How five things David Knoff learnt from 537 days stranded in Antarctica can help you

COVID-19 lockdowns affected everyone, but few were as trying as that endured by Australian Antarctic station leader David Knoff, whose standard, 365-day stint turned into 537 days on the most-unforgiving continent.

As station leader, David was commanding 24 expeditioners and had to navigate the tensions and anxiety that came with not knowing how long they would all be isolated, or when someone would come for them.

His was an experience like no other, but here are five takeaways from David’s 537 days in Antarctica that, he says, can be applied to everyday life.

Work-life boundaries

Setting the boundaries between work and play and sticking to them: It’s important for individuals and leaders to avoid burnout and working 24/537.

Two people wave flares in Antarctica as icebreaker vessel heads out to sea
Australian Antarctic team farewell Aurora Australis icebreaker in March, 2020.(Supplied: AAD/David Knoff)

“We had a lot of DIY fun,” he says. “There was a great hobby hut where you could use scrap metal, scrap timber to make things.”

This came in handy for all those extra birthdays and Christmas presents they needed to account for.

“It was a great, mindful activity,” he confirms.

The team also had band nights and parties with themes.

“You weren’t just having dinner with the same 24 people again. You were having dinner with 24 Vikings, or sushi train nights, or Italian nights where you’d get dressed up and feel like you’re on a holiday, rather than stuck in Antarctica.”

Workdays were long and, sometimes, the boundaries were blurred.

“We’d work from 7.30am through to 5 or 6 o’clock,” he recalls.

Sunrise over Antarctic station with sign saying 'welcome to Davis Antarctica'
David Knoff captures spectacular sunrise over the Davis Antarctic station while on a morning walk.(Supplied: David Knoff)

Plan for everything so nothing is a surprise

When faced with an uncertain future, planning for every contingency, no matter how unlikely, will ensure that, if/when things do go wrong, you are already prepared.

“There was a very small but unlikely chance we would have to stay for another winter, so we had to have some plans in place, so if that eventuality came to be, we’d have enough resources to do it.”

David says that, because they are so dependent on the weather, they needed to be ready to roll with the punches and send teams to one glacier or another, depending on what would work.

Antarctic team members on quad bikes on ice
Australian Antarctic team at work during their 537-day stint on the icy continent.(Supplied: AAD/David Knoff)

“It can look ad hoc but it’s not. You’ve actually planned for all those different options and then you’re just pulling them off the shelf as required.”

David is used to planning everything after spending a few years in the army and then as a diplomat in conflict zones.

Embrace chaos and uncertainty

An emergency evacuation from the station is one example of what David and his team had to deal with.

Without being able to divulge the finer details of the operation — David conveys that it took a massive effort.

Two people in inflatable boat heading through icebergs at sunset
Australian Antarctic team members take a midnight sunset cruise.(Supplied: AAD/David Knoff)

A Chinese helicopter, a US plane and an Australian intercontinental flight were all involved.

“The distances it involved were as far as Perth, Melbourne, Sydney, Hobart.”

It was completed at 0300 on December 24, 2020.

“As frantic, exciting, interesting and professionally amazing as that was, sitting down for Christmas the next day with now just 22 of us was one of the most sombre and unique experiences you can ever imagine. It still gets me.”

The emergency evacuation wasn’t the only chaotic moment, with one of them coming when the team were finally on their way home.

“We had six hours with the engines off, the ship was filled with smoke. They had to fight the fire, account for everyone and, eventually, get one of the engines going.

“We were able to limp home to Fremantle after standing by the lifeboats for the better part of a day and contemplating what that was going to look like.

David Knoff smiles for photo at airport baggage claim
Australian Antarctic station leader David Knoff arrives home in Melbourne in April, 2021, after 537 days on the ice.(Supplied: Michael Knoff)

“We were right at the end of our limit of exhaustion and endurance, but I think my team were incredibly calm through the whole thing. ‘We’ve been through so much, of course there’s a fire, we’ll be fine’.”

David says you need to focus on what you can control and embrace the unknowns as part of life.

Make everything a lesson, especially failure

“You’ll learn more from failure than victory,” David says.

“When times are tough and uncertain you will fail fast and fail often, so the sooner you learn to embrace failure as an opportunity to learn then the sooner you’ll turn failure into success.”

Some of the biggest failures during David’s time in Antarctica came from the social side of things, rather than the work.

“Crossing the line and misjudging the line between running the station as the station leader and then just letting the community do things,” he admits.

“I’d often try control things or keep the team together and I’d overstep the mark and reach into the social space.”

David Know swims in a whole in the Antarctic ice
David takes a midwinter dip in minus two degree water.(Supplied: AAD Will Kenton)

David links this back to setting boundaries between work and play.

“Understanding your own motivation — and, then, understanding the motivation of members of your team — is critical to understanding their resilience and getting them to perform or [to] understand why they’re not [performing],” he says.

“If you can help them identify their motivation and work with it, you’ll have a better chance of team success and individual success.”

Imagine what looking back will feel like

David says when the end isn’t in sight, imagine the future and what you’d say about your actions now: Would you be proud? Or could you have done more to rise to the occasion?

He says this helped him through the toughest days as a leader.

Cover of David Knoff's memoir '537 Days of Winter'
David Knoff’s 537 Days of Winter is out now.(Supplied)

“When we were told we were going to be staying for an extra few months … for me, that became a challenge that I hadn’t signed up for, and none of us had signed up for. Now I had to lead a team that didn’t want to be there that long.”

To help himself get through it, he imaging looking back in two years, 10 years and 30 years.

He told himself: “It will have been such an amazing experience that it will have been worth pushing yourself to rise to the occasion.”

*537 Days of Winter, by David Knoff, is out now.

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