Lisa Hunn has a lot of achievements to her name. A member of the Royal New Zealand Navy (RNZN), she’s represented New Zealand as an acting captain in 2016 exercises aboard warship USS America and been chair of the RNZN Women’s Steering Group. But all that and a diploma in fine arts pales in comparison to the moment she’s most proud of. On June 14, 2017, she assumed command of HMNZS Te Mana, becoming the first woman in our navy to captain a frigate. Accepting the symbol of command, she uttered the immortal phrase: “I have the ship”.
WORDS ANDY TAYLOR / PHOTOS TRACIE HEASMAN
The frigate is a battle-ready component of our navy, with all the bits to blow things up. “And the best part is that Te Mana’s symbol of command is quite big,” says Lisa. “Other ships have pounamu and the like, but with the hoe, I get to tell everyone that mine is bigger than theirs!”
This line is typical of Lisa. She has a very, very serious job, with the lives of 180 people directly in her hands, and often the lives of hundreds more indirectly, dependent on her command. And yet she’s retained that classic Kiwi ability to find humour in all areas of life.
This ability to look on the bright side is essential when you’re “driving” (as she puts it) through rough seas and storms in a warship the navy describes as “designed to fight and evade her enemies and take battle damage”. And you think you need light relief after a bad day in the office.
Lisa talked to UNO just a couple of days after being rushed to hospital with acute appendicitis that saw her have emergency surgery. “It wasn’t exactly what I had planned for the week,” she says, dryly.
Lisa’s story starts in Wellington, in what she describes as a yachting kind of family that could often be found out on the water in a variety of small boats. Her parents regularly attended the local yacht club, and while they were there, young Lisa spent her time with the Sea Cadets. For many of us, childhood interests like this are a passing distraction, but it was clearly more formative for her.
“It did have a huge effect,” she says. “I’d always loved being out on the sea, but the cadets showed me that there was more to it than that. It was a real passion, and the
navy offered something that allowed me to combine that love of being out on the ocean with seeing the world. If I was to try a philosophical explanation, I’d say that the navy offers access: access to the world, to challenges and to experiences that not
many other careers can match.”
Commander Hunn’s experiences are a roll call of foreign locations and corridors of power. She entered the navy in 1990 on the ‘general list’ as a midshipman, and did initial officer training, then a Bachelor of Science in geology. A promotion to sub lieutenant and a stint on her first seagoing unit followed, with time on HMNZ ships Endeavour, Wellington, Canterbury and Takapu. She received commendations for excellent service throughout the ’90s, and by October 2002 was a lieutenant commander and had added a New Zealand General Service Medal (Afghanistan) to her decorations for participating in Operation Enduring Freedom in the Gulf of Oman. She represented New Zealand at international AUSCANNZUKUS meetings (it’s pronounced Oz-Can-Zoo-Kiss, since you asked), then became executive officer of HMNZS Te Mana, whose home port is Tauranga. Executive officer is the second in command, and Lisa’s trajectory seemed fairly clear – until she started looking for another challenge.
“I’d always been interested in the arts and it had always been a passion,but the navy kind of got in the way. There came a point where I thought, ‘It’s now or never’, and so I started a Diploma in Fine Arts. It was the biggest challenge I’d ever faced.”
Bigger than navigating a warship through a cyclone? “Well, yes – in many ways it was! It was such a different approach, a different set of parameters, but I really loved it, and when I graduated I thought I could juggle a life of some part-time work for the navy with being a part-time artist of sorts.”
It didn’t quite work out that way. Instead, in 2014, realising the sea was a stronger calling and that she was missing the navy more than she could have imagined, Lisa re-engaged in the navy’s regular force. Once she was back in the thick of it, a few high-ranking land-based appointments presented themselves, but it wasn’t until that moment at Auckland’s Devonport Naval Base, when she said, “I have the ship” and became captain of HMNZS Te Mana, that it suddenly all made sense.
“It wasn’t so much about the command alone,” she says. “It was about knowing I could lead and inspire – that I could help bring up the next generation that would get to see the world. Commanding a ship is a privilege, but helping to shape young people into the future generation that will serve in our navy is an honour.”
The role of our navy is at a crucial turning point, something Lisa is very much aware of. “We have such a strong naval tradition in New Zealand, and such a strong naval reputation, which is respected all around the world. In 2017, the USS Fitzgerald was in a collision and it was to HMNZS Te Kaha that they turned to fill the gap. That’s the level of respect our training and ability has given us. And yet in some ways we’re very inward looking; we’re an island nation, and the sea is in our heritage, yet we don’t look out to those oceans around us.
“But I believe that’s changing now, and there are several initiatives before the government that are about having a new focus on the Antarctic, because that’s going to be such a huge part of us as a county going forward. So many other countries will be looking to have an influence in our part of the world, and we need to have a presence there – it’s our backyard, after all, and not many other interested parties can say that.”
It’s quite nice to know New Zealand will be flying the flag in our backyard more and more in the coming years. And it’s really nice – and very reassuring – to know someone like Lisa will have the ship when we do.