Dispatch: Voyage to the Bottom of the World -- The Drake Passage

Antarctica Dispatch series

Travel Weekly senior editor David Cogswell departed for Santiago, Chile, Jan. 3 to begin a two-week adventure to Antarctica and the Falkland Islands, sponsored by Abercrombie & Kent. He'll be transmitting on-site reports to Travel Weeklys New Jersey headquarters on a daily basis (weather and Internet access permitting).

As we embarked from Ushuaia our program was titled The Drake Passage, but there's some controversy as to whether we were really in it. If so, it was only the northern edge of it. Our route took us through the Beagle Channel northeastward to the Falkland Islands. But if it wasn't the Drake Passage, it may as well have been. It was rough enough.

Because the Drake Passage is where the cold waters and weather systems from the Antarctic collide with the warmer ones of the Atlantic and Pacific, it is one of the roughest seas in the world.

Around midday Friday, Captain John Moulds of the Explorer II came on the public-address system and said, "I've seen the weather report, and it doesn't make for good reading. We can expect gale-force winds of up to 8 or 9."

In nautical terms, 7 is a moderate gale, 8 is a fresh gale, 9 is a strong gale, 10 is a storm, 11 is a violent storm and 12 is a hurricane.

It was the day of the captain's welcome dinner, and I received an invitation to sit at the captain's table. But by 6 p.m., that table was rocking and rolling along with the rest of the Explorer. I'm not very seaworthy and have developed a few means of fighting motion sickness, like fixing the eyes on the horizon. But from the window of the dining room, there was no horizon. One moment it was foamy brine, the next it was gray sky.

I was the first to be seated at the captain's table, at the end of a row of four. As I engaged the ship's geologist in a conversation, the ship suddenly pitched, and my chair heaved to the left with me in it, taking down the next three empty chairs.

After the staff replaced the chairs and chained them to the floor, I returned to my seat, joined by the other guests, but my stomach was not allowing much to enter. I held out as long as I could, struggling to suppress my queasiness, but finally had to excuse myself and return to my room, where I threw myself on the bed and passed out. A few hours later I awoke, and by then the turbulence had died down.

The next day, I visited the bridge and asked the second officer of navigation to quantify the turbulence we experienced. He said the winds reached gale force 10 or 11, nearly hurricane level. Wave heights were between 16 and 20 feet, and conflicting reports put wind gusts anywhere from 90 to 126 mph.

Fortunately, the system we are entering as we head south to Antarctica is much calmer -- although I'm told conditions in this region can be very unpredictable.

To contact reporter David Cogswell, send e-mail to [email protected].


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