Crossing the Drake Passage to Antarctica: Sometimes Life Throws Us Surprises

Posted on December 5, 2012 by

My Antarctica expedition didn’t start the way I’d expected it to. There were no plates shattering, chairs flying across hallways, nor Titanic-like mayhem. There was not even a single dark cloud or gust of wind. Instead, bright sunshine, clear skies and a light breeze accompanied us throughout the Drake Passage. Albatrosses glided and swerved alongside our ship as we sailed the calm seas. If not for the momentary rolling, I would have thought we were cruising the Mediterranean.

The Drake Passage is usually no walk in the park. Extending some 645km from the southern tip of South America to the northernmost tip of Antarctica, this infamous body of water is notorious for having the roughest seas in the world. Many sailing ships of yesteryear have fallen victim to the treacherous conditions, which can include 10m swells, howling winds and icy waters. For all Antarctic explorers setting off from South America, this serves as a rite of passage.

Right from the start, our expedition leader aboard MS Expedition had prepared us for the worst, “Weather conditions in Antarctica are very unpredictable. We cannot promise anything except two things: ice and bad weather.” We all broke out into a series of nervous laughter. According to the expedition crew, passengers on the voyage prior to ours had experienced one of the worst Drake Passage crossings of the season — dinners in the restaurant were switched to sandwiches at the lounge, only 10% of the passengers made it to the lectures, and a couple of them even got injured because they hadn’t hung on tightly.

Thankfully, we’ve had good luck and great weather. In fact, the perfect weather allowed us to make double the distance and arrive at the South Shetland Islands before schedule.

Leaving Tierra del Fuego

Antarctica’s Unpredictable Temper

But once we left the Drake Passage behind us, circumstances changed dramatically. Wind picked up to 60 knots and a  mist had settled over the horizon. Occasionally jagged peaks and islands emerged through the white fog, teasing us with slight glimpses of the encroaching continent. We continued to sail through the English Strait towards Aitcho Island, where the expedition crew had planned to land that evening. Our ship started to rock violently with the blasting wind. Some passengers huddled in their cabins, while others braved the winds outside, eagerly staring out to shore that was so close yet so far.

Soon enough came the announcement: there was no chance of a landing. It was clear that conditions in Antarctica can change instantly and sometimes they’re just beyond our control. That’s why this isn’t simply your average luxury cruise. Despite the creature comfort onboard, it is still a genuine adventure. As our assistant expedition leader Andrea eloquently put it into perspective, “We human beings like to be in control all the time. Here in Antarctica, nothing is within our control. It’s the only place where we let nature take its course.”

Crossing the Drake Passage

That evening, I spent my time getting to meet new people – there were over 140 fellow passengers to meet, each of them fascinating. I quickly discovered that each of my fellow travelers is a real traveler, all with intriguing stories from various corners of the world to share. In addition, there were back-to-back lectures held by the expedition crew on various topics surrounding Antarctica. All of our lecturers were accomplished naturalists, geologists and marine biologists, each of them specializing in areas such as photography, birds, ice and rocks. I devoured the lectures and could barely keep up with the flurry of knowledge imparted upon us.

I could barely sleep that night. On the following morning, we would land in Antarctica. I had waited a lifetime for my Antarctic dream to come true – what was one more day to me?

 Pestrel gliding by our ship


Disclaimer: I traveled with G Adventures on the Antarctica Classic In Depth (XVAESX) trip as a part of the Wanderers In Residence program, but all opinions expressed here are entirely my own. Follow my journey on this blog, or on Twitter with the #WJAntarctica hashtag. 

About Nellie Huang

Nellie Huang is a professional travel writer and blogger with a special interest in off-grid destinations and adventure travel. Her mission is to visit every country in the world. In her quest, she's climbed an active volcano in Iceland, swam with sealions in the Galapagos, built a school in Tanzania, waddled with penguins in Antarctica, crossed into North Korea and drank beer in Palestine.

9 Responses to “Crossing the Drake Passage to Antarctica: Sometimes Life Throws Us Surprises”

  1. Katie December 6, 2012 10:32 pm #

    Wow. I've never been to Antarctica or even been a fan of the cold, but the photos are stunning! I might just be adding this to my list of places to visit.

    • Nellie December 7, 2012 7:20 am #

      I have never been a fan of the cold either! But Antarctica is really special, Im sure you will make an exception for it, just like I did.

  2. Jeremy Branham December 7, 2012 3:22 pm #

    Wow, what a crazy journey! I am not a big fan of cruises but one to Antarctica would be fascinating. However, this would be a little scary. I am not sure I would want to do this – cold and crazy seas may be a bit too much for me :)

  3. Steve Newman December 8, 2012 12:30 am #

    Being a professional travel writer and photographer I can experience this with you. We too had a "Drake lake " when crossing over to the Wedell Sea for a long week and not a "Drake shake". I love the picture of the cape petrel the memories of them and the albatrosses flying around the ship will never leave me.

  4. Migration Expert January 6, 2013 7:16 pm #

    I also want to go to Antarctica to see the seals and penguins face to face but I can't bear longer the cold weather. :(

  5. Aaron March 6, 2013 9:33 am #

    I have enjoyed reading your posts. I was on the G Adventures trip that was just prior to yours there in Antarctica where everyone was sick and getting tossed around because of the rough crossing (30 foot waves)(ship doc had to give himself stitches from crushing his face into the wall). When I talked to your ship photographer later he told me that your crossing went beautiful so I was a little bit envious since we had a rough time both directions. I would go again though!! What a trip.

  6. dr oz garcinia March 23, 2013 9:37 am #

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