Disclaimer: A ship logbook and daily notes written by expedition guide Jordi Morales Plana were extensively used in this story.
It is time to leave Ushuaia Ushuaia and set the sail for Antarctica. I knew when joining this trip, that the Drake Passage is probably going to be the biggest challenge to overcome. Youtube has plenty of content showing how wild and demanding the Drake Passage can be for sailors as well as vessels. I saw big cargo and cruise ships battle the swells. Doing it on square sail rigger such as Europa will be that much more challenging.But I am ready and dare to say, I am looking forward to it.
About the Drake Passage
The Drake Passage geologically opened about 22 to 30 million years ago and connects the Atlantic with the Pacific Oceans south of Tierra del Fuego. To the south, the South Shetland Islands bound this waterway which is here about 800-900 km wide. The Drake played an important part in the trade of the 19th and early 20th centuries before the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914. The stormy seas and icy conditions made the rounding of Cape Horn through the Drake Passage a rigorous test for ships and crews alike, especially for the sailing vessels of the day. Though bearing the name of the famous 16th-century English seaman and explorer, the Drake Passage was, in fact, first traversed in 1616 by a Flemish expedition led by Willem Schouten. Sir Francis Drake did not sail through the passage but passed instead through the Straits of Magellan to the north of Tierra del Fuego, although he was blown south into the more extreme latitudes of the passage by a Pacific storm. The passage has an average depth of 3400 m (11,000 feet), with deeper regions of up to 4800 m (15,600 feet) near the northern and southern boundaries.
The winds through the Drake Passage are predominantly from the west and are most intense in the northern half. The mean annual air temperature ranges from 5°C in the north to –3°C in the south. Cyclones (atmospheric low-pressure systems with winds that blow clockwise in the Southern Hemisphere) formed in the Pacific Ocean traverse the passage towards the southern end. Surface water temperature varies from near 6°C in the north to -1°C in the south, with the temperature altering sharply in a zone near 60°S. This transitional zone is known as the Antarctic Convergence or Polar Front. It separates the sub-Antarctic surface water from the colder and fresher Antarctic surface water. At depths of between approximately 500 to 3000 m there occurs a layer of relatively warm and salty deep water. The maximum sea ice cover occurs in September; 25% to a full cover of 100% extends to 60°S, with occasional ice flows reaching Cape Horn. The water within the passage flows from the Pacific into the Atlantic, except for a small amount of water in the south that comes from the Scotia Sea. The general movement, known as the Antarctic Circumpolar Current, is the most voluminous in the world, with an estimated rate of flow between 950 to 1500 million cubic meters per second.
Departure from Ushuaia, Beagle Channel
From the logbook - 8th February 2018Noon positon: 54° 55.1’ S / 67° 53.0’ W Wind: At midnight we have no winds but a light breeze starts around 06:00 from the South. At 08:00 the wind increases slightly to force 4 bearing shifting to West. In the afternoon the wind increases gradually (will reaching force 6 to 7 late in the day). Sea: calm ocean at midnight. Early in the morning we have slight sea. In the afternoon gets a bit choppy until we reach the Drake. Then we get swell around 2m and moderate waves. Air temperature: 8.5°C min /10.3° C max Sea temperature: 9.6° C min /10.7° C max Barometer: Stable. We have 988.2 hPa during the day and increasing slightly at the day reaching 991.5 hPa at the end of the day Weather: Very good weather. Sunny and some spread clouds. The visibility is more than 11 miles. Entering the Drake Passage after dinner time!
The day started full of expectation for our imminent departure southwards to Antarctica. The mandatory pilot assigned to all vessels sailing in the inner waters of Southern Argentina and Chile came aboard around breakfast.
We have a brief stop at neighbor bunker pier where Europa filled up her fuel tanks. Our daily program starts with a mandatory briefing regarding Safety on board. We took advantage of calm waters on Beagle channel and got acquainted with the ship, our duties, and routines on board. We also got to climb the rigging for the firs time and learned how to be safe while doing so.
In the afternoon we familiarised ourselves with watch responsibilities. Later on, the three watch system will start and will run until reaching the shores of South Shetland Islands. Under permanent crew supervision, we have to be able to steer the ship, help with sail-handling and conduct a good lookout.
