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Focal Plane

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Focal Plane: Frozen fight

This is the fourteenth instalment of the GoobNet Focal Plane, an occasional series wherein we highlight an unimportant social problem, trying to make you care about it. Use the Whine Control, above and right, to view other instalments.

On FRI 18 JUN 2004, Rosalind Franklin Dubois arrives in Thule, Greenland. She steps out of the small ice shelf jumper aircraft and looks around.

"Not much here, is there?" she says.

And she's right. That's precisely why the first Extreme Plumbers' Invitational is being held here. Cold, light all the time, and pristine.

Ready for some piping and some elbow joints? Let's get busy.

First event: Speed flush

Several tents sit near the middle of a large ice field. Just outside each tent, various valves are visible. Back at camp, a number of pickup trucks are waiting.

A horn sounds, and eight people run from the starting line into the drivers' seats of their trucks. The trucks then speed to one of the tents.

In this event, the eight participants in the EPI are racing one another directly in an effort to see who can connect up a toilet fastest. Each toilet is located in one of the tents, with the fixtures located outside. But they are not labeled, and some aren't connected to anything.

Dubois, whose friends at the Stam Research Facility call her RFD, is widely considered the favourite to win the whole shooting match. Each event has a medal that will be awarded to the winner, and a point system has been established that will determine an overall champion.

In this event, Dubois sets to work immediately on attempting to identify the valves outside. Six hookups exist, one the water main and one the septic tank input. The other four are dummies.

Josh Cartabo, who works in South Africa, is out to an early lead. He has spotted the septic valve already and is connecting up the output. When he finishes, he stands up and looks at his handiwork uncertainly.

"I wasn't sure about the trap," he says afterward. "It seemed like it would clog easily, but I couldn't see any other way to get the output over there. I mean, the valve to the septic tank was higher than the trap. It took some caution to work around."

On yesterday's media day, Cartabo introduced himself to much of the plumbing media. He is a relative newcomer to the field, growing up outside Pretoria, South Africa, and becoming a cricketer. Injury ended his career early, though, and with several friends in the plumbing industry, he had a logical career choice.

Of his injury, he says, "Well, it was a really strong googily, and as I tried to chase it, I just went down spinning. My knee kind of gave out under me, and I've never been able to play again."

Cartabo's early lead, though, is squandered as he tries to locate the water main. The Extreme Repairs and Utilities Guild, which oversees this competition, has used a new type of valve for this tournament, one that will not open unless a pipe has already been connected to it.

Meanwhile, Canton Furdelman of Monterey, CA, USA has a pipe attached to each valve. He opens each one by one and determines easily which is which. The pipes he has run from the toilet are awaiting connection, and he slides them into place. When he dashes back into the tent and hits the lever, the toilet flushes flawlessly. Furdelman wins the speed flush.

Second event: Hot and cold

The next day, the toilets have been replaced by sinks. And the challenge is fiercer: This time, the competitors have four hours to configure the sinks to dispense both hot and cold water.

Furdelman, who collected all seven points from yesterday's speed flush, is off to a good start today. The competitors must bring their own water heaters for this event, wherein they will be scored based upon how closely they match the target temperatures of 316 K and 278 K.

In this event, he has installed a water heater with a capacity of only a hundred litres. Though this is the first time anyone has engaged in this event, it is clear that most of the competitors have grasped the key: fine tuning the output water temperature. This means rapidly changing the temperature of the hot water tank, which in turn means a small tank is the best choice.

Outside each tent, ERUG judges are waiting with carefully calibrated digital thermometers.

Inside, the various participants are crouched over their sinks, hoping that their own thermometers are calibrated as carefully as the judges'.

After the horn sounds, there is about twenty minutes of anxious waiting. Each judge must visit each participant; the results from each thermometer are averaged together in an effort to eliminate the influence of measurement error.

The Antarctic expert, Dubois, is named the winner of this event, coming within one kelvin of both the hot and cold temperatures. With nobody else scoring even five of the possible seven points, that means Dubois is now in the lead, three points ahead of Furdelman. A decent finish tomorrow will make her the top extreme plumber.

Third event: Hot tub party

Many of the competitors feel that they have no shot against RFD for the overall title, but they are all eager to try and win this event.

This is sort of a mix of the two previous events. This time, the tents have been taken down. Hot tubs sit in their place, with the winner being the first competitor to fill the tub up to a specified mark with water of at least 305 K.

Intriguingly, Dubois, as well as a couple of other participants, have chosen to use the same water heaters from yesterday. The others have all loaded their trucks with larger tanks in hopes of filling up the tub faster.

Lisa Almontada is the only other woman in the competition aside from Dubois. But the La Coruña, Spain native is just over half Dubois's age. At media day, she made no secret of her estimated chances of winning.

"I'm just here to learn," she says. "Dubois, [Jake] Patterson, Furdelman, they're the all stars. I hope some day I can accomplish just a fraction of what any of them have done."

But today, she takes a surprise lead in this event, the first participant to begin filling the tub. But a pipe bursts midway through the process, and a time consuming repair job must start.

Most of the competitors come from companies where they work with others; the unique challenge here is the need to act in solo. Almontada finds herself running back and forth between the valve and the affected pipe segment.

As she is working, the horn sounds, indicating that someone has completed the event. It comes as no surprise to find that it is Dubois.

Unlike the other timed event, this event is scored based upon how much each competitor has filled their tub when the horn sounds. Thanks to her fast start, Almontada has reached the 25% mark and scores two points.

'Trophy in a tub'

"This may be the only competitive event anywhere in the world wherein the trophy presentation occurs in a hot tub," says Mark O'Leary, the ERUG's president.

By this point we are all in our bathing suits in Dubois's tub. Relaxing in one corner, she exhaustedly but happily accepted the congratulations of her opponents as they entered.

O'Leary's brief speech echoes those accolades, calling her "Miss Antifreeze". He first drapes the hot tub party medal around her neck before handing her the EPI trophy.

Appropriately, the trophy depicts a person holding a large wrench aloft.


Competitor1 [min]Pts2 [K]Pts3 [pct]PtsTotal
Rosalind Franklin Dubois Canada6961.87100%720
Canton Furdelman US6275.1380%616
Josh Cartabo South Africa7064.7365%514
Chas Hulbert US8155.0380%614
Ryan Wisselmann Germany8457.5065%510
Lisa Almontada Spain10825.7225%26
Stu Jenkins UK13204.2435%26
Vin Cho New Zealand10925.230%05