A sailor from Northern Ireland will enjoy the ultimate White Christmas – after helping command exploration ship RRS Sir David Attenborough on its maiden voyage to Antarctica.
Chief Officer Matt Neill will spend the festive period near the South Pole on a mission to support UK scientists conducting climate change research.
He helped dock the state-of-the-art ship at Rothera Research Station last Friday.
The dad-of-two admits it is a wrench to miss a family Christmas with his toddler daughters – but is honoured to be involved in RRS Sir David Attenborough’s first polar mission.
Matt (34), from Magilligan, near Coleraine, said: “To be part of this historic maiden voyage absolutely makes up for missing Christmas.
“Everywhere we go and everything we do is the first time and it’s really exciting. Everyone is proud to be on board for this momentous occasion.
“I don’t want to think about missing Christmas with the kids. I try to keep going and keep my head on the job but obviously it is a wrench. I won’t be home until mid-January.
“It’s a double-edged sword because Christmas is a time when families get together, but the crew are like a big family ourselves.
“There’s every chance we’ll need to work through Christmas, but we will hold our own ‘Fakemas’ and do all the festive stuff on that day. We’ve got our tree up, we’ll get the full Christmas dinner, have organised a secret Santa and we’ll do lots of calls back home.”
World famous naturalist Sir David Attenborough visited the vessel named in his honour as part of a send-off for crew in London before they departed on their seven-week journey to Antarctica.
RRS Sir David Attenborough was commissioned by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) – part of UK Research and Innovation - and is operated by British Antarctic Survey (BAS).
It is the first time Matt, who is second in command behind the ship’s captain, has been away from his kids Rosie, three, and one-year-old Ivy at Christmas.
He said: “I’ve been away at Christmas before, but this is the first time as a dad so, of course, it’s different. This is the longest I’ll have been away from them.
“My eldest daughter Rosie gets that I go away and earlier this year she was able to come down and wave at daddy’s ship when we passed just off the coast of Portrush after sea trials off Scotland.
“We’ve told the kids that daddy is off to see whales and penguins in a place far, far away. She’ll probably be more disappointed that Santa is at the opposite pole.”
He added: “Thanks to technology we talk every few days on the phone and I get plenty of pictures and little stories sent from home.
“To be honest, I think it is much harder for my wife Maggie. She always jokes that the week I leave something is bound to go wrong like the washing machine or boiler breaking down.
“It puts a lot of weight on my wife’s shoulders looking after two kids without me and my homesickness is not too bad because we are kept really busy at sea.
“On the flip side, returning home is amazing because the family are just so excited to see you. I’ve got that to look forward to.”
Matt first set sail for Antarctica as a BAS cadet in 2011 and this is his eighth visit.
He said: “I think I have the best job in the world. I grew up sailing, powerboating and kayaking and both my grandfathers were Merchant Seamen.
“Many would say that the Chief Officer is the busiest person aboard the ship. I am second in command under the captain. He decides what we need to do, and I decide how it’s done and organise that work effectively on deck.
“I’m responsible for making sure the cargo is secured correctly so that it doesn’t move and get damaged or damage the ship whilst in rough weather.
“Around Antarctica, you get these big winds that roll off the mountains called katabatic winds that can really whip stuff up quickly and the Southern Ocean has the biggest storms in the world.
“Even down here summer, you get the biggest wave heights. The waves break over the top of the ship and it’s always the middle of the night you get chucked out your bunk quite a few times. The ship is getting the ultimate test because usually we get a battering.”
Matt added: “We are always on the lookout for icebergs and I certainly don’t want to take my place alongside Titanic in Northern Ireland’s nautical history.
“Most ships tend to stay well away from ice but the big difference with this scientific exploration ship is that we are intentionally breaking sea ice as part of the scientific studies.
“With icebergs in the vicinity you have to be very careful. Even when we are tied up at Rothera, you can get little icebergs washing into the bay and we often need to let go the lines to get out of the way to let them pass so we don’t suffer damage.
“The coldest I’ve been in the summer is -35C - with wind chill that can feel like -60C. At the moment it’s been hovering around -5C or -10C.
“We have plenty of gear to keep us warm so it might be a bit miserable, but we are usually pretty toasty. I do laugh when people back home complain about. You think ‘Just put a coat on’.”
Matt was thrilled to meet his ship’s namesake Sir David before setting sail – and revealed he constantly has the legendary BBC naturalist’s voice ringing in his ears.
He laughed: “Sir David pre-recorded numerous tannoy announcements for us as a favour. So everything from ‘No smoking on deck’ to ‘All personnel not sailing with the vessel, please disembark’ is in his dulcet tones.
“Even when we crossed the equator, Sir David announced, ‘King Neptune has been sighted on deck’. It is hilarious.
“The crew all had the great pleasure of meeting the great man when he wished us ‘Bon voyage’ before we left. I think he’s as proud to have this ship bearing his name as we are to sail on her.”
Minister for the Polar Regions, Amanda Milling, said: “This magnificent ship is something everyone across the United Kingdom can take immense pride in. I’d like to wish everyone on board for its maiden voyage a Merry Christmas.
“The UK Government’s commitment to further investment in our Antarctic scientific infrastructure is putting British scientists at the forefront of polar research, as we lead the world on getting to grips with climate change.
“The UK’s presidency of COP26 in Glasgow last month, and our ongoing investment in science, demonstrates our determination to drive forward a greener future to save our planet.”