It has taken 52 hours to cross the Drake Passage from Thompson Island, our last landing in Antarctica. During that time, the Drake more than lived up to its reputation as the most unpredictable stretch of sea in the world.
Three nights ago we looked at weather charts that showed intense winds forming in the southern Pacific, to the west of South America. It looked like they would hit us just as we started heading back to Argentina.
The passage is named after the English mariner and sometimes pirate, Sir Francis Drake. On his second voyage in 1578, Drake made several attempts to find his way around South America. He gave his name to the stormy passage that separates Tierra del Fuego from Antarctica. The powerful Antarctic Ocean currents mix here at great depths and force to the surface nutrients that are then spread around the planet through the oceanic circulatory system. The Antarctic current is the strongest in the world at 135,000,000 cubic metres per second. Add to that the winds that appear out of nowhere, and you have a potent mixture.
We hit a nearly perfect Drake storm last night. The charts were showing red and purple (indicating high wind speeds) and we “Drake-proofed” our cabins and the ship as best as possible.
It wasn’t enough. By 8 pm on Thursday night we were in 8 metre swells, with the occasional 10-metre thrown in, and the wind was building to 60 knots. The ship bounced around like a cork. Every minute or so it would shake violently as a wave hit the bow and poured over her length, spilling back into the sea off the stern. The wind also pushed walls of water at the ship from the side. The impact was so powerful that people were knocked off their feet, furniture moved and anything that wasn’t tied down was airborne.
The outer decks were closed as a safety precaution and we were advised to move about as little as possible. Some people had retreated to their beds the day before. Others collapsed on couches, pulled coats over themselves and lapsed into gravol-induced unconsciousness. And, of course, a small number of people went up to the bridge, five stories up, and enjoyed the ride.
The force of one of the waves pushed a student through a closed door and out onto the deck. She was grabbed by the ankles before she could slide into the ship’s rail. It was an unsettling moment, to say the least. The ship’s crew screwed the door shut just to be safe. In fact, many doors were locked to prevent people from either going out on deck or being pushed through the door by the waves’ impact.
Getting to bed, and staying in bed, was a major challenge. My roommate, Hans, and I shoved as much of our gear into the small cabin closest as possible. It was impossible to shower, or wash because the small bathroom was moving so much. I’ll spare the description of what happens to shipboard toilets in such violent weather. The word “geyser” comes to mind.
By morning, the waves had settled a bit although the ship was still rolling. The captain had taken us about 120 kilometres off course to try to prevent the waves sideswiping the ship. The wind dropped and the sea, while not exactly calm, was at least settling down. Storm petrels reappeared, gliding serenely beside the ship. They all vanished yesterday and we were left alone in the raging Drake. Their return was a welcome sign of better weather ahead.
And flatter water ahead too. Tonight we re-enter the Beagle Channel on the last part of the voyage. Sometime around 2 am a pilot will board the ship to take us the last leg to Ushuaia.
But none of us will forget this last sleepless night in a hurry. It’s all part of the Antarctic package. “Paying our dues to the Drake,” as one student from Scotland put it.