Surviving the Drake Passage on our way to one of the most beautiful places in the world-Antarctica!
It was almost time for our Antarctica trip! After 7 days trekking in Torres del Paine, we headed from Puerto Natales to Punta Arenas (putting us even further south). We left for Punta Arenas on Christmas Eve and spent Christmas day there too in highly recommended bed and breakfast, Tragaluz. The entire place is made from miscellaneous recycled items and the owners treat you like family. On Christmas Eve, we indulged in a special dinner of pisco sours and a mixed seafood platter-delicious! :
Christmas was quiet but sweet, just Laurent & I and strangers that soon became friends at the B & B where we stayed. The great staff cooked a special dinner complete with complementary pisco sours (I have a slight obsession) and even though I was sad to be away from my family, I was happy to be spending it with Laurent, our first Christmas actually together!
After Christmas, we took a long bus ride to the town of Ushuaia, dubbed ‘El fin del mundo’ (the end of the world) because it’s quite literally at the end of Argentina. This is the main port from where most boats depart to Antarctica. When we arrived, we were very excited to see the beautiful Bark Europa waiting in the harbor:
This is the sailboat. The one that the crazy boyfriend saw months ago on a random web search and convinced me to come along because after all, ‘we had to earn Antarctica’. And he was right. Again. It looked a bit smaller than I thought it would, dwarfed by all the other large, fancy cruise ships parked in port. But here it was in real life. I could hardly believe we were going to board her in 2 days and be on our way to the real ‘el fin del mundo’. A dream come true.
The Bark Europa is a square-rigged, tall ship sailboat. It was built in Germany over a hundred years ago and the Dutch acquired it and made it suitable for world-wide travel, including trips to Antarctica. The boat is amazing, adorned with wood detail, draped with a maze of snake-like ropes and when the sails are unfurled and released in all their majestic glory, you can feel the ship’s magic spell:
You can join them as part of the voyage crew on any one of their cruises all around the world. Check out their website for more information.
I have never been on an open ocean before, much less on a sailboat. Crossing the Drake was a huge challenge for me, especially since we had to work on the boat during the passage. Work?? Yeah, that’s what I said too! I had no idea what the work would actually entail. And I was somewhat horrified to discover that we had to wake up in the middle of the night to watch for icebergs and steer the boat! They really trust strangers to steer the boat?!
Why yes, they did:
We were split up into ‘teams’ to work our shifts. Three teams were formed (red, white, blue for the colors of the Dutch flag) and the teams rotated throughout the day and night. For example, The red team might be on watch from 12 am to 4 am, the white team from 4 am to 8 am and then the blue team from 8 am til 12 pm and so on and so forth. All around the clock! Getting up to stand outside in the freezing cold while being seasick at 2 am isn’t exactly my idea of fun but it was definitely an experience!
However, the advantages to sailing on the Bark Europa certainly weighed out the disadvantages. We were taught how to sail a square-rigged ship, what each of the endless ropes are actually for and how to steer the ship. Apart from your watches, you could work as much or as little as you wanted.
Sailing out in the open waters, hearing nothing but the wind against the sails and the rush of water was overwhelmingly sublime. Being a small group of only 24 tourists total, was exceptional and really made the experience more intimate than being on a huge cruise liner. The crew of 17 were so friendly and amazing in every way, you got to know everyone by the end of the journey. Even the captain was awesome! Below, the captain and his quarters:
I don’t really have the words for what I experienced during the Antarctica trip. We spent 21 days aboard the Bark Europa (4 days each way to cross the Drake, so that gave us almost 2 full actual weeks in Antarctica). I saw things I never thought I would ever see. It is a privilege to be able to travel to this uninhabited part of the world, to see wildlife so close-up and landscapes that are so immense, you feel like they could swallow up the rest of the earth. It’s not about how many different kinds of animals you will see (although it is quite a lot) but the fact that the animals are seemingly not bothered by your presence there. They just go about their business like you barely exist. Sometimes while snapping the many photos of penguins (a pleasure that never got old) I’d catch myself staring at the penguin and the penguin staring back at me Hmmm….who’s looking at who here!!
