Some of the roughest seas of anywhere in the world belong to Drake Passage, making it one of the most iconic, must-experience journeys for anyone in love with adventure. How did I come to know about Drake Passage? I don’t remember. All I know is it has figured in my imagination seemingly forever.
The infamous Drake Passage! It’s that notorious funnel for ocean water that passes between the southern tip of South America and the South Shetland Islands, which rest protectively just above the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. I had the immeasurable opportunity to traverse it in January-February this year (2018).
For about 500 miles, the waters of Drake Passage swirl turbulently to the combined forces of the Southern Ocean ringing Antarctica and the Pacific Ocean currents moving through to the east into the Atlantic Ocean. Adding to the excitement is the fact that “westerly winds and strong surface currents act upon ships and force them in an easterly direction as they cross the latitudes known as the Roaring 40’s and the Furious 50’s and enter the Screaming 60’s,” according to the primer sent to passengers with Lindblad/National Geographic Expeditions. Plus, it can be pretty dang cold, even in summer. What a trip!
My high school bestie Tag, and I met the rest of the 150 people on our trip during a counterintuitive heat wave in Buenos Aires, then flew the next day to the world’s southernmost city, Ushuaia. At 5:00pm, we embarked from our land’s-end perch on Argentina’s Tierra del Fuego archipelago aboard the very sea-worthy National Geographic Explorer. It is a ship which, with stabilizers (to minimize the rock-and-roll) and an amazing and sure-footed crew, plies those southern waters in summer, then heads north to the Arctic waters during the planet’s other summer.
About 42 hours and 475 nautical miles later, escorted by albatross and petrels and other cool seabirds, plus some whales and dolphins, we were across the passage, aimed southward along the western edge of the Antarctic Peninsula. The company doesn’t (can’t) make itinerary promises, because everything is completely weather dependent. We were lucky! We ultimately dropped into the Antarctic Circle proper at 66.336 degrees south, and traveled to 67.03 degrees south for our polar plunge into 29 degree water (to be described later!).
And how did our Drake Passage crossings go? I heard it said that can be a lake or a shake, depending on the conditions. Our southbound trip was lackluster enough to dub it Lake Drake. Another source said Drake Passage is not so bad…until it is. We got a pretty sincere taste of what that meant on the two-day return trip six days later during a change in the weather. The crew estimated the seas at a moderately-impressive 7-8 meters high, or about 25 feet, for most of the return crossing. Think shake, rattle, and roll! Not to hang on to the specially-strung ropes was not an option.
I loved it! That said, I was seriously happy to be in the hands of people with abundant ocean-going experience handling modern equipment. What about doing this in a wooden sailing vessel a century or two ago? Heck no. Those people had seriously impressive grit!