Interview: Koen Verschraegen (Verhaert)
Aged 41, Koen Verschraegen is father of 3 children. As a production manager, he has been involved in consultancy and project management for the product development company Verhaert since the 1990s. His journey on board the Princess Elisabeth Station adventure began in 2007 when he met Johan Berte, a former colleague of his, at the Tour & Taxis inauguration event in Brussels.
What exactly did your job at the Princess Elisabeth Station involve?
Although I was too late to take part in the BELARE 2007-2008 expedition, my polyvalent capacities were solicited early on for the second year of construction (BELARE 2008-2009).
I came to the continent on board the Ivan Papanin ship and prepared the technical core of the Station for integrating all of the equipment that had to be installed. That was at the end of December - beginning of January.
In January, we started integrating the heavy equipment like the electrical cabinets, the bioreactors and the water tanks.
Most of the time, I was up on the roof installing the solar panels. It took me and Benoît (Tyberghien) about two weeks to finish that job, working from 8 am to 8 pm every day! Inside the station, I also helped to install the ventilation, fire-protection and stainless-steel protection systems, and I built the anti-explosion walls around the battery room.
During the various jobs you were asked to do, what was the hardest challenge you had to overcome?
Hauling the water tanks up to the main level of the Station was definitely a challenging task.
The station was designed with the possibility of dismantling the staircase in case of need. A crane could then be placed through the staircase gap to hoist up any heavy parts. However, in practice, we had to re-think this manner of working because it was getting in the way of other people's work.
The staircase opening was also adapted so as to fit through the heavy and bulky equipment. Hauling up the water tanks was a big ordeal because they were so large (they measured about 3 m3 each). It's amazing how we actually managed to get the tanks through the hole. We had to tilt the piece a little to the right, then to the left... kind of like a puzzle piece having to fit through a shape the same size. We don't know how we did it but we somehow managed to pull the tanks through.
How did your body respond to the physical constraints associated to working in Antarctica?
Working in Antarctica was physically very tiresome, mainly because we had to haul up to the station all of the heavy system pieces (most of them weighing between 70 and 500kg) and then put them into place inside the core chambers. There was also the work on top of the roof. When the wind was blowing and the weather was harsh, it got to be quite difficult to work for long stretches at a time. I am a mountaineer, snowboarder and trained outdoorsman, so the height and exposed work associated to working on top of the roof did not intimidate me. It did, however, seriously challenge my physical condition!
The worse part was that despite the physical tiredness, I had the hardest time to fall asleep during my stay. During one of the traverses between the coast and base camp, for example, I stayed awake during the entire 72-hour trip! I just couldn't get used to the constant daylight and had to resort to taking a sleeping pill when I got back to Utsteinen... The physical tiredness never stopped me from working, though. I was able to stay focused and kept on with what I had to do.
Was there any time that the weather conditions were too bad to work in?
During the first part of the BELARE expedition, I was told the weather had been miserable: nothing but cold, snow and wind.
I was lucky enough to have arrived with the ship. This allowed me to ease into the Antarctic weather. Because, as soon as we had reached Crown Bay (unloading site, 190 km away from the Princess Elisabeth station), we were alerted by Gigi on the satellite telephone that a terrible storm was threatening to come in. We had 5 days to complete the unloading process and get as far away from the coast as possible. So, with Alain, we decided we should work 24 hours a day in shifts to get everything done before the storm hit us. Five days later, the 52 containers and 1365 barrels were up on the ice shelf and the 97 empty containers from last year were on board the ship. We were very happy to have accomplished this in such little time!
During the second part of the expedition, the weather in Utsteinen was very nice. The only time we were unable to work outside was during the whiteout which occurred at the end of January. The fog was so thick you could barely see your own feet and the wind was so strong you had to lean into it to move forward. Using a rope which we had tied between the station and the mess tent, we were able to pursue the integration work inside the station.
What did you like best about working in Antarctica and how would you describe your overall experience?
It was simply unreal. I can't get over how truly amazing it all was and how the live experience surpassed my every little expectation. I wouldn't say this was because of what I did, but rather because of what I saw nature-wise; I especially liked climbing the mountain peaks (Utsteinen and Teltet) on our Sunday breaks.
I remember one day, we went down to the wind-scoop to show it to someone who hadn't seen it yet. This was just before the big storm hit Utsteinen, so we didn't have much time. When we reached the wind-scoop, he was so thrilled by the beauty of the wind-scoop that he forgot about the threatening storm... It was hard work to get him to understand the severe threat of a whiteout.
Do you wish to return next season?
There is still some work to be done at the station and Johan has already asked me to take part in the next expedition. I will help install the satellite antenna which should be developed this year.
I am lucky that my family understands this to be a one-in-a-lifetime experience and respects my desire to return.
Picture: Koen Verschraegen - © International Polar Foundation