Antarctica belongs to the whole world yet no one. Penguins, whales, birds and ice rule the land. You watch every day in endless fascination and become a silent witness to this extraordinary world. I will let the photos do most of the talking this time. Well, okay…I’ll try! We boarded the boat on December 28, 2012.
I was overcome with excitement and anxious to meet my fellow voyage crew members who I would spend the next 21 days with, as well as the permanent crew. It all felt like a dream. Everyone came aboard, each wearing a goretex suit more brightly colored than the next. We drank hot tea, introduced ourselves, ate pastries and shared the feeling of anticipation for our unique journey that lie ahead.
We were supposed to have a shared cabin (we paid a lot less money for a shared). The boat normally holds up to 44 voyage crew passengers and since we were only a group of 24, they spaced us out a bit more and Laurent & I were so happy to discover we had our own cabin! Which came in very handy when we were seasick! The room was small but it’s the first time we actually had our OWN room in a long time and as an added bonus, the beds were comfy!
That night we slept on the boat and the next morning we were off! We sailed the Beagle Channel all day and got our first lessons in how to climb the rig (which I did not do-no regrets, I am too scared of heights for that crap!) But Laurent loved it:
We feebly tried to learn the function of the sails and unsuccessfully tried to remember what the names were:
And we tried to grasp the ropes (both literally and figuratively). They were still a mystery to most of us, even on the last day:
We started our watch system that night and headed into the open waters of the Drake. I was hoping for Drake Lake (as it has been dubbed when it’s calm) not the Drake Shake. We had something in the middle. So far, no seasickness! Not too shabby, I thought!
Ah, but that was soon to change. The second day, I began to feel a headache come on and was soon to learn that this is the first sign of seasickness. The watch system started out gentle enough, our first shift was from 8 am to 12 pm. And with just a mild headache, it didn’t all seem so bad. But that was to change too! That night, the seas got rougher and our blue team was on duty from 8 pm to 12 am.
At about 11:30 pm, I was steering the ship and was overcome with a queasiness that I didn’t know was possible. My head throbbed and I felt weak. I barely made it til midnight before running to the bathroom. Lets just say it felt like things were coming up from my feet! I never knew sickness like it in my life. I didn’t even have the energy to flush the toilet. I literally crawled my way on the floor & collapsed in the bunk. I didn’t make the next watch, which was at 4 am. Instead I spent the day in bed, eating nothing.
The next day was new year eve, which was also the day Laurent & I celebrate our 4 year anniversary together. I was still in bed. I forced myself to get up to do my watch at noon and quickly returned to bed. As we finished up our midnight watch, Laurent came in and headed straight to the bathroom. Uh-oh. Him too! Happy anniversary! When Laurent first talked me into this sailboat , he tried enticing me by saying it would be such a romantic way to spend our anniversary. This was our reality:
When someone got sick on the boat, the doctor would come around to your cabin and put a post-it note on there to remind him to come to your room. He’d give you a pill, which didn’t help and be on his way. Here is our romantic post-it note! Happy new year and anniversary!
But crossing the Drake wasn’t all painful. In between throwing up, eating and doing our watches, we were lucky to witness countless albatross, with their massive wingspan as they moved ethereally around our sails. The 2 knowledgeable naturalists on board gave informative lectures (or showed documentaries) about wildlife, early Antarctic explorers & Antarctica regulations for the protection and preservation of this magical place. Right before sleeping, I’d read a book I’d picked from the ship’s library about the adventures of Earnest Shackleton (an early Antarctic explorer).
Every day we had the pleasure of eating fresh baked bread for breakfast and during the night watch, when you were exhausted, you could smell the fresh loaves wafting up as you gazed out at another albatross sail by. You lived for moments like this during the Drake crossing.
