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Welcome to Brash Talk #11 the newsletter of the Polar Tourism Guides Association. We hope your season is going well where ever you are. Social media out of Svalbard suggest plenty of polar bear action. Please be mindful of your approach and engagement protocol with these creatures and be mindful of others in the area. Plenty to cover in this issue so please explore it and catch up on all our news.

Traveling to/from Longyearbyen or Iqaluit? Don’t forget to use that layover (or delayed flight or lost luggage) time to grab a coffee or glass of wine and update your Log.

In This Issue:

  • Presidents Pontifications – What is a Senior Polar Guide or any other?
  • Correction from Brash Talk #10
  • AntArctic Stories Podcasts
  • Virtual Learning Environment
  • Scuttlebutt
  • Fabulous Feedback
    • Bamboo travel goods
    • Guides guides
    • Federal Status
  • Assessors Courses
  • Expedition Guides Academy
  • Katabatic Winds – or not
  • PTGA and the Sailing and Motor Yacht Community
  • Guano Happens
  • New Status Guides and PTGA Stats

Presidents Pontifications

We are nearing the end of our initial grand-parenting program where we offered a system to Recognize Current Competency (RCC) via certifications, portfolios of evidence, attestation and CV’s to allow people to present proof of competence relative to our standards. At the end of an individual review we were left with the decision to make about a persons’ experience relative to two levels, or markers, we had created.

We built/adapted a system that has been used often in other ‘like’ industries tp try and work wiyth the polar guiding community. The system we chose is thorough and robust but of course it still has holes. We still rely on concepts like trust and honesty when people apply and also the concept of perception of your own skills vs an industry standard. Some people have a very realistic perception of their skills relative to all guides in the industry – others do not.

In order to create the levels we made we essentially had to put a gate across a metaphorical road at a couple of points. I’d like to use the metaphor of a journey (with attendant gates) to review what we have done and what it means.

We all start our journey along Polar Guide Road and at some early point we become members of the Association and sign the Code of Conduct and we get a 1st Aid Certificate, we need these things to get our journey underway for real. At this stage if an aspirant polar guide has some skills they are able to be assessed by a PTGA Assessor and awarded Polar Qualifications (even if they have no experience in the polar regions). So, an aspirant guide could start collecting PQ’s before they even arrive at the 60 day gate (in fact this is preferable). The aspirant guide arrives at the 60 day gateIf they have collected five or more PQs prior to this gate they get to go through and they are handed a worthy and useful badge of minimal competence – Polar Guide.

This Polar Guide continues along the road but now they have to collect ALL of the foundation PQs and a portfolio of Advanced Endorsements (see our Qualifications Framework). In addition to these PQs the Polar Guide has to travel the road for a further 200 days before they get to the next gate (they remain a Polar Guide this whole section). Once they arrive at the 260day gate(60 +200) and they have the required qualifications to go with their logged time they are awarded Senior Polar Guide status. The journey, fortunately, is never over because these guides have to continue to seek professional development (in order to retain their status) but Senior Polar Guide is as high as the PTGA recognizes. Guides might be interested in being an Assessor but this is not considered a higher standard it is simply a side road that goes in a different direction.

People have asked us “how did person X get Senior Polar Guide status when they also know person Y who also is also a Senior Polar Guide but person Y is vastly more qualified and experienced than person X”.  They are both Senior Polar Guides as measured by our standards. One of them is a minimally competent Senior Polar Guide and the other is a vastly experienced and competent Senior Polar Guide. It is an administrative nightmare to have endless levels to acknowledge all levels and stages of guide development. We have chosen two.

During our RCC process we have awarded Senior Polar Guide to some people who have just enough evidence to prove they can squeeze past the Senior Guide gate and we have also awarded it to people who have so much time, experience and qualifications the Senior Guide gate can’t even be seen if they were to look behind. But, they are both Senior Guides. They both have the minimum competencies to have made it through that gate. That is all that is measured.

