The “Christmas” present

Down in Halley, Christmas is not celebrated. Well, not in an official fashion, as it happens throughout the rest of the world, unless it happens on a Sunday and even so, its not a sure thing. Normally that day is a work one and maybe, maybe, with some luck we can have a “Fakemas” in the following weekend, which is nothing more than a Christmas day on the 28th as the religion dictates. In the antarctic pseudo-Christmas we still have people in questionable jumpers, with reindeers and old guys with long white beards and there’s a cerimonial dinner with turkey. The rest of that day is pretty much more of the same.

The true antarctic celebration comes up at the year’s midpoint, more or less, and only for those who were left behind when the last ship went North. Around here, Midwinter got more attention than probably any Christmas day that we had celebrated before. If not, just by the fact that we are going to celebrate just the one (or few over that) Midwinter while Christmas we always have next year.

My life in Antarctica was a kinda of vacation from the usual traditions and habits that society had forced into me my whole life. Some celebrations, such as Christmas and New Year’s, which move millions of people and euros each year, here are but footnotes or just an extra “Happy New Year” during 1st of January’s breakfast. And this is not exclusive to the Winter celebrations just because we are dealing with Summer. I have no idea when did Easter got celebrated in 2016. Social isolation at his best. Though it is easy to turn on a computer and, even with a really, really slow internet connection, found out which day Easter is going to land or phone home at least. But the truth is, I got so into the whole cold thing that I almost forgot my own birthday.

Even though human presence in this parts is a little less than a century old, there are a few exclusively antarctic traditions in place already. Some depend on station to station, others, like Midwinter, are continent wide ones.

In Halley, and pretty much in all British antarctic stations, there’s a tradition of offering a single present on Midwinter’s “night” (on June 21st, the night in Halley lasts for 24 hours). But unlike normal Christmas were offering are so indiscriminate that there’s a whole economy around this event so “saint and pure”, around here we don’t have any shopping malls or the possibility of ordering a porcelain reindeer through Amazon, so we need to build our own presents like any poor but crafty family.

During the 50’s and 60’s, when the first Midwinter celebrations begun to get normalized with the continuous presence of a couple of stations, people on those times used to Winter for two years in a row and the trip South was way longer than today. Unless someone was careful enough to buy two Christmas presents in August for people that he hadn’t meet yet, the only feasible alternative was to use the station’s resources and build something interesting.

Time went on and nowadays, were people Winter for a single year and one can order stuff online to the Falkland Islands, this tradition is still kept. Midwinter’s present is something that stays in half throttle during Summer, since time during that season is just too precious to be stuck in a workshop making clay ashtrays, but once Winter settles in so does the present fever.

It was during our also traditional dinner with the Shackleton’s captain and crew, just before the beginning of Winter, that we decided who offered something to whom. Someone (I honestly don’t remember who) wrote all our names in little pieces of paper and put everything inside a hat. Then each one took a name out of it and the rest was easy.

Most of my nights from the early Winter days up until Midwinter night were spent stuck in the mechanical laboratory and the plumber’s workshop. For an engineer, to have to build something in a station like Halley, is always a pleasure. It seems counter intuitive since being that isolated, I was kinda expecting missing a tool along the process eventually, but the truth is that Halley had generations upon generations of engineers and technicians equipping their laboratories and workshops. Halley was by far the best equipped place that I’ve worked in. In fact we actually have some problem with it. The fear of needing a specific tool is such that there are several units for the same tool. The most popular ones (hammers, flat head and phillips screwdrivers, wrenches, spanners, etc…) hang around the station a dozen at a time, to the point of causing storage problems.
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Other than that, working in Halley’s laboratories and workshops was a real pleasure and a very instructive activity for whenever I opened a new drawer, I always discovered a new tool that I had never seen before.

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I begun thinking on my Midwinter present right after hearing about it the first time, when I was still around Cambridge. I did it in a very superficial way since I only knew a couple of folks from my wintering team yet. One day I was going trough a documentary about medieval war machines and a light shone upon my tired head. There are no castles to storm in Antarctica, but these machines were normally built at invasion time. Medieval armies used to employ engineer divisions that, once arrived to the castle to invade, build catapults and battering rams from any trees that they could fell in the area.

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Though we don’t have any of those in Antarctica, most cargo is transported in the ship in wooden boxes or over palets.

By the end of Summer there’s plenty of scrap wood around here. And I wasn’t going to build the thing at normal scale, obviously. I was thinking in a small miniature but, as the engineer that I am, functional.

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Once I got a dude in the raffle, I decided to go forward with the plan and build a smallish catapult. This project had everything to go seriously wrong. Yes, we are all adults but we still get bored pretty easily. Having an instrument around capable of throwing heavy objects at great speed and distances, maybe wasn’t the brightest idea. Ah, but we only live once and getting blind by a mini catapult in Antarctica is always a cool story for the grandkids.

I used a small tutorial from the Internet as a guide, mostly to get the scale right than anything else. After that were countless nights sawing, cutting, nailing and screwing stuff together until getting something half decent.

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The hardest part was the propulsion system. The tutorial that I was using a twisted steel wire as a spring. That was also my initial attempt but unfortunately the wood from the structure was too soft and it only took 3 or 4 throws until the wire starts to eat up around the fixing point and loose all the tension. I used a fizzy drink can as a test subject but this system was barely able to throw it over the work bench. No eyes were going to be lost this way and that made me unhappy.

It was then that I remember the elastic string. Our Field Guide used thick elastic strings with hooks on the ends to secure things in the back box of the field ski-doos. Its not really a box but more like an open area on the back of the thing in which you can fit a rucksack or a small box. And to avoid throwing it into the snow as soon as one goes over a small sastrugui, around here we use those elastic strings. The hooks are easily secured to the ski-doo frame and if all stays nice and snuggy, we can get upside down at will without anything falling over, trust me.

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Most of these elastic strings were bought as is, with the hooks fitted and all, but I remember seeing a drum with several meters of this string inside the Field Guide’s office, for custom made strings. That spelled perfection for Ricardo. I raided his office, cut 3 pieces of it for my catapult and installed the new component on it. The elastic was so strong that I didn’t need to pre-stretch it.

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I just did some testing to find the right rest tension for how far I could bring the catapult’s arm and once I could literally catapult the can through a whole module, I considered the project finished with great success.

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As the year went on this catapult got a niche by the bar in A module. The seasons went by and so far no one lost any part of their anatomy with it, though it was always the selected toy after the third cider. Things got to a point were I watched someone catapulting a whole lime, from 5 meters away, into one of the holes of the pool table! It was one of those one million views youtube situations that got lost unfortunately.

Nothing goes better with beer than medieval war machines.

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