Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 42, September 1998

In the mid-1960s radio stations broadcasting from ships moored outside United Kingdom territorial waters broke the British Broadcasting Corporation's monopoly on radio. The example of these pirates inspired two young Auckland men to challenge the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation's monopoly of commercial radio.

David Gapes and Derek Lowe, a former NZBC employee, had to contend with conditions that were different from those off the southeast coast of England. New Zealand's territorial limits extended out to most inhospitable international waters. There was only one exception within broadcasting range of Auckland, a tiny triangle of international water in the Hauraki Gulf, between Great and Little Barrier Islands and the Coromandel Peninsula. It was a wild piece of water, but just tenable as a mooring for a solid ship with a determined crew.

The first storms were political. It was particularly inauspicious for anyone preparing to broadcast from a ship in direct competition with the NZBC's most profitable commercial stations that the Ministers of Broadcasting and Marine were the same man. To have the ship Tiri cleared for sea, as either a ship or a moored barge, became a monumental problem. The battle between the broadcasters and the authorities culminated in a near-riot at the Auckland lighter basin one Sunday in October 1966. A crowd of almost 2000, mainly young well-wishers, had gathered to see Tiri set out to sea. A smaller group of police had also gathered to prevent that happening.

Access to the harbour from the basin was through a small channel with a drawbridge. At one stage in the battle, a group of Radio Hauraki directors and announcers sat beneath the bridge mechanism, while police and Marine Department officials attempted to lower it and trap their ship. After a series of mishaps, which included a grounding and fouling the ship's mast on the half-closed drawbridge, the ship eventually moved out to the harbour.

Its decks were the scenes of battles between police and Radio Hauraki staff. Inside a locked and barricaded wheelhouse, the skipper grimly steered for the open sea. Off Devonport the police gave up their attempts to break into the wheelhouse and stopped the ship by the simple expedient of disconnecting the fuel lines. The crew of the Tiri and the would-be pirate broadcasters were arrested.

A magistrate dismissed the charges, saying: 'Having regard to all the circumstances, and putting as fair an interpretation as I can on the facts, I feel compelled to conclude that the purpose for which the Minister issued the detention order was not in the interests of safety but to serve the dominant purpose of preventing the Tiri from putting to sea and being used as a pirate radio ship'.

Eventually, on 10 November, the Tiri slipped unmolested out to sea. On 4 December it was on the air as Radio Hauraki 1480 'Top of the Dial'. In January the Marine Department conceded its presence in a notice to mariners. 'An unlicensed radio broadcasting station has been established on a vessel which may be encountered at anchor or under way in the Colville Channel area, Hauraki Gulf, it said.'The vessel appears to be manned only by radio staff and technicians and may possibly not observe regulations for prevention of collision at sea.'

During 1967 Post Office inspectors and Radio Hauraki played a curious game of cat and mouse. Tiri was mostly at sea, but occasionally it broadcast from harbours on Great Barrier Island, within territorial waters. It was not caught in the act until the following year, when three charges of illegal broadcasting finally came to court, although the pirates were convicted. In spite of that, 1968 was not a good year for the pirates. More than once Radio Hauraki's audience was treated to a live broadcast from a ship in real peril at sea. In January Tiri was driven ashore and wrecked at Whangaparapara, on Great Barrier Island. In March its replacement Tiri 11 was twice blown adrift in the gulf. In April the storm that sunk the Wahine at Wellington smashed the transmitter mast and blew the ship from the wharf at Whangaparapara, where it was sheltering. Damage suffered in that encounter had a tragic sequel.

Finally, in June, Tiri 11, pounded by 192 km/h winds, blew off its mooring and, after a night adrift in almost overwhelming seas, was driven on to the beach at Uretiti, south of Whangarei. Undeterred, the pirates once more salvaged their ship and returned to sea. Someone chalked, a jesting instruction on the ship's noticeboard: 'Memo all crew: should ship o/turn discontinue broadcasting after last Coke advt'. But Tiri II survived and in September 1968, Parliament finally passed legislation that allowed the licensing of private commercial radio for the first time since 1937. It was two years, however, before hearings and appeals finally allowed Radio Hauraki to come ashore.

On Queen's Birthday weekend, 1970, Radio Hauraki made its last broadcast from sea. After more than three years it had made its point and won its warrant. On the voyage home to Auckland one of the station's most popular announcers, Lloyd John Jones - known to Radio Hauraki fans as Rick Grant - went aft to fetch a pack of cards. In the dark he missed his footing and fell into the sea through a gap in the ship's railing caused by the Wahine storm. Jones was drowned and Tiri's return was a tragic affair. All celebrations for the end of radio piracy were cancelled.