Recently someone told me we were dumbing down the industry by having status levels so that a minimally experienced guide can sell themselves to an employer. At this point of contact it is over to the guides to represent themselves honestly at whatever level they are at. More importantly it is the job of employers and interviews to establish what they need/want in a new hire. The PTGA has shown very clear criteria for getting through a gate – we do not measure expertise, we measure minimum competency. On the surface an external party (employer, coroner etc) can only ever know that a guide has certain minimal skills and measurements to get past a certain gate. Until an interview or further investigation they cannot know if someone is a ‘just made it’ Guide or a ‘1000 day past the gate’ guide. An employer may be happy with a ‘just through the gate’ guide who also brings a range of other skills and experience to a guiding role that the PTGA does not measureIt is also the role of job interviews to attempt to judge character relative to what a company wants and needs to build a team. This is not the job of the PTGA beyond people behaving in a manner outlined in our Code of Conduct.

You may ask “why bother doing any more once you are through the Senior Polar Guide gate?” Back at the start of the journey all PTGA members sign a Code of Conduct. A critical part of that, and our compliance to our ISO standard is continual professional development. Every PTGA member is effectively contracted to keep getting better at their jobs. All status guides must revalidate every three years. If someone decides they are through the final gate and they don’t want to do any further development, we will see this during the revalidation process and they will be asked to keep developing or to leave the association.

To many people formal measurement of performance industry/work skills is a new and scary thing. Certainly, for polar guiding it is an entirely new concept to be measured not just by a company system but against an entire industry. Try not to measure or judge yourself or others. you are who you are. The PTGA gets to judge people and it is simply at two points on a journey that represent minimum competency to perform at a level that we have decided.

AntArctic Stories Podcast

Looking for some polar podcasts to listen to on your long journeys to/from the Arctic this season?

AntArctic Stories is a podcast that takes you behind the scenes into the rich world of people who live, work, and undertake daring expeditions in the polar regions.

The podcast is produced by a merry band of career polar guides who primarily work in the expedition cruise industry, and is hosted by Heather Thorkelson (Polar Guide and PTGA Board Member). AntArctic Stories is our way of bringing the incredible lives of the people we meet and work with into your homes and headsets, no matter where you are in the world. Check it out at:


Correction from BT#10

We apologise for any misrepresentation in BT#10 and received this feedback from Calle Schonning (SPGuide):

Hi, Thank you for another great Brash Talk. However I need to point out right away that obviously Hilde and Sunniva are not the first women ever to overwinter on Svalbard. First, women (and men) have overwintered on Svalbard since the very first settlements over hundred years ago. Second, there have been many women (including famous Wanna Woldstad) who have overwintered alone as hunters in the wilderness over history, but also recently: Linda Bakken at Mushamna around ten years ago (where actually she was supposed to do it with her boyfriend, but he bailed out and broke up just days before). Last woman to overwinter in the Svalbard wilderness as hunter was two years ago at Austfjordnes when Linda Vassdal overwintered with Pål Remen.

I know Hilde Fålun Strøm personally and she would never claim to be the first woman to overwinter on Svalbard, especially when at times living on the same street as Linda Bakken in Longyearbyen. Best regards, Calle Schönning

Thanks Calle – we appreciate the note and correction.

Virtual Learning Environment

We are creating a series of interactive online modules for people to undertake if they choose. We want to build a number of short courses for people (available to PTGA members only) to improve or extend their knowledge base and skills as a guide.

Thanks to the people who responded to our social media shout out for beta testers we are now underway with that part of the process.

Initially we will launch with VLE modules in:

  • Leaders and Teams
  • Thematic Interpretation
  • History of the Antarctic Peninsula

We also want to use the expertise of our member base. If you have a specialist skill area in some part of polar guiding we’d love to hear from you and work with you to create more modules. Drop us a line if you’d like to help create a VLE module for polar guides.

