not be classified as a barge and must be equipped as a ship – so divers refitted the 91kg propeller.

The pirates planned a secret departure on the evening of Friday, 22nd October 1966 but it was Auckland’s worst-kept secret and a trio of police cars roared down the wharf. Uniformed officers trooped aboard Tiri. Minister of Marine, Jack Scott, also turned up and negotiated a face-saving deal with Gapes and the team in the crowded mess room.

Finally, Tiri was ready for sea. About 2,000 supporters cheered from the wharf behind a cordon of uniformed police as skipper Doc O’ Callahan worked throttle and wheel to line her up to exit the basin, under the drawbridge and out to sea.

The little ship slid to a halt as her keel lodged in the mud mid-basin and, as the engine strained to get her off, police escorted an operator through the crowd and into the control box. Slowly, inexorably, the drawbridge began to inch shut, penning Tiri within Government grasp.

Gapes and staffer Peter Telling got ashore and hurtled around the basin to sit under the giant jaws of the descending drawbridge, forcing it to grind to a halt while the crowd roared exultantly.

David Gapes (centre), and PeterTelling (right), a Radio Hauraki announcer, with an unidentified man (left) sitting under the bridge at the Western Viaduct in an attempt to prevent it being lowered. 24 October 1966 New Zealand Herald File Photograph

David Gapes (centre), and PeterTelling (right), a Radio Hauraki announcer, with an unidentified man (left) sitting under the bridge at the Western Viaduct in an attempt to prevent it being lowered.
24 October 1966 New Zealand Herald File Photograph

A line was passed from Tiri into the outstretched arms of the crowd. Hundreds of hands heaved and the ship’s engine roared and suddenly, Tiri was free and moving towards the exit to cheers and clapping.

Again she ground to a halt with a loud graunch and a shower of sparks as the mast wedged under the bridge lip, to a gasp of dismay from the crowd. Another rope was passed from mid-mast into the crowd who heaved together so the ship heeled.

Other Hauraki staffers sat on the bridge lip and pushed the mast with their feet. The crowd began to chant “Up…up…up…” at the terrified bridge operator. Rocks, thrown from the crowd, smashed the windows but the bridge remained where it was.

Policemen jumped aboard and scuffled with crewmembers.  The rope was moved to the masthead and passed to the people on the western breakwater who grabbed it, defying police attempts to force them away.

One mighty heave and Tiri was free. Trailed by the police launch Deodar and an NZBC TV news launch she headed down harbour while a full-throated chorus of ‘For they are jolly good fellows’ echoed from the wharf behind them. Private commercial radio was under way to break the Government grip on broadcast radio.

The Post Office had denied permission to establish a two-way ship-to-shore radio frequency so cages of messenger pigeons were lashed on deck. Finally, on Monday, 21st November, 1966 Radio Hauraki’s first weak transmissions reached the hundreds of transistor radios tuned to 1480 kHz. The battling pirate broadcasters were on air.

The big antenna was erected by crew and Great Barrier Island locals alongside the wharf at Tryphena Harbour and Radio Hauraki began to boom out across Northern New Zealand. A few days later the mast toppled overboard in a 35-knot blow and the ship sailed back to Tryphena to erect an abbreviated replacement.

Great Barrier fisherman, Bill Gibbs, and his wife Ngaire became the supply chain for supplies, music tapes and mechanical or electrical parts to the radio crew and Gibbs became famous for the skill with which he handled his 29m fishing boat Marauder. Radio Hauraki later bought the disused whaling station at Whangaparapara and the ship would go alongside to fill their water tanks through a hose run from the creek there.

In settled weather, launches and yachts pulled alongside the bright yellow pirate ship to visit, drop supplies or share a feed of fish. Post Office inspectors lugged their gear through the Great Barrier bush to try and catch the radio broadcasting illegally from the island but the local “tom tom network” tipped the pirates off.

The island folk, most of whom harboured a warm spot for renegades and underdogs took the Tiri’s people to their hearts. Radio Hauraki technicians fixed their broken appliances and fitted suppressors to their television sets so they weren’t swamped by high powered pop music transmissions.

All went well for a while. The broadcasts were reliable and advertising revenue began coming in and overdue debts got paid. But then Tiri, returning to her station after conducting a search for someone lost overboard from a launch in the area, lost engine power near the entrance to Whangaparapara Harbour and was swept onto the rocks.

Tiri Wparapara 2_cmyk (Small)

As the ship ground and crashed on the rugged shoreline, announcer Derek King made the broadcast which has become famous: “We are abandoning ship…I love you Mum and Dad.”

Bill Gibbs roared to the rescue from Tryphena, six nms down the coast, deftly manoeuvred his Marauder close under the bow of the stricken ship and attempted to tow her off but the old coaster was too firmly held by the rocks to budge.

Tiri cook, John Moafua, swam a line ashore and made it fast to a pohutukawa tree for other crew members to hoist themselves ashore. At high tide, a few days later, a tug towed the radio ship off the beach and with patches covering large holes on both side of her hull, she was towed to Auckland. The ship could, in time, be repaired but much essential radio transmitting gear had been destroyed.