We set up a watch system. 3 teams of approximately 10 (depending on how sick they felt) rotated every 4 or 6 hours. Within the team, two people were steering the ship and two people to lookout trying to identify any ships, icebergs, cargo containers that we could potentially collide with. Rest was waiting in the deckhouse (common area in on the ship). Every 20 or 30 min they were replaced by another two. And it went on until the end of the duty.
The moment we left the calm waters of Beagle Channel I started to feel the swell and ship rocking from side to side, We were motoring through Beagle Channel but now we set the sail and of we entered the wild Drake.
Entering the Drake Passage
From the logbook - 9th February 2018Noon positon: 56° 21.9’ S / 65° 07.9’ W Wind: At midnight we have a strong breeze with westerly winds force 4 to 6. The wind force stays stable the rest of the day but shifting direction towards WSW at 04:30 a.m and then to SSW from 11:00 a.m. The wind remains stable during the rest of the day. Sea: Moderate sea and swell from 2 to 3 m during the whole day Air temperature: 4.5°C min/ 7.2°C max Sea temperature: 5.2°C min /7.5°C max Barometer:992.3hPa and increasing till 1000.3 hPa at the end of the day. Weather: Good weather.) Cloudy and some clear skies sometimes. Visibility in the morning decreasing at midday to 5-11 miles and becoming be\er in the evening and during the rest of the day
The feared seasickness didn’t take long to strike, and many of us struggled during the evening and night to keep up with the different activities offered and the beginning of the watch system.
At this point, I didn’t feel sick or even dizzy but I knew it was just the matter of time. The question was ho bad it will be and how long it will take. I only had 1 (one? serious?) seasickness pill that I took a few hours earlier. The ginger supposed to help combat seasickness so I bought some ginger candy. It was completely useless as far as Ian tell. At least for me. I also counted on Coke which saved my butt on so many occasions before. But not this time. During our first watch around midnight, the dinner I had a few hours earlier went overboard. I was in the middle of seasickness mayhem. Most of us were affected by it in some way or other. Not even some crew members were spared.
I think I enjoyed the shifts more than rest of the people on board. In spite of being seasick, and I didn’t skip the beat during out shifts. In fact being out on the deck felt quite good and I was able to forget how miserable I felt. And if worst comes to worse, rail was always close by. Just need to lean over and empty the content of the stomach into the wast waters of the Drake Passage. As they say, if you don’t feel uncomfortable at least few times during your trip, you are not really having an adventure.
And uncomfortable I was. So much so I didn’t eat anything for 2.5 days. Only as we were closing the South Shetland Islands I was able to have a bite. In fact, it was a slice of bread which took me about 30 min to eat. But it was a good sign and from then onwards I felt better and better. A day later I was consuming everything we had and some extra to catch up on past 3 days :)
From the logbook - 10th February 2018Noon positon: 58° 16.6’ S/63° 07.7’ W Wind: Quite strong winds coming from the SSW near gale up to force 7 at midnight. The wind keeps strong in the morning but shifting slightly to the SW. In the afternoon we shall have strong winds with 30knts average and gusts up to 40 and 45 knots (force 8). It remains gusty during the rest of the day. Sea: Rough ocean with moderate high waves and big swell up to 4 and 5 m sometimes during the day. Air temperature: 4°C min /4.5°C max Sea temperature: 5.1°C/ 5.6°C max Barometer: 1005hPa during the day and decreasing in the night up to 998hPa Weather: Poor visibility foggy cloudy and showers during the whole day
On the day 3 of our journey, the weather deteriorates as the wind picks up while the seas grow. The Drake was about to start showing off its fierce reputation, at least for a few hours. Conditions to be afraid of for the ones of us suffering from seasickness but welcomed for a few that wanted to experience the rough seas and weather of one of the Planet’s most dreaded seas. The Drake Passage and the surrounding waters lay in a vast belt of swell and wind that go around the globe in the mid and high latitudes of the southern hemisphere. This region of the 50o and 60o latitude South has earned the dramatic names of “furious fifties” and “screaming sixties”.
When the increasing swell surged on torrents of water pouring over the decks, as the gusts picked up to over 45kn. Under these conditions, it was necessary to reduce sail. It was not until past midnight that the increasingly rough conditions started to abate. We all cross fingers hoping that tomorrow will be our last full day at sea before reaching Antarctic shores. My absolute respect goes to the permanent crew that managed to carry on with their duties even so being quite sick themselves.
