The Drake Passage

In the Ray and Steven Doan Photographic Collection

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Everyone who travels to Antarctica from Argentina has a story to tell about the Drake Passage. Here's mine.

The Drake Passage is the body of water from Cape Horn to the Antarctic Peninsula. It is known as the roughest ocean in the world. Satellite images show a cyclonic low of basically hurricane strength travels through the Drake Passage on the average of once every three weeks.

The Drake Passage was on everyone's mind when we left Ushuaia, Argentina at 6:30 AM aboard the Russian Ice Breaker Capatain Drynetsin. An ice breaker is the worst kind of ship to take through rough seas. It has a shape like a big bathtub and it has no stabilization equipment due to its ice breaking function. Everyone was fearing a rough crossing.

The ship had an Argentine based Pilot for the first 60 miles through the protected Beagle Channel. We saw large groups of Magalantic Penguins swimming in the Channel. We had a life boat drill which didn't do anything to help people's confidence. The lifeboats are like miniature submarines and from the outside look like they would be crowded with 20 people. You're then told the capacity is 60 people. Everyone is strapped in with seat belts and shoulder harnesses like your in a jet fighter. Claustrophobic is a word that immediately comes to mind when you look inside.

The beginning of the Drake Passage was very smooth with a gentle swell. By bed time the ship was rolling quite a bit. I was sleeping on a berth that ran front to back, parallel to the side of the ship. By 2AM I've never been to sleep, I was afraid to let go of the side of the bed for fear of rolling out onto the floor. At that point I gave up and switched to a little upper, fold down cot, that ran crossways of the ship. Then I didn't feel like I'd end up on the floor but I was sure I would end up with skin burns, from sliding from one end of the cot to the other.

In the morning, on the bridge, I was told the ship had rolled to 35║ during the night. The seas didn't look that bad, large swells without white caps. Apparently the heavy rolling was just from the ice breaker shape of the ship, I couldn't imagine what it would have been like if it had been really rough.

To reduce the rolling during the night the captain had turned the ship east, instead of the southeast direction we needed to go. He announced that he would be turning back to southeast after breakfast at 9AM. There was a low turnout for breakfast, it appeared that about 60% of the passengers were seasick. At 9AM the rolling immediately increased up to 27║.

My roommate decided to take a shower, and not surprisingly that resulted in water all over the bathroom floor, that had splashed over the 4" high lip at the shower door. I found some showers on the bottom deck, next to the exercise room, where there was less rolling motion and it didn't matter where the water splashed. My cabin was on the 6th level, one from the top, which was much worse when the ship was rolling. The cheaper, lower level staterooms, were a better deal for the Drake Passage.

We saw our first icebergs at 6PM on the second day, two small ones. The second night was a lot better than the first. The swells and the rolling subsided during the night and I got a good nights sleep. We woke up in the morning to find our position at 60║25' South so we were officially in Antarctica, and through the Drake Passage. We had small icebergs all around the ship and one large tabular berg off the starboard side.

The casualty toll for the Drake passage turned out to be three people, out of the ninety passengers. One woman ran into the doorjamb in her stateroom and required stitches in her head. Another woman fell over a chair in her stateroom and either badly bruised or cracked some ribs. The serious case was the man who broke his leg on the bridge.

The bridge was the largest single room on the ship, it was the entire width of the ship. It was filled with large navigation consoles and it had wide open aisles that ran all away across the ship. During the heavy rolling the ship would sometimes make a moderate roll in one direction and then unexpectedly make almost a snap roll much further in the other direction.

Apparently, the fellow that was injured was between consoles when one of the snap rolls occurred and he involuntarily began running across the ship, in the long open aisle. He finally ran into a console and broke a leg bone high up on his hip. His injury was serious enough that the poor guy had to spend the remainder of the trip in his bunk.

They didn't give us a Tee Shirt saying 'I survived the Drake Passage' but it might have been in order.


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This page was last updated: June 17, 2011