Category Archives: Drake passage

Sail on the horizon

We have just finished yet another crossing of the Drake Passage with deep swell, endless horizons and winds which travel around the globe before throwing their force across our bow. In the middle of this vast expanse of blue my eye was caught by a fleeting white cloud standing proudly against a steel grey sky. As we sailed on the glimpsed of white peeking over the swell resolved itself into the sail of a small yacht valiantly striking our in defiance of Southern seas. As our huge steel ship quickly left the small yacht in our wake I reflected on the two modes of crossing and dwelled on our rapidly approaching voyage on Widdershins that will follow the same course. Today I sit in comfort in an enclosed bridge, I eat three fantastic meals a day prepared by talented chefs and spend most evenings luxuriating in the comfort of a sauna after a beer in the bar. When we cross on our yacht we will battling the elements in a semi-enclosed cockpit, shipping the occasional wave over the side, and blown before the rage of the wind. Our meals will be whatever we can scrape together on a kerosine stove in a madly rocking galley and and creature comforts on board will rarely extend beyond a mug of warm rum to help sleep come after a stressful watch. Seems strange but I can’t wait to jump into the yacht and face the Drake on our own terms. You can keep the sauna … just so long as the diesel heater keeps us warm enough that our fingers are able to type the daily blog!

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Back into the Drake

We are on our way back across the Drake with the Antarctic circle in front of us … a slightly longer trip than typical and a trip which will take us into the “big ice”. This season has seen us encountering unusually heavy ice all through the Antarctic Peninsula but this time we will be heading into a region where no ships have managed to reach their destination. The ice has formed a barrier that thus far has withheld the summer traffic but we hope to pierce throuhgh the circle and beyond. Sometimes it feels like we are a very small boat in a big ocean but the journey itself is half the challenge…

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Wide wasteland

We are now charging back across the Drake Passage towards Antarctica at a prodigious speed and leaving a vivid white wake through the calm silky seas behind us. The wind is barely raising a ripple of the gently roiling waves that stretch across the horizon and the Southern Ocean is quiet. Barely a bird is to be seen on these seas that typically boast a profusion of soaring albatross, petrels and prions, and the occasional blue petrel darting by the bow serves more to highlight the absence of the expected avifauna than to break the mood of an empty ocean. No whale blows break the flat horizon and we it is easy to feel alone out here with the horizon stretching off unbroken in all directions.  But it is not a feeling of loneliness that encompasses me at the moment but one of being lost in a vast and unexplored world, one of not knowing what will appear before us, and the excitement of driving forward towards the ice.

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The birds that make the wind blow (R.C. Murphy)

We are now half way across the Drake Passage with our bow pointed towards the Lemaire Channel which is much further south than we normally aim for the start of a trip. Very much looking forward to getting in amongst the serious ice right at the beginning of the trip!

But right now we are gently rolling in languid seas with an escort of albatross soaring around the ship. Wandering albatross with their wingspan of over three meters surround us and display their plumage like badges of rank denoting their age. Some birds still present the dark cap and brown plumage of juveniles, some have discarded the brown feather but retain the collar that proclaims them as sub-adults, some hold the black and white plumage of breeding adults and a few proudly display the broad expanse of white wings that marks them as mature adults approaching the full 50 years of their lifespan. Amidst these colossal ocean wanderers are a host of other albatross including black browed, grey headed and light mantled sooty albatross, as well as smaller ocean birds like the Wilson’s storm petrel, cape petrel, Antarctic prion and the slender billed prion.

It’s a vast ocean but it is hard to feel lonely when surrounded by such splendid companions.

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Swallowed by the mist

We are currently crossing that notorious body of water known as Drake Passage – renowned for terrible wind and waves. Yet the ship is barely moving as we charge through flat calm seas surrounded by a heavy mist that has clung to the ship all day masking the world from our eyes save a dim 20 meter swath of lazy water. Occasionally a slender billed prion or a blue petrel darts out of the mist and past the bow of the ship but apart from these rare and fleeting glimpses of life it feels almost as if we are all alone in a world that starts and ends  only meters from the ship.

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We have had some technical problems with emails so there has not been the opportunity to send off word of the latest adventures in the Antarctic but since I last wrote we have had some mishaps with zodiacs lost in the ice, some close run-ins with the sea floor (something we try to avoid on a ship!) and the general fun with penguins and seals.

