Saturday, 9 November 2013

Crossing the Drake

Crossing the Drake (Wednesday 30th October -Tuesday 5th November 2013)

A good start
After leaving Ushuaia, we headed down the Beagle Channel on board Pelagic. The sun was shining, the winds on our side. After a few hours, we arrived at Puerto Williams to clear customs into Chile. We got to check out the yacht club - an old boat that had been turned into a quaint clubhouse, full of character and memories from thousands of previous visiting yachts. A good time could definitely be had here! With the weather still on our side, the need to get started on the Drake was pressing. After a delicious chicken dinner, cooked by our very own Andrew, we headed off back into the Beagle Channel just as darkness enveloped us.

Sea sick
The team were fearful of sea sickness so had been taking appropriate preventative medication. As the evening drew on, we realised we had all been taking double-doses - no wonder it was making us feel spaced out! The decision was made to stop taking them as they made us feel so fuzzy. But the fear was still with me so I popped a final (correct dose of one pill) before bed. This was a big mistake. I can only remember a very small part of the terrible hallucinations that took over my mind that night. I am very grateful for the team who spotted me tripping out and managed to calm me down. If only this was our only sea-sickness related nightmare... Despite being the person with the least experience of sailing, the rest of the voyage passed me by nausea-free. Sadly, the rest of the team were terribly afflicted for the entire crossing of the Drake. The sound of retching seeping up from below deck still haunts me. It was a tough time for our yacht crew, Bertie and Dave as they struggled to keep everything going with only one extra watchman.

Crossing the Drake
The Drake Passage really is every bit as epic as its legend foretells. One moment, it is plain sailing - blue skies and calm seas - and the next, ferocious waves beat over the deck brought about by extreme gusts of wind of up to 63 knots. As we headed south, the temperature dropped and we soon found that the waves were freezing to the deck. It was a terrifying situation as the yacht crashed on through the rough days and nights. The one thing you cannot do is escape the sea. The best that we could do in the worst times was to hove to and sit it out. With weather as savage as we encountered, even at hove to, we couldn't let our guard down. I pulled an all-nighter watching out for potential sea ice and keeping an eye on wind direction, as Bertie and Dave took turns to get some rest. I have to confess that I found the whole experience exhilarating and hugely exciting. This is the Drake I had built myself up to sail across... And I delighted in the fact that I wasn't experiencing any sickness through it. (If I sound smug, it is only because everyone had forewarned that I would suffer as I had no sailing experience to speak of!!!)

A very happy birthday
My birthday came around quickly. Skipper Dave woke the team at 4am to see a pod of dwarf minkes that surrounded the yacht. The seas were fairly calm and the sun shone once again. The team had recovered as the sea flattened and were all in high spirits. I was still feeling tired from my long night-shift so popped bag into my bunk for a bit more sleep! After breakfast, I headed up on deck. We all spent most of the day there, watching the snowy mountains and icebergs of all sizes that we passed. It wasn't long before I saw my first group of GENTOO PENGUINS porpoising through the water. The feeling that passed over me as I saw them dart so elegantly through the water really left me lost for words. I hope I always feel that delight when I see that behaviour - it is the one thing that you really can't see in a zoo. Yet seeing them here, now, so naturally speeding across the waves makes me feel confused about zoos and their place as a captive home for penguins. There is no doubt in my mind that as a conservation tool, zoos play a very powerful role - both directly and through education. However it is sad that they cannot provide enough space for this most natural and remarkable behaviour.
We were privileged to be graced by the company of minke whales, including one which gave Bertie and me a shock by appearing abruptly right next to the starboard side of the yacht. Seals scattered ice bergs - leopards, crabeaters and weddells. We passed a penguin colony and the pungent smell of guano came wafting over to us. Eau de krill.
As the afternoon came, the team appeared with a birthday cake (complete with candles and a chorus of "happy birthday") and tea on deck. We were making excellent progress and looked forward to an evening ahead of relaxation...

Things take a drastic turn for the worse
The snow started and we entered the ice zone. Brash ice filled the sea ahead of us and Bertie had to go up the mast, or up the stick as it has affectionately become known by our team, in order to navigate a safe path through. This took a lot longer than any of us anticipated. Finally, just as we reached clear seas, the winds picked up. We just can't seem to catch a break! A nightmare ensued as Tudor, Dave, Bertie and Andrew braved terrifying gusts of wind and huge crashing waves to work in pairs and avoid the potentially fatal ice that still littered the water. As darkness drew in, we all took turns to act as spotters for Dave and Bertie. It was a bitterly cold and vicious night that seemed to last forever. As the dawn broke, things still looked bad - ice was still popping up from behind waves, disguised at times by the foamy white crests of waves - and we still had about 25 miles ahead of us.

Eventually, the wind cleared and the ice dissipated. Blue skies once again brought us hope and joy. We sailed down the most beautiful stretch of water in Neumayer Channel - snowy mountains seemed to completely surround us, much like a Norwegian Fjord. As we continued, it looked as though the channel led to a dead end. However, this is a fine example of how these waters play tricks for the channel continued around a hidden bend. Once again, we were in high spirits as we sailed into the body of water that surrounds Port Lockroy. Once again our celebrations were premature. After breaking for lunch, snow started to fall again. Winds picked up once more and, as we struggled to clear the ice from the ropes and rails needed to moor, the sea ice moved in. We found ourselves in yet another nightmare, racing from bay to bay in the desperate search for a safe anchor. Eventually, our skipper decided the safest thing for us all would be to nudge ourselves into the ice as close as possible to Port Lockroy. Once in place, we had to moor ourselves. Polar expert, Tudor, stepped out onto the sea ice to tie us onto a couple of grounded ice bergs. Meanwhile Bertie and I ventured out in a kayak to moor us onto land. We scrambled up the snowy slope to tie the mooring line onto an old but secure whaler's chain about 5-10 metres from a gentoo colony. The penguins looked on curiously as Bertie secured us in place.
Finally, safe and sound, we enjoyed delicious meal of steak and chips and a well-earned drink.

1 comment:

  1. Wow Ruth - I crossed Drake Passage in 2002 on a Russian Icebreaker, which was a picnic compared with your crossing! Enjoy the experience of a lifetime - you'll never go anywhere quite as incredible as the Antarctic... like being on another planet. Best wishes, Stephen Moss