This Is What It's Like To Take A Year Off To Travel – Forbes
I met Collette Furey earlier this year at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, where I was on a bucket list trip to see the Northern Lights and she was a volunteer.
I was intrigued by the fact that she had taken a year off from teaching to travel the world and that she was doing it in a way that could inspire others who never thought they’d be able to do something like that.
Collette recently returned home to Ireland and is back in the classroom, where she’s sharing her adventures with the future generation of travelers.
She also shared with me her thoughts about her year in order to encourage everyone to take time off from work to explore the world.
Why did you decide to take a year off teaching to travel?
I have been teaching for 10 years in an inner city, disadvantaged school in Galway. I’d wanted to go to Antarctica for a long time but I could only travel there during our winter, which is during the school year. So I thought, “Why not just take a year and do something completely different?” I felt it was time to take a sabbatical. I wanted my students to see that anyone can travel.
What was your planning process like? How did you choose your itinerary?
I’m not a big planner so initially the year seemed quite empty as I only had Antarctica booked. I’d researched the best, cheapest and most original way to get there and going on board a sail training ship appealed most to me. The Bark Europa required no sailing experience which suited me as I had zero experience at sea. The trip was going to take almost two months.
To be honest I had nothing planned at first for the rest of the year. Patagonia was an area I was interested in exploring and I figured this was a good time to do it, so I spent the month of October with a bunch of people from all over the world in a truck travelling from Santiago in Chile to Ushuaia in Argentina. I had to get to Montevideo for November 1.
Another idea that was always nagging at me was to live somewhere really cold and remote, and I wanted to volunteer so I could avoid having to pay for accommodation and food. After some Googling, I came across Churchill Northern Studies Centre, which is where we met! It looked like exactly what I wanted so I applied for a volunteer position to take me from February to April.
After that I had no idea. I thought I’d wait and see how everything was going and hope something would present itself. And it did. It turned out that I loved sailing on board the Europa and was very happy at sea so I asked the captain if I could come back as a crew member and volunteer. He offered me the opportunity to sail as a deckhand from Cape Town to the Netherlands. This trip was going to start mid-April and finish at the end of August which was perfect timing for me to finish my career break and return to school.
When I met you at Churchill, you were volunteering at the Centre. Obviously this is a great way to save money. Because there are probably so many readers who would like to do this but think they can’t afford it, what tips can you offer?
The majority of my year was spent volunteering. There are all sorts of volunteer opportunities out there. You have to be willing to share your space with people, and be tolerant of their quirks and requirements. You also have to be willing to find yourself in all sorts of situations and be happy with it.
Tell us where you went!
I started off in Santiago at the end of September and spent about four weeks making my way south through Chile and Argentina. I hiked in Torres Del Paine National Park, wandered around remote towns such as El Calafate, Punta Arenas and San Carlos De Bariloche and went horseback riding in Villa Cerro Castillo. I finished up in Ushuaia, then flew to Buenos Aires. After two days chilling out by the beach in Pocitos, I caught my first glimpse of Bark Europa in port in Montevideo. I was super excited and a little uncertain as it hit me that I would be living on this boat for the next 54 days, sailing across one of the most dangerous sea crossings in the world – The Drake Passage. The voyage went by in a blur of excitement, amazement, exploring new and remote places, gaining new friends for life, learning new skills, so much wildlife – whales, penguins, dolphins, sea birds, seals and fish – new routines and new experiences. We sailed from Montevideo to The Falklands, South Georgia, South Shetland Islands and The Antarctic Peninsula. Then we sailed across The Drake Passage to Ushuaia, spent a few days there, flew to Argentina and, on Christmas Day, I flew home to Ireland for a few weeks.
The next stage of the adventure was nine weeks at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre in remote Canada. I was to volunteer, mainly in the kitchen, and would be living on site. Churchill is located on the shores of the Hudson Bay and it was Northern Lights season. In April, I traveled home again for a wedding, then flew to Cape Town to join the Bark Europa. The plan was to sail to Stavanger with stops in St Helena, Ascension Island and The Azores. In Stavanger we were to take part in The Tall Ships Race and sail to the Netherlands. I was very happy to get this opportunity as St Helena and Ascension are very remote and not many travel there. I arrived in Amsterdam in August and spent a month working in the ship yard in Zandaam. I flew home on Saturday, September 1 and started back in the classroom that Monday. I took the career break down to the last day!
