Antarctica, Day 12: A rough journey through the Drake Passage

March 14, 2022 • 10:30 am

As Rodney Dangerfield used to say, “You think you had it rough?” Yesterday, as part of our 1.5-day voyage through the Drake Passage, the strait separating the tip of South America from the South Shetland Islands, we suffered the heaviest seas I’ve seen on this ship yet. But first a bit about the Passage from Wikipedia and then a map:

The Drake Passage (referred to as Mar de Hoces [“Hoces Sea”] in Spain and other Spanish speaking countries) is the body of water between South America’s Cape Horn, Chile and the South Shetland Islands of Antarctica. It connects the southwestern part of the Atlantic Ocean (Scotia Sea) with the southeastern part of the Pacific Ocean and extends into the Southern Ocean.

The Drake Passage is considered one of the most treacherous voyages for ships to make. Currents at its latitude meet no resistance from any landmass, and waves top 40 feet (12 m), hence its reputation as “the most powerful convergence of seas”.

As the Drake Passage is the narrowest passage around Antarctica, its existence and shape strongly influence the circulation of water around Antarctica and the global oceanic circulation, as well as the global climate. The bathymetry of the Drake Passage plays an important role on the global mixing of oceanic water.

(From Wikipedia): Drake Passage showing the boundary points A, B, C, D, E and F accorded by the Treaty of Peace and Friendship of 1984 between Chile and Argentina

The line above apparently delineates the part of the Passage construed as Argentinian territorial waters, to the right, from Chilean waters, to the left. We will be passing through the waters of both countries but will stop only at Chilean sites (Port Williams today to take on pilots and get clearance, and Punta Arenas for final docking.

The treaty contains a preamble, a maritime border definition, a comprehensive body of legislation on solving disputes, ship navigation rights and an exact definition of the border through the Straits of Magellan. Chile and Argentina, though never at war with each other, have named some of their border treaties as “peace treaties”.

The passage is rough because it’s part of the world flow of ocean currents, both deep and shallow, but the narrowness of the passage speeds up the flow of water. That, in conjunction with the local winds, often leads to very heavy seas. When you’re lucky enough to have a smooth crossing (as I have two times out of five), it’s called crossing the “Drake Lake.”

(From Wikipedia) Water circulates around the globe as if it was on a conveyor belt. The Drake Passage is the narrowest channel, and its shape (width, depth and bottom roughness) strongly affects the global circulation.

As I can’t see YouTube down here, I’ve embedded a video about making the Drake Crossing; I hope it’s interesting.

I can’t imagine rowing through what could be treacherous seas, but of course Shackleton did a lot of that on his journey from Elephant Island to South Georgia, and, just a few years ago, six guys rowed across the Drake Passage:

The first human-powered transit (by rowing) across the passage was accomplished on December 25, 2019. Their accomplishment became the subject of a 2020 documentary, The Impossible Row.

. . .and if you look up the documentary, you find this:

The Impossible Row is a documentary from the Discovery Channel. It follows explorers as they row across the Drake Passage and become the first in history to do so. The journey took twelve days and ended on December 25, 2019 with the six crew members reaching Antarctica. They were the first to accomplish three feats, including the first to row across the Drake Passage, the first to row to the Antarctic, and the first to row in the South Ocean

I can’t see YouTube videos here, but this is segment five of that movie. I trust it’ll be interesting but who knows?

It’s impossible to show you the heaving of the ship and the roughness of the sea in pictures (I do have video, but can’t post it here), but here are a few photos from my balcony, the bar, and the restaurant I’m just glad that I don’t get seasick, as this would be hell for the nausea-prone.

From my balcony:

From on deck (later in the day we were forbidden to go on deck lest we get thrown overboard):


From the Fredheim dining room, where, since I had had a very light breakfast and no lunch (we’ve had no landings to work off calories), I tucked into a juicy steakburger for dinner.

This hit the spot:

Dessert: buckthorn crêpe described as “Homemade caramelized buckthorn jam, lime zest.”