Fabulous Feedback

This from Senior Polar Guide Steffen Graupner – thanks a lot for qualifying me as SPGuide and sending over the documents. I am honoured and proud to receive the status. Thanks! The RCC Review was very rewarding and I take a lot of encouragement out of it. I especially appreciated it giving hints on where and how to improve my abilities as a guide. That’s great! As a first step in this process I attended last weekend a First-Aid-Course. Please find the appropriate Certificate enclosed; First-Aid in German is called “Erste Hilfe”. I have read and highly appreciated in the RCC review that you provided me with SPGuide status in spite of pending First Aid Certificate. In BrashTalk 10 and also during our interview you referred to the importance of TORE Model for interpretation skills. I feel, that I can improve in that field and appreciate the advice. The new badge design is brilliant. Very nice!

Minimising Travel Impacts

As polar and expedition cruise guides we use two of the biggest carbon emitting transport modes. PTGA is committed to trying to help where we can. We are investigating offerings for guides to help minimise our travel footprint to get to work. We encourage all guides to consider getting a stainless steel straw for those airport cocktails and altte frappes and to also consider getting a reuseable hand-carry safe utensil set. We are looking to create a PTGA member branded bamboo utensil travel set and will keep you posted as this project progresses.

We are in discussion with providers of carbon offsets that are specific to the interests of guides so in future if you choose to offset your travel carbon footprint we will make this process easy for you. Any executive travel by the PTGA will now be offset.

In the meantime you might consider these products:

Guides guides

We are starting to create a series of Guides guides in relevant topic areas for polar guides.

These will be short (2-3page) pieces which are aimed at giving a brief overview of a particular topic that is relevant to a polar guide. These are by no means a full authority or law or anything you absolutely must do. Think of them useful tips from someone with specialist knowledge.

The first will be a Guides guide to Insurance. Drop by the website from time to time and look under the Resources tab. They will be in Members Only areas so you will need to log in to access them.

We are keen for membership input. If you have a topic or expertise in a particular area of polar guiding and would like to share this please get in touch.

Federal Tax Status

The PTGA has been granted Federal Tax Status as a 501(c)6 non-profit Professional Industry Association. We had been granted this status at state level but now we have jumped through the final, and extensive, hoops for federal acknowledgment. This won’t manifest itself as much to our members except that if anyone donates money to the PTGA it can be deducted from their tax return. It is another layer proof of our commitment to our mission and as a bonafide industry stakeholder.

Assessors Courses

We have recently run two Assessor training courses. The first was for Silversea Expeditions who are building capacity in this area. We then ran our first ‘open’ course which suffered the usual ups and downs of polar guides in attendance as peoples schedules and contracts changed so we got up to five candidates and finished up with two. Thanks and congratulations to to Phil Wickens and Mette Elileusson for taking a chance on this program. Also to Ben Jackson and Pernille Soeegaard from the EGA who sorted a venue and hosted us there. Ben also finished the requirements to be able to run Assessor Training so we now have capacity in Europe.

If you are interested in this branch of guiding work and have the prerequistes drop us a line so we have you on file for the next course that runs.

Expedition Guides Academy

This from the newly launched Expedition Guides Academy:

With the industry entering a period of massive growth, we’re looking to provide learning and training opportunities. Our courses cater for those currently in the expedition industry, those looking to join it for the first time and companies who want to prepare new staff or upskill current staff.

October 8-11, 2019 we are running our Comprehensive Guide course. This course is designed specifically for guides looking to join the Expedition Cruise Industry. Some of our enrollments are already established guides but they are new to working on ships. Others have experience working on ships but are new to guiding.

The course is based out of our European hub in Vindekilde, Denmark where we have access to an incredible learning facility capable of sleeping 12participants. Alongside the accommodation there is a classroom, catering and lounge facilities. Located 150m from the beach, it’s also ideally suited for zodiac training.

The course is a full immersion program with attendees training and living onsite and focusing on foundation skills required to enter the industry such as: Living and working at sea, navigation skills, radio communications, working with and driving zodiacs and safety management/situational awareness.