Can you share a couple of memorable moments or adventures? Was there a highlight?
The Northern Lights in Churchill were such a highlight. There were nights when the entire sky was lit up with green, pink and white lights. They were dancing and rippling across the sky and it was incredible to be there and feel like part of it. I remember one night I went out – it was about minus 35 degrees centigrade – and lay on the ground for as long as I could and just watched the lights in the sky. I would stay out for as long as I could and then come in and have a hot rum with my workmates. Such happy times!
I went snowmobiling out on frozen Hudson Bay, which was a last minute adventure which I LOVED. It was my first time driving one, and initially I was a bit freaked as you could see the water under the ice but I was told there was about five feet of ice so I went for it and was so glad I did.
One highlight was seeing dolphins swimming in the bioluminescence at night. I remember one night specifically on the way to The Falklands. It was 2 a.m. and I was out on watch. The sky had a million stars and we were sailing at full sail. My watch partner and I heard some splashing so we went to have a look and there was a pod of dolphins swimming at the bow of the ship. They were jumping through bioluminescence which was creating the most beautiful scene.
Another moment was in Patagonia when we were hiking. Many people had turned back because the climb was tough and the weather was brutal. It was really windy and raining quite heavily. We decided we’d gone this far so we’d keep going to the top. Suddenly we heard a sort of thunder sound and realized there was an avalanche happening very close to us. I stood and watched as it rumbled away. It really made me think of my vulnerability in nature.
Although it was such an epic year it’s impossible to pick just one highlight, I have to talk about the sky throughout the entire year – between the sunrises and sunsets, particularly at sea, the Southern sky, the Northern Lights and the night skies as we sailed from Cape Town to Norway. It was magical being out in the open and being able to witness the beauty of nature.
Now that you’re back to work, what are your overall thoughts about your year?
I’m so happy I took the chance and just went for it. It gave me time to think about what’s important to me as well as the opportunity to rejuvenate. It made me realize I could be happy living a very simple life. I love having new friends from all over the world.
What did you learn from your experiences?
So much! I basically had no idea about life at sea and the fact that I can now say I’m a deckhand is a massive deal for me. I did something so far removed from the classroom and it turns out I loved it. I’m delighted that I have been lucky enough to find a new exciting interest in life. I also can now say I can build a pretty decent igloo, drive a zodiac and a snowmobile and I can talk about sailing.
In terms of what I learned about myself I know I am comfortable in my own company and I can cope very well with people and any situation that I find myself in.
What was the most challenging part?
Throughout the year I put myself in the position of being in fairly confined living circumstances with strangers. I was always the newbie and had to blend in to environments that people were already comfortable in. You’re never really sure if people like you and if you’re going to get on with them but I always seemed to adapt and was rewarded with new friends around the world.
Was it lonely or scary traveling on your own?
I traveled alone for the entire year yet at no point was I really on my own. As a solo traveler, people tell me how courageous I am but, really, there’s never a shortage of humans around!
What was the most surprising part?
On a practical level, I was surprised at how easily I settled into life at sea, but, overall, I have to say I was constantly amazed by the beauty of the world and the kindness of people.
How are you sharing your travels with your students?
I’ve shown them photographs and told them all kinds of stories. A friend of mine works in another school and she invited me to talk to her 5th and 6th graders. Kids ask the best questions, and I hope they’re inspired to go out and see the world themselves.
Since I’ve come home I keep getting asked “What was it like to live on the ship?” It’s difficult to describe but, over the course of a few weeks at sea, you really get to know the people you’re living with. You end up having connections with people that you would probably never spend time with in your life. There’s something special about being out in the middle of the ocean in a storm and having to work with the people around you to sail the ship. It’s quite a unique experience. We ate and worked together every day. This creates a special bond and makes you grow in ways you wouldn’t necessarily have thought of.
Would you encourage everyone to do what you did?
For sure – not necessarily to do what I did but to do something random and completely out of their comfort zone. It takes guts to give up wages for a year but I highly recommend taking that risk to follow your dreams. Life is short, and it’s important to do something epic.
Where’s your next trip?!
I’m going camping in the Netherlands with some friends from the ship, then I’m actually going back to the ship in December to work again as a guide in Antarctica, which I’m super excited about. That will keep me out of trouble for a few months anyway!
Follow Collette on Instagram to see more of her adventures.
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