How I Crossed One of the World’s Roughest Seas

The ship Ortelius crashes into a large swell while crossing the Drake Passage, a notoriously rough stretch of water between Argentina and the Antarctic Peninsula, on March 11, 2016. Instrumentation on the ship indicated that the swells during the Drake Passage crossing ranged from 24-36 feet. According to the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operations, approximately 40 vessels take tourists across the Drake passage to the Antarctic Peninsula annually. Scientists often get on the tourism ships as well either as a temporary base for their research or as a way to get to research stations in Antarctica. During this crossing, the Ortelius is carrying approximately a hundred passengers, staff, and scientists; Photograph by Carolyn Van Houten
The ship Ortelius crashes into a large swell while crossing the Drake Passage, a notoriously rough stretch of water between Argentina and the Antarctic Peninsula, on March 11, 2016. Instrumentation on the ship indicated that the swells during this Drake Passage crossing ranged from 24 to 36 feet; Photograph by Carolyn Van Houten4 p.m. local time, March 11, Post #2

4 p.m. local time, March 11, 2016, Post #2 

I woke this morning to the dizzy feeling of rocking—as if my bed were swinging from a hammock. The walls, ceiling, and floor creaked with each swing. The room was dark.

I stumbled out of bed in search of the light switch. Our ship, the Ortelius, had puttered a hundred miles farther south during the night, bringing us into the unsheltered waters of the Drake Passage—the notoriously rough ocean crossing from the southern tip of South America to the Peninsula of Antarctica.

Stomachs were fluttery and breakfast a bit hazardous as the ship’s unpredictable rolls launched several chairs across the galley. By afternoon the swells were running 20 to 25 feet and the winds around 50 knots, prompting the crew to turn the Ortelius a few degrees to the east, off its planned route, so waves would strike the side of the ship with a little less force.

I’d like to be able to expound on what brave adventurers we all are to weather this storm—but, sadly, this one was pretty middling compared with what the Drake Passage is actually capable of. While making the crossing during another trip last November, this same ship had come up against 35-foot swells crashing head-on into its bow. The crew had eased up on the throttle to avoid beating up the ship and passengers—and so for several hours the ship actually went backward.

So by Drake standards, we can count ourselves lucky! The swells gradually shrank the following day, March 12. And early that evening the ship encountered its first iceberg, a slab of ice 600 yards across, which cast a triangular green shadow on the radar. Antarctica lay close at hand—and so did the humpback and minke whales that we hoped to study.

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Writer Douglas Fox and photographer Carolyn Van Houten are spending 15 days aboard the M.V. Ortelius as the ship explores glacial fjords along the Antarctic Peninsula, conducting studies of humpback and minke whales. Follow their story here, then see more about life in Antarctica on the new show Deep Freeze, on the National Geographic Channel in fall 2016.

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  1. […] How I Crossed One of the… […]

  2. […] of frigid sea water, and then scrambled ashore. It was our first time setting foot on land since sailing across the Drake Passage from Argentina to the Antarctic Peninsula–a journey that took three days. After all of that, this […]