Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Rounding the Horn and crossing the Drake

We left Ushuaia on Sunday. There were 9 of us on board the Ice Bird. The 60 foot expedition yacht that was going to take us across the notorious waters of the Drake Passage and over to Antarctica. It would take us a few days to cross. The exact time was yet to be seen. It all depended on the conditions that the Drake decided to throw at us. We were at her mercy and the current forecast threatened a storm near the tail end of our journey. Based on the weather pattern, it could be a 5 day delay if we decided to wait and so the decision was made to go for it. 

First we travelled down the Beagle Channel and spent our first night at Puerto Williams which was
just a few hours from Ushuaia. Here we signed in to Chile and then spent the night moored up at this beautiful island. We were moored 3 boats away from an old wooden vessel called  the Macelby. A floating bar that was full of quirky things. The boat itself was on an angle which seemed to get more severe the more alcohol we drank. Our poison this night was Pisco Sour. A drink that I was first aquatinted with in Peru back in 2013 where a taxi driver had warned me not to drink more than 3 in one night! Anyone who has tried it will appreciate the fun we had that night! It was an event to cross the decks back to the Ice Bird at 3am! 

The next morning we headed out with just 8 of us on board. Ronnie - an American - had decided not to cross the Drake with us and pulled out of the expedition. We could only respect his decision and left him at Puerto Williams. 

The channel was calm and beautiful and we were briefly joined by  a school of dolphins who jumped and span in our bow wave for some time. 

Once past the head of Cape Horn and out in to the open water the sea started to get rough. It could have been worse but it was enough to start a tsunami of sea sickness. I was the first ripple and felt annoyed to be the one that got sick! However, within hours I was followed by one more and before the end of the day there were 5 of us out of 8 throwing up in our own personal jars (with lids). Some were worse than others. I personally could not move from one spot for 24 hours without being sick. If I needed the loo I had to run there, run back, throw up and lie down again! It really was no fun at all. I had taken Stugeron (sea sick tablets) but they didn't seem to be working. Every time I tried to take more they came straight  back up again! Eventually the waters calmed and I got well enough to move around.

We were treated over the next couple of days with fairly calm waters. However, it was hard to keep the boredom at bay with no sign of anything but sea and the infrequent albatross. We took watch on 3 hour shifts. 3 hours on and 6 hours off. That kept us busy at least. We would generally sleep in those 6 hours. We could not read or write to pass the time as it just made us sick again. Sleeping was easy!

Soon we started to see more wildlife and we spotted several types of Petrels, Brown Skua’s and a few seals. 

It was a 560 mile crossing from Cape Horn to Antarctica. It took us 5 days. The last 100 miles was the worst. The storm we had expected hit us and the sea got pretty rough. It was impossible to do anything on board without getting thrown around. They say “one hand for the boat and one hand for you”. Its hard to use the loo and pull your pants back up with one hand whilst getting thrown to the other side of the head! You soon get tired of the movement. None of us were sick this time though. We were clearly finding our sea legs.

It was now Thursday night and I was on watch with Pete with just 60 nautical miles to go. It was around 10.30pm and it was getting dark. The waves were reaching a good few meters now and the sail had been brought in to avoid over power. We were running on the motor alone and all the information was being recorded in the ships log on the hour as usual. The mist had come down too and it was  impossible to spot any potential hazards in the water. Ships would be easy as they have lights but now we were entering waters where there could be Icebergs. Cath, the skipper, was in bed but she decided to get up and come on watch. She was clearly nervous and woke Olly up too.  Between us we watched and crept forward into the mist, all our senses on high alert, trying to make out whether it was a berg we could see ahead or just a little light coming through the clouds. Our eyes were beginning to play tricks on us. Any particularly large bergs would of course show up on the radar but we could not be sure of the smaller ones.

I went off watch after 3 hours and squeezed in to my bunk pulling up the lee cloths behind me (to keep me in)  but sleep was beyond me. I was still on high alert particularly as the boat was being thrown around and bigger waves were crashing against us like concrete blocks. Draws broke their bindings and flew open and their contents banged and clattered about as they took their opportunity to escape. I wondered how Rhonda was doing on the aft deck. She was on her own though. There was nothing I could do for her now! 

We were all getting sick of this crossing and just could not wait to see land again. 

Morning broke and we were in one piece. The waters had calmed again and the sun came out just as we spotted the Melchior's. A collection of ice covered islands which marked the start of our Antarctic adventure. We navigated our way through the islands and the icebergs, most of us sat on the deck with cameras in hand enjoying the fresh air and calm waters. We were wrapped up warm and the sun shone on our smiling faces.  Suddenly it all seemed worth it! 

It was still a few hours to the peninsula but we were treated with several hump back whale sightings as well as many gentoo penguins, seals and birds.

By lunchtime we had arrived at our first anchor spot. A stunningly beautiful and sheltered harbour. This would be our home for the next couple of days and the place we would land Rhonda!

Alcohol was not allowed whilst we were at sea for obvious reasons and so that night we got the guide ropes out, unpacked the Zodiac, fetched some 5,000 year old ice and drank our first G&T!!! It tasted great. We had also carried with us a full lamb, strapped to the aft. Pete got the barbi warmed up, Sally untied “lamby”  (who had been given a pair of frilly knickers to ware for the crossing) and I did the butchering, having had some experience of this from my zoo keeping days 20 years ago (local farmers would bring us still born calves for feed)! 

That night we ate the ribs and a leg and drank our first bottle of Gin surrounded by the most spectacular scenery I have ever seen! 


  1. Respect! Seems only yesterday you were in the hot Iranian desert.

  2. Another intersting and vividly described post Steph' ... many thanks, as it brightened a dull mid-winter working-day

  3. What a great post. Thanks.