Crossing the Infamous Drake Passage...

Trip Start Oct 05, 2012
Trip End Apr 01, 2013

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Flag of Antarctica  , Antarctic Peninsula,
Friday, January 11, 2013

Embarkation of the M/V Ushuaia began at 4pm, and I was glad to finally board the ship. The 2am start and the very long morning in Ushuaia walking around with my rucksack had exhausted me. Walking up the gangplank was a very exciting moment, being greeted by one of the expedition leaders and then being shown to my cabin - an upgraded one nonetheless from the original one I had booked.

My cabinmate for the voyage was Maria Christina from Ushuaia itself, a school teacher who had a daughter the same age as me. Communications were a little hard as she spoke very little English and we quickly covered the topics that my Spanish abilities extend to. It's always funny observing other people's habits and mannerisms in such close quarters. Some of the funnier moments were finding her trying to practice some form of pilates as the boat rolled from the wind - it was impossible to stay still when lying down and it can't have been terribly relaxing. There was also a lot of hand washing as she had brought a very small amount of clothes, and I was constantly finding underwear, socks and trousers hanging from various fixtures around the cabin. The funniest for me though was when one night I opened the door and found an empty laundry line strategically hung across the cabin at exactly the height of my neck, but well below hers as she was a lot smaller than me. I wondered if I had offended her, and was very pleased to go back later and find it had been removed before I could do myself any damage...!! In all honesty though, we got on well enough, which is just as well as the cabin was quite small.

After settling into the cabin, the expedition staff invited us all for a celebration drink as the Ushuaia set sail from port at 6pm. A very exciting moment, and one also accompanied by a great buffet - the start of the fabulous food that continued throughout the journey. We were all encouraged to eat as much as possible because we needed a lot more calories than normal to allow our bodies to keep warm. Not that I needed much of an invitation to enjoy the best food I have eaten in months!!

The first part of the journey was very easy as it takes you along the protected and calm waters of the Beagle Channel. It was what was to come after this which was filling the nightmares of many on the boat: crossing the infamous Drake Passage. This is the subject of many sailing horror stories due to the violent storms and massive waves that are frequently encountered. The start of the journey was going to be the real test for me, especially as I am someone who likes to think they have pretty good sea legs and has been lucky enough never to suffer from sea sickness or travel sickness (unlike my little sister who spent many a car journey when we were younger with her head in a sick bag...).

We entered open seas after about 5 hours of sailing and spent the next 48 hours or so making our way towards the Antarctic Continent. The Ushuaia isn't a large boat and so felt the movement of the waves quite a lot. Luckily for me, I remained unaffected by this but there were a lot of others who weren't quite so fortunate...sickbags were sellotaped to railings and in abundance in all public areas around the ship. Despite this, our expedition staff kept telling us how lucky we were as the conditions were actually really good for our crossing. The weather changed a lot during this, from the very foggy to sideways rain and then brilliant sunshine. There was also a lot of wind which made all the bird-watchers on the boat very happy indeed!!

The time passed really quickly during the crossing. Lectures were organised for us on key topics relevant to our trip - birds, penguins, historic expeditions, key Antarctic statistics etc - as well as the required safety briefings about behaviour and actions which we had to abide by during our landings on the Continent itself. And there was of course always a regular supply of food to keep us occupied!!

42 hours after setting sail from Ushuaia, the first iceberg was spotted and then land appeared on both sides as we started to pass the first of the South Shetland Islands. Our early arrival due to good weather conditions meant there was the announcement we had all been waiting for - our first landing was scheduled for 4pm on the second day of the trip!! As many layers as possible, rubber boots, life jackets and, of course, the camera were quickly gathered before assembling at the gangway for boot cleaning and our first trip in the zodiacs!!

The landing was in the South Shetland Islands on Greenwich Island at a place called Yankee Harbour, home to a rather large Gentoo penguin colony and numerous nesting seabirds. Once we were on the island, we were kept in landing groups and walked around by one of our guides. Enjoying my first experience of a wild penguin colony really didn't disappoint!! As cute and as comical as expected to watch as they waddled around doing all the things that penguins need to do in their colonies. It was especially funny to see 'robber' penguins in action. For anyone who has seen Frozen Planet and remembers the footage of one penguin stealing a pebble from another's nest for every one that this other hardworking chap was placing on his nest - I can now confirm that this is more common than not. Most seemed to be unwilling to walk much further than a few metres to find their own pebbles and there was constant stealing going on. The squabbles were hilarious between the different penguins as they tried to protect their own rockeries!!

Penguins also have their own 'highways' which we had to observe as we walked around - of course, penguins always retain the right of way and we had to be very aware of where and what they were doing the whole time. To be honest, the whole island appeared to function as their 'highway' as there were streams of penguins waddling in most locations. And they weren't at all scared of us, so even when you attempted to move away from any wandering penguins they would stare at you as though you were some sort of giant species and perhaps even follow you!!

Unfortunately, the already dreary weather which had stuck with us during the latter part of the crossing gradually got worse and worse during our landing. By the time we left it was sleeting and the wind had reached 40knots!! It made for an interesting zodiac ride back though as the boat struggled against the wind and the current to get us back to the ship.

Full of adrenaline from having set foot on a part of Antarctica, dinner was served pretty quickly after our return and debrief. And that is really when the fun started as our route from Greenwich Island took us across the Bransfield Strait, or as it is also known the 'mini-Drake'. No one had mentioned this previously, and most people who had been unlucky enough to suffer on the crossing over had assumed that reaching the islands and leaving behind the Drake was the end of their misery... This proved to be worse - far, far worse than the actual Drake. Sitting in the dining room, the boat was rolling so badly that the view from the windows switched constantly between sky and sea with only a flash of horizon. Although most people made it to dinner, the dining room rapidly started emptying especially after one poor person started throwing up in the corner. This was then followed by an enormous crash, and a series of very apologetic waiters who came out to tell us there was no dessert. Apparently our lemon mousse was all over the floor, and I'd be surprised if the kitchen staff hadn't ended up wearing most of it!!

The rolling of the boat was even more spectacular from up on the bridge where I spent the rest of the night. At certain times the bow of the boat was at a 45 degree angle to the horizon as we got battered by the wind!! We also managed to spot some whales though, although quite far away and only there blow so we had no idea what type they were.
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Carly on

Wow! Reading this made me feel seasick - let alone being on the boat! Well done sealegs Fi! I'm v impressed!

curlsandtales on

It could have been a lot worse apparently!! There were a few of us who may have wanted to see a storm, although I suspect the novelty may have worn off after about 5mins... :-) xx

Pigwig on

Why was the drinks with the crew such an exciting moment Fooft, nudge nudge, wink wink
Oh great, pukey little Al gets a mention : (
Didn't realise you got lectures, thats a great idea

curlsandtales on

Pukey little Al totally deserves the mention...probably still would be pukey older Al now!! Although you wouldn't have been alone that's for sure. Xx

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