Friday, January 6, 2012

The Drake Passage Part 1

The Drake Passage has taken its share of sailors and sentenced them to death.  Upwards of 100 ships sank here in the eighteenth century.  Until the completion of the Panama Canal in 1914, the route around Cape Horn through the Drake was a major trade passage for the world.  Even though the passage between the tip of South America and Antarctica is 1000km wide, it is the shortest distance between the rest of the world and the White Continent and so water in the  Antarctic circumpolar current funnels through this stretch at a fantastic rate.  If the Southern Ocean were a jacuzzi (at between -1 and 4 degrees C it most certainly is NOT a jacuzzi) the Drake would be the jets.  The Pacific, Atlantic, and Southern oceans meet in the Drake and shake hands and, as an added bonus, there is really very little land on either side of the Drake so wind has a good long while to work itself up and to build waves which have been reported to reach beyond 30 meters high.

As a result, even the most hardy sailors can sometimes barf their way across this particular stretch of water.  It is a kind of River Styx between Antarctica and the rest of the world (with this metaphor, the rest of the world represents, for me, the underworld).  Or it is a portal to Antarctica – you can not enter the pristine world without passing this trial.

I wake at 4 am to the ship rolling and I know we are now out on the open ocean.  We're also pitching forward and I pat myself on the back for taking my motion sickness pills earlier.  My bunk is oriented from port to starboard while my brother, Scott, sleeps bow to stern.  So for him the roll of the ship is like being nudged every thirty seconds by someone telling him to roll over and quit snoring, while I'm being rocked like a baby.

I put on some clothes sitting down on my bunk so I don't get knocked around and then make my way up two decks to the bridge.  The ship has an “open bridge” policy which means I'm welcome there twenty-four hours.  As I climb the stairs, I have to hold on to both railings to avoid getting knocked down but when I get to the bridge and look out the window, I'm shocked to see that the water is calm—no whitecaps.  In fact, we're not even facing real waves.  The roll is just the swell of the open ocean on a small ship.  We have it easy.  I go back to sleep for a while to the ocean's lullaby.

After breakfast, I learn that seventeen of our fifty-four passengers are lying low with sea sickness.  The ship's doctor has given some people shots.  It's a routine part of his job and all of the people who are unwell will be better before long.  This crossing isn't bad but I can still feel the blood in my body shifting back and forth in unfamiliar ways and I decide to take another pill.

In the morning, the expedition's ornithologist, Christian, gives a lecture on sea birds and I fall asleep part way through.  I apologize to him after and he says he's used to it – the medication puts most of the passengers to sleep.  But I decide that I want to be as conscious as I can be.  I want to be wide open and awake for all the stimulation Antarctica has for me.  I decide to put the pills away.

The day is quiet.  We trudge forward through the open water.  There are Wandering Albatrosses, Storm Petrels, Cape Petrels and other long distance birds.  Astonishingly, they live most of their lives on the wild, open ocean travelling hundreds or thousands of kilometers to find good feeding patches and resting, when they need to, on the high seas.  They follow the ship because our propeller churns up organic material.  These birds couldn't survive without the constant wind.  They sail on it and let it carry them the huge distances they travel.  Every few weeks, they head back to their breeding grounds  where they'll feed their young with the super concentrated oil their bodies make while they wander.

Very few species live their lives in this wild place.  Above sea level anyway.  Below, the depth reaches beyond three kilometers deep.  Who knows what bides its time way down there?


  1. Excellent post Jay! I especially love the picture that comes to mind as you "trudge forward through the open water."

  2. Looking forward to hearing all about Antarctica! I've read numerous books about the place, so I'm really looking forward to yours. You are writing a book, aren't you?

  3. From a fellow new member of ACE, your posts have been wonderful (and nostalgic) reads! Look forward to reading the rest of them. And make that 18 of 54 -- shortly after attending Christian's talk, I, shall we say, christened the Polar Pioneer with my breakfast of champions, but never bothered reporting to Dr. John (who needs doctors anyway?).


  4. Hi Jay, your blog is so evocative, despite being overcome by sea-sickness durning that Drake crossing, your blog has made me feel nostagic and I want to still be there in that place on earth(Antartica) that felt like another world, an alien one, not of this planet. You miss the wind! I miss the lack of human noise, and the crinkling and tinkling of sea-ice rubbing up against each other, and the rumblings of the avalanches and the shifting shoulders of the mountains.