Fortunately, we soon arrived to the South Shetland Islands and that was our first sight of Antarctica! I had seen many icebergs in Patagonia & in Iceland but nothing could prepare me for the icebergs in Antarctica. Bigger than houses and the most incredible shapes!
The watches were over when we reached land, we were now in protected waters and would be using the ships motor. Thank god, because by then I was really tired of getting up all the time to put on 5,000 layers to go freeze my ass off in the night! We got to make our first landing, which meant we would go aboard one of the two zodiacs on board:
I immediately became enamored with this continent and its landscape:
And because we were such a small group, all 24 of us could be on the continent at one time. If you take a huge cruise ship with more than 100 people, not everyone can make the landing at the same time. Antarctica (IAATO) treaty says that there cannot be more than 100 people at a time on the continent. So the landings went like that. We would fill up 2 zodiacs and then 2 more so everyone could be at one place to experience it.
After our first landing, we had a big New Years celebration, since everyone was either too sick or too tired or on watch during the actual New Years Eve. We came aboard to champagne chilling on Antarctic ice and the crew prepared a tasty dinner.
The next days that followed were some of my most favorite days of my life. Every day I would say the same damn thing “This is my favorite day”. And it really was. The days of being sea-sick, exhausted from the watch system and frozen were over. The sun shone most days in Antarctica and it got warm enough where you could be outside on deck without a jacket.
Our first days on land, we saw Gentoo penguins so close you could almost touch them! We watched them for, literally, hours. They spend most of their days stealing rocks from other penguins’ nests to build their own:
The males steal the rocks and the females kept the babies warm. We were so lucky to see newborn penguin chicks only days old!
It was endlessly fascinating watching the penguins go about their mundane tasks (such as feeding) which for us observing, became quite extraordinary events:
And when penguins aren’t tending to their babies or their nests, they are teaching each other lessons:
Or just being really cute:
We saw so many penguins every day that you think we would tire of them, but we never did. Especially those that raced near the boat bobbing their heads in and out:
We saw Gentoo penguin rookeries on our first landing at the tip of the continent and as we went south we saw the Chinstraps:
And further south we saw the dapper Adelie penguins:
The Adelie penguin chicks had grown much bigger than the tiny Gentoo’s but were still so cute!
We were told by our informative naturalists on board that we would see only 3 species of penguins on this trip but we had the opportunity to see the Macaroni (what the name!) penguin bobbing around. He looked pretty lost and he really stood out with his blonde coif, totally reminding me of a Californian surfer dude. The other penguins really snubbed him and he just seemed to be saying “Hey man, where’s the party?!” Poor him but lucky us!
But we didn’t just see penguins. There were also numerous Crabeater seals:
And the badass leapord seals. Don’t mess with these guys!
Some seals are just natural posers:
But seals don’t just sit on the ice waiting for their next prey or posing pretty. We saw these two getting it on!
And then a third joined in for a threesome (no joke!). Seals get to have some fun too
There are many species of whales living in Antarctic waters. We saw Orcas, fin and pilot but it was the humpbacks that got closest:
Being so close to these magnificent creatures was an unforgettable experience. Someone would call out ‘whale, starboard side!’ and everyone would excitedly scurry over and wait for the moment. The sound of the whale breathing and spouting water, is one I don’t think any of us will ever forget. And gracefully they would dive back down, showing off their tail before sinking to the bottom. It was an emotional experience that touched everyone on board.
We were fortunate to see one breaching out of the water:
And a mother with her calf:
But it wasn’t just about the wildlife that makes Antarctica special. Being able to step onto this barely touched continent was beyond words:
The sound of just our footsteps crunching in the snow, looking out for miles to see no one (except each other) and observing all the beautiful colors was simply unforgettable:
The best part about climbing up hills like this one, was sliding down! We all felt like big kids and even the oldest guy on board (78 years old) got involved. Here is me, feeling like I’m 5 years old again:
Since it was so close to the winter solstice and we were so far south, we witnessed no darkness, only perpetual twilight:
I don’t know what was more beautiful, the landscape
or the icebergs:
Icebergs in every shape and color that you could imagine! This one gets it’s mottled look from having flipped over. The mottling is actually an imprint of the sea floor! We were so incredibly lucky to see a giant one flipping over! The sound was so alarming but witnessing it was amazing!
