This post is the first one of a series of 4 posts describing my voyage to Antarctica and experience as a participant of the women in science and leadership program Homeward Bound
“There was once a giant school made up of thousands of koi fish swimming up the Yellow River in China. As they swam, they gained strength by pushing against the current. One day, they reached a waterfall. Most fish turned back and went with the current as it became too hard. The ones who remained continued to try to reach the top of the waterfall for one hundred years. At last, due to its unwavering focus and aspiration, one koi successfully leaped to the top of the waterfall. The waterfall was named “Dragon’s Gate“, as any Koi who has the strength and perseverance to complete the journey through the Dragon’s Gate evolves into a more advanced, vibrant creature: a magnificent dragon.” Chinese and Japanese myth
A month ago, on the 15th of February, I landed in Ushuaia, capital of the Tierra del Fuego (land of the fire) together with 76 women from different cultures, personal and professional paths and of different ages. As part of the Homeward Bound leadership program, we were about to embark on a month-long voyage in Antarctica. We didn’t know each other in person but were told we all had in common a science background and a heartfelt care and concern for our planet’s health.
I had decided to undertake the journey as an explorer: to delve into the unknown, reach new heights and push the boundaries of exploration – exploration of myself, others and the world. I was determined to challenge myself, learn, grow, and take on board new ideas, ways of thinking and behaving.
Meeting in person these 76 ladies for the first time in Ushuaia was an ecstatic moment. One may think we would have been shy, uncomfortable and distant. On the contrary, closeness, empathy, compassion and support was in every corner of the room. We were hugging each other, laughing and discussing as old friends. The people I recognised only by their social media profile were taking shape in front of me. These 76 ladies were real! I was impressed by how easy it can be to connect around a same vision. There was a clear sense of collective purpose and that there was no time to loose: a month-long voyage is a short amount of time to make a difference. In the room, the sound of our collective women voices was loud, very loud, as it should be, always.
From the first days, we asked ourselves: Who am I? Who are we? How do I define myself to others? How do I define myself to myself? I learnt from a leadership test I undertook a few month ago as part of the Homeward Bound program (LSI-Life Styles Inventory) that how we decide to answer these questions impact on how we feel and behave. The good news is that the beliefs we have about ourselves are just that – beliefs and these beliefs can be changed.
I was captivated and a bit destabilised by the diversity of women in the group; their voices, personalities, convictions and emotions were all very unique and so different to mine. This cohort was both diverse and cohesive at the same time – a pretty explosive mix that earned its spurs during the journey.
(c) Oli Sansom / Homeward Bound
The group cohesion was well fostered, encouraged by our leadership team. We created a safe space by setting our ground rules (e.g. respect yourself and others, be kind to yourself and others…). To ensure no group division, we were invited to sit next to the people we knew the less. Blind votes were organised when thought legitimate, constructive feedbacks were encouraged and open frame sessions were held every morning. We had also prepared ourselves mentally before the voyage, receiving support from one-on-one coaching sessions and leadership diagnosis (LSI, 4MAT). My awareness of the importance of mental health increased a lot during my preparation of the expedition. Surely, to experience 77 women on a ship, isolated, out of their comfort zone, for a month, going through a transformative process would not be a piece of cake! I had taken this opportunity of raising inner awareness to organise a Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) training at my university. At the same time, I became an accredited MHFAider.
On the 18th of February, we crossed the famous the Drake Passage in the Southern Ocean to reach the Antarctic Peninsula. This is what it could have looked like: youtube video (i.e. washing machine-like conditions) – in other words, a weird initiation rite and opportunity to implement our #strongertogether credo. However, Mother Nature, suprisingly (or not so) decided to look after her daughters and the Drake shake was a Drake lake, one of the best weather conditions the captain had ever seen! The two-day crossing went smoothly, helped by the doctor’s seasickness pills which made many of us sleep for 48 hours. These pills were a pretty good tactic to prevent us from hurting ourselves when moving around the ship. In bed, not much can happen.
On the third day, though the fog, we caught sight of the land! We were in Antarctica, about to step on Half Moon Island. From then on, our days typically followed a similar routine: half of the day was dedicated to a landing (we visited Argentinian, Chinese, US and UK research stations) and the other half to classes and workshops. In theory, the evenings were our down time, but in reality, as passionate and enthusiastic women, we would use this time to catch up on our new learnings, refine our “strategy maps” or “core values” and run after each other to prepare workshops and media materials, discuss collaborations, practice our peer-coaching skills, or watch our filmed faculty sharing their tips with us on TV (e.g. Primatologist Dr Jane Goodall , world leading marine biologist Sylvia Earle, former Executive Secretary of the UNFCC Christiana Figueres). We also had a collective art project “Confluence: A Journey Homeward Bound” which was underpinned by our inner journey of reflection, growth and transformation and our outer physical journey to Antarctica. My favourite downtimes were our rocky yoga classes in the communal area, our daily mindfulness exercises included in the Homeward Bound program and my daydreaming in bed looking at the icebergs through my little porthole.
Despite the days being very busy, I cherished every second, feeling a strong responsibility and honour to be a part of such a unique adventure.
(c) Oli Sansom / Homeward Bound
About Homeward Bound. Homeward Bound aims, over 10 years, to heighten the influence and impact of a 1000 women with a science background in order to influence policy and decision making as it shapes our planet. I have had the incredible opportunity, together with 78 other women from all around the world, to take part in this worldwide and world-class leadership, strategic and science initiative and outreach for women. Homeward Bound includes a year-long science, leadership, strategic and communication training. It culminates with a 3-week voyage to Antarctica. Our 2018 cohort was the world’s largest-ever female expedition to this part of the world!