The Polar Pioneer is a 235 foot ice-strengthened research vessel that can cut through one meter thick ice if necessary. Built in Finland in 1985, she worked in the Arctic until 2000 when she was refitted to accommodate fifty-four passengers. The crew is Russian and they are well-seasoned in polar seas. She takes small groups and can manoeuvre into pack ice. The goal of the trip is to make as many landings as possible in Antarctica and to cross the Antarctic Circle. If we make it that far south, we'll be the first this year to cross the line.
She's at the end of the pier in Ushuaia and at first I can't see her because she's dwarfed by the MS Fram and Le Boreal—a cruise ship with staterooms with private balconies, a pool, a spa, and a hairdresser.
I'm not envious of the luxury liners. I came to be in Antarctica, not to watch television in my cabin. Fram is, of course, the name of the ship Amundsen sailed in to get to the South Pole. That Fram was a fabulous ship, with her reinforced structure and her egg-shaped hull that allowed closing ice to lift her rather than to crush her sides. I wonder what he would make of her modern namesake.
Robyn Mundy, the assistant expedition leader, greets us at the gangway and whisks us on board. I'm aware of my feet leaving the solidity of the pier. For the next two days, the ship will sail for Antarctica across the Drake Passage, one of the most notoriously rough stretches of water in the world. I've never been prone to sea sickness, even sailing on a 130 foot tall-ship in a gale, but I admit that the Drake makes me nervous. I have a supply of motion sickness medication with me which I'll take just in case.
For now though, I climb to the top deck to shake hands with the other new arrivals and to watch the longshoremen cast off our lines as we back away from the end of the world.