Travelogue: Crossing the Drake

The long-anticipated moment had finally arrived! While my trip was essentially booked on a whim, the whole purpose of my two-month adventure was to travel to Antarctica. Sure, I’d found some great additional places to visit to round out my time, but the call of the ice and penguins was paramount. I’m not going to lie, the price to snag a berth on board the ship wasn’t cheap. As a matter of fact, it cost nearly as much as the remaining six weeks of my itinerary! But all of those months of working hard and saving every penny, foregoing sleep and spare time for extra surgical cases – they were all worth it. I knew I’d made the right choice as soon as I set foot on the ship.

We were greeted on the dock by the members of our Quark expedition team and welcomed to our home for the next two weeks, the gorgeous Sea Adventurer. With six habitable decks, she had enough room for all 117 (I think) of us paying passengers, as well as expedition, ship and hotel staff. We had access to all the amenities we might want on our voyage, including a library with an amazing view and fantastic outdoor spaces where we could watch the frozen world go by.

Once we’d surrendered our passports and figured out our sleeping arrangements, everyone met in the main lounge for an introductory chat from Shane, our expedition leader. It was short and sweet, because once boarding was finalized, we all headed out to the main decks to watch Ushuaia fade into the distance as we set out into the Beagle Channel. We made our way past the true end of the world, the last inhabited piece of land on the continent, and enjoyed gorgeous vistas over dinner in the main dining room.

After dinner I enjoyed the fresh air out on the aft deck and watched the sun set behind land mass for the last time for a couple of days. As we approached the end of the Beagle Channel, a small tug boat sidled up to our ship for a few seconds and zipped back off to land again. I chatted with Santiago, our Ornithologist, and Michelle and Alex, our naturalists and kayak guides, about this – they explained it’s mandatory for a navigator to steer the ship until the end of the channel, at which point they disembark. With the yellow, nearly-full moon high in the sky, I made my way back down to my bunk for some much needed rest.

Our original plan was to wait until 9am to set out into the Drake Passage, but as the weather was analyzed over night they realized there was a second storm front right behind the one we were trying to avoid, so they pulled up anchor and ventured out early. As a result, when we woke to the ship-wide call the next morning, the seas were already well and truly rolling around us! I was extremely grateful for my foresight in taking some Stemetil the night before. I will maintain, however, that it scrambled my brain, because I then had the brilliant idea of doing some hand-washing in the basin in the bathroom. In the Drake Passage. In between two storms with 40 knot winds. There was less washing and more being tossed back and forth across the tiny, slippery room. Definitely the most hilarious attempt at laundry I’ve ever undertaken.

I made my way upstairs to breakfast like a drunken yobbo and somehow managed not to fall over while doing so. The white paper emesis bags tucked into the handrails every few feet didn’t bode well for the rest of our passage… My brain liked the idea of food, but my stomach wasn’t so convinced, so I kept it to a minimum. With the amount of movement I could see out the windows, it was no surprise the dining room was extremely quiet!

I made every attempt to focus during the presentation by David, our expedition historian, on the early history of Antarctic discovery, but I couldn’t watch the projection screen without wanting to vomit. The main lounge is at the front of the ship and when they’re out on the open ocean they have all the windows in the room closed up for safety reasons. As far as my highly-confused inner ear was concerned, it was a terrible idea! Instead of spewing in public, as I’d already seen a few people do, I decided they could live without me for the next talk and climbed up to the bridge to clap eyes on my dear friend, the horizon. Holy crap on a cracker, was it choppy! Imaging being on the sixth deck of a ship and watching the view out the window change from all-sky, to all-water, and back again. And that was only one axis of movement!

The next presentation on the schedule coaxed me back into what I dubbed the Evil Den of Nausea, and I managed to make it through Santiago’s talk on the various species of birds who live in and around Antarctica. I could’ve kissed him when he suggested we all head up on deck and see if we could spot any birds in the area. There were a couple of winged tag-alongs surfing in the wake of air behind our ship – pretty incredible to consider, when you think about how far away land was. There are some species of birds who, once weaned, can spend up to seven years on and over the water before returning to land!

A few more of us managed lunch, but the tables were still quite sparsely populated. I braved the EDN again for the talk from our marine biologist, Dany, on Antarctic sea mammals – definitely my favourite group, apart from our friends the black and white flightless birds! He gave us all kinds of details about how to differentiate between the different groups of whales and seals we might see. I persisted because I loved the subject matter, but after another hour in that room I had to admit defeat and head back to my cabin to listen to the rest of the lectures on the TV broadcast from there. My lovely roomie, Stella, gave me one of her scopolamine patches and I tried the closed-eyes and body in full-contact with the moving ship approach (aka laying on the bed). However, with all my antiemetics on board, I just zonked out – so much for the discussion of Antarctic geology… Sorry, Phil!

Fortunately my liver did its job and processed the drugs enough for me to wake up for dinner – after eating like a sparrow all day I was finally hungry! I would have liked to watch the movie about Shackleton which was shown in the EDN afterwards, but I figured I wouldn’t test my luck and keep my no-vomit victory in tact. Drake Passage – 0, Sarah – 1.

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Day two on the Drake started with a gentle roll, rather than the outright tumult of the preceding morning. Breakfast was much more lively and I was much happier with my new magical medicine on board! I practically squee-ed my way through Santiago’s penguin talk as he informed us about the wide variety of species which live in the various regions of Antarctica. Afterward I hung out on deck for a while, as EDN was still not my favourite place, and watched our guides work their way through rappelling drills with their gear.

After lunch we all queued up in the hallways below deck to get our borrowed boots fitted – in addition to the parkas which we would keep, they were the other piece of gear supplied for use during our landings. We also had an info session about the biosecurity requirements for anyone who wants to set foot on the continent, and all had our personal items inspected and vacuumed by staff to make sure we wouldn’t transplant anything foreign during our landings. While waiting for my turn, I may or may not have made a few purchases at the cute little gift shop and come away with more than just the postcards I intended to buy… Thanks, Tess!

Once we were all decontaminated, David gave us a recount of the race between Shackleton, Scott, and Amundsen to reach the South Pole. Talk about gutsy! I was nervous to head down on a heated ship, full of creature comforts, and those guys did it with minimal knowledge of where they were headed and what it would take to get there. Now that’s a true adventurer.

In the evening we had a Captain’s cocktail hour and a few short TED-style talks from the expedition crew. By the time we made it to dinner, we were all nice and merry! Had a wonderful evening with what would become my “usual” dinner crew of Prem, my roomie, and Susan and Foster, an awesome couple from New York.

I was too excited about the prospect of seeing land the next day to go to sleep just yet, so I froze my bum off on the deck until I couldn’t stand it any longer. With a mug of tea in hand, I caught up on some journaling in the side lounge while the others watched a movie. The two days at sea had flown by and suddenly, the call of the continent was sounding strong. Only one more day of steaming straight south and we would cross the Antarctic Circle.

Drake Passage – 0, Sarah – 2.

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