Alain Hubert on the Ice Shelf with the Ivan Papanin in the Background - © International Polar Foundation - 2009

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Alain Hubert Talks about the Unloading Operations

In this short interview, Alain Hubert gives us his perspective on the Mary Arctica being blocked in the ice and the unloading operations.

What was going through your mind when you learned that the Mary Arctica wouldn't make it to the coast right away?

Well, let me tell you, it was pretty stressful news to get. You have to be prepared to deal with uncertainties here in Antarctica so, for the first couple of days, I was patient and hoped for the best. We got everything ready for when the ship would finally arrive and then ... waited. We concentrated on small tasks and were ready to leave for the coast at a moment's notice.

After a few days, the tension started to build. Loads of questions start to go through your mind. What if the scientists cannot complete their program because their helicopters are not here? Bringing such a team and their material to Antarctica has cost them a lot of money; they have to make the most of their time here. How would be continue the work to be done on the station's systems? How would we replace the batteries, install new solar panels and test them, and repair and improve the mobile units for next season?

We have a long list of things to do this season, and time was ticking away. There was nothing you can do about it. As a manager, you feel powerless!

After the ship finally arrived, what was the departure and the trip to the coast like?

On the 4th of January, Captain Petersen told us on the radio that he was making progress. It was a huge relief! Then we had to get moving, fast! It takes roughly 19 hours to make it to the coast. You have to be there in time to meet the ship because weather conditions can change quickly. The cargo had to be unloaded as quickly as possible so that the Mary Arctica could start its journey back without any problems.

Departure was scheduled on the 5th at 6:00 in the morning. Thanks to a well-marked route and drivers taking shifts so we only had to stop a few minutes here and there for refueling, we arrived at Crown Bay around 1:30 AM on the 6th with the waste containers the Mary Arctica would take back with them. The camp was set up on the ice shelf in only an hour: three accommodation containers, one generator container for melting snow and ten tents. A quick meal, three hours’ sleep and it was showtime!

Unloading 240 tons of cargo could be considered something of a show…

It is indeed! The first step is to check the state of the ramp the tractors use to go from the top of the ice shelf down onto the sea ice. Ice shelves move a lot – more than 1 metre per day sometimes – so you need to do a thorough check if you want to avoid problems. Around 7:30 AM, we made it to the ship after crossing 4 km of fast ice, testing its solidity along the way before bringing a tractor onto the ice. Because we had poor ice conditions this year, a tractor had to make the unloading spot near the ship more level. Meanwhile, we boarded the ship to plan unloading operations with the captain.

I must say I have a fantastic team, and the captain and crew of the Mary Artica are great professionals as well. Maybe people don't know this, but the crew on the ship must constantly maintain the equilibrium of the ship while cargo is being unloaded. They were constantly moving things around on the ship just to keep the ship in balance. We did a really good job, and I am really proud of everybody's work. In less than 24 hours, both helicopters and the cargo were unloaded and secured on the ice! We only had 3 hours of proper sleep during two and a half days, but nobody cared: the job was done and that’s all that mattered!

Then suddenly, you notice the ship has left, and you feel a bit strange. You work your tail off with these people on the ship and suddenly, they leave you on the ice and you feel quite lonely. It is a strange and emotionally intense moment.

What went through your head at that moment?

I must say that I mainly felt really proud for Belgium. Such a little country, and yet such a great adventure! I know our politicians have other things to think about right now; but I cannot help but think this station has and will have a huge impact on our future.

When we all go back to our camp on the ice shelf, everybody discusses while sharing beers the Captain offered us. When you stop like that for a moment, you realise how privileged you are. Being in Antarctica, the beauty and greatness of this huge continent brings a lot of things back into perspective. I always feel humbled, even after all the years I’ve spent in polar regions.

How was the trip back to the station?

Well, before we could go anywhere, we all slept for five hours straight! We then brought all the containers back to the camp up on the ice-shelf. The weather was good, so we could complete the landing strip for the plane the Germans will use for the geological air survey. We also stored the fuel that the plane will need for its two weeks of operations. Both helicopters flew back to the station with five members of the crew. It only takes them one and a half hours to get back to the station.

On the evening of the 7th, we got a message that the weather would deteriorate again. We decided to head back to the station immediately. We attached 14 sledges containing the material the scientists and engineers have been hoping for all this time to the four Prinoth tractors. The refrigerated food container is refueled and off we go for the 25-hour trip back. The trip back took a bit longer because of the weight of the containers, and also because we followed a different and more even route.

After repairing a hydraulic circuit on one of the Prinoths, we finally made it to Princess Elisabeth. The crew cheered and came out to meet us. Another very special moment! We then unloaded the food from the refrigerated container and celebrated our return with a beer. Belgians are big on beer when it comes to celebrating!

We then secured all containers in front of the station, and five men started to prepare everything the Germans will need for their operations. Meanwhile, taking advantage of the good weather, the helicopters and the geologists started their work. Our field guides Jacques and Benoît accompanied them. Jacques in particular has a wealth of experience with helicopters. When he is not in Antarctica, he is a mountain doctor in Switzerland, rescuing mountaineers and tourists.

Since we got back, the station has been buzzing with activity; engineers are running around updating the station's systems with the gear we just bought back. The technical team is now replacing the batteries, a task scheduled for this season. It's a complex operation, and we need to get back on schedule.

Are we going to able to do everything we planned despite the 12-day setback? I don't know. All I can say is that, after all this, my faith has been restored.

Author: Jérôme Coupé

Picture: Alain Hubert on the Ice Shelf with the Ivan Papanin in the Background - © International Polar Foundation - 2009

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