Within days offers of replacement ships began to pour in. Hauraki’s old ally, Jim Frankham came to light with the Kapuni, a 31.7m freighter built in 1909. She was renamed Tiri 2 and painted the same bright yellow as her predecessor.

A 48.8m mast was built. The huge aerial was built of spiral welded steel and weighed in at over three tonnes but skipper Lloyd Griffiths was the only person with misgivings about whether the ship would be able to support it. On 27th February, 1968 the new ship was ready. Her lines were slipped and she headed out to sea. Less than a month after the Tiri shipwreck, Radio Hauraki was back on air.

But there was no respite. In a 65-knot storm in March that year a mooring chain broke and left the ship rolling beam on to the sea. The ship limped into Whangaparapara with the mast flopping around due to shattered insulators in the rigging.

A few months later more misfortune struck when the new anchor chain snapped. Tiri 2 was forced to run for Whangaparapa in even more atrocious conditions. Skipper Griffiths found he couldn’t bring her head into the weather to make the harbour entrance. As things began to look like another wreck was imminent a small boat appeared from the south, rolling wildly in the atrocious seas.

wysiwyg_full_tri3_cmyk (Small)

Bill Gibbs and Marauder had come to the rescue. Gibbs somehow got a light messenger line to the waiting crew members on Tiri 2. Instead of using the light line to haul a heavier towing line on board, a crew member made the light line fast and it snapped as Gibb’s boat fell away into a trough. Gibbs had no replacement.

The old coaster was swept among Pirogue Rocks, off the Great Barrier coast, with Marauder in hot pursuit to assist survivors. The new insulators had failed and the mast swayed alarmingly but, amazingly, Tiri 2 broke free and began to drift away to the west.

Skipper Griffiths used the engines to back her stern through the weather until her bows were pointed in the right direction then went full ahead for a mile or two until they were swept off to leeward again. She narrowly missed Tiritiri Matangi Island and finally made it to the sheltered waters of the Whangaparaoa Channel to ride out the remainder of the night. She was taken in tow for Auckland by the tug Otapiri the following day.

It transpired that her handling problems were caused by a missing rudder (!) which had probably fallen off when the mooring chain broke. Within 24 hours Radio Hauraki was back on air – briefly. Warnings were transmitted about a sub-tropical storm approaching so Griffiths prudently sheltered alongside the wharf at Whangaparapara.  More violent rolling sent the mast crashing overboard and the crew decamped to the wharf shed after she was left virtually stranded by low tide.

The storm swept south to claim the interisland ferry Wahine.

In open defiance of Post Office inspectors an aerial wire was rigged from the ship into the branches of a huge pohutukawa tree about 30m up a nearby cliff and the show went on. By Easter Monday another mast had been erected and Tiri 2 was back at her mooring.

But another epic storm struck in June. A nearby bulk ship, Maranui, was overwhelmed with the loss of nine crew. On Tiri 2 the mooring line and bitts it had been secured to, ripped out of the foredeck. Once again the ship was restricted in her ability to manoeuvre and was swept, out of control, towards Whangarei.  At about 6:30am in the dark she touched bottom in a maelstrom of surf at Uretiti Beach, near Waipu, about 32km south of Whangarei.

The ship was salvaged and re-masted but meanwhile a lot of the gloss had worn off the pirate operation. A fickle public had turned sour – the operation was a bunch of landlubberly deejays on a ship in the middle of nowhere risking the lives of others to help them out when things got tough. No matter that Tiri 2 had survived one of the stormiest winters on record while other ships had been overwhelmed.

Still, the two little ships had done their job. The Government relented and passed legislation allowing private broadcasters to obtain licences ir. The NZBC monopoly was broken and applications began to flood in.

David Gapes, left, and Denis O'Callahan, the original Radio Hauraki "pirates". The Auckland based radio station is about to celebrate the 40th anniversary of its first illegal broadcast from the ship Tiri out in the Hauraki Gulf.  2 October 2006 New Zealand Herald Photograph by Dean Purcell

David Gapes, left, and Denis O’Callahan, the original Radio Hauraki “pirates”. The Auckland based radio station is about to celebrate the 40th anniversary of its first illegal broadcast from the ship Tiri out in the Hauraki Gulf.
2 October 2006 New Zealand Herald Photograph by Dean Purcell

Radio Hauraki broadcast a documentary covering its 111 days at sea on Monday, 1 June, 1970. Then the transmitters felt silent for the final time. In perfect conditions the little ship headed for Auckland at a gentle 6.5 knots.

Announcer Rick Grant, playing cards over a cuppa with three other shipmates, walked forward to get a fresh pack of cards and tumbled overboard through a break in the ship’s bulwarks. Barry Knight at the wheel, turned the ship around and skipper Griffiths came up to supervise but several hours searching failed to locate the missing man. An inbound Danish freighter joined the search and at dawn an armada of boats from Coromandel and Great Barrier, including Bill Gibbs and the faithful Marauder, arrived to help.

Grant was never found and became the only casualty of the whole Radio Hauraki adventure, one of the great tales in New Zealand maritime history.

But when the drinks began flowing at the recent reunion at Great Barrier Island, he was remembered – along with stories about the other pirate radio folk whose great maritime adventure changed the face of broadcasting in New Zealand forever.