In 1974, aged 26, Pip Were became the second ever female radio officer in Aotearoa New Zealand’s Merchant Navy, facing down at least one captain who referred to her as “that dumb bird”.

By Philippa Price | 8 March 2022

Phillippa Were (nee Reynolds), known as Pip, was born in Nelson into a seafaring family where “you grow up with salt water in your socks”.  Her father, Captain Eric Reynolds, was in the merchant service.

Her drive to serve at sea was in part influenced by experiencing the effects of constraints on commercial shipping, leading to a shortage of supplies nationwide during the waterfront lockout of 1951.

 “At age 2 or 3, I wanted to go to sea. After the war, my father got the fruit orchard in Nelson and as a kid, I saw the parents shaking apples off the tree - which was our year’s income left to rot on the ground, as there were no exports out of New Zealand at that time.  Just like Covid now, you get to know about it first-hand”.

While determined to go to sea, Pip met opposition from her father. His logic, Pip says, was that “women do not go to sea, particularly when you’re a Reynolds”.  

According to Pip, her Father threatened to blacklist her from shipping companies throughout New Zealand by contacting them if she tried to work for them. When she wanted to become an apprentice heavy marine engineer at 15, Captain Reynolds refused to sign her papers, despite having signed the exact same papers for her brother, Terence.

Pip bided her time and worked as a bulldozer driver and obtained licenses in most vehicle classes - even planes - and attended Canterbury University.

When the Reynolds family moved to Whangārei, Pip got a job as a teller at the local branch of the New Zealand Post Office Savings bank.

Pip learned she could obtain certification as a seafarer in this way, known as a ‘ticket’, required to work at sea on commercial vessels. The qualification was a “First Class Postmaster General Certificate”, issued by the Post Office, the very organisation she was working for. Pip told her boss, “I want to transfer to radio inspectors…I want my ticket”.

In 1971 at age 23, she trained at Trentham in Morse code, radar and radio operation.  Soon afterwards, Pip joined the Post Office radio inspectors in Auckland, who assessed her every move for her certification, 2009.213.42.  

“They were determined that I was not going to get my ticket. The guy in the office knew my name, the number I was sitting the exam under, who the examiner was in Wellington.” Pip believes that an individual involved, who had opposed her qualifying primarily because she was a woman, had made a telephone call to the examiner, “so I never passed”.

Pip lodged a ministerial complaint with the Postmaster General at Parliament and the next time she sat the exam in 1974 she passed with 72% and was awarded her qualification and ‘ticket’. Just a few years later in 1977 the first iteration of the Human Rights Act in New Zealand passed, and discrimination on the grounds of sex was prohibited.

Pip then embarked on a career at sea within forty-eight hours of receiving her first job offer.

On the 24th of August 1974, Pip joined the Government-owned Shipping Corporation of New Zealand’s MV Coastal Trader and became the second woman to sign ‘articles of agreement’ as a Radio Officer in New Zealand and the first to join the Merchant Service Guild, the union of the Merchant Navy.

She progressed to the rank of Senior Radio Officer and purser over 17 years, with her last voyage in 1989.

Pip acknowledges her predecessor, Gladys Yorke, the first woman to serve in Aotearoa as a radio officer with the Merchant Navy in World War II. At fifty-five years old, Yorke joined the Cook Strait Ferry TSS Tamahine (1925). At that time, many radio officers were either serving overseas, as home defence or Coastwatchers, leaving a skills gap for operating vessels on home waters. But, as Pip notes in closing, “she was not allowed to serve after the war”. 

Meanwhile, almost 30 years later, in Pip’s time, examples of the barriers for a woman seeking a career at sea are evident in the Maritime Museum's collection.

Pip, writing to a shipping company to request an application to become a trainee radio officer, received a letter in response addressed to a “Mr. P. Reynolds” and she is referred to as “Dear, Sir”. NZMM, 2019.213.194.

She applied anyway and, in their subsequent response letter, Pip is advised: "We do not have the necessary self-contained facilities required for female staff" therefore “we are unable to offer you the position you seek”.

Pip soon broke these barriers, but it was not without a few salty words along the way.

In an article written for the newsletter “On Watch” in 2005, Pip recalls an exchange on a ship’s bridge which took place in the 1970s.

Captain, “Where’s that dumb bird?” The mate said, “Who?” The Captain replied, “The Sparky." “Sparky at sea is the Radio Officer - a nickname we all get, so he meant yours truly. The person he was talking about was most annoyed to be referred to in that way.”

By breakfast the next morning, in front of the crew, he apologised:

Captain: “Phillippa, I am very sorry for calling you a dumb bird.”

Phillippa: “Accepted.”

On speaking about some of the challenges encountered as a woman over the course of her career, Pip reflects:

 “I never regarded myself as a female officer and I was the only person onboard to actually sign articles as an officer”.  In that role, Pip managed a lot of the administration of a working cargo vessel, crew pay, requests for leave, expenses onboard as well as being purser, the officer responsible for most of the administration and supply orders for the vessel. These duties ran parallel to her maintaining and operating navigational, radar and radio equipment and communications onboard, crucial parts to the operation of a safe, smooth-running vessel.

“I was a working unit as part of the whole team and if there was any silliness, usually the easiest way out of it was to ignore it and it would go away. Or a quiet word with somebody else and then it would go away.”

Over the course of her career, Pip served on the cargo ships: MV N.Z Waitangi (1967), MV Coastal Trader (1972), MV Forum New Zealand (1977), and the MV New Zealand Caribbean (1980), travelling between Australia and New Zealand, around Asia, and across the Pacific and Atlantic.

Pip emphasises that she enjoyed life at sea, even sharing use of her Honda CB 400 x 4 motorbike, which was taken onboard during her time on MV Coastal Trader (1972) and available to fellow crew whenever at port. She maintains close friendships with many of her former shipmates to this day.

When not at sea, Pip shared a home with “better-half, Bill,” a supportive husband and keen golfer.

Reflecting on her seventeen-year career and asked if she would go back to sea and do it all again, Pip says: “Tomorrow, yes. In fact I’d even go this afternoon.” Today, Pip works as an independent accredited Marine Radio Surveyor in New Zealand and is never far from the sea.


More on Pip Were’s life can be found at New Zealand Maritime Museum Hui Te Ananui a Tangaroa Collections Online.


Phillippa (Pip) Were collection, New Zealand Maritime Museum Hui Te Ananui a Tangaroa, series 2009.43 and 2019.67.

Interviews with Phillippa (Pip) Were, conducted by telephone, 17 March 2021 and 28 February 2022.

Recorded oral history interview with Mike Montague, 4 October 2003. NZMM 2003.243.

Additional sources:

Coney. Sandra, Standing in the sunshine: a history of New Zealand women since they won the vote, Viking/Penguin, 1993.

Hancock. H. E., Wireless at sea. The First Fifty Years. A History of the Progress and Development of Marine Wireless Communications, Marconi International Marine Communication Company, 1950.

Sinclair. Roy, Journeying with seafarers in New Zealand. Random House, 1999.

Taylor. Nancy M, The New Zealand people at war: the home front, Official history of New Zealand in the Second World War 1939-45, New Zealand Department of Internal Affairs, Historical Publications Branch, 1986.

Wilson. A. C., Wire and wireless: a history of telecommunications in New Zealand, 1860-1987. Dunmore Press, 1994.

Additional links:

United Nations Women Day

United Nations Women Aotearoa

International Seafarers' Welfare and Assistance Network, Women at sea

Yachting New Zealand, opportunities for women to sail

Amateur women radio operator group in Aotearoa

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