In addition to the comprehensive course, there will also be PTGA assessments* (October 12/13). Increasingly, companies are requiring relevant industry qualifications, so this allows participants to add PTGA awards to their expedition resume. The assessments planned are:

  • Working with Small Boats/Zodiacs
  • Driving Small Boats/Zodiacs
  • Navigation Skills
  • Communications for Polar Operations

*The assessment phase is open to any guides wanting to be assessed in these Polar Qualifications

We’re very excited about delivering the Comprehensive Guide Course and developing future professionals for the industry. Information on this program, all our other courses or to just make inquiries is available on our website at www.expeditionguideacademy.com 

Katabatic winds or not?

Prepping for your Sth Georgia season? Or just curious about polar weather. This article was sent to us a while ago (and had been recently re-found) and is about the misrepresentation of ‘katabatic’ winds in Shackleton narratives in Sth Georgia.

Most meteorologists would consider katabatic winds to be the gentle downslope drift that can develop on clear, quiet nights. These are the result of gravitational drainage of a shallow inversion layer forming through radiative cooling of the ground. In contrast cold and strong (even violent) downslope winds are well known to be mechanical in origin resulting from spillage of a stable airstream as it crosses over a mountain range or through a pass.

These strong winds occur in many mountainous parts of the world and even have local names, such as shimakaze (fallwind) in Japan. Depending on stability and the wind profile in the vertical, the flow may accelerate downslope so much that gravity waves are unable to propagate upstream. The transition from this shooting flow to a slower flow downstream can be sudden, in the form of a hydraulic jump similar to the foaming zone at the foot of a weir in a river. Examples of such extreme winds are found around the edges of the vast ice caps of Antarctic and Greenland when synoptic scale winds blow downslope especially where topography causes channelling and additional acceleration. Such strong winds should not be called katabatic although surface radiative cooling no doubt adds a component to windspeed.

It should be emphasised that these cold downslope winds differ from warm downslope winds (fohn, chinook). Although these too are a result of spillage.

Reference: Shanklin J, Moore C, Colwell C 2009 Meteorological observing and climate in the British Antarctic territory and Sth Georgia Part 1, Weather 64:127-134

What do we offer small vessel skippers and crew?

We feel the PTGA has real value to the polar charter yacht community. Most of us know, or are good friends with, the skippers and crew who share the Antarctic Peninsula with us. They are our peers, friends and brethren. Evidence of this is in the support and endorsement we have from well-known polar yachtsmen and women, and now all Senior Polar Guides: Ben Wallis (Ocean Expeditions), Skip Novak (Pelagic Expeditions), Dion Poncet and Juliette Hennequin as well as Polar Guide Laura Smith (Quixote Expeditions).

What we offer the sailing community simply goes back to our key goals and mission:

  • Creating a Contemporary Profession
  • An Internationally Recognized Qualifications Framework
  • Contemporary Performance Examinations and Assessment Practices
  • Raising Training Standards

Mission: To provide an internationally recognized process of performance testing and qualification for guides across all platforms of polar guiding.

We offer a valuable system for yachtsmen and women to use just as much as an expedition staff member from a large vessel or a land based operation. Professional polar charter skippers and crews are polar guides in addition to the job of managing a sail or motor yacht. The hard skills of safety management, navigation and communications are more solidly grounded than most guides via the very real needs of skippering/crewing a small vessel in the polar regions. The meta skills of delivering a professional presentation or interpretation session are used much less and opportunities for peer review and sharing are fewer but polar skippers and crew are still expected to perform to a minimum level of competency as part of the PTGA if they wish to gain status as a guide in addition to all their legal requirements for running a charter vessel operation.

We welcome any small vessel operators who want to be measured against a standard of contemporary polar guiding and have this to offer to their guests to show a duty of care and education which augments exisiting skills and adds depth to any charter.

