Silver Explorer, Antarctica: Day 2, Sailing The Dreaded Drake

Day 2 – Sailing The Dreaded Drake

Cruising Silver Explorer to Antarctica. © 2013 Ralph Grizzle
The pilot boat’s arrival marked that we were nearing the end of the Beagle Channel and the beginning of the Drake Passage. © 2013 Ralph Grizzle

At 9:30 p.m. on Thursday, a little more than three hours after departing Ushuaia, I watched as a pilot boat arced alongside Silver Explorer. The compact boat had arrived to pick up the local pilot who had helped navigate Silver Explorer through the Beagle Channel. Though the channel would not have been difficult for Silver Explorer’s Captain Adam Boczek to navigate himself, using a local pilot in Ushuaia is compulsory, as it is in most ports throughout the world.

The pilots come and go by different means. After leaving Bordeaux, I once watched as a helicopter lowered a rope ladder onto the ship’s deck to pick up the pilot and take him to another ship. Piloting is a big — and lucrative — business in ports of call worldwide.

Last night, I watched our pilot descend a rope ladder onto the bobbing boat alongside. As the boat began to pull away, the pilot waved goodbye. That gesture and his departure marked a milestone in my travel career: We had arrived at the end of the Beagle Channel and, more importantly, the beginning of the Drake Passage.

Cruising Silver Explorer to Antarctica. © 2013 Ralph Grizzle
Sailing the Beagle Channel last night (the sun sets late in the South American summer). © 2013 Ralph Grizzle

The Dreaded Drake

Through more than two decades of cruising, no voyage has ever filled me with such excitement — or trepidation. Though I had sailed through the Gulf of Aden and along the pirate-riddled Somalian coast, the Drake Passage represented something altogether different. The seas here are legendary, and they can be frightening.

Cruising Silver Explorer to Antarctica. © 2013 Ralph Grizzle
On the agenda for today: Crossing the Drake Passage, part one. © 2013 Ralph Grizzle

As I noted in yesterday’s post, waves in the Drake Passage can reach up to 90 feet, according to some sources. With no significant land mass anywhere in the world at the latitude of the Drake Passage, the Antarctic Circumpolar Current is unimpeded and carries a volume of water equal to about 600 times the flow of the Amazon River. Though frightening to contemplate such force of nature, I was expecting an epic performance, and I looked forward to it.

I have crossed the notorious Tasman Sea, twice, in one direction that the hotel director characterized as “uphill.” A bottle of wine and glassware went sliding off my stateroom desk during one particularly aggressive lurch.

I’ve cruised the otherwise gentle Baltic Sea, when during a storm on one night I returned to my stateroom to find my pillow in mid-air. By the following morning, the sea was calm again.

I’ve never considered motion-sickness precautions — bands, patches or tablets — until this voyage. My physician back home prescribed Meclizine, 25 milligram tablets to be taken every six hours as needed to prevent and treat nausea, vomiting and dizziness caused by motion sickness.

Cruising Silver Explorer to Antarctica. © 2013 Ralph Grizzle
To prevent them from launching, dining room chairs and tables are chained to the floor on Silver Explorer. © 2013 Ralph Grizzle

At midnight, Silver Explorer had reached open ocean, the beginning of the Drake Passage. I had been in bed for an hour by then, lulled to sleep by the gentle motion of the ship.

The next morning, the motion of the ship was pronounced, and I had trouble making it from the bed to the bathroom, lurching back and forth and stumbling sideways as I made my way forward.

I had not yet taken the tablet, thinking I would not need it. But as the morning progressed, the ship’s pitch and roll continued, and I became dizzy and nauseous. The waves, I later learned from the captain, were topping out at about 5 meters (15 feet), and though Silver Explorer uses stabilizers, the tiny ship was tossed.

My roommate Chris was not feeling so great either. He threw up a few times and confined himself to the room for most of the day. I gave him a tablet, and within a few hours he was feeling better. I should note that our butler, Ari, brought Chris ginger, crackers and green apple, reportedly natural remedies for motion sickness.

I was well enough to move about the ship and attended a morning lecture about birds, then went out on deck with several others to spot petrels and albatross, among other species.

Cruising Silver Explorer to Antarctica. © 2013 Ralph Grizzle
Spotting albatross and other birds on Silver Explorer. © 2013 Ralph Grizzle

Afterward, I attended another lecture about photography, had sushi for lunch (with ginger), and attended a third lecture about the history of exploration in Antarctica. All of the lectures, I should note, were entertaining and informative.

Only One More Day To Go

To reach the South Shetland Islands from Ushuaia would require that we cross 620 nautical miles of open ocean, a rite of passage, I suppose.

During a presentation about our voyage on Thursday evening, Silver Explorer’s Expedition Leader, Kara, told the 114 guests on our sailing: “The Drake Passage, whatever the weather, is worth enduring just to get to Antarctica.”

The Fairbanks, Alaska, native said something next that lent a marked degree of credibility to her claim: This trip would mark her 112th to Antarctica. She has crossed the dreaded Drake more than 200 times.

Kara told us that the forecast did not look too bad. She referred to a website, Passage Weather, which gives a fairly accurate forecast of what sailors and ships can expect when crossing the Drake Passage. The wind speeds suggested an easy crossing.

Cruising Silver Explorer to Antarctica. © 2013 Ralph Grizzle
From Passage Weather: A relatively mild wind forecast, suggesting an easy crossing. © 2013 Ralph Grizzle

I asked Kara afterward about the roughest seas she had encountered in the Drake Passage. Waves topping 20 meters (more than 60 feet), she responded. That was with another company, and nowadays, she said, captains won’t take ships across in those conditions.

The seas calmed in the late afternoon. I felt much better, and Chris emerged from the room. Aside from walking down corridors like pinballs being punched about, most of the passengers appeared to be only mildly affected by the motion, and some were not affected at all.

Cruising Silver Explorer to Antarctica. © 2013 Ralph Grizzle
Motion sickness bags hang on the railings in corridors on Silver Explorer. © 2013 Ralph Grizzle

When I saw Kara again tonight, I asked how she would rank our crossing so far on a scale of 1 to 10, the latter suggesting the most violent seas. She gave it a two; Sujith, the hotel director, ranked it a one. Essentially, this was an easy and uneventful crossing.

Cruising Silver Explorer to Antarctica. © 2013 Ralph Grizzle
Making our way through the Drake Passage. © 2013 Ralph Grizzle

Silver Explorer is chugging along at around 12 knots per hour. Maintaining that speed, we will cover the 620 nautical miles to the South Shetland Islands in close to 51 hours, which will put us there at around 9 p.m. on Saturday, still light under the Antarctic summer sun.

Cruising Silver Explorer to Antarctica. © 2013 Ralph Grizzle
Most of the Drake in the ship’s wake. © 2013 Ralph Grizzle

At dinner tonight, Captain Boczek said that we were in for some amazing sights. I can hardly wait.

December 12 Ushuaia, ArgentinaCharter flight from Buenos Aires; Embark Silver Explorer5:00 PM
December 13Sailing The Drake Passage
December 14Crossing The Drake, Day 2
December 15Cruise & Explore the Antarctic Peninsula
December 16Cruise & Explore the Antarctic Peninsula
December 17Cruise & Explore the Antarctic Peninsula
December 18Cruise & Explore the Antarctic Peninsula
December 19Cruise & Explore the Antarctic Peninsula
December 20Sailing the Drake Passage, Redux
December 21Sailing the Drake Passage
December 22Ushuaia, Argentina8:00 AMDisembark Silver Explorer; return charter flight to Buenos Aires.