Sandra Walker

Commanding Officer of a Ship, gardener and beekeeper

Commander Sandra Walker’s career to date spans 21 years. Born in Gisborne, she grew up in Whangarei, Mt Maunganui and Auckland and describes herself as a typical Kiwi. Sandra now lives in rural North Auckland on a lifestyle block with her fiancé, David, 20 sheep, 60,000 bees and a productive vegetable garden. She’s had a fulfilling and high achieving career in the Navy, and is the first female Commanding Officer of a Major Fleet Unit – the Navy Ship HMNZS ENDEAVOUR.

Why did you decide join the Navy?

From a young age I had an awareness of how important secure employment was to a family’s security. I watched my solo-mother work seven days a week and struggle financially, yet still prioritise our education. I think it was seeing this hardship that made me want to scan the world for the most secure offerings available to me, at the age of 18! I knew I wanted to do much, at speed, but I wanted immediate options where I didn’t have to go into debt in order to get ahead. 

Student loans had only just been introduced then, so options for free training and education had vanished. Then a Navy Recruiter visited my college and sold me an idea - the idea of joining the Navy as an Officer and surveying the ocean to produce and sign my own charts as a Hydrographer. It sounded like a satisfying job, and it wasn’t a problem that I had no prior affinity for the sea. Unfortunately I was then told that my math’s grades weren’t good enough to be competitive for that trade, so instead I was offered a role as a Seaman Officer. But that wasn’t what I wanted to do, so I improved my math’s marks and was selected as a Hydrographic Survey Officer.

Describe your Navy career to date?

Right from my first day the Defence Force has invested in both my personal and professional development, and every two years I have been put into fresh, varied and challenging roles. I’ve enjoyed over 11 jobs within my career including driving many different classes of naval ship, surveying in remote locations around New Zealand, calculating and producing our national tide tables, directing the Navy recruiting organisation, leading and training new Officer trainees, conducting strategic HR/organisational research, studying full time to complete a Master of Management and more recently planning and commanding combined Navy, Army and Air Force exercises and operations. 

Now I command a warship called HMNZS ENDEAVOUR. She is a 138m replenishment and supply vessel, the largest of New Zealand’s 11 warships and the second oldest. I am the Commanding Officer (CO) responsible for 54 personnel - 43 trained personnel and 11 trainees. In one day I could be on the bridge in the morning to drive the ship into Hong Kong with my Navigator, and enjoy an afternoon off to have a break and explore the sights ashore. Then I might return onboard to host a diplomatic cocktail party on the flight deck in support of the NZ Government, usually for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade or other Government agencies who are promoting New Zealand trade interests in the region. 

What was it like helping with the Christchurch earthquake?

Being in a leadership role in the Defence Force, an organisation that delivers social good everyday to New Zealanders, is very satisfying. I was working in Wellington when the Christchurch earthquake happened and was immediately sent to the Beehive bunker to join the national response team led by Civil Defence. 

I was responsible for filtering and interpreting all of the many and varied requests for NZDF assistance, and then deciding on the best ways to conduct priority tasks using our resources. Within hours of the earthquake we had set up temporary medical facilities and accommodation shelters, and our immediate task was to provide continuous evacuation flights to Wellington. We worked in 12 hour shifts and it was a great opportunity to help. More importantly, it was great to see the Defence Force’s full utility, flexibility and capability being used at home to help New Zealanders.  

Do you have a message for young women thinking of joining?

There is no advantage to being a man in the military. Some might think that I must have at least one story of harassment, discrimination or bullying. No, the reverse is true for me. Despite working in a male dominated environment over the last 20 years, I have never struggled. I have felt fully capable and fully competitive.  

I have always achieved a grading of first or second in all of the professional training I have undertaken in the Navy. I’m telling you this because I have heard that many women are afraid that they will fail. You so won’t fail! You’ll be amazing. There is no job that you can’t do. And you can do it really well if you want to.