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Pandemic paradise and an airfield upgrade

November 16, 2021

Chris Frechette was in Grand Cayman working on the airfield upgrades project at ORIA when COVID-19 brought the world to a halt. But he chose to stay.

The Boston area has been home to me since I moved here for school back in 2013. I quickly fell in love with the fast paced often chaotic nature of the city and took advantage of the endless opportunities it offered to me. I’ve become all too accustomed to New England’s changing seasons and often unpredictable weather you experience each day.

For the past year however, I found myself working in what anyone would refer to as “paradise.” As a first-time traveller to the Caribbean, I really didn’t know what to expect, but Grand Cayman was its own remarkable taste of life in the tropics. The second I stepped foot off that plane, I immediately fell in love with the island. The people were so kind, the scenery so beautiful, and the culture was so warming that I couldn’t stop grinning ear to ear. I knew I was about to have an incredible experience.

I flew down to Cayman with my colleague, Scott Kennedy, where we were asked to be the resident engineers for an extensive airfield upgrades project at Owen Roberts International Airport (ORIA). I’ve had the privilege of being exposed to a variety of projects in my time at Stantec, both in design and resident inspection, but no other project I’ve worked on was as extensive and involved as the work we did for ORIA. The project involved six key aspects, including:

  • A full-length runway overlay with full depth shoulders,
  • Pond filling at the west end of the airfield,
  • Runway extension over the ponds, with a taxiway turnaround and jet blast deflector,
  • Construction of a perimeter road,
  • Expansion of the east apron, and
  • The addition of a parallel taxiway on the east end of the airfield.

With a project this size, you expect challenges. We had to adapt to new airport guidelines, International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) standards, the metric system, and occasionally a language barrier that made it challenging at times to communicate with others—although we always made it work.

What we didn’t expect was the rainiest season in Cayman in over a decade and a pandemic to top it all off. The schedule was demanding at times, with the project operating day and night, six days a week. Scott and I found ourselves alternating the day and night shifts quite often so we could get an opportunity to see out each sub-project.

Even with these challenges, it was an incredible opportunity and an experience I will never forget.

Grand Cayman's Owen Roberts International Airport.

Look at all those chickens!

One thing I immediately noticed on the island, was all the chickens! Everywhere you walk in Cayman you’ll come across wild chickens, in grocery store parking lots, the beach, shopping centers, you name it.

Of course, I had to ask the question “where did all of these chickens come from?” and the most common answer I got was Hurricane Ivan. I was told that when the Category 5 hurricane hit back in 2004, chickens were able to escape their pens and roam free, and the population just got out of control. I thought it was such a neat thing to experience and wild chickens hanging out around KFC always made for a funny photo op!

The chickens loved hanging around our site compound because there was always someone there to feed them, and it added some entertainment to our long workdays. It even got to the point where they were jumping in my car as I opened the door because they knew I’d give them some food. I loved every second of it.

Adapting to a new environment

A project of this size poses its own challenges, but there were plenty of other hurdles that truly made this a challenging experience. Moving from the Boston area to an island in the Caribbean was like starting life all over again. I was introduced to new cultures, explored new environments, and adapted to a drastically different climate. I had to go out and make new friends, learn new laws, and most interesting of all, I had to learn how to drive on the opposite side of the road!

As if this wasn’t enough change for one person to experience, the pandemic made everything that much more challenging. I’ll never forget watching that last British Airways flight leave on March 22, 2020, and thinking to myself, “Okay, now what?”

Scott and I were given the option to leave prior to the closing of the border but decided it was best to stay and finish what we came there to do. To be honest, it was terrifying at first knowing that I’d be away from my friends and family in a time where countries were closing their borders, but it was all worth it in the end.

I’ll never forget watching that last British Airways flight leave on March 22, 2020, and thinking to myself, “Okay, now what?

Cayman had a very strict lockdown imposed starting in late March and lasting mainly through the month of July. Grocery shopping was limited to last names assigned to certain days of the week, outdoor physical activities were limited to once a day for a set period, beaches were closed, bars and restaurants only offered delivery or takeout (takeout for those deemed essential workers). Cayman saw such a total lockdown where if you were considered a nonessential business, you didn’t have much opportunity to leave your home.

