9. Stormy Finale

After the relatively easy voyage south across Drake Passage to Antarctica, all of us hoped for similar good luck crossing that passage to Ushuaia, Argentina where our trip ended. But the return north was another story. At the end of our last day of exploring the Antarctic Peninsula, the captain of Clipper Adventurer cancelled our scheduled landing at Port Lockroy on Goudier Island due to high wind and fog.

The next morning we awoke to howling wind, and learned that the previous night it had gusted to 80 knots, hurricane force winds. While we slept, the anchor fluke, which had been dug into the sea bottom to hold the ship, broke off. The ship’s motion had calmed briefly as the ship floated untethered toward another shore, pushed by the raging wind. The crew had to turn out of their warm bunks in the middle of the night to get us safely under way. The passengers knew nothing of that midnight work party until we found a digital photo on the bulletin board the next morning that showed the wounded anchor hanging off the bow.

The photos reminded me of the few times in Mexico on our sailboat when our anchor failed us. While at anchor, the boat fought against the powerful wind, seeking release, jerking back and forth like a dog will at the end of a leash. And when the anchor pulled free, the motion quieted with the boat no longer held to the ocean floor. Familiar with what that meant, my husband and I would jump into motion to set sail and gain control of the situation. What an adrenaline high, one I’d rather not experience too often!

The ship’s anchor with a broken fluke.

After gearing up in my warm clothes, I pushed my way onto the wind blown deck and leaned over the bow rail to take a photo of that sad looking, rusty piece of metal that had been our anchor. I’ve seen a retired anchor like that outside of a restaurant on the Oregon coast.  The shank was at least five feet long, two flukes going one way, and a bar at a ninety-degree angle. I wondered how old our anchor might have been since most anchors I’ve seen on large ships are a different shape.

After breakfast, I climbed up into the wheelhouse, called the “bridge” on big ships, and found the captain consulting with a few experienced crewmembers. The captain welcomed passengers to sit in a two-seat bench right behind the helm, so I crept in and watched. Julio studied the latest weather map with the captain. Their pinched faces spoke volumes. I heard our experienced expedition director, Julio, admit, “Captain, you are worrying me.”

Barometer, almost as low as it can go. (Photo from the log of our voyage.)

Earlier, I had noticed that the weather map next to the dining room showed a serious, low weather front bearing down on our course to Tierra del Fuego. In the wheelhouse, the barometer needle dropped off the scale past “L,” indicating that the weather had begun to change already. Not good, I thought. A low-pressure front will suck air from the surrounding areas of higher pressure, and if the pressure difference is extreme, as ours was, the resulting winds could be very strong, even to hurricane strength.

The captain sheltered the ship behind the South Shetland Islands while Julio kept the passengers informed through the intercom. We learned that the scheduled Zodiac tour had been cancelled, which was fine with me, given the circumstances. High winds on a rubber boat meant, at the very least, a bumpy ride and lots of splashing.

We gathered in small groups, offering one another reassurance. I drew courage from seasoned passengers who said we would be fine. The captain had decided to begin the journey to South America earlier than planned in case we needed extra time to safely cross the notoriously angry waters of Drake Passage. So, I put my faith in the captain and resolved to enjoy the adventure. I’d sailed in rough water in a much smaller boat, so I reassured myself. How bad could it get? Little did I know.

Plunging into the Wild Ocean

Our destination, Tierra del Fuego, lay about five hundred miles to the north. Around eleven in the morning the captain navigated the ship out of our protective bay and pointed the bow north. Out the stern windows, I watched the shadow of land fade into thick fog. I snatched another scopolamine patch and stuck it behind my ear to ward off nausea. At lunch, I lightly commented that it might be the last food I could eat for a while—it was.

While we ate, the crew prepared the ship. They tightened the lashings holding everything on deck, from the chairs to the Zodiacs. A crewmember closed and bolted the single porthole cover in my cabin. The porthole’s heavy steel cover blocked my view of the ocean, and considering the predicted weather, I counted myself lucky. The porthole could be under water in the stormy seas, which would not be an encouraging view while I languished in my bunk with motion sickness. The crew told us to secure loose items in our cabins, preferably on the floor, so they wouldn’t be thrown about and broken. I shoved the clutter from my desk and nightstand into my duffle bag, and pushed it under the bed.

Before long, the ship’s motion became more extreme and I began a two-day marathon of naps. In my cozy dark hole, night and day became irrelevant. Any time I woke up, I knew whether it was just a nap or a night’s sleep because when I napped, I only threw the spare blanket over me. At night, I got into the bed and under the covers. I felt that some protocol must be maintained, even in the worst of conditions.

Shipboard activities continued, though fewer and fewer people showed up for the lectures in the main lounge. I knew the lounge was the worst place to be when the ship pitched forward and back, and rolled side to side. Fortunately, Julio arranged for the lectures to be broadcast over the cabin speakers. Despite the turbulent seas, the lectures were still interesting. Several scientists on the ship’s lecture team had spent summers, or long winters in the Antarctic region doing research, most of them far inland. Their insights gave us a good sense of the interior of the barren continent, its resources, and the challenges for humans to live there, even with modern equipment and conveniences.

