Dr Deborah O’Connell is the lead facilitator on the Homeward Bound The Island Sky voyage which departs Puerto Madryn, Argentina on November 12.

She is a climate and disaster resilience specialist, a participant on the first Homeward Bound voyage (HB1) in 2016 and has been a member of Homeward Bound’s leadership faculty (HB2 to HB6).

Dr Deborah O'Connell member of HB3 faculty in Antarctica

Lead facilitator on The Island Sky, Dr Deborah O’Connell. Credit: Supplied

Interview by Sofia Fatiuk

What will be your main responsibilities on board The Island Sky?

The lead facilitator is there to help create the village that we become on the ship, and support and hold a good culture and process that enables everyone to enjoy themselves, grow and practice their own capabilities and competencies, and grow into the global collective that we are. It requires daily discussion with the ship crew to adjust the program in line with the constantly changing schedule on the ship. The lead facilitators (on both voyages) also have a strong role in the design and delivery of the on-board program.

With Antarctica’s extreme climate and the close quarters you will all be in, the voyage will be an intensive and challenging experience. How do you and the rest of the faculty prepare for the voyage?

It will be my third (voyage), which is in itself good preparation.

I have expertise in climate and disaster resilience, and to be honest my preparation is not all that different to how I have to manage myself all the time in how I show up every day for work. I am often working in situations where there is a lot of complexity, urgency or crisis, and trauma.

I work with a whole range of people from a whole range of places and backgrounds and sectors with a whole different set of agendas and power differentials. I work to bring them together for constructive conversation, holding the space for contested values and multiple perspectives to be heard and for decisions to be made in a structured way, always taking into account the power or knowledge or cultural differences. These are the sorts of things that I have to do every day in my work.

There are some extra elements of preparation, I think, to consider on the ship. In fact, I am taking 6 months off right now, and this creates some of the much needed space so that I don’t go into the experience exhausted. It would have been pretty hard on top of the 50-60 hour working weeks I was doing – and many faculty and participants still are doing.  

There are also some practical things around making sure that we have seasickness and any other medications sorted,  that we’re fully vaccinated, all the practicalities around the passports and visas and travel arrangements.

I don’t feel like I have to prepare for living in close quarters. I’ve done that before on Homeward Bound and through my adventure activities in my own life. And, when I work internationally, often this means sharing rooms and big experiences with teammates. So that is really not an issue for me at all. But for some people, it’s quite a big issue.

HB3 Dr Deborah O'Connell in a faculty session onboard the HB3 voyage

Photo: Deborah (standing far right) was a member of Homeward Bound’s leadership faculty during HB3. Credit: Supplied

Can you describe some of the planned curriculum and activities for participants both on the ship and in Antarctica?

Well, let’s start with on the ship. There’s a big difference in these trips compared to the ones that we’ve done before, because in the past, there was quite a light program of content delivery in the year leading into it. And a lot of the content was delivered and put into practice on the ship.

The COVID pandemic meant we had to pivot and deliver a lot of the content online. So we are in a situation now where a lot of that content has been delivered. And the feedback from every single one of the first four cohorts that voyaged, was that they were very keen for more time to connect with each other, and allow the collaboration ideas of how they were going to make the world a better place emerge on the ship.

Having done the online program, most people will have the basics and essentials, and we won’t need to be going through that on the ship. So we have designed for ‘leading in complexity and emergence’. What that means is that there’ll be a spine of structure going through the experience on the ship, but there is also space and process to support emerging activities. This is the opportunity for people to co-design some of the things that they want to do.

They might come on board and start grouping around certain ideas or collaborations for impact, to realise the ultimate strategy of Homeward Bound – which is global collaboration for a better world. Instead of delivering basic content like we did on previous voyages, we will be able to now put it into practice, and apply the leadership lens, apply the visibility lens, apply the science lens, to the things that emerge from their own creation on the ship.

There are people from many countries, different career stages, different HB cohorts as well as invited participants who have not done the program. It will be quite a mixed group on the ship. So the village building element is critically important throughout – and will, we hope, equip participants to go back into their workplaces and build those psychologically safe, innovative, caring village spaces.


Half Moon Island HB1 supplied

Photo:  HB1 at Half Moon Island. Credit: Supplied

Will you be assessing participants progress? Are there key milestones that you expect them to reach?

It’s not our job to stand in judgment. We provide the space for people to grow and learn and reflect and encourage people to reflect on their own progress. There’s no assessment or judgment formally or informally from us. That’s not why we are there.

What are the main challenges that you anticipate during the voyage and in Antarctica?

There’s things you can anticipate – the biggest of which is that all the things that expect will happen, may not…and vice versa. This year, we know that sea ice is not forming in the way that it usually does. It is outside the boundaries of what has been observed before, and we do not understand the full implications of what this will mean by November when we voyage. So there is also an suspension of some of the usual expectations.

