Weeks 31 to 34 Life Goes On - So does the Power
14th May - 11th June 2000
Winter in Antarctica is nothing like the summer. This may seem obvious, but the difference is like chalk and cheese, yet it still seems to escape many people. I remember reading in a book by a bloke that did a round trip to the Aussie bases, how he was so disappointed in the whole experience. Life wasn't wild and rugged enough, the buildings too much like hotels, and everything was handed to you on a plater. What's the big deal with coming to Antarctica?? But he was away from home maybe a whole 6 weeks during the summer. He wrote a whole book about life in Antarctica, as though he had some idea of what is was about. I didn't like the book.
A piece of normality during the past month was having power plant watch. Unlike places like say SF, where the power flowing out of your socket is absolutely guaranteed never to fail, here we have to be very vigilant about making sure everything is fine with the power plant. The power is supplied by 1 generator. We have three generator in total. One is running, the other is in standby, and the other is in maintenance. We of course have a crew of maybe 12 people that routinely work on the power plant. But there are so many things that could cause the station to loose power, such as coolant to the Rodwell heat exchanger, which could then result in loss of coolant to the main engines. So every two hours the power plant and water production system are checked.
During the week days the power plant people are responsible for the checks. On week nights there is a roster of volunteers. They signed up at the beginning of the winter to do certain hours. So Joe checks the power plant at 4am every week day morning. But since we aren't allowed to drink during power plant watch, watches on the weekend aren't near as popular. So it was decided at the beginning of the winter that everyone that normally doesn't do a watch will do two weekend watches for the season. Each weekend has two people on watch from 4pm Saturday till 10pm Sunday. Thus the most common way to divide it is one person does 4pm till 6am, and the other person does the rest.
The Friday before your watch, power plant Mike makes sure you come around to go over the duties. There is a lot to cover. There is a check list with numbers to fill in as you go around. It starts at the main power distribution panel where the station load is read. We have a capacity of 470kW, and luckily for me we were running at around 400kW. Then the engine is checked - the intake and exhaust temperatures and pressures are read. At almost ever stop there is coolant and lubricant levels to check. There are strange little things to check, like that the soot blower is working. The soot blower cleans the soot out of the exhaust stack out of the power plant. If you are walking past when it goes off you almost leave your ECW behind.
But the name power plant watch is a bit misleading as there is one other major duty and that is to check the station water production. I've mentioned that we get water from a huge melt bell in the ice called the Rodwell. The water is stored in a big tank in the power plant. If the water level in the tank is too low we have to activate an automatic pump which puts a set amount of water in the tank. Every second time this is done we have to add chlorine to the water. We're melting probably the cleanest ice in the world but have to guard against bugs that sit in the piping. It's the adding chemicals part that is the biggest puzzle. When Mike shows you he climbs up a ladder, lifts a hatch, and pours it in. When you do it at 2am you climb the ladder, lift the hatch, and then wish you had a third arm to pour the chemicals in. I don't ever remember Mike having to use his head to hold the heavy steel hatch open!
I was on watch with Wes. Since I have one of the most flexible schedules on station I said I'd do what ever hours he'd like. He was doing breakfasts at the time, so I said I'd do from 4pm till 4am. At the time I hadn't realised this was one watch short of half way. But he said since I was doing the night shift it was fine by him. Two hours between watches isn't quite long enough to watch a movie. But I was lucky in that a couple other people sat up and watched movies with me, and it wasn't too bad at all. Plus having such an erratic schedule I didn't mind. But for some it's hard going.
It is easy to do your job when things are going well. The test is to do your job under adverse conditions. Things always feel like they are going wrong, or something is happening, to someone in an Antarctic community. Being down here during the winter must be one of the most rigorous tests of being able to work under all conditions. I'm very grateful for my work at present, as it gives me something to focus on.
I don't want anyone to feel sorry for me. And I hope I don't sound like I'm complaining. I came down here with a fair idea of what it was going to be like. Overall I love the lifestyle. Just like life back in the real world, but intensified. The highs are outstanding, but the lows can be harsh also. Lately the lows have been a bit outrageous.
The idea of my emails is to let you all know what life is like here, and maybe why I'm so addicted to Antarctica. There doesn't seem much point just telling you the fun stuff. For more humorous anecdotes, and commentary on the zany antics of the local weirdos, unpolluted with stories of the down side, check out Robo's CBS webpage column.
I'm slowly starting to do things I enjoy again, such as writing my weekly email, and life will start to feel fun again. Life goes on.
To be continued .......
p.s. The start and finish of this email was written at the end of week 31. Not much of an email. There is a lot of stuff that happens here that is covered by, "what happens on ice stays on ice". By the end of week 34 the only thing I could think of writing about was power plant watch. Reading it all now it doesn't at all reflect life at present. But I suppose there is no reason it should, and I should just send it. So here it goes...