Paul Casserly tunes into some sea shanty hits on the radio stations Sail, Whales and Whiskey and Radio Waiheke.

As a kid I had the choice of about three radio stations compared to the dozens if not hundreds available today. These days most broadcast from a couple of buildings in Auckland: one that houses the radio 'brands' of MediaWorks while the rest emanate from NZME., formerly The Radio Network. These are typically windowless places where the Auckland weather won't be commented on as the stations are networked around the country. Who wants someone babbling about a beautiful day when it's sleeting outside?

Local radio used to be the rule, now it's the exception, but it's still to be found, if you look hard enough. Student radio does local well of course, as does Iwi radio, and for a particular tribe, of mostly Pakeha, who are found on Waiheke Island, there is real a gem of local radio station. If you guessed that Radio Waiheke has an eclectic playlist and a fairly loose vibe, you'd be right. But it also has one of the best hours of radio I've heard in recent times. We're familiar with the whole "hits of the 80s, 90s, and today" palaver, but how often do we hear someone boast, "we play the greatest hits of the 1800's" WTF?

Talking about dredging up the past. Sails, Whales and Whiskey, promises "sea songs and shanties, New Zealand songs and songs from the folk tradition", and by hokey, Tamaki Makaurau, it delivers.

On a recent episode, host Stefan Clist paints a picture that appeals to the notion of the cool, yet feral, small town DJ, popularized by shows like Northern Exposure.

"I find myself wandering about the Island getting into conversations about shanties." I doubt anyone on ZM or The Edge, could make that same boast.


And so began an episode entitled Shanty Lesson, which got underway with a clip from TV comedy Big Bang Theory, where some of the characters were singing a shanty. One of the faux-nerds (Sheldon) described it as "a rhythmic work song designed to increase productivity."

I learnt a lot from the hour of radio that followed. The rise of sea shanties coincided with the rise of sea sailing in the 1800s. Back then ships had large crews of 50 or 60, until the rationalization of the latter part of the century when a crew of 20 was more likely.

Stefan continued the entertaining lesson, explaining that a shanty is, as expected, "a work song timed to the nature of the work". The songs were widely used in merchant ships but the British navy wasn't keen. To them shanties smelled of disorder and mutiny.

He then took us through a range of different types of shanties. "Short hall shanties" are the ones where you imagine everyone pulling on the rope, calling things like "bring 'em down" and the like. These are short songs, only designed for the length of say pulling up a sail. "Way, hay, hay, up she goes" etc.

The "long haul shanties" are for when they are "hauling up a yard", pulling a sail up the 'T' masts, or yard arms on ship. These take about 15 minutes to hoist up, so the songs are slower and more measured.

For these imagine 12 or 15 people on a rope. The man in front being the shanty man, and he leads the singing. "They calls me hanging Johnny" goes one such number, "they hang me poor old father, and they hang me poor old mother. Oh yes, they hang me poor old mother, her sister and my brother, they hang my sister sally, they strung her up." You can see where Nick Cave gets it from, can't you?

"Capstan shanties" are used for singing as they heave up the anchors. "Heave away and away we go" they go.

There are also "stamp and go shanties" aka "walk away shanties". These were used to help the crew take a rope down the deck. "Drunken Sailor" is a "stamp and go" shanty.

Naturally "pumping shanties" were used while pumping. Before modern pumps they did this boring chore via iron contraptions. It was hard yakka, so "they had to sing a shanty while doing it."

You might like to sing one of these as you vacuum the house perhaps? How about Maid of Amsterdam?

"In Amsterdam, I meet a maid, she always pitching the sailor's trade, I took this maid for a walk, I bought her gin and she sure did talk."

Surprisingly, this brilliant hour of radio was made by a man with no broadcasting background, who's formative years were spent playing in a hardcore band. Stefan Clist told me that he loves the authentic nature of the music and reckons a recent resurgence of interest in the genre is partly down to the Playstation game Assassin's Creed and Hollywood movie franchise, Pirates of the Caribbean, which both feature shanties in their soundtracks. "But this music hasn't ever gone away, it's been played in folk clubs around New Zealand for decades." There's also a handful of new acts playing shanty style music, like the Wellington Sea Shanty Society and Stefan's own band, The Royal Fortune.

He also runs a subreddit with some 5000 followers and a website,

Paul Casserly takes a look back at the best and most bizarre TV from the month of April.

• Sails, Whales and Whiskey. 6pm Thursday, (with repeats at 11am Tuesday and 1pm Saturday) Radio Waiheke, 88.3 and 107.4 FM and online here.