Ship's officer - Scott Laughlin
At age 13 or so, what did you want to do when you grew up?
The one thing I had always wanted to do when I was young was to sail around the world. I have always wanted to sail, not just coastal sailing, but around the world, visiting other countries, and finding out more about their cultures and lifestyles.
What town or city are you from?
Hobart. My family lived in South Africa for about three years when we were young, but I have basically spent most of my life in Hobart.
What were your educational/technical qualifications when you first worked in Antarctica?
I had a Master Class 1 'ticket', which is a navigation diploma for 'ship driving' - which allows me to drive any sized ship, anywhere in the world, at any time. This qualification effectively allows me to be the captain of a ship. To get that far meant a four-year diploma in Nautical Science at the Australian Maritime College in Launceston, Tasmania - and plenty of experience in actually doing the work.
What was your work experience before undertaking your position in Antarctica?
From Year 12 I went straight to the Maritime College, and to sea. I had about seven years experience in the shipping industry, serving on Australian ships before I went to Antarctica on the Aurora Australis. In that time I worked on container vessels, and on self discharging and conventional bulk carriers. I got to travel around the world - to South-East Asia, Japan, Taiwan, Philippines, Hong Kong and Europe (in particular Germany, Holland and England). I had also spent a lot of time on cargo ships around the Australian coast.
Why did you want to go to Antarctica?
I had always wanted to see Antarctica. It had always been a dream of mine, just as much as sailing. Antarctica has always had an appeal because it is so isolated. It is you against nature and the elements, and even though I don’t like the cold too much, it is something you just have to put up with - and it’s worth it.
What is your Antarctic experience?
I have been travelling to Antarctica for nearly five years now - about twenty voyages altogether. I have travelled to all the Australian stations and points in between. We have been involved in some great science projects, particularly near the Amery Ice Shelf and in Prydz Bay, and as far west as Mertz Glacier.
What skills did you need to do that work?
The skills I got from my course at the Maritime College and seven years in the industry were the skills I needed for the technical side of driving the ship. The particular skills you need for working in the Antarctic include understanding the very unpredictable weather patterns and having a good knowledge of sea ice. Everything that you do down there is a learning process. Year after year you learn more and more - which is another thing that keeps your interest in the job.
What did you like most about living and working in Antarctica?
Antarctica is truly magical, a very special place that I will never get sick of, no matter how many times I travel there. Another important thing for me are the people - they are not your average nine-to-five type. They all have a reason to go there, whether it be the science or it is just something they have always wanted to do - they're all very passionate about Antarctica. You have some very interesting conversations during the voyage with a broad cross section of people.
What was the scariest thing that happened to you?
In July 1998 we had a fire in the engine room on the Aurora Australis. I was on watch at the time and I received a call from the engineer at about 2 am asking me to bring the pitch back on the propeller - which basically means you put the ship into neutral. A couple of minutes later I had another call to say there was a fire in the engine room and to stop the engine immediately. From there on everything happened so quickly. We had people running around everywhere with fire-fighting equipment, organising fire-fighting teams and evacuating people from the engine room. It wasn’t scary at the time, we were basically running on adrenalin. We had trained for this sort of thing, and that came out a lot in the fire. Everyone went into automatic, everyone did everything they were supposed to, no-one thought about what they were doing - they just did it.
It was only afterwards that you thought of the consequences of what could have happened. There was myself and three others that were within two seconds of potentially being burnt to death, so we were very lucky. You don't think of that until afterwards when you are sitting down and talking about it with other people. After the fire was put out it took us about two days to get the engine going before we could leave. The ship's engineers were fantastic. A lot of the machinery and equipment were actually damaged in the explosion and fire, so they had to innovate with pipes and wiring just to get the engine going so we could safely sail back to Hobart.
What was the greatest challenge for you?
I think the most challenging thing is to learn how to navigate in the sea ice most efficiently without damaging the vessel and endangering the lives of the people on board, while at the same time delivering the cargo and people. It's also about navigating to maximise the opportunities for undertaking science programs and about understanding the sea ice and the challenges it presents. We have worked with an ice pilot who has over 42 years experience in the ice. He still goes down, learns, listens, runs ideas by you when he is doing something a bit different - which is very refreshing.
What did you miss most about Australia?
I have travelled a lot and I particularly miss the freedom of being back in Australia. I like to be able to travel and I like to be able to move about, get in the car and drive to another state, fly to another country, or sail.
What was the most striking thing you noticed when you returned from Antarctica?
Smells. Your sense of smell is heightened. You really notice being back around trees and cities - you notice things a lot more than you might do in an everyday life situation.
Do you want to go again?
Definitely! While I am going to head off in the near future on my yacht to sail around the world, I would like to tie my yacht up in some foreign port and come back to Australia and hopefully work again on the Aurora. Hopefully by keeping in contact with the ship and with the industry I will be able to step back into a job on a casual basis and still achieve my dream of sailing around the world.
What do you think should happen to Antarctica in the future?
Antarctica has a lot of scope for development. The right sort of development - tourism for example. I don't see that Antarctica should be locked off and open only to a select few. I don't believe anyone has the right to stop people travelling there. It can be managed - like managing a national park. To be able to travel there and experience this magical place is a right and a privilege that should be available to everyone. I would hate to see mining companies get in there and extract oil or minerals. This would basically wreck the place. I would like to see the things that are already there kept intact - because that is our history. I think it is sad to have places like Mawson station ripped apart and sent back to Australia. Maintain the heritage. In 50 or 100 years time it is going to be like Mawson's Hut is now. This sort of tourism is going to create employment for Australians and people from other countries.