Crossing Drake Passage

Crossing Drake Passage from the Falklands was so smooth we arrived earlier than planned and had an extra day for explorations. Knowing I get queasy in rough seas, I chose a cabin on the lowest deck, in the center of the ship, where the motion would be the quietest though on the first crossing I felt fine. The return north was another story. Both landings scheduled for the last day were cancelled due to high winds and fog. The previous night, the winds had gusted to 80 knots and while we slept, the anchor broke an arm and set the ship free. The crew turned out of their warm bunks to get us safely under way. In the morning, a digital photo on the bulletin board showed the wounded anchor hanging off the bow.

Barometer at Extreme Low                               Steve Pearson photo

In the pilothouse, Julio studied the latest weather map with the captain. Both their faces were pinched. I heard Julio say, “Captain, you are worrying me.”  Not something to ignore from our program director and someone with his experience. When the weather map was posted, it showed a serious low bearing down on our course to Tierra del Fuego. In the wheelhouse, the barometer needle fell off the scale. Not good.

Tour boats visit the Antarctica Peninsula because it is reliably ice free for a good portion of the summer. It hooks north toward the southern tip of South America, constricting the flow of water and winds that surround the southern land mass. The open water that separates the hook and Tierra del Fuego is named Drake Passage. Most accounts by explorers in square-riggers include some horror story of the difficulty of getting around The Horn through this passage. One ship made it, but was blown all the way back by an unfriendly wind. Many ships took their chances sailing among the islands to the north, trading the danger of high seas for that of fluky winds.

After the storm warning, we waited, sheltered from the oncoming weather system by the South Shetland Islands. Julio kept us up to date through the intercom system, and we were told that the captain wanted to get started on the crossing because we might need the extra time if he had to slow down. Our last sight of land was through thick fog at about eleven in the morning.

I stuck another scopolamine patch behind my ear, and ate lunch, lightly commenting that it might be the last food for a while. It was. While we ate, the crew prepared the ship. Everything on deck, from deck chairs to Zodiacs, was checked and their lashings tightened. The porthole cover in my cabin was closed and bolted by the lower deck crew. We were told to secure loose items, preferably on the floor, so they wouldn’t be thrown off and broken. I shoved the clutter from the desk and nightstand into my duffle and pushed it under the bed.

It didn’t take long before the motion became more extreme and I began a two-day marathon of naps. In my cozy dark hole, night and day were irrelevant. I distinguished between a daytime nap and nighttime sleep by whether I was between sheets or under a spare blanket. Some protocol must be maintained. Shipboard activities went on, though fewer and fewer people showed up for the lectures in the main lounge two decks above mine, which was the worst place to be when the ship was pitching. Thoughtfully, the lectures were available in my cabin on channel 3. I heard most of them between snoozes.

Occasionally, I ventured forth to check the state of my stomach by going up to where people gathered and sometimes food was laid out. I’d get another ginger ale, and after not too long, my assessment that my bilge cabin was the best spot was affirmed, and I returned to another pleasant time-chewing nap.

During my waking moments I interpreted the ship’s motion through previous experience living on a 65-foot schooner. I could visualize the waves, taller than the boat, which pushed it away from the wall of water and slid me, still in bed, inside my skin toward my toes. The respondent roll stretched me back toward the hull. The intensity of the rocking came in cycles, starting soft and building to a real doozy, and then softening again.

Early on the second day, I felt a change in the motion and was actually able to stay up for a while. In the wheelhouse, I watched thick waves roll into the port quarter, lifting the ship until its bow pointed above the horizon. Then it pitched forward and sank into the trough, plowed into the face of the next wave as if to continue to the bottom and sent up spray high across the bow. At the last second, the bow lifted to climb the next wave. It was thrilling in a roller-coaster kind of way as long as you have faith in the ship to actually recover.

Broken Anchor

One of the hardier observers told me that the previous afternoon one wave broke over the wheelhouse windows. Looking out that window onto the Drake Passage, I was glad to let the captain worry about speeds, angles and ETAs to our landfall, happy to know I could go below, nap a while, and it would soon be over.

The previous day, the winds had gusted to force 12 on the Beaufort scale, the highest wind velocity on the scale and hurricane force. It was not a hurricane we had experienced because they were only gusts, but when we talked with the crew, most had never been in seas that rough, and the ones who had were quite willing to tell their tales. At breakfast on the third day, my first meal after my ginger ale diet, the staff was valiantly maintaining their decorum. We sat at tables, grabbing objects as they slid across the white tablecloth, dampened to retard slippage but not effective and the angles we reached. Our waiter swayed as the ship rolled and took our orders. One good roll threw all the pitchers of juice on the side table to the floor. Then one of the crew opened the door to a refrigerator at the wrong time and all the contents flew out into his lap.

We did make Cape Horn, the southern most point of South America, after a dramatic crossing that completed a fabulous trip.