On day four Europa fully entered Antarctic waters, crossing the Polar Front. We left behind the temperate Sub-polar area and enter the cold and denser Antarctic waters. We experienced smoother sea state, as the confused short swell became longer and predominantly from an SSW-ly direction, together with the appearance of foggy conditions, quite commonly found just South of the Antarctic Convergence Area.
Everybody was desperately waiting for the first sight of land.
From the logbook - 11th February 2018Noon posi(on: 59° 45.5’ / 60° 04.5’ W Wind: Strong southwesterly winds near gale up to 35 knots at midnight and decreasing slightly during the morning to 25 -30 knots winds. The wind shifts during the afternoon to WNW after lunch (me and increases slightly becoming a strong breeze. Around 17:00 the wind finally drops down a bit during the rest of the day with winds of 20 knots in average. Sea: Rough sea with high waves and big swell around 4m. During the afternoon around 19:00 the sea calms down a bit as the wind drops but still there is a big swell for the rest of the day. Air temperature: 3.4°C min /4.1°C max Sea temperature: 2.8°C min / 3.9°C max We reach Antarctic convergence! Barometer: the day starts with 999 hPa and keeps gradually dropping considerably during the day until the night when we get 992 hPa. Weather: fair weather in the morning cloudy windy and cold but good visibility. The visibility gets moderate at noon (5 to 11 miles) In the afternoon we get dense fog and misty weather with poor visibility (less than a mile)
During the day we started with the preparations for our soon to come first landfall in Antarctica. Biosecurity procedures need to be taken care of (vacuum cleaning all clothing, pockets, and velcros) plus the mandatory attendance to the “International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO) Briefing”. Bark Europa, like all other tour operator companies working in Antarctica, belongs to that membership organization that advocates for environmentally friendly and safe touristic operations in Antarctica. That talk sets the rules and a code of conduct for touristic activities, in the frame of the Antarctic Treaty agreements.
From early morning excitement hoovers over the Europa. Feeling the colder temperatures, together with increasing number of seabirds flying around, a few Hourglass dolphins bow-riding our ship and sporadic penguin sights purposing here and there, it seems we can all sense the proximity of Antarctic land. Together with the wildlife, we experience an increased number of smaller and then larger ice blocks and icebergs. But soon, we spot the land. Finally. We reached the South Shetland Islands.
Sailing half a mile from the so-named Potness Rocks, we leave the characteristic and Conspicuous flat-topped Table Island on our starboard side, barely visible hidden behind a misty veil. Soon the impressive rocky shores of Fort Williams come to view, topped by a navigational beacon, while the swell breaks upon Passage Rock.
It is quite late in the day but we are presented with great news. We have just enough time to do a short landing on Barrientos Island after the dinner. Everybody is so excited that dinner takes us a fraction of the time than usual. The crew lowered both zodiacs (motorised inflatable rubber boat) to the water. We all went through biosecurity procedures and got ready for landing.
From the logbook - 12th February 2018Noon position: 62°02.5’ S /59°54.6’W Wind: Stable. There is a strong breeze at midnight with 25 to 30 knots winds. After lunch time around 14:00 the wind shift slightly to the W and it keeps stable during the rest of the day. Sea: Stable. We get moderate sea with quite high waves and 2-3m swell. Air temperature: 2.4°C min /4.7°C max Sea temperature: 1.7°C min/3°C max. Antarctic waters! Barometer: we start the day with 976 hPa and it decreases gradually to 972hPa at the end of the day. Weather: cloudy fogy and misty the whole day. Poor visibility (less than one mile) and drizzle at 20:00.
A short zodiac ride drove us ashore at the Whalebone beach. A few curious Chinstrap penguins and a myriad of Gentoos receive us to their homeland.
Despite the deeming daylight and the freezing temperatures we all greatly enjoyed our first close encounter with the Antarctic wildlife. Quite surprising for many of us to have the chance to experience such amount of charismatic Antarctic fauna all over the landing site. We're bumping into penguins and birds in every step we made, while Europa sits at anchor at the background of the scene.
Like that we spend an enjoyable evening ashore, before embarking the ship. and spending our first calm night on a steady ship, after the last days riding the wild Drake Passage.