For someone who was once resigned to working in taxation, Leanne Millhouse has had an enviable career in Antarctic shipping and operations.

After 41 years with the Australian Antarctic Division, Leanne is the longest serving staff member and a great example of how a career can unfold, even in the absence of a plan.

Now on the eve of her retirement, she reflects on the exciting and rewarding career she created by going with the flow.

“I had no idea about Antarctica when I started at the Australian Antarctic Division in 1982,” she said.

“I came in on a 17 week training scheme in the Registry section (which included records, office services and mail processing) and then I kept applying for temporary jobs as they came up.”

With no firm employment commitment, however, Leanne sat the Public Service merit selection exam and was offered a job with the Australian Taxation Office. Just before she left, a permanent position in the Antarctic Division’s Registry section opened up, and the rest is history.

“I ended up here permanently and then I just fell into things from there. I never had a definite plan or career path.”

What Leanne did have was a willingness to try anything and work hard at it. This included working in various Head Office positions in finance, property, reception and expeditioner liaison, and later as a Voyage Leader, Deputy Voyage Leader, and an Operations Coordinator at Casey and Davis stations.

From shore to ship

In 2009 Leanne was asked to join the shipping group. As a Shipping Officer, she helped manage access and activities on the ship when it was in port, and was responsible for finance, procurement and procedure updates. She also looked after the voyage management teams, ensuring they had everything they needed to do their job on the ship, and assisting with their training and briefings.

“It was hard work and I had to think on my feet all the time. But it was a very supportive environment, and I enjoyed being part of a team where everyone had a contribution and every contribution was different, with all working toward the same objectives,” she said.

While Leanne is a seasoned hand now, she recalls her first experience on the job as a “baptism of fire”. On her first time as the shipping on-call person, a 10 foot refuelling container and hose reel were left behind on the wharf in Hobart.

The ship was on its way to Casey, and was scheduled to stop at Macquarie Island on the way back to refuel the station.

“Two days after the ship left I received a call from the Voyage Leader saying the refuelling equipment was missing. My boss was in Europe at the time, so I spent a lot of time on email working through the problem,” she said.

“Ultimately, we had to organise a separate voyage to Macquarie Island to refuel.

“You hear the term ‘flexible’ bandied about, but it does apply to this job. You might start on plan A but you may end up on plan Z. You really have to adjust to the issues that arise and changing circumstances.”

Not so smooth sailing

Leanne’s first experience as a Voyage Leader in December 2013 was similarly memorable. It was the year a tourist and scientific expedition became trapped in sea ice near Commonwealth Bay, onboard the Russian vessel MV Akademik Shokalskiy.

Leanne was onboard the Aurora Australis overseeing resupply operations at Casey research station when the call to assist the stricken vessel came through.

“We were in the middle of refuelling and resupply so we stopped all activity. We had to work out who needed to be on or off the ship, how we’d get everything we needed on to the ship, and what equipment we’d leave at the station,” she said.

The rescue operation was run by the Master of the Aurora Australis, with assistance from Leanne and fellow expeditioners with skills in glaciology, search and rescue, sea ice travel and watercraft operations, as well as the ship’s crew and a team at Head Office.

Once they reached the scene they worked with the MV Xue Long and its Chinese helicopter team to fly the 52 passengers from the Shokalskiy to an ice floe. From there the Australian team guided the passengers across the ice, and used the RSV Aurora Australis’ fast rescue craft to transfer them to the ship.

“From a people-management perspective it was exhausting. A lot of people just needed to talk and most afternoons the Deputy Voyage Leader and I would have people up to our office for a chat. We were proud of the fact that when they left our office they were laughing,” she said.

Team effort

Leanne has made 22 trips to Antarctica, 17 of those in voyage management roles and three as an Operations Coordinator on station. Key to the work were skills in leadership, organisation and communication.

Despite her years of experience, Leanne said she never stopped learning, and relied on her support team to provide expert advice, to ensure her decisions were informed.

“I don’t know everything and I relied on a team of experts – like the Station Leader, field training officers, senior diesel mechanics, boating officers, aircraft ground support officers, and engineers – to provide advice. We all worked as a team to facilitate the resources and assets to safely get a job done,” she said.

“The key was managing relationships to ensure everyone had the information they needed to do their jobs and that peoples’ ideas and opinions were respected.”

Changing times

Since her first voyage in 1985 on the Ice Bird, Leanne has seen many changes in Antarctic shipping operations.

“I remember when there were no fences at the wharf and you could just walk or drive onto it when ships came and went,” she said.

“There were streamers thrown from ship to shore, bands playing, and celebrations of the ship’s return. It was a family-friendly time, with people waving goodbye or waiting with excitement and anticipation for their loved ones to return.

“Security has tightened up since then. It’s a reflection of how the entire world has changed.”

Farewell tour

Leanne’s final voyage was on the cargo ship Happy Diamond between December and March this year, which resupplied Casey, Davis and Mawson in one trip.

“This was the first time we’d fully resupplied the three stations at once. It was a complex voyage, but we had a great team and it was a good voyage to finish on,” she said.

Leanne is off to spend a month in the US, riding trains across the country, visiting friends and spending her first summer at home in a long time.

She will miss her colleagues and working in an ever-changing environment. But she plans to continue her regular coffee catch-ups with the shipping and operations teams and hasn’t ruled out a shot at voyage management on RSV Nuyina.

“I feel good about the contribution that I’ve made to Australia’s Antarctic Program, and leave with a great sense of achievement. I’ve been lucky to be in the right place at the right time, in the right organisation,” she said.