And it’s true what they say about the tip of the iceberg and what lies underneath:
Sometimes you couldn’t even imagine how big they were until you saw them next to something else big:
Some you fell in love with more for the shape:
And others for the color:
Some were such big sheets that the Bark Europa just pushed her way through:
And others were so tiny, they looked like confetti sprinkled around. Laurent climbed the rig as far as he could for this shot. Here is his feet looking down:
It wasn’t always sunny skies though. One day we awoke to the winds whipping outside. The wind blew so furiously, we had to cancel our landings for the day. In the evening, they subsided enough for us to take the zodiacs safely in the water. We visited an old whaling station where the wind whipping in the background added to the eerie beauty of the place:
The wind got so wild, the next morning it blew a top speed (on our trip) of 86 knots! That’s hurricane force!
I said that every day in Antarctica was my favorite. And it was. But there was one day that topped them all. It was a big day for us. The point furthest south that we would be visiting before starting to head back. It started like this, early in the morning:
We got the opportunity to visit the Ukranian scientific base, Verdansky:
The Ukraninians gave us a warm welcome and a grand tour. The tour ended at their very own bar, complete with homemade vodka that is made with potatoes grown in the toilet (I kid you not). Fortunately, it was a very smooth vodka that went down a little too easy. I earned the nickname ‘Boozy Suzy’.
After hanging out at the bar, watching other crew members play pool (they even had a billiard table in the bar!), we went back on board to the Europa where the music was pumping, Dutch celebration flags were flapping in the breeze, Antarctic beer was chilling on Antarctic ice and best of all the crew was preparing a huge BBQ right on deck! Even the Ukranians came on board for some fun.
The music played and we par-tayed all night. It made turning back seem a little less sad. This was truly my favorite day.
We made a few more landings and then had to say our goodbyes to this exceptional place. Here are a few more of my favorite photos:
We took literally thousands of photos and I know looking at these might seem like a lot but it’s really just the tip of the iceberg!! And I have to make one special note of the food on board. I was expecting oatmeal and sandwiches but the kitchen crew were absolutely top notch! Fresh baked bread every day, homemade yogurt, delicious dinners and lots of Dutch treats like pindakaas (peanut butter), chocolate sprinkles and real Dutch cheese!
We were able to sail about half the time on the way back and we tried desperately to ’round the Cape’ for the real sailors that we had on board. The wind wanted us in another direction and so we could only faintly make out the lighthouse near the Cape. I didn’t get as sick on the way back, although I felt queasy and with a headache. But now it all seemed worth it.
There was a photo competition on board and I was so proud of Laurent for winning with this photo:
We said goodbye to each other and took one last farewell photo:
I have to admit, there were times I was absolutely petrified to be outside with the ocean washing over the deck as we were looking out into the open waters for icebergs or other ships. One time, the waves were so big (on our way back), that I just couldn’t do it anymore. And there were other times I was annoyed that I had to get out of my warm, cozy bunk to stand outside and freeze. After all, I reasoned, we paid a lot of money for this!
But in retrospect, if I had to do it all over again, I wouldn’t change a thing. It pushed me WAY out of my comfort zone but the feeling of being on a sailboat so beautiful, headed to one of the most extraordinary, wild places on earth crossing one of the most notorious seas was indescribable. It was a trip of lifetime and an incredible way to start out 2013! I don’t think I would have had the appreciation of all the good we experienced, had we not had to “earn” it!!
Goodbye Antarctica and I really hope I see you again one day! I got infected with what’s called polar fever!
All I can say is WOW!!! You have National Geographic in your blood.
Thanks so much! I hope to be working for them one day ha ha! 🙂