Now you may ask yourself, “What the deuce is buckthorn.?” I hadn’t heard of it either. It turns out that the buckthorns that are edible are the sea buckthorns, deciduous shrubs in the family Elaeagnaceae. The raw berries, below, are very sour and astrigent, but can be made edible. As Wikipedia notes,

Besides juice, sea buckthorn fruit can be used to make pies, jams, lotions, teas, fruit wines, and liquors. The juice or pulp has other potential applications in foods, beverages, or cosmetics products such as shower gel. Fruit drinks were among the earliest sea buckthorn products developed in China. Sea buckthorn-based juice is common in Germany and Scandinavian countries. It provides a beverage rich in vitamin C and carotenoids.]

The berries:

My crepes, which were very good. They aren’t that appealing looking, though: they fall into that class of food which one of my friends would look at and say, “Are you gonna eat that, or did you already eat that?”

During dinner, during the swells, my chair would slide away from the table because of the rough seas, so I solved that by wrapping my legs around the table post. And right as I finished my dinner, the Big One hit, throwing my chair completely across the narrow dining room and dumping me on the floor. My emptied plates and glasses fell to the floor and shattered. The overturned chair in the foreground is mine. I thought it was funny, but of course the staff was concerned that I’d been hurt. It was nice of them, but although I’m old, I’m not feeble!

All the chairs out of place had slid across the room during a big wave.

Last night I’d awaken periodically as things like toothpaste fell to the floor of my room and the closet doors, securely magnetized shut, would swing open. But I do find the rocking of the ship peaceful, as if I were a baby again.

42 thoughts on “Antarctica, Day 12: A rough journey through the Drake Passage

  1. Din’t ask me why this occurred to me, but it sounds like a great opportunity to play with a DIY accelerometer – like a ping pong ball tethered to a screw-top jar filled with water … wonder if a magnet on a tether would work….

    1. An office chair on wheels works perfectly well as an accelerometer. Particularly when you’re trying to write up and email the previous day’s worth of reports.

  2. Do you know how high the average waves were, roughly? It amazes me that free moving chairs are even used in such a voyage, since I would think they would be thrown about on at least a semi-regular basis. Are they particularly heavy? The tables, at least, are clearly bolted down.

      1. Come to think of it, if their center of mass was close to the floor, … less of a tipping problem.

        In practice, they’d need maybe tungsten legs shaped like cones… covered with a finish of straight panels… hmmmm….

        1. On the big blue ships, there are little threaded holes in the floor, and turnbuckles on the chairs that you can screw into them if the rolling gets really bad. They were very rarely used.
          You do get used to the idea of sort of holding your plate and glass in place with one hand when it starts rolling.

    1. Check the underside of the tables for bolted-in eyelets for securing bungee cords to hold the chairs in place when not being sat upon.

  3. Wow glad you don’t get sea sick. I got very sick working on a fishing boat in the Gulf of Alaska after college. The cook had the most amazing timing: before every storm he always managed to serve something for dinner that would look spectacular on the way back up (like spaghetti). Turns out he was watching the weather forecast, and picking the meals for greatest effect.

      1. Ya he was a good guy and a great card player. Plus working on that boat was a fantastic experience, so I have a rosy recall of most things about it including the cook’s sense of humour.

    1. I remember at 10yo or so having to stand in the bow of a heaving ship off the coast of Queensland. That was the only place my dad could stand and *not* get sick, so mom told me to go out there and stand with him.
      In real life the waves must not have been very high, or the crew wouldn’t have let either of us stand there (maybe? This was pre- western cultural safety obsession). But my kid’s memories are that when the bow went up, the water looked a really long way down, and when the bow went down, the whole sky went dark as the water in front of us blocked out the sun.

  4. in re “ Are you gonna eat that, … … or did you already eat that ? ” =s how … … I cook.

    O’course, I managed to get three, wee boys passed their babyhoods.


    1. My son, at the age of 11 weeks in 1966, crossed westwards on the Atlantic Ocean, and of course slept like a log, never sick. The roaring, vibrating ship’s engines, and the rocking, were perfect for an infant. Later however he had more trouble with motion sickness than his sister. Crossing the other way eastwards the next time in 1970, we had a 3 and 4 year old, as well as unluckily a strong wind from the northeast steadily for 3 days. So the ship was ‘corkscrewing’ badly, and I’d find a place outdoors for us in the middle of the ship, both front-to-back and side-to-side. That worked quite well, though they were both a bit younger than what seems to be the worst age interval for travel sickness.