I snuggled into my warm nest, listened for a while, and then took another nap.

Occasionally, I ventured out to test the state of my stomach by joining people in the lounge. The number of robust passengers dwindled each time I emerged. Sometimes, snacks appeared, easy on the stomach and quick to eat in case the ship jerked. I’d get another ginger ale, and before long, a horizontal position in private seemed best.

During my waking moments in bed, I interpreted the ship’s motion, recalling a previous experience weathering 40-knot winds on the open sea off Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, in our 25-foot sailboat Valhalla. On Clipper Adventurer, the head of my bed abutted the hull, so I rolled side to side as the ship pitched forward and back. I could visualize the waves, almost taller than the ship, pushing our craft away as it climbed up the wall of water and I rolled to the right. When the wave passed under the hull, the ship slid down into the trough and I rolled to the left. If the ship rolled side to side at all, I slid toward my pillow, and then down toward my feet in my bed. The intensity of the motion came in cycles, starting soft then building to a real doozy, then softening again, as waves on a summer sea will do.

Another Rough Day at Sea

With the low pressure we had 80 kt winds and 50 ft waves. (From the log of our voyage.)

Early on the second day of wild wind and seas, I felt a change in the ship’s motion and actually stayed up for a while. From experience, I knew the best thing for seasickness is to look at the horizon, so I dragged myself up four flights of stairs to the wheelhouse where our stalwart captain, surrounded by instruments and a few crew, stood in command of the ship. Enormous waves rolled into the port quarter, lifting the ship until its bow pointed above the horizon. When the ship reached the tipping point on the crest, it pitched forward and slid down the face of the wave as if to continue right down to the bottom of the sea. At the last second, the bow lifted to climb the next wave, sending spray high up over the bow. The roller coaster thrilled me as long as I kept the faith that the ship would actually recover and not just keep descending into the depths.

One of the heartier observers that day told me that the previous afternoon a giant wave had broken over the wheelhouse windows forty feet or so above the roiling surface of the sea. Sobering. The winds had gusted to Force 12 on the Beaufort Wind Scale, a wind measurement mariners developed for recording wind speeds in the open ocean.  Force 12 is the highest wind velocity on the scale and considered hurricane force.

That day on Clipper Adventurer we were certainly in the open ocean. Steady winds at force 9, 45 knots, (52 mph), and frequent higher gusts, battered the ship. These winds had whipped the sea into chaos all the way from the South American continent—not a great consolation for me at the time. I experienced the same mix of terror, excitement, and serene fatalism as I watched the drama through the wheelhouse window.

The turmoil brought to mind my last experience with force 10 winds (60 mph). My husband and I had anchored our 25-foot sailboat in Mazatlan Harbor, prepared for hurricane weather. We battened down the hatches, and watched and waited. As the wind increased, we watched an unoccupied sailboat about the same size as our boat, break loose from its anchor and batter itself against an overhang and sink. Our dingy sank, still tied to the boat, unable to break free from the thrashing stern. Our main anchor line broke. We thought it was the end, but it wasn’t. The #2 anchor, put out just in case, grabbed us, and held us in the middle of the harbor. In our sailboat’s little cabin, I used my Chapman’s Piloting and Seamanship to determine the wind’s velocity by using the book’s photos of waves created by the various velocities, and looking out the cabin window at what we faced.

So, riding out this storm in a larger ship with a competent, experienced crew felt almost safe in comparison to my experience in Mazatlan Harbor. Off-duty crewmembers trickled in to the wheelhouse to watch the action. Most had never been in seas that rough, and the ones who had, shared their tales in soft voices, making it hard for me to hear cautionary tales. Looking out that window at the feared waters of Drake Passage, I was happy to let the captain worry about speeds, angles, and ETAs for our landfall. I was relieved to know I could go below to my cabin, trust the captain’s navigational skills, and nap. It would soon be over.

Late that night, I felt the ship’s motion calm a little and when the tinny voice on the intercom announced Bananas Foster had been served in the lounge, I threw back the covers. Num! The warm banana was mighty tasty, smothered in sweet sauce and topped with a bit of liqueur, along with a spoonful of ice cream. And better yet, it stayed down.

Calm Seas

On the morning of the third, and last day of the stormy passage, the winds had moderated enough for the dining room to open again. For my first meal after my ginger-ale diet, the staff valiantly served what food could safely be prepared. We sat at tables grabbing objects as they slid across the white tablecloth. Before long, the waiter dampened the tablecloths and this helped deter slippage. Then the ship lurched and he jammed his thigh against our table to steady himself. A loud crash from across the dining room disrupted the relative calm. I thought a window had blown out. A side table full of juice pitchers and bowls spilled onto the floor, scattering glass and liquid everywhere. A moment later, the ship took another deep roll at the same time one of the crew opened the door to a refrigerator, only ten feet from us. He fell to the ground, and all the contents flew into his lap. Indeed, some crewmembers learned important lessons in this storm.

The winds subsided throughout the day and finally, we gained the shelter of Cape Horn, the southernmost point of South America. Soon, we tied up to the dock, safe in Ushuaia Harbor, the capital of Tierra del Fuego, Argentina, and the southern most city in the world. Our dramatic crossing completed a fabulous trip.