Friday, March 04, 2016

The Drake Passage South

[Kyle]I stirred in the darkness before dawn, I realized where I was, and understood immediately I had to get a look outside and see this for real! I was In the Drake Passage! One of the worst waters in the world.. While Maryanne slept, I had a peak out of our port hole: a bright trail of bioluminescence trailed violently from the ship. I attempted to discern the pattern of the waves but there was not sufficient light. Our porthole was 25’ above the water and the waves were well below that height. The ship was in constant motion, but that motion seemed to have decreased from earlier.

As I returned to my bed and closed my eyes, I realized that our berth was at the very back corner on the port side of the ship – just like aboard Begonia. I tried to forget where I was and focus on the motion and imagine what I would think if I was aboard our home. It felt like I’d be able to get up, go into the cockpit, and find Maryanne surfing down 4’ waves with the spinnaker up. Slow and gentle.

I napped for a little longer, but then decided I just HAD to get up and experience this amazing passage. Leaving Maryanne asleep in bed, I was first to arrive in the lounge looking for coffee (24 hour availability) to find one of the staff (Kathleen) just finishing brewing a fresh pot. Kathleen quickly learned my ways and that was the last time there was not coffee waiting for me in the morning! I went out on deck and felt the slow swell as we moved through the Drake. We’d travelled over 200 nautical miles since I’d last stood outside, it was noticeably colder! I returned to our room and shared the wonder with Maryanne, who by then was stirring herself.

As the first light of day started streaming through the porthole it was time for breakfast (another enormous meal – a buffet with every possible breakfast item available). We made a point of sitting with a different set of people, in an effort to mingle among all the guests aboard. As an icebreaker we took to asking people what made them interested in a trip to Antarctica. Most during our stay responded by saying (in one form or another) that they “knew someone who’d done the trip, and who reported it as the best thing they’d ever done”.

It had been a fitful night sleep (I was too excited) so we were ready for a food coma induced nap, helped by our giant breakfast, but it was time for our first of many lectures: Penguins by the resident ornithologist Kevin Morgan. Kevin is English bird spotter (twitcher) and has a huge knowledge of birds, with an infectious enthusiasm that leads you to believe he can be part penguin! He made it hard not to get excited about what to expect.

After he’d finished, we had about 10 minutes ‘free’ before it was time for the next lecture from the resident photographer Shayne McGuire : ‘Exposing Antarctica’. Shayne was ridiculously helpful and obviously wanted us all to be able to capture the best photographs possible during our visit ahead to Antarctica – regardless of the type of camera we might be carrying. Antarctica has some unusual photographic challenges, and the main area she focused on was how to adjust the light/exposure in order to ‘trick’ our cameras into getting the various shades of white just so, or the lone dark blob of a seal in detail against the giant white background. {Maryanne: I’m more of a point and shoot kind-a gal, but she even had me finding features on my easy camera I didn’t know existed – AND understanding why I might want to use said features!}.

Both Shayne and Kevin had impressive resumes and we soon learned that all the ship expedition crew also were amazingly qualified.

Obviously we’d burned so many calories watching those two lectures (along with unlimited coffee, tea and biscuits) that we were clearly starving – and before we knew it lunch was served.

The Drake passage, the water between the tip of South America and the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula, is a notoriously turbulent stretch of water. The Southern Ocean current spins around without hindrance except for this narrowing pinch and all hell can break out at any time of the year. As sailors we’ve read so may stories of disaster and fear in this stretch of water. We, however were blessed with an unexpected mild crossing. According to one of the guests the crew had described it as a 2 out of 10 on the scale of that they had experienced throughout the season – we were getting an easy ride!

After lunch we were ready for an afternoon nap, but the expedition crew has scheduled yet another lecture, this one on glaciers and ice bergs from the resident geologist. (will the learning never end). The lectures were all held in the lounge, from where we also have 245 degrees of viewing the surrounding seas.

Sandwiches and cake were brought out to keep us alive before our next lecture, this one a mandatory briefing on how to behave in Antarctica. The various licensed tour companies come together under the IAATO umbrella (International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators) to ensure responsible behavior in this precious land; and all those agreed rules and recommendations needed to be imparted to us newbie visitors. Some examples:

  1. All clothing and packs taken ashore must first be cleaned of potentially invasive seeds or spores (i.e. we got some serious vacuuming)
  2. Boots were to be cleaned and sterilized both before leaving this ship and on returning – to ensure no contaminants were transferred between different areas of Antarctica.

There were plenty of perfectly reasonable policies and procedures to protect the environment, history, and wildlife we’d see ashore.

We were then fitted for and issued our boots, identified our space in the mud room, and made familiar with the processes required before departing the ship to go ashore in Antarctica (and on return). We’d each been issued ID cards on arriving at the boat, and we were shown how to use these to check in an out as we left to go ashore. A security measure to be sure we left nobody behind!

Following the IAATO briefing, we were encouraged to go to the welcome desk to put our entries in for three different contests: time of the first whale sighting, time of sighting the first iceberg bigger than the ship and confirmed by the Bridge, an time of crossing the Antarctic Convergence. The Antarctic convergence is the point where the circumpolar waters of the southern ocean cease to interact with the currents of the oceans farther north. It is marked by a rapid decrease in sea temperature and effectively marks our entry into the Antarctic biological zone.

A day sailing south and getting acquainted with the boat, the passengers, and the expected sights ahead

In the brief break before dinner, Maryanne and I made our first visit to the bridge deck. The bridge was open to us practically all the time (aside from anchoring and docking), and we were keen to take a look at how such a big ship operates. The crew were accommodating and seemed happy to engage in conversation, show how the various equipment worked and generally make a visit to the bridge another part of the great vacation. I had a look at their chart plotter and noticed that the time to go to the next waypoint (in the islands just off the peninsula) indicated that we would arrive around 5:30 am the following day. That was way ahead of schedule! I had been tossing and turning since 4:30am and knew this meant I’d want to be up around the same time the next day so as not to miss the grand arrival. Given this, we decided to skip the scheduled movie, and the bar, and after dinner went to bed and to sleep – excited like Kids at Christmas for our imminent arrival in Antarctica.

Good visibility, mostly cloudy - Wind: W 3; Sea: Moderate; Air Temp: 7°C

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