Voyage leader - Sandra Potter

At age 13 or so, what did you want to do when you grew up?

I don’t think I'd made up my mind. I liked the idea of working with animals and travelling, and I was also very keen on doing something to do with art.

What town or city are you from?

Hobart - the suburbs. Home is now a farm 60 km away on the Derwent River.

What were your educational/technical qualifications when you first worked in Antarctica?

I'd finished Year 11. I've since completed a Bachelor of Fine Arts part-time but it isn't in any way related to my work in Antarctica and I've rarely had the time to draw or paint while I've been away.

What was your work experience before undertaking your position in Antarctica?

Back then it was pretty well limited to a few stints on expeditions in Africa and a couple of years behind a desk at the Antarctic Division. At the time I was the Division's Publications Officer, and part of my job involved preparing information for expeditioners on things like search and rescue procedures, field travel, traverse planning, helicopter operations, navigation, communications etc. So if nothing else I had a pretty good idea of the theory of it all. I also did graphic design and scientific editing.

Why did you want to go to Antarctica?

I wanted to 'see the world' - not Antarctica specifically. It was not until I actually got there that I had any real concept of what an incredibly special place it is.

What is your Antarctic experience?

I've made 12 trips south - one each summer. Most trips have been six to eight weeks long and each surprisingly different because of the changing sea and ice conditions, destinations, work programs, the mix of people, and the ship used. Recently I also went south as a commentator on a Qantas tourist flight over the Transantarctic Mountains. It was good being able to share the place, if only in a small way, with a group of people who might otherwise never get there. The air of excitement on board was extraordinary.

What did you do in Antarctica?

As voyage leader I was responsible for the overall planning and management of a voyage including the logistic and scientific support requirements of up to 110 expeditioners, and the conduct of cargo operations for which we carry helicopters, barges and boats. In doing so I work closely with the station leaders, ship's captain and crew.

Each voyage has specific objectives which may include station resupplies, completing a marine science program, hydrographic and aerial survey work, and establishing a field camp or depot somewhere along the Antarctic coast.

What skills did you need to do that work?

Voyage Leaders are expected to transcend many roles - supervisor, administrator, confidant, trainer, mediator, stevedore, social director, police officer, ambassador.

Most have Antarctic experience gained in another capacity and then apply to do a trip as a voyage management trainee or 'vomit' as we call them for short. Their pre-departure training usually includes first aid, sea safety, cargo handling, fire fighting , environmental management and occupational health and safety.

What did you like most about living and working in Antarctica?

Both the challenges on a personal level and the job itself. And the sheer intensity of the experience in every respect. Obviously the environment has a lot to do with it. The remoteness. The brilliant blues that don't exist elsewhere. The sculpted bergs. The contrasts - the absolute stillness, the ferocity. The thunder of sea ice under the bow. The tiny snowflakes that settle on the windows of the bridge - every one unique. It's simply a magical place to be.

The whole experience kind of engulfs you. I can’t imagine anyone returning unchanged by it.

What was the scariest thing that happened to you?

There have been times when I've been out on deck in heavy seas and I've had visions of being swept away. We have to be very careful and will wear safety harnesses in some situations. Sometimes the ship has rolled over 40 degrees, and 15 metre swells are not uncommon.

We've had deck cargo come adrift, and lots of cabin furniture and equipment smashed to pieces when we've taken on some big waves and all hell's broken loose.

What was the greatest challenge for you?

Not the greatest but often the first is keeping my breakfast down on Day One.

What did you miss most about Australia?

My husband.

What was the most striking thing you noticed when you returned from Antarctica?

The sense of having been jolted out of a time-warp-like existence. Expeditioners often refer to returning to Australia as going back to 'the real world' - your consciousness of the heat, speed, flies, smells, noise, dust and the like is temporarily heightened.

Do you want to go again?

Yes - more so now as an artist. With my family too would be especially nice.

What do you think should happen to Antarctica in the future?

My fear is that it will be progressively spoilt in the way that so many other parts of the world have. We need to develop ways to better look after it - and fast. I'm now working in the environmental management area where I can focus on contributing to this process.

This page was last modified on January 23, 2014.