Thursday, March 03, 2016

Boarding Day!

[Kyle]Not just boarding day; since our time to check in was not until mid-afternoon, we still had pleny of time to fill. Since going to the “Aviation Museum” I had been slowly coming around to thinking that it would actually be pretty cool to take a flight down here at the end of the world. I suggested it to Maryanne as a way to eat up the part of the day before boarding and she lovingly agreed, and the sun shone to cooperate with the plan.

Just some of the luggage that was sent ahead to the waiting boat
(not all ours!)

We showed up at the airport just as a huge number of German tourists were finishing up. The staff paid no attention to us until after they had all left and it was clear we weren’t going with them. Once they realized our presence was just a coincidence and that we were looking for an airplane ride as well, they were all apologies about the misunderstanding.

They found us a pilot, Pablo, and made introductions. Maryanne asked if it would be possible for me to do some of the flying. When Pablo asked if we had ever been in a small plane before, I admitted that I had spent a few thousand hours in a few dozen types, mostly way back when. Then he asked what I did. Oh, boy. The cat was out of the bag. I got a hesitant yes on the condition that I produce my certificate and that Pablo felt okay with me once I touched the controls.

We climbed aboard and Pablo taxiied us onto the runway and stopped. There were a lot of birds on the runway; as one would leave, another few would fly across. He got on the radio and called someone in a truck to chase them off for us. After the first pass, he wasn’t satisfied so he called them back for another drive-by, the birds were quite happy to land again after the truck drove by. My years of conditioning led me to simultaneously think we were going to be late and that this was going to cost us extra, since airplane rentals are generally charged by the tenth of an hour. Uh, no we weren’t and no it wasn’t. None of us had anywhere we needed to go, except flying, and we’d already paid the fixed rate for the one hour tour. Pablo was just being careful.

Once he was satisfied the birds would stay away for our take-off, Pablo added throttle and we were soon in the air. We circled the bay in front of Ushuaia to gain some altitude. Pablo handed the controls over to me, pointed where he wanted me to go and we entered the mountains. Wow again. wow! From up there, we could see that the mountains we enjoyed so much the day before weren’t isolated ones just in the park, but went on and on in the same dramatic manner for as far as we could see, which at that altitude was about a hundred miles. The whole range was just row after row of jagged mountains with hardly any sign of humanity in between. Like the hike the day before, I suddenly felt silly about my worries about the price. This was totally worth it! I told Pablo that this was by far the prettiest place I have ever flown. It was, by far.

Kyle and Pablo fly Maryanne around the mountains
While she acts as official photographer

We crossed a mini range to Lago (lake) Fagnano and turned right to follow it. We flew past more mountains on the right, with plains on the other side of the lake sloping gently to the South Atlantic. We turned again past out of season ski resorts and large ranches nestled in the mountains before re-entering the Beagle Channel near the Atlantic entrance. After passing a few fishing outposts and what must be some incredibly picturesque anchorages, we were back in Ushuaia and it was time for the landing (whilst carefully avoiding Chilean airspace).

Pablo took over and skillfully greased the landing in a thirty-knot direct crosswind, which he said was normal for the area. That’s hard in a jet, even more so in a light single where the wind represents forty percent of the forward speed. Why on Earth did they build the runway perpendicular to the wind?

We thanked each other and bid farewell. It was time to return to the hotel to turn in our bags for transport to the ship. We then had to find something to do for a couple of hours until we would be let on board. Reports were that the wine aboard the ship was quite expensive, so we headed to the grocery store where we bought a couple of bottles for each of our carry-ons. From there, we headed to an ice cream store just across the street from our meeting point.

The teenager behind the counter was watching a soap opera and was visibly annoyed when we entered. She served us without enthusiasm and then reluctantly turned the T.V. to a channel with a loop of fast edit clips of cool, extreme things to do in the area. Most of them seemed inexplicably to be of people doing arial stunts on a boogie board while being towed behind a ski boat. We tried to indicate that it wasn’t necessary, but it seemed to be some sort of strict company policy, so we were overruled just in case the boss came out of the back. The ice cream was good though, and we took a little guilty pleasure in her continued annoyance when we lingered after finishing.

Our time came. We sauntered across the street to the buses that would take us past the security checkpoint at the port and over to the boat. The staff introduced themselves and after making sure everyone was accounted for, we headed three blocks to board.

We climbed the gangway, were given our ID card and shown to our cabin. It was functional, but very nice and well laid out. It was also quite a bit bigger than our room at the Albatros. We went to the reception desk where we were told our first order of business once everyone was aboard would be to go to the mandatory safety briefing in the main lounge. After that we were to go grab our life vests and proceed to our muster stations for the safety drill. I’ve never done one of these things before on a ship, so I have nothing with which to compare it, but it seemed thorough and well done. We were even allowed to board our 50-person lifeboat. We knew where the ship was headed and that help woudn’t be close behind.

We settle into our room and check out the lifeboat drills before casting off

As soon as the drills were done, we all headed to the top deck to watch the lines being cast off. The ship was underway. We were on our way to Antarctica.

The Expedition turned east and began steaming through the Beagle toward the Atlantic. Most of the guests were outside taking pictures of the hills alongside and of Ushuaia receding into the distance.

The PA announced the welcome briefing in the main lounge. We all reluctantly left the views and headed inside. The expedition crew were introduced. (The ship's crew are divided into six groups: Bridge, Engineering, Deck, Restaurant, Housekeeping and Expedition) They are the one's handling all trips ashore as well as providing a wealth of expertise in several areas. Most had high-level science degrees and/or had spent many seasons in Antarctica.

At the welcome briefing, we learned that the international crew was comprised of thirteen different nationalities and that our current group of passengers were made up of seventeen. The largest contingent were the Aussies, followed closely by Americans and Kiwis. At the bottom of the list was a lone guy from Iceland, who we were told had brought the number of different nationalities ever carried to 53.

Dinner followed, where we ended up seated at a table full of Scots, who also turned out to be avid sailors. The meal had as much food as four and was all delicious. We swapped stories until well after the service had stopped. We were nearly the last to leave.

And we are finally off

It was such nice company. We would be sitting there, drinking wine and laughing. It felt as if we had discovered kindred spirits sitting next to us in a pub and decided to push the tables together. In the middle of all of this merriment, I would occasionally find myself snapping to reality as I would realize that our jovial group was on a ship in the Beagle Channel and that we all just left for Antarctica.

But rest was not on the agenda – after dinner was time to be fitted and assigned our Parka coats – ours to use during and then keep after the cruise. Not quite sure how it will fit in the luggage but we were both provided with a new, bright red, two layer jacket for the trip ahead.

Afterwards, we made our way back to our respective cabins. I was just about to fall asleep when I felt the swell of the open sea begin to move through the ship. Ooh, this was exciting. I got dressed again and headed to the big chartplotter display by the reception desk on the deck above. We had just exited the Beagle and were now in the open water of the Drake Passage. I went outside and climbed onto the upper deck above the bridge. I stood there alone in a cold wind, looking at the stars and feeling the swell move under the ship. “So this is the Drake Passage”, I thought, Extraordinary!

From ships Log: Good visibility, partly cloudy Wind: SW 6; Sea: slight; Air Temp: 12°C

1 comment:

Mommy Dearest said...