Interview with Kristof Soete: Sergeant-Major, Mechanic and Logistician
Kristof Soete is a 37-year old 1° Sergeant-major, mechanic and logistician in the Belgian Army. At the Princess Elisabeht Station, he was employed at the maintenance workshop. The BELARE 2009-2010 expedition was already his third season at the polar station.
How did you hear about the project?
The defense has a special website for all open job ads. When I saw the ad for an engineering mechanic for the Princess Elisabeth-project, I immediately reacted. This seemed to be the opportunity of a lifetime. After taking an interview with Alain, Gigi, Johan and some representatives from the defense, I was selected. There was, however, a problem that showed up as my CO (Commanding Officer) sent me on a humanitarian mission to kosovo.
I was luckier the year that followed, the team was looking for reinforcements and after another interview, I was selected. There were no obstacles this time and this became the beginning of a wonderful adventure.
What were your job and responsabilities at the station?
At the station, the mechanics are responsible for the maintenance of all the machinery and the vehicles. This involves all the preventive and corrective maintenance. We were also responsible for all the “smithing” works (welding and building small metal constructions).
On most of the longer travels (traverses, offloading the ship,…), one or several mechanics always goes along as a driver/mechanic.
Besides those, we were responsible for the management of the “parts” workshop. This involves more than 500 different items, which is crucial for efficient work at the workshop.
What was the biggest challenge you had to face over there?
The first year I was there, I found the offloading was a phenomenal challenge. We had to offload more than 100 containers en over 1,000 fuel barrels directly from a ship that was anchored to the sea ice. As a novice, I just couldn’t imagine what this represented. Alain was, as is usually the case, confident in the outcome of the operation. We eventually did the job during a long week of non-stop work. After that week, my good friend Yves Vandekatsey and I were totally exhausted, but we had rarely experienced such a feeling of fulfillment as we did then. This was the perfect ending for our first season on the white continent.
Did you ever have such an extreme experience before?
Never that extreme! I went on several humanitarian missions, which are almost along the same lines, but the difference is that this time I worked with civilians instead of soldiers. That, to me, was an incredible and fulfilling experience, especially in such a marvelous environment.
In Antarctica you often come across challenges you would never even think of having to address over here. Every day comes with its “challenges”, wich makes it really interesting.
Did you have any special training before you left?
Yes, with the IPF we had a training about life in Antarctica at the Norwegian Polar Institute. We learned, for instance, the first help in extreme temperatures, or climbing and rescueing techniques in crevasses, which was very interesting.
We also had a course at the company from which we bought the Prinoths and with the army, we have the opportunity, every year before the season, to follow a climbing training, which is usefull to freshen up our knowledge.
Did you work on your own or in team?
Most of the jobs in and around the station were done in teams, which means that there’s always somebody ready to help you out if needed. On a traverse or while supporting a convoy, however, the mechanic is mostly on his own and as to solve problems on his own, although you can always count on the other drivers to help you out.
In the past years, there were but two mechanics, which was a little short as there was but little room for extra work or surprises. This year, there were three of us, which makes it easier to deal with the planned maintenance and repairs. Even in the event of a surprize, we were able to react quickly and adequately, that was an ideal situation.
Besides, since this was our second season as a team, we learned how to function together, with more experience and a better organization of the workshop, we were able to work more efficiently and to do some multitasking.
Did you also get to work with other teams?
Yes, in the workshop we get to meet everybody. We helped the plumbers as well as the electricians and sometimes we would fix a little something for the scientists. I think we have one of the most wonderful jobs here at the station. By working with about everybody, you end up having a good contact with people and being kept up to date on many things. Also, there’s a lot of new technology used at the station, and having some of this explained to you by the engineer or the technician is really interesting. Doing so, you gather quite some knowledge that wouldn’t typically fit in your job. I have to say that I have learned quite a lot on green energy production, water treatment, etc.
Wat was the main difference between your job over there and your previous missions with the army?
One of the main differences is the logistical supply. Over there, you have to take quite some time for preventive maintenance to prevent broken or worn out parts in the machines. Once a machine breaks down, there is no way you can just drop by your retailer for spare parts. Anything that is not in stock takes a long time and a lot of money to be brought over. Over there, prevention comes before intervention.
What was a typical work day like?
After waking up, we would tae care of the personnl hygiene and have a decent breakfast. During the breakfast, we would discuss our work day, see what remained to be done from the day before and set new goals for the day. We had to find out who would be doing what and how we would solve the problems. Then, we would go to the workshop and work until lunch. After lunch, we resumed working until supper, around 8.00 PM. After eating we would then do a little bit of administration work or look certain things up.
What was your first impression when you arrived in Antarctica?
It is huge... and that is rather unsettling. Everything is gigantic, and as far as the eye can see, there is nothing but the untouched beauty of nature.
What was your best memory?
In fact, I don’t have one best memory...there is not just one which really stands out. Even after three seasons, special things happen everyday, things that you had never seen before and to which you have to react. Over there, there are no boring work days that you have to make it through. It’s more like like a succession of challenges, looking for solutions, failures and small and big successes.
Once thing that stuck with me though, is the following:
We had a couple of problems that required a little bit of creativity during the first year of the station’s construction. Then there was the time pressure to finish everything by the the set deadlines. This resulted in some positive stress that made everybody work at its maximum capacity and made for intense collaboration. It was then that strong friendships were built. The melting pot of nationalities, languages, characters, experiences, and ages made working on this unique project a wonderful experience.
When talking about nature, I think the visit we paid (with Alain Hubert) to what Alain calls the “seal paradise” qualifies as exceptional. While we were accompanying the scientists not far from the coast, Alain and I set out to explore a part of the coast that was located a little more to the East. This could be an ideal second option should the offload at Crown Bay prove to be impossible. After having first explored an amazing fjord entirely, we returned to the camp via what Alain calls his “seal paradise”. This place, which looked like a weak spot in the immense ice surface few kilometers from the coast, had seals coming through the ice to rest in the sun. This “seal paradise” was hid away, and judging by the seals’ relaxed position, this must have been some kind of psa resort to them.
Did you have any problems adapting?
No, not really. We were in a very good team from the beginning onwards and there was intense collaboration. Everybody worked and is still working with the same aim. Over there, “L’Union fait la force” really is a principle to go by: in case of problems, you’re never on your own, people will always offer to help you out one way or another.
If at times, things don’t seem to be going well, taking a walk and looking at the wonderful scenery are usually enough to cheer you up, but sharing a beer can also do wonders.
Did this experience meet your expectations?
Well, the first year, everything was new to me and I totally had no idea of what was waiting for me. The second season, I was able to plan certain things in advance since I had a better idea of what was coming up.
Last season, I knew exactly what Alain would be expecting from us, just as well as he knew what he could expect from our team. In the workshop, we have been given a lot of trust and autonomy, which are great conditions to work in.
Picture: Kristof Soete - © International Polar Foundation - René Robert