Our last trip finished successfully and we had a smooth trip back to Ushuaia where we promptly turned around and headed straight back towards the ice! Currently we are making good speed over a gently rolling sea and hope to catch our first glimpse of land tomorrow afternoon. The first penguins chicks of the season broke free of their eggs during our last trip so from now on the colonies which were rather quite with demure penguins sitting on eggs should turn into more boisterous affairs as the chicks cry out for food. It’s such a privilege to watch the life cycle of these amazing animals unfold.

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Seal Attack

It’s been a busy couple of days in Antarctica with no time to blog! Yesterday we sailed away from the storm at Deception Island and into the sunshine and calm seas of the Antarctic Peninsula. Ice all around and seals lying like lumps of lard on every available space. Orcas were circling the seals and krill were swarming.

The ice stopped us from reaching our destination but provided the opportunity to cruise in some spectacular scenery … soon the zodiacs were launched and we were walking amidst the penguins and zipping in amongst the ice flows to see the seals. Crabeater seals yawned and blinked at the strange intrusion but the most excitement came from a lounging leopard seal I spotted. I pulled the zodiac up to the ice and watched with awe as the powerful beast examined the strange sight of a fully laden zodiac eyeballing it from a distance of five meters across the ice … and then decided to take a closer look.

In fact, the beast charged across until it was a mere meter away before the ice gave way and deposited the animal (in a rather ungraceful manner) in the water …but not before the seal bumped it’s head on the side of the boat! Pandemonium ensues with screaming passengers and people jumping onto the floor of the boat. Meanwhile the leopard seal circled underneath, nudged the side of the boat and then worked out we weren’t worth the effort. Five minuted later she gracefully leapt from the water and resumed her slumber on the same chunk of ice … back on the boat hearts still thumped and the grins were spread from ear to ear.

Then back to the mother ship, some spectacular whale sightings with humpbacks feeding off the bow of the ship and thumping their huge tails in a spray of spume against the backdrop of the snowy peaks of the peninsula.

A quick cruise to the next landing, and an impromptu decision to camp on the continent for the night saw us scrambling to get all our gear ready, and ultimately saw me leading a group of thirty nervous passengers on their first night on the ice. Portal Point offered panoramic views of the icy waters and was a wonderful place to sleep under the stars with a light flurry of snow settling on the slumbering shapes of the shore party. There is certainly no better bedroom than Antarctica!

Right now we have completed another day of landing in scenery that is staggering even after years of working in Antarctica, and are now heading into the Drake Passage and back to Ushuaia. The seas are calm and the whole ship is partying. It’s always a little sad to leave the ice .. but then again, I’ll be back in a few days!!

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Towards the ice

This morning I awoke early to feel the swell of the Drake Passage tossing my body around the bed and various loose items around my cabin. I must be on my way to Antarctica!

After a quick tidy up of my various scattered belongings however, I took the time to take in the splendour of being on the southern seas – rolling waves crested by white caps, wind-whipped foam lining the deep blue water … and of course the birds. While sailing all summer up the Norwegian coast in our own little yacht accompanied by northern fulmars, puffins, guillemots, gannets, razorbills and various gulls it’s easy to forget just how numerous the sea birds of the Southern Ocean are.

In Norwegian waters there is generally one or two birds in sight of the ship … Strolling on the pitching deck this morning I was greeted by clouds of seabirds trailing after the ship like a wheeling cloud of moths over a flame. Wandering albatross, giant petrels, pintados, storm petrels, southern fulmars, black-browed albatross and more all formed a soaring entourage to herald our passage towards the southern continent. In an ocean that stretched around the globe it’s hard to feel alone.

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Tacking across the Drake

There is quite a big swell on the Drake Passage right now – so much that even the Akademik Ioffe, which has a reputation for being on of the most stable ships in the Southern Ocean, is rolling quite a lot. We are even taking a zig-zag path towards Antarctica to avoid taking the worst of on our beam … and another two days at seas before we see land! Despite the discomfort of many aboard I have to admit the swell makes me feel alive.

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Charging across the Drake

We have left Ushuaia with a new bunch of passengers and are charging south for the Antarctic Circle and the furthest south point that we have made this season. And I mean charging. Right on our heels is a very deep depression (a weather system) that promises to make life very difficult if we dawdle so we are going at top speed and trying to escape the clutches of a storm that would probably be at the higher end of severity even for the dreaded Drake passage. At our present speed of 15 knots we may just get out of the worst of it, but I expect tomorrow morning we will be feeling the wrath of the ocean as we feel the waves of heavy weather reach out and lash us with waves ands wind. So far we have been lucky in the Drake but I get the feeling we may not escape this trip unscathed…

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