      In those days, air travel was expensive and not as common, but mainly the ship was better if going for a stay of well over a year, with the needed stuff. I even transported older Landrover campers twice that way back to Canada. So we used Cunard, then CP after Cunard quit, then a Polish line between Montreal and Gdansk when both had quit. So I crossed in a boat 3 times each way, my wife 5 total crossings, and the children 4 and 3 times respectively. We sent them back by air to their grandparents when around 8 and 9. Little else, so I’ve never had the extensive sea travel that several here have.

      But also Hurtigruten, between Nordcapp and Svalbard a few years ago, was rough one night as I’ve mentioned. My wife missed breakfast with me not exactly stuffing myself as I habitually do (then I claim less at supper).

      Those Hurtigrutens somehow don’t think that a bunch of lectures on algebraic topology or mathematical logic for their Antarctic cruise passengers will go over that well (joking of course). So, for me, getting there is highly unlikely—lucky Jerry, despite the difficulties. I hope his 2nd trip is free of these Covid problems.

  5. The overturned chair in the foreground is mine. I thought it was funny, but of course the staff was concerned that I’d been hurt. It was nice of them, but although I’m old, I’m not feeble!

    As John Cameron Swayze used to say in those old, iconic Timex commercials, “takes a licking, keeps on ticking.”

  6. Now you may ask yourself, “What the deuce is buckthorn.?”

    Oh, I know sea-buckthorn very well. It is common in the coastal areas of the Baltic Sea. They sell it in many shops in all kinds of variations, among other things as sweets or gummy bears.

    A hot buckthorn drink is a boon on a cold day. The liquor is very tasty, too. 🙂

    1. We get the common-and-garden buckthorns on the property here in southern Ontario, a real annoyance which interferes with much preferable growth—just about need an atomic bomb to get rid of them permanently—I try to pull the roots right out with a subcompact Kubota tractor, but can’t let them grow much before even it is insufficient. There’s a gadget (called Rootgrubber IIRC) for that, something whose principle Archimedes would have already understood, where the harder you pull, the tighter it grips the victim tree—but buckthorn roots are even worse than what’s above the ground.

  7. But I do find the rocking of the ship peaceful, as if I were a baby again.

    You’re becoming quite the old salt, Jerry. You may never be 100% at home on terra firma again.

    1. “They said the sea was in his blood, & you could see where it got in!” The Goons (so probably Spike Milligan).

      He could take over the ship, & become a pirate captain!

  8. Interesting vid about the row-boat voyage across Drake Passage. I’d as lief take a barrel over Niagara Falls.

  9. I wonder if seasickness has a genetic component. No one in my family gets seasick, but in my uncle’s family (mother’s brother) they all get it. It’s an ear / balance thing, right? I did get plane-sick once while flying in a small plane around the Alps in very turbulent weather- I only got nauseous though, and didn’t throw-up. From witnessing sea-sick people (I saw a lot of them on an Alaskan ferry to Kodiak Island) it looks like a real nightmare of an affliction.

    1. I’ve taken a lot of people out on boats, and seasickness is a weird thing. Some get it; some don’t. Some get it on small boats, some on large. Some get it sitting on anchor, some while underway.

      Personally, I never get seasick. A couple times, I’ve been in the bilge of a yacht, in heavy seas, trying to kickstart a balky diesel engine back to life and, between the pitching and rolling and fuel fumes in the air, started to feel kinda queasy. But as soon as I can get back to the deck, suck in a lungful or two of fresh sea air and have a look at the horizon, I’m right as rain.

      1. We did a lot of offshore fishing when I was a teenager. Weather was irrelevant to my Dad, who was a test pilot. I, on the other hand, threw up very frequently, for which I was mocked. After I had more experience at sea, I got over it. I have done small boat rescues in huge seas, and don’t even get a twinge.
        A lot of it is mental. Some people work themselves into seasickness in port, when there is little or no actual motion. But even they eventually just get used to it, or perhaps they rethink their career choices.

