Bernard Polet in Antarctica - © International Polar Foundation

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An Interview with Bernard Polet

Bernard Polet is a self-employed plumber. He spent four months working at Utsteinen on a variety of projects that included a wide variety of tasks, including erecting the wind turbines, working on the station's foundations and managing the overall construction of the station.

How did you come to be a part of BELARE 2007-08?

I think they asked me to come because I've had experience in building, I've had experience living in a group, and I've had experience living in less than comfortable conditions.

This was your first time in the Antarctic. Did you have any expectations before you left?

For me there were no surprises, really. I can't say that I expected everything that I experienced but what I experienced wasn't too different from what I expected. I expected that it would be cold at times and that it would be isolated. I expected to live in a tight community and adapt to the characters of my fellow expedition members.

I was, however, surprised by the quality of the food, the mess hall, and the sanitary facilities. I had been expecting worse, so I was very satisfied with what was there. I thought it was very comfortable to be able to wash yourself in a warm place, to be able to eat in a heated mess tent, to be able to have certain places where you didn't have to worry about the cold. As for sleeping in a tent that wasn't heated, it wasn't that comfortable, but it was something that I had expected.

You have a wife and four children. How did they react when they heard you were going to Antarctica?

They were all enthusiastic from the very beginning. They knew it was a unique opportunity for me. They even wanted to come along.

What exactly were your responsibilities during the four months you were there?

I had several. The first responsibility I had was erecting the wind turbines with Paul Hermann. Since this went more quickly than planned it allowed us to work on other things, like working on the anchoring points of the station and the concrete work for the foundations of the station's support beams. After that was completed, we helped finish the garage. Then we helped manage the construction of the station and make plans for next year's expedition.

You used chockfast resin and concrete when working on the station's anchoring points and foundation. How did you manage to get them to set in such a cold climate?

The problem with chockfast resin and concrete is that they are two products that in order to be effective can't freeze. So with the resin and the concrete we had to come up with certain ways to keep them warm while they were setting. For the wind turbines, we put an electric cable in the resin for 48 hours to keep it warm until it set. For anchoring the support struts for the base we improvised a boiler system on the spot to keep both the struts and the resin warm. For the concrete, we set up these sorts of thermal isolation "boxes" around the moulds and heated them using a heat gun, or whatever means available we had to keep it warm. Over time we adapted and improved the methods we used.

The general philosophy at Utsteinen was to do the best with what we had. We got used to constructing things that worked well with limited means. Problems would always come up and you needed to have some imagination to come up with solutions. We were always convinced that a solution to any given problem existed. We never got discouraged. We always found a solution.

They called you the "Wizard of Utsteinen." How did you get that nickname?

It's a very nice nickname. I think Gigi gave it to me. One day I came up with an improvised system to adjust the four metre-high INMARSAT antenna from the ground, which otherwise would have required you to climb a ladder to adjust. Even though it was a pretty simple system, she was impressed.

What was an average day like?

Normally we got up around 6 00 or 6 15. That was usually when it started getting too hot in the tent. The light at that time of day would hit the tent in a certain way so that it heated up the inside of the tent. Sometimes we felt like we were suffocating. After that we'd go have breakfast in the mess tent, and would usually get to work around 7 00 or 7 30. Between noon and one o'clock we'd go to the mess tent for lunch and then work until about eight o'clock in the evening. When we worked longer we would have a snack with hot chocolate around 5 30 in the afternoon, which was nice. After dinner we would usually talk, but not for long because we knew we'd have to get up early again the next day. Before going to bed I would write in my journal or write e-mails to family and friends back home.

How easy was it to communicate with your family back home?

It was relatively easy. We didn't communicate every day, but we regularly communicated by e-mail and once a week or every two weeks by Iridium satellite telephone.

Did you miss anything while you were in Antarctica?

Besides my family, I didn't really miss anything. On the contrary I felt my life there was very full. I was in an extraordinary place participating in an extraordinary project that interested me a lot and I was working with people who came from very different backgrounds but all shared the same enthusiasm to see this project through to the end.

How was it coming back to Belgium after having had such a unique experience?

It wasn't easy because there were a lot of things going on. You forget how things are in Belgium. You forget things like the telephone or television, or annoying things like traffic or rain. Down there things like that can seem much more trivial than we normally think they are. Antarctica is completely free of such things, and quite frankly I felt at home in that kind of environment. Getting back into the swing of things once I got back was quite difficult. While it's certainly a challenge to leave Belgium to go to Antarctica it's also a challenge to come back.

Stopping work for four months to go to participate in the expedition must have been difficult. How did your clients react to the news that you were going to Antarctica?

I think they saw it as a very positive thing. I've got a lot of big clients, including a number of schools, and when I told them I was going to participate in the expedition, they were fascinated by the idea that their plumber was going to Antarctica for four months. They even wanted to be kept up to date with what was happening, and I showed them all photos when I got back. Just a few days ago I received a package from a client who cut out all the articles he had found about the station and wrote me a note saying that he thought I might be interested in what the press was saying about the expedition.

Would you go back again if Princess Elisabeth needs you?

Without a doubt. I think that it's an amazing project and being there has been an amazing experience for me. The construction of this station is important because we have to start thinking about how to live sustainably, and I think the station will be a tool for studying how to go about doing that. It's very autonomous as far as its energy needs are concerned.

Normally I'm scheduled to go back in November. This time I'll actually be doing work in my domain of professional expertise, installing the plumbing of the station - all the pipes, water tanks, toilets, showers, etc. It's a pretty complicated job so it won't be easy.

Author: IPF

Picture: Bernard Polet in Antarctica - © International Polar Foundation

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