In addition,  avian flu is present in Antarctica, and  there may be biosecurity restrictions that don’t know right now. These are examples of the big unknowns of living in this very disrupted world – but the program we have designed is focussed on leading in complexity and emergence so we will be putting it into practice in a very real way.

I’m expecting that there’ll be a lot of a lot of joy and a lot of wonderful experiences for collaboration and bonding. Antarctica is viewed in the program as a teacher to all of us on the ship. It is the place where so many of the global ocean and climate circulation pattern and web of interconnected ecosystems are generated. This makes it a sentinel place for climate change. The changes that are happening there are incredibly dramatic, and the implications are not fully understood but will be profound. We will be bearing witness to this.

There is likely to be grief, sometimes anger or anxiety for people to process with that realisation. And  we will be supporting taking those emotions and turning them into a sense of agency to act when we return. If we act collectively, if we act together, we’ll have a much better chance of having a positive impact and getting a better outcome for the planet.

Leadership faculty during HB3

Photo: (From left) HB3 faculty in Antarctica in 2019: Polyanna Lenkic (Leadership), Former UN climate chief Christiana Figueres (Strategic Climate Change Policy Expert & Science facilitator), Michelle Crouch (Leadership) and Dr Deborah O’Connell.     (Right) Dr Deborah O’Connell on deck during HB3. Credit: Supplied 

Are there situations where the participants new enhanced leadership skills will come in handy during the voyage?

Oh they will come in handy. The online program is structured around three learning arches. The first is leading for self. The next is leading with others, and the third is leading for the greater good. These tie into the three pillars of the strategy that underpin Homeward Bound itself. 

By the time people come on board, we hope that they have their management or self reasonably well in hand because, for example, there’s no night time in Antarctica. And it’s so beautiful. It takes discipline and self management to to go to sleep, because it is so wondrous that you don’t want to close your eyes, and there is no biological signal to go to sleep. But you have to leave the fun, leave the beauty, close the porthole blinds and get enough sleep to function for three weeks. So that’s the practicalities of self-management, plus managing all of the relationships, managing the paradox of isolation of the ship in the ice as well as the crowded space within the ship, managing the lack of communication with families, these are all really big things that you have to manage yourself. And they are core leadership skills.

Then there’s the leadership as a group, leading with others. Everyone will have a crazy amount of wonderful ideas that that are out there. How do you sort? How do you prioritise? How do you agree on the things that we’re really going to focus on here? How do you listen to all of those different perspectives and speak up for your own?

The on-board program is in three phases and during the middle phase, the participants will be taking a lead.

And then when we get off the ship, what are we going to do that really creates impact as a collective? They are core leadership skills. And we are going to be putting them into practice on the ship, and there is always some self-correction and growth and learning. But this is a leadership program. It’s not a cruise.

Photo: A large gentoo colony nesting on their eggs just a few weeks old during the HB1 voyage. Credit: Supplied

Antarctica is one of the most vulnerable environments hit by climate change. What attitudes and behaviours in relation to sustainability will this voyage inspire in participants?

Everybody’s concerned that it’s such a fragile environment and it’s going to create GHG emissions to get there. We’re there to learn from Antarctica and allow the power of that experience to guide our actions forward. We do a lot of practical things to manage our impact. We always sign up for carbon offsetting. There are also tourism impacts. The ships we are voyaging with are members of IAATO, which promotes the practice of safe, and environmentally responsible travel to the Antarctic. There are stringent guidelines around sites that we visit to minimise locational impacts.

But the reality is, there is an impact. And in order to justify that impact, we have to take away that sense of commitment and conviction that we’re going to use that experience and that deep, deep privilege to go back and make the biggest difference that we possibly can in a very short window of time that we’ve got.


What are the biggest takeaways you hope participants gain from the voyage and like the guidance of the faculty through this experience?

I hope they leave the trip feeling that they’ve learned a lot about themselves and the world, and that they have a commitment and a sense of agency, a sense of how they can make a difference, and how they can make a difference individually, and as a collective.

I also know that they will all meet many friends and kindred spirits. Some of my closest friends in my life has come from through participating in Homeward Bound. There’s always somebody walking alongside you, in fact, multiple people walking alongside you. We have a global network to rely on and to keep us all embraced in that global hug so that we can go out and make that big difference.

Deborah O'Connell (inset) and Homeward Bound 1 in Antarctica in 2016

Photo: Deborah (inset) was a participant on Homeward Bound’s first voyage (HB1) to Antarctica in 2016. Credit: Supplied

Read more about this year’s The Island Sky voyage

Read more about Dr Deborah O’Connell