Antarctic plumber's winter experience

Plumber Patrick Brennan in the main power house
Plumber Patrick Brennan in the main power house (Photo: D. Nadin)
Sewer repairs in freezing winter weather at DavisExpeditioners share the beach with elephant seals

Patrick Brennan, Davis 2005

I gained my qualifications as a licensed plumber, drainer and gasfitter in 1988 after completing the basic three-year trade course and an additional two-year advanced course.

My apprenticeship involved work in industrial, commercial and domestic environments and included the installation of water and waste piping, gas systems and sprinkler and fire hydrant systems.

I ran my own business from 1990-2001, and tendered the Olympic live sites throughout Sydney in 2000. In 2001 I became an inspector for Sydney Water, inspecting work done by plumbers and drainers to ensure it met the relevant codes and standards.

In 2003 I applied to work in Antarctica. On a personal level, I wanted to experience a place that was largely untouched by humans, and to set foot where no other had stepped before. While trekking through the Vestfold Hills last summer I felt sure that I achieved this.

On a professional level, the challenge of maintaining a complex system that included plumbing, heating and cooling, mechanical services, gas, refrigeration and maintenance, and anything else that fell under the blanket of 'base plumber', appealed to me.

The need to work problems out systematically and adapt to different systems in a remote environment, often in extreme conditions, was something I had wanted to experience many years before applying for the position.

The basic skills of the trade remain the same no matter where you work. But in such a hostile climate the installation differs greatly – all external services are installed in an insulating sheath to protect them from extreme cold and strong winds. The weather also determines how long you spend outside on a task.

We recently worked on the sewer outfall line in conditions of -25°C and 30 knots of wind. Days like these are extremely hard on the body and my hands suffered even with all the protective gear on. Two to three hours was all I could take before I had to go inside and warm up!

A large part of our time last summer was spent in the water production plant. This reverse osmosis system draws water from a small saline lake before it is filtered and treated for human consumption. The running and maintenance of this plant is time-consuming and demanding work, but necessary to keep it operating at a level that will provide enough water for winter, when production stops.

Apart from the regular plant room services and checks, we keep busy over winter with breakdowns and maintenance. We regularly monitor the indoor temperatures and adjust the mix of heated and fresh air to maintain a constant 17°C where possible.

I'm also the social co-coordinator on station and enjoyed helping to set up an Academy Awards night, a St Patrick's Day celebration, an indoor gaming night, and a spit roast and BBQ to celebrate the international plumbers' day on April 24.

My plumbing partner and myself have managed to keep fit with three gym sessions a week. We also use the indoor climbing wall and play a fair bit of table-tennis, darts and snooker. In the evenings, I've been improving my hand writing by practising calligraphy.

The people I wintered with have become a surrogate family and are an amazing bunch whose company has greatly added to my experience. I would like to return one day. Antarctica has surpassed my expectations and left me mesmerised and speechless many times.