Many teachers enjoy enlightening their students about different countries and cultures around the world, and while some draw on their own experience, most, when talking about far-flung lands, will rely on books to help broaden young minds.
However, one Galway teacher, Collette Furey, went a step further and, having always been fascinated with the harsh environment of Antarctica, took leave from her job at Scoil Bhríde, Shantalla, Galway, bought herself a ticket on a tall ship, and sailed there for the first in a series of life-changing adventures.
“I have always been intrigued by cold and remote places, and my friend Gavan had been to Antarctica before, so I knew it was something that could be done,” Furey says of her first trip in 2017. “We used to spend ages looking at maps of the region and chatting about polar exploration stories.
“Then in 2016 he rowed across the Atlantic and when I met him in Antigua at the finish line, I found myself saying ‘I’m thinking of taking a year out and heading off on a trip to Antarctica’. It had only vaguely been on my mind but once I said it out loud, I thought ‘ok I’ll do it’.”
Having always been a keen traveller, Furey (39) had previously met a woman in Bolivia who told her about climbing the mast of a tall ship in Antarctica with icebergs “as far as the eye could see”.
“This sounded magical, so I searched for a ship that would let me do the same thing; and I discovered the Bark Europa,” she says. “I had no experience of sailing, so it came as bit of a surprise when I announced I was heading off for a seven-week trip to Antarctica. Some people were supportively envious, whereas others were concerned, as the idea of me heading off on the high seas seemed ridiculous.
“But with my career break approved, I booked my passage on Bark Europa to embark on November 1st, 2017, in Montevideo [Uruguay]. I paid about [€7,000] in April, decided to go to Patagonia to do some exploring beforehand. It was a great experience and I spent my 38th birthday in Ushuaia at the end of the world before making my way to Montevideo.
“My first thought was ‘Oh God, what have I done?’, but I soon settled on to the ship and went with the flow. I had warm and waterproof clothing and a good attitude, so felt ready for whatever the trip would bring. But little did I realise it would be the start of a new obsession with being at sea.”
Furey’s maiden voyage started in Montevideo, and went to the Falkland Islands, on to South Georgia then to the Antarctic Peninsula and back to Ushuaia, southern Argentina.
“Sailing that night, I remember watching the lights of Montevideo fade into the distance,” she says. “The next day we had a safety brief, climbing instruction, helming and lookout instructions. We were referred to as Voyage Crew and would be taking part in ship life for the duration of the trip.
“We were split into three ‘watches’ for four-hour shifts every day while at sea. Our duties included helming, lookout, sail handling and some minor maintenance work. Life onboard was very comfortable but living on a ship with 55 people (including 15 permanent crew) of all ages, nationalities and varying personality types can be a challenge, but ultimately if a squall hits and we need to sail on a safe course, everyone works together and there is great satisfaction in this.”
After seven days, the ship arrived in the Falklands and the passengers spent a week exploring the islands before heading to South Georgia Island where they walked in the footsteps of Crean, Shackleton and Worsley.
“Wildlife was in abundance – we got up close with penguins and saw whales, seals and albatrosses every day – it was incredible,” says Furey. “We spent days exploring, enjoying nature and getting up close to glaciers, before heading to Antarctica.
“This took about five days, so we were back to life on board. On approach we started to see icebergs; each, a different size and shape and I was awestruck by their splendour. On the peninsula we spent two weeks exploring and taking in the beauty of our surroundings. We did some hiking, had a snowball fight, learned about glaciers, cruised through an iceberg graveyard, had hot chocolate on deck at night, enjoyed both peace and quiet, and the noise and smells of penguin and seal colonies.”
The novice explorer says the trip had too many highlights to mention. But she returned to Galway in December 2018 and while most people assumed that she had got Antarctica out of her system, she couldn’t stop thinking about it.
“Since leaving the ship, I couldn’t get it out of my mind,” she admits. “I asked the captain if I could return as a volunteer and he told me to think about it as I would probably change my mind. But I emailed him in January to ask if I could come back and while waiting for a response, went to a really remote corner of Canada for nine weeks where it got as cold as -52 degrees Celcius at night and -30 degrees during the day. I spent nights enjoying the Northern Lights and days working in a kitchen, building igloos, driving snow mobiles, and learning about the science of the north.
“Then I was offered a volunteer contract to start [on the ship] in Cape Town that April and be onboard until Stavanger, Norway at the end of June. As permanent crew, we worked six-hour watches every day, gave lectures, did maintenance, cleaned the ship, and helped in the galley. When we were off watch, we would eat meals, sleep, and socialise with a chat and a drink, board games or crafting.
“I was learning every minute and despite having had some experience, it was still very daunting to be in an environment that is so massively different from the classroom. But although it was occasionally tough, I had the time of my life.”
On this voyage, Collette visited St Helena, Ascension Island and The Azores. And when the trip was drawing to a close, she was offered a paid job for a two-month trip around northern Europe, before finishing up in the Netherlands.
She then returned home in September 2018 and did some substitute teaching (regaling students with plenty of tall tales) before returning to the ship for two seasons in Antarctica, sailing the Southern Ocean and then joining another trip from Cape Town to Europe.
In between her travels on the high seas, Furey returned home and it was on one shore leave in 2019 that she saw an advert for a course on the basic skills of Galway Hookers and realised that while she had sailed the four corners of the world, she hadn’t taken to the sea in her native county, so she signed up.
As with her experience of tall ships, she was hooked from the outset and soon became a firm fixture in the “Galway boat world”.
Having gone from being a total landlubber to a seasoned mariner, the Galway woman is keen to set sail again, but due to the pandemic, the sailing schedule has not been confirmed for 2021. While she doesn’t have a set date, there is no doubt that as soon as she gets the opportunity, she will once again be sailing the high seas.
“People often tell me how brave and adventurous I am to head off as a solo traveller, but there is never a shortage of people around wherever you go,” she says.
“I think it’s important for people to try new things. I did this and it has unintentionally become such a huge part of my life.”