Remembering the Tiri

Tiri shipwreck once the beating heart of Radio Hauraki

By Jodi Bryant, ‘Norther Advocate’, 7 October 2023

The boat Tiri, once the beating heart of Radio Hauraki and the centre of a political and media storm of the swinging sixties. Photo / NZME

On the Eastern shores of Matakohe-Limestone Island lie the derelict remains of a once-famous floating pirate radio studio.

Scattered skeletal piles of rusting metal is all that remains of the shipwrecked Tiri, once the beating heart of Radio Hauraki and the centre of a political and media storm of the swinging sixties. From her cockpit on the Hauraki Coast, she debuted to the carefree tune of Matt Monro’s Born Free, defiantly blasting through wireless into the homes of thousands of 1960s young Kiwi fans.

But how did she end her life on a small island adjacent Onerahi, Whangārei? A tale of vision, determination, battle, multiple tragedies and triumph ensues.

“The Tiri was quite famous back in November 21, 1966 when the first signals from Radio Hauraki were transmitted,” recalls former crew member Denis O’Callahan.

O’Callahan was among a group of like-minded young men who banded together to challenge the Government-controlled conservative airwaves which held little appeal to 1960s youth. When attempts to secure a private broadcasting licence failed, the group pooled their resources, comprising technical, maritime, engineering, journalism, advertising and broadcasting skills, and decided to broadcast from offshore.

New Zealand, at the time, had a three-mile territorial water limit so the team obtained a survey map and, by tracing a line around Great Barrier Island, the Hauraki Gulf and Coromandel Peninsula, discovered a triangle of international water positioned outside the jurisdiction of the New Zealand Government.

The scattered skeletal piles of rusting metal of the shipwrecked of the sugar barge Victoria and Tiri on the eastern shores of Matakohe-Limestone Island. Photo / NZME

The next milestone was acquiring a vessel and that’s where Tiri comes in. MV (Merchant Vessel) Tiri – owned by A.G. Frankham Ltd – started life in the 1930s as an ordinary coastal trader and was used at one point to transport materials for the construction of the Marsden Point Oil Refinery.

O’Callahan recalls: “There was no future in coastal shipping anymore because road transport and rail transport had reached all the coastal towns that used to be serviced by the coastal shipping, so Jim Frankham had these old wooden coasters on his hands, rotting at moorings all around the country and he proposed to sell us the Tiri on some kind of promise of payment in the future. So, we had a ship.”

However, Tiri was in a right state with crew members describing her as a “wreck, a rusting, smelling oily, grotty old ship – an absolute pigsty”, and it was all hands on deck to make her seaworthy.

Despite their efforts, the team was constantly rejected for both a warrant of fitness (WoF) and a broadcasting licence but continued fitting the ship with equipment O’Callahan had scoured the country for, such as a WWII communications transmitter, antenna and transmission mast.

One night in 1966, the crew prepared to set sail without a WoF from the Viaduct Harbour. However, their departure was widely known and, amid a huge crowd of supporters, authorities, in a bid to stop them, had the drawbridge lowered to close off the Viaduct.

O’Callahan continues: “Well, they tried and [disc jockey] Peter Telling and a couple of other guys threw themselves into the mechanism of the bridge so they couldn’t close it and there was a slightly embarrassing moment when I was turning the boat around in the Lighter Basin and it ran aground, that’s how shallow it was. Finally, we got the boat lined up with the gap through the Viaduct and gave it full steam ahead and, bang, the mast jammed under the lip of the drawbridge.

“There were hundreds of people who had come down to see us go out, so they got some ropes and swung them out from the mast into the crowd and the crowd pulled on the ropes and heeled the boat over enough that the mast cleared the end of the bridge and we steamed out into the harbour.”
But the crew were arrested shortly after, charged with breaking the arrest order on the ship.

In court, the judge ruled in favour of them and, in late 1966, after calling a mock press conference to remove the media constantly surrounding the vessel, the pirates slipped out into the night. The yellow-hulled Tiri anchored in the Hauraki Gulf broadcasting on the frequency of 1480kHz. After having to replace the mast when winds of more than 30 knots knocked it down, Radio Hauraki officially started broadcasting on December 4, 1966.

Radio Hauraki’s popularity and support soared, galvanising its listeners with both kids and their parents tuning in. Out on the water, the Tiri herself was centre of attention with all manner of vessels cruising by offering support and providing fresh fish, fruit and vegetables.