Luckily for us, our project was deemed essential, which meant we got to keep working, albeit with some new COVID protocols set in place. The months were beyond challenging and really put a halt to some of the most important things I wanted to get out of this experience: Making new friends and exploring everything the island had to offer.

As July approached, the lockdown started to ease up with the decline in COVID cases on the island and life almost started to feel a bit normal again. Scott was wrapping up with his time on the project and was about to go home, and suddenly everything felt like it was changing again. I was fortunate enough to have made a lot of friends at this point, and with the lockdown restrictions mainly lifted, this is where the adventures really began. 

Taking in the sights during downtime.

A new hobby

A fun fact about myself is that I didn’t always want to go into civil engineering growing up; I actually wanted to become a marine biologist. My dad got me into saltwater fish tanks as a kid and we built elaborate tanks with coral reefs, colorful fish, eels, and even a mini octopus. I always thought it was so cool to be able to create this ecosystem where I had to research different behaviors and compatibilities of these corals and fish, then make an environment for them where they’d all live harmoniously. I’ve always been fascinated with ocean life and Cayman gave me an opportunity I had never encountered before, to become a diver.

A close friend of mine on the project was a certified diver and helped walk me through the process, as his girlfriend was looking to get certified as well. Next thing I know, I passed my PADI course and diving started to become a huge part of my life. Every week we would spend our day off doing shore and boat dives. We explored beautiful reefs, sunken ships, statues, and even got an eerie look at the Cayman Trench drop-off, which reaches a maximum depth of over 25,000 feet!

I had never had such an up close and personal view below the surface before. I crawled through caves overrun by tarpon fish, swam with reef sharks within arm’s reach, dove a whopping 150 feet down “the wall” of the Cayman Trench, played with sting rays, and even explored the inside of a sunken decommissioned rescue ship, the USS Kittiwake.

Exploring the Kittiwake wreck must have been one of the most exhilarating things I’ve ever done in my life. I got to explore the outside of the ship, which sat right by the edge of the drop-off, and even got to explore the inside, which at times was a bit intimidating! With just a flashlight, I swam through the old halls, bathrooms, ship deck, and engine room where at times all I could see was the beam of my light. I got to swim up the smokestacks, take pictures at the dining hall tables and even got to squeeze myself into a decompression chamber! Was I terrified? Yes. Would I do it again? In a heartbeat.

My first boat dive: exploring the USS Kittiwake shipwreck that sits along the edge of the Cayman Trench.

It’s not goodbye, it’s see you later

With my trip coming to an end, I really started to reflect on the year and what this experience meant to me. Of course, I was so excited to go home to my family, my friends, and finally reunite with my dog for the first time in a year. As excited as I was, it still felt so bittersweet for me to leave. I met the most hospitable family on the island, the Ruttys, who really took me in as their own. They supported me through lockdown and offered help whenever I needed it. They invited me to birthday parties, boat days, barbecues, fishing trips, and so much more. They set me up with everything I could have needed and more, and I’ll forever be so thankful for them and everything they did for me.

I made friends that I hope to have in my life for years to come, friends that showed me places on the island I would have never seen as a tourist. They invited me out for karaoke nights, beach days, island hopping, and endless adventure nights that I still reminisce about.

I remember when I was first asked to go down to Cayman. I was hesitant, to say the least. Leaving the comfort of my home to live somewhere I had never been before was a difficult thought. I’ve never been one to shy away from an adventure, but this was a big step in not only my life, but my career. Stantec offered me a huge opportunity to work on an incredible project in a beautiful place. The support of my family and friends provided me the courage to move to Cayman, but Stantec paved the runway that got me there.

This experience was challenging at times and really took me out of my comfort zone, but it’s an experience I will never forget. I not only completed a huge project that will drive my career for years to come, but I found a new home that will be with me for the rest of my life. The kind people of Cayman, the beautiful culture, and the friends and connections I made will truly always be a part of me. Words can’t begin to describe how much I will miss everyone I met there, but I can promise I will be back.

Cleared to land: a successful project and a first look at your next destination.

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