Carving out a new career

Katrina Beams’s mother can’t believe her little girl in frilly socks has gone on to punch through ice in Antarctica.

Ms Beams, 35, still struggles to believe it herself, having never expected she would one day be at the helm of Australia’s Antarctic flagship.

As third mate on the Aurora Australis, Ms Beams spends eight hours a day navigating the 3911-tonne research and resupply ship through ice up to 1.23 metres thick.

The West Launceston woman has also acted as a safety officer on the ship which, according to the federal government’s Antarctic division, can roll up to 45 degrees in big swells, making the angle of the deck steeper than any street in the country.

“It’s a big responsibility, you have up to 140 people on board, and their lives, and a very expensive ship, are in your control,” Ms Beams said.

She said the unpredictable nature of the job, and the harsh environment she navigated, meant she was always learning.

“Understanding the differences in the ice takes a lot of time – you need to know about areas of pressure, thickness and the weather conditions and what impact they’ll have on the ice,” she said.

“You have to choose the best route by seeing where the ice is likely to be thinnest. The ship has a flatter hull, meaning you literally come up on to the ice and break it out.

“If you’re in the lower hull it sounds like metal on metal, or fingers on a chalkboard.”

Ms Beams, who has a background in administration and hospitality, said she never planned or considered a job on the water until she took a stewarding job with the Spirit of Tasmania more than seven years ago.

She said that led to a chief steward position with P&O Maritime Services, owner of Aurora Australis, at which point her career changed course.

“I never thought of third mate as a career path until I started at P&O because it was a smaller environment than the Spirit, you were there on the ship all the time and I had access to the bridge so I could see everything that was going on,” Ms Beams said.

“I applied for P&O to retrain me as third mate and spent 3 1/2 to four years training, 18 months of it sea time and 21 months school time at the (Australian) maritime college.

“The first time I was left on my own it was overwhelming, I was full of nerves because the training wheels were off . . . then I realised it was no different to when I was a cadet, I just didn’t have someone with me – and the captain’s always just a phone call away.”

Ms Beams said there weren’t many negatives of working on the Aurora Australis, but acknowledged she wouldn’t be able to rush home for a personal emergency.

“Once the ship sails, that’s it, and I’ve told my family that if anything bad happens at home I don’t want to know until I’m back, because I don’t see the good in knowing when I’m stuck in the middle of the ocean,” she said.

“Also, I don’t book holidays within two weeks of a job’s end, because you don’t know what will happen and there can be unexpected delays – one guy I worked with almost missed his wedding last year.”

Still, she said the wonders of working in the Earth’s southernmost continent easily outweighed any downsides.

“There are a lot of bests about my job. I only have to work half a year because I get one day off for every day I work, and I get to go to places anyone else would spend thousands of dollars to see,” Ms Beams said.

“The first time I saw Antarctica it was just amazing, and it still is amazing, every minute – especially because it’s daylight all the time, you can look out the porthole and see so much change in the landscape, 24 hours a day.”

This floating hazard offers a picture-postcard opportunity.

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