    2. I used to get car sick = motion sickness, until I was a teen, but the a few years ago felt sick when my friend drove through north Wales – partly his use of accelerator/brake on winding up & down roads.

  10. In the last pic, with your overturned chair legs in view, i get a sense of an impressive deck roll angle against the horizon and with the two standing crew steadying themselves against chairs. I wonder how much the captain hand-pilots versus using an automatic control system? Must be exhausting. No time outs.

    1. I can’t speak to ships the size of the one Jerry’s on, but on small craft, in heavy weather, sometimes you’ve got to kick off the autopilot, grab the helm, and steer a course yourself. It gets any worse, you forget about the course, and try to keep the bow just off the weather. Worse still, you put out a sea anchor, heave to, and ride it out.

      Me, I’m a gentleman sailor these days — not lookin’ to tangle with much more than a fresh breeze and a broad reach. 🙂

    2. The modern autopilots have weather adjustments. If it gets really bad, you go to hand steering and put your most experienced helmsman on the wheel.
      One of the most disturbing things, when headed into the swells, is that sometimes it will pound heavily (which feels like God hit the bow with a giant bat), and you can feel the shockwave go back and forth between the bow and stern, as many as seven times.

  11. I thought I had sent you pictures of sea buckthorn a few years ago? The cliffs at Cromer are thick with them, & the berries plentiful. I used them to make sea buckthorn gin. It is more orangey than orange, rich in vitamin c, but makes your face screw up when you eat it!

    Not to be confused with buckthorn which flowers now, before most other plants in our latitude, & produces berries -sloes – that you can use to make sloe gin.


  12. You know, it is a b**ch that you’re all being sent back to Chile early, but look at it this way: discounting the few days you didn’t get, you DID enjoy that fantastic scenery all the time, have a lovely cabin and food that has made thousands of people like me reading WEIT run to the fridge, delivered some fine lectures I’m sure, met (I’m guessing) a bunch of nice people and shared your experience with all of us. PLUS a cool week(?) in Chile, a country we all like. AAAnnnd.. they’ll probably invite you back next year.

    It is all relative,

  13. Sea-sickness is a key factor in the Alec Guinness film “All At Sea”. He plays the scion of an old and distinguished Royal Navy family who, due to incurable mal-de-mer, cannot set foot on a ship, or even a boat. He ends up settling for command of an amusement park pier.

  14. Currents at its latitude meet no resistance from any landmass, and waves top 40 feet (12 m),

    22m was the worst I had – on a vessel with wave recording hardware. My first trip offshore, in October/ ’87 was enlivened by the tail end of “Hurricane Fish” which had waves breaking onto the main deck at a nominal 90ft (27m) above drilling draft, though the frequency didn’t resonate with the anchor tensions and we managed to carry on drilling through the storm. One injury – a guy broke his wrist being thrown out of bed when the rig lurched the wrong way under his feet.

    It’s not the big waves that cause real problems – it’s the long period swells that resonate with the ballast and anchor chain tensions that can exceed the 50ft travel on a normal slip joint. A handy Ballast Officer can keep out of that resonance by deballasting and hauling the anchor chains tight, but modern risk management doesn’t like that sort of thing, particularly with a riser full of oil-based mud. Which isn’t a problem a vessel under way needs to worry about.

  15. Next to my fear of heights, fear of being stuck on a boat in an ocean storm is pretty high up there.
    I know some people fear flying because it brings on a sense of helplessness (I don’t fear flying), but being in a boat in the middle of the ocean brings on the same unease for me. Plus being on a ship that goes down in to the cold thrashing waves of an ocean – especially at night! – is just about as terrifying a fate as I can imagine.

      1. I believe Dr. Johnson similarly said of fishing that it involves “a stick and a string, with a worm at one end and a fool at the other.“

  16. Professor Dr.! I believed you mistakenly photographed some goy’s steakburger, for I see a strip of bacon slithering out of it.

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