Interview with Michaël Durdu, Industrial Engineer
Michaël Durdu is an industrial engineer and is almost 25 years old. He has been working for Cofely Services - a subdivision of GDF Suez specialized in maintenance and the management of technical installations - for three years. His everyday work in Belgium is to manage Human Resources, as well as technical jobs and the budget of industrial projects. He was sent to Antarctica to complete the installation of the HVAC (Heating, Ventilating, and Air Conditioning) system, start it up, test it and do troubleshooting for it.
Did you do more or less the same thing in Antarctica that you do at your job in Belgium?
More or less, only in Antarctica my job encompassed more than what I normally do at my job in Belgium. Here, I come up with designs for projects, and technicians build from those designs. In Antarctica, I had to do both the designing and the building. It wasn't much of a problem, since I'd already done technical work before.
So what did this mean for you when you were working on the station?
When I arrived, the HVAC ((Heating, Ventilating, and Air Conditioning) system had already been installed, but not functioning yet, so I had to cross-check the installation, start it up, and make sure everything had gone according to plan. After that I had to correct the installation mistakes I found and simulate future breakdowns to check the system's automatic response capabilities. It all worked well. When I left, everything was functioning (Alain didn't call me back, so I guess everything went OK).
Did you work in team?
No. I was the only one from my company who went to Antarctica. When I was there, I mostly worked on my own, although I collaborated with just about everyone, since everybody helped each other out whenever there was a problem. All you needed to do was ask.
Did you work long days?
Yes. I can't remember how many hours exactly, but I started around 8.30 AM and finished around 8:30 PM every day, with a lunch break. Those were long and tiresome days, but I didn't mind it. I liked it.
How did you become involved in the project?
The directors of my company called me up one evening and they suggested that I take part in the Princess Elisabeth project. It seemed to have come out of nowhere. I don't know why they chose me, but I said yes, and ended up going there. I only asked why afterwards, and they told me because I was still young and didn't have any ties in Belgium (I'm not married, I have no children and still relatively free). They know I love special projects, especially ones out of the ordinary, and I also like to travel, so they thought it might be an interesting experience for me.
Had they sent you to any major out of the ordinary projects before?
No, they hadn't. I had only been there for three years. They thought I would need to gain some experience before working on such a project, and then from one day to the next, they decided to send me on the project.
What was your toughest challenge?
It was achieving the technical objective of completing the installation of the HVAC system. The human experience was pretty extreme! I had been in the boy scouts, so I was used to roughing it and I didn't mind living and working with a group. The challenge was to live up to the expectations of those who had asked me to go there. My main job was taking care of the technical aspects to make sure my time there was spent in vain, and I was also there representing my company! People were counting on me to do a good job, and I had to deliver.
I have to admit that I was stressing out a bit at the beginning because I left without knowing exactly was waiting for me, or whether I had the capacity and the knowledge to accomplish what I had been asked to do. I was happy to find there was a well-furnished work space once I arrived, with every single tool and materials one could need. I had to take some special tools with me, but all the usual ones were available on-site.
What is your fondest memory?
My fondest memory? There are so many! The landscapes were definitely the most impressive. I love nature, so I'd have to say it was when we left the base camp with Alain to take a ski-doo trip. We rode through white landscapes for miles and miles, then went up a rather high mountain with a wonderful view at the top. You could see for miles up there: everything was white, no sound, the wind stinging your face.
Regarding the atmosphere and community life at the station, it was really nice. However, since everyone had his own work objectives and different degrees of pressure, not everyone got along all the time.
Did you experience a whiteout?
I don't know if I would have called it whiteout conditions, but I lived through two storms: one that lasted three days and one that lasted 24 hours. I don't remember which one it was, but as I woke up one morning, I left my tent and couldn't see a thing.
I don't know if a whiteout is even worse than what I experienced, but I can tell you it was bad! I waited for people to come get me in my tent since that was what had been agreed upon according to the safety regulations: when the weather gets really bad, we had to wait in our tents for someone to come get us. I stayed inside waiting, but after a while nobody came for me, so I went out alone! It was a good thing my tent was the first one after the mess tent! I was able to find my way out by following a strait line from the mess tent. So, yes, I actually experienced these storms: the wind, the snow that covers everything and blinds you. It was really impressive!
Did you have any physical problems adapting?
None. Even for sleeping, I had no problem. The days were rather exhausting, so most of the time it took me no time to fall asleep. I was really tired. The light, the altitude, the cold - none of them were a problem.
Did you mostly work inside?
I worked inside for the three first weeks or so. For the two last ones I was there I had almost completed my work, so I went outside more often to help other people on the wind turbines. I helped Alain with modifying the transport containers for the scientists to use, so I worked outside as well.
Did you have any spare time?
We had the whole day Sunday off; other than that after supper during the week. At 8.30 PM, we would stop working. We would eat until 10:00 - 10:30 PM, and then had some spare time. Those who wanted to go to sleep went to sleep; the others could watch a DVD inside the station (there were some specialists who had hard drives full of movies - we could have watched 3 to 4 movies a day if we wanted to), or read even.
Apparently there was some exercise equipment in the station?
Yes, I saw it, but none of it was functional. I think they just hadn't been assembled yet. But the foosball had been put together! We had some tournaments on Sundays and some evenings.
Did you take part in any of the traverses?
I didn't. There were two of them organized: one before I got there and one after I had already left, so I didn't have the opportunity of taking part in one. I did however ask Alain to leave for a 2-day expedition to join some scientists that were located some 50 kilometres from the station. We camped out in the field. It took some 3-4 hours of driving on the Prinoth. There was not a whole lot out there. Both nights I was out there I had a terrible time with the wind. I would wake up almost every hour thinking my tent had been torn open! I could see my tent bending with the wind. I thought I was going to be blown away. It was a rough time!
The next morning, I went back to the station on a ski-doo. This time the scientists took the Prinoth and I took a ski-doo. It was a nice trip. Everything was white as far the eye could see. The weather was nice those two days; we only had wind at night. The days were sunny with bright blue skies and the landscape was completely white.
After being outside a while you feel your skin burning a little. The ultraviolet rays from the sun hit you directly down there due to the hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica. So you can get a little burned. Those at the station who had to work outside every day got a bad sunburn!
If you had to describe your experience in Antarctica in a few words, what would those be?
Unforgettable, extraordinary and something to do again! If I was asked to go back, I would say yes without hesitation. It was excellent in so many ways: from a human perspective, technically and personally.
Picture: michael_durdu - © International Polar Foundation/ René Robert