Guano Happens


This Communications incident was shared and is worth considering. It points to the need to be situationally aware of when to switch to the formal VHF call and response protocols that get dropped for most easy operations.

We had an instance where, while it remained relatively calm onshore, a katabatic sprung up in the outer bay where the ship was anchored, and rapidly increased in force to a point that Captain called back everyone on shore while he dealt with the ship dragging anchor.

The katabatic was blowing 55kts when Zodiac-A delivered their group to the ship. While still at the gangway, Zodiac-A requested that one of the passengers remain in the Zodiac as ballast as the zodiac was probably needed back onshore. At the gangway, Zodiac-A radioed ashore to Staff-1 to confirm that they were needed to return to shore to collect more passengers. Communications were difficult at the ship end with the wind but Zodiac A received the transmission from Staff-1, ‘No, you are not needed.’  Zodiac-A responded “Copy that”, slipped the radio back into its holster and moved away from the relative protection of the gangway, readying to get the Zodiac on the hook. 

Unbeknownst to Zodiac-A, seconds after those communications, Staff-2, who was also ashore, called on the radio, “We do need you back on shore,” but with the wind, the transmission was not heard and Zodiac A went up on the hook.

The katabatic became stronger – it was blowing 65 knots by the time the 4th of 5 Zodiacs got back to the ship to offload passengers at the gangway. The 5thZodiac was by this stage also on its way to the ship with passengers. The ship received a call from shore to say that one more Zodiac was needed to return to shore to collect final passengers and staff. The 4th Zodiac (with an extra staff member for ballast), was now free, so returned to shore in worsening conditions, collected a full load and inched back to the ship in 65-70 knot winds in hazardous wave conditions. They had strong, capable staff aboard and managed well at the gangway then got the Zodiac back onto the hook.

It all ended well but being out in those conditions was was hazardous. Had radio communications been effective, Zodiac operations would have been completed by Zodiac-A 45 minutes sooner, in safer conditions for both Zodiacs and for the ship which was struggling to hold position until all Zodiacs returned. 

We debriefed the event afterward. Staff-1 acknowledged that they’d made a mistake in saying Zodiac-A was not needed; however, they assumed Zodiac-A had heard the instructions from Staff-2 to come back to shore.” Staff-2 said, “Sorry, but at the same time as I radioed I was dealing with a situation near shore and was busy with that.” We also acknowledged that a central point of comms control and logistics would have been a good idea. 

Causal Factors

1. Lack of situational awareness – communications

We all (mostly) know what ‘formal’ radio protocol is. The reason it is in any number of SOPs is that VHF communications in marginal conditions are marginal and there are procedures for checks and balances so that important messages get through and are understood. Guides should always be conscious of this when environmental or geograpical conditions are such that they need to shift to formal comms procedures even if day-to-day operations drop the formality.

2. Lack of central control in marginal conditions

This team identified in review that as conditions got more marginal having someone (shore or ship) in the role of central communications person is a good idea. There is a solid reason why all critical incident teams (fire, ambulance, police etc) have command control protocol when dealing with rapidly changing and complex situations. This became one of them!

3. Familiarity trap

There could be an argument that this tight knit team familiar with working with each other may have suffered some Familiarity trap as most of their operations work smoothly doing what they always did – they were very familiar with standard, and even non standard operations. This particular event seems to have gone beyond even non standard.


PTGA Members – 267
Senior Polar Guides – 90
Polar Guides – 1

Congratulations to our most recent members reviewed through the RCC, Cross Credit scheme or assessment.

Polar Guide – James Lowe, Viktoria Valenta, Tim Warren, Nina Gallo
Senior Polar Guide – Sandra Walser, Fridrik Fridriksson, Yvonne Cook, Ronald Visser, Colby Brokvist, Bernabe Urtubey, Dave Allcorn, Kelvin Murrray, Mario Spring, Carol Knott, Martin McGrath, Matt Edwards, Luciano Bernacchi

Have a safe and fun season.