There were eight crew – including technicians, cooks, deck hands, engineers and disc jockeys – on board at a time with weekly swap-overs. Life on board was not easy with one crew member later recalling: “It wasn’t only the music that was rocking and rolling, it was the boat as well.”

The programmes were recorded in the land-based studio a week ahead with weekly shipments of the tapes delivered to the Tiri by a local cray fisherman in his fishing boat.

During the next two years, the crew on board the Tiri would endure adverse weather conditions, equipment failure, fatigue, and continued efforts to shut down the station. Then on January 28, 1968, disaster struck as the Tiri ran aground at Great Barrier Island in foul weather while taking part in a search and rescue for a lost fisherman.

Listeners at the time will remember it well; as the ship ran aground on rocks, Radio Hauraki disc jockey Paul Lineham, ever the professional, keep listeners up-to-date with running commentary with only increasing panic in his voice toward the end.

“There’s no lights and the engine is failing. My god, I don’t think it’s on. No, the engine has stopped… This is as urgent a mayday call as the one previously.

“This is the MV Tiri, we’re on the rocks… and we’re going to send up a flare. If anyone observes this flare or anyone who knows anyone who is in the area, would they please advise them… We’ve run aground… we’re hitting continuously now. I don’t know how long I’m gonna stay with you. [Loud bang] There, we’ve gone again – that was rather bad actually. We’ve gone aground [siren starts], abandon ship, abandon ship, the siren has gone, we are abandoning ship.

“The rocks are destroying us… I love you mum and dad.”

This is followed with the Hauraki jingle, then: “Hauraki news: Hauraki crew are abandoning ship. This is Paul Lineham aboard the Tiri. Good night.”

All survived; however, the Tiri was not so fortunate. After several unsuccessful attempts to pull her clear of the rocks, though she remained intact, she had taken in five feet of water. She was later towed back to Auckland and the broadcasting equipment was salvaged. Beyond repair, Tiri was brought to Matakohe-Limestone Island and beached at Shipwreck Bay alongside the wreck of the Victoria, another wooden-hulled coastal ship. Locals recall playing on her as children and it is believed the homeless resided aboard before both vessels were set alight by vandals in 1979.

However, her name lived on; not wanting to let listeners down, she was swiftly replaced by another Frankham ship called the Kapuni, christened Tiri II by her crew. A month after the loss of the Tiri, Radio Hauraki was back in international waters and broadcasting again.

But the winter of 1968 was particularly harsh. In April of the same year, the Tiri II found herself beached again at Whangaparapara Harbour, a victim of the same storm that resulted in the Wahine disaster. After repairs, she was back at sea but between this time and June 1968, Tiri II would end up beached at Uretiti Beach and caught several times broadcasting from New Zealand waters by radio inspectors.

On March 24, 1970 a broadcasting licence was granted, allowing Radio Hauraki to finally broadcast on land legally after 1,111 days at sea. They’d successfully broken the radio monopoly, allowing private radio to become widespread in New Zealand.

The sign on Matakohe-Limestone Island. Photo / Jo Skyrme
Supporters and announcers arriving at the Tiri II for the last broadcast and celebration on the high seas in 1970: (from left) Ian Magan, John Monks, Peter Telling, Rick Grant and Miss Lorraine McArthur. Grant was later lost overboard. Photo / NZME

The final broadcast was a documentary on the station’s history to date which finished at 10pm when the Tiri II turned and headed for Auckland playing Born Free continually. But what should have been a triumphant moment turned to tragedy when, during this final voyage back to shore, disc jockey Rick Grant was lost overboard.

O’Callahan later recalled: “they were playing cards in the mess room and the cards were getting a bit sticky. So he said he had another pack of cards up in the fo’c’sle and he went to get the cards and he fell over the side. They had part of the bulwarks on the starboard side cut away for loading tapes and people and things on and off. He fell through the gap in the railing and was lost and the body was never found. It was a pretty sad end to the drama”.

The land-based Radio Hauraki forged ahead, switching to FM transmission in 1990. After several changes in ownership, Radio Hauraki is now operated by NZME Radio. Its music content is based around rock from past and present. A movie capturing Radio Hauraki’s early years, 3 Mile Limit, was released in 2014 and a book, The Shoestring Pirates, was published in 1974.

As for the Tiri’s demise, her scant remains are now flanked with a sign briefly narrating her story.

© The Northern Advocate – October 7, 2023

This material remains © NZME Publishing Limited and is only to be used for non-commercial personal or research use. Any other use requires permission of the copyright holder.

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