The Drake Passage isn’t for the feint of heart.
It’s 500 miles of open sea where the Atlantic meets the Pacific. The closest land is South America or Antarctica. Even travel brochures acknowledge that the passage is known for having the stormiest water in the world, making it an adventure to cross anytime.
But my brother, Bill Voige, says that bucking high waves is worth every rise and fall when you experience Antarctica.
He was one of 88 Americans who boarded the Clelia II Nov. 30, hit a heck of a storm Dec. 7 and left this landlocked Hoosier wondering if I’d see him on dry land again. The 290-foot cruise ship rocked, pitched and creaked all along its southbound trip. Here’s how Bill described the wild trip down, and the even wilder one back north:
“On the way down, the Drake lived up to its reputation. Think of the most severe turbulence you’ve ever experienced on an airplane and then imagine it going on continuously for three days and nights.
“But the trip back was even more exciting. For on that leg of the journey, we encountered a storm of breathtaking ferocity: 35-plus foot waves and 50-knot winds. To add to the excitement, during the storm a 2.5-foot section of deck railing broke loose and crashed through one of the windows of the ship’s bridge. The resulting onrush of water, wiped out our radar and most of our radios.
“Fortunately, we were able to use one remaining low-power radio to contact a nearby National Geographic cruise ship which pulled alongside and used a cannon-like device to shoot an additional radio to us. But we were still without radar, which made navigation somewhat risky. At one point, we were told the safest maneuver was to turn into the storm and use the engines to essentially ‘tread water’ until the storm broke, which might take three long days.”
It didn’t take three days, but watching the video that the Explorer crew shot could make you queasy as the ship crashes violently against waves, gets pummeled with water, and is tossed from starboard to port.
While the storm made the trip an international media spectacle, the two days passengers spent in Antarctica were nothing short of spectacular.
Bill compared the weather to a beautiful winter day in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, where he lives. The sky was clear and blue, with temperatures in the 30s. (Ironically, the coldest day of the entire trip was Dec. 13, when Bill landed at Dulles International Airport in Reston, Va.)
The ship made four landings, giving passengers an intimate look at penguins, seals, birds and glaciers. The penguins have no fear of people, so they would get two or three feet from the thrilled tourists, most of whom were in their 60s and 70s; the oldest was 85 and the youngest was a man in his 50s who was traveling with his mother.
The International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators regulates tourism in Antarctica, and it has some very strict rules:
>>Only one cruise ship can be there at a time.
>>No more than 100 passengers and guides can be on land at any given time.
>>Garments must be vacuumed before going on land to ensure that no seeds from other continents are introduced to Antarctica.
>>Visitors must pass through disinfectant stations leaving and boarding the ship.
>>Water can be taken onto the land, but no food of any kind.
>>Penguins always have the right of way.
No souvenirs can be taken, not even a rock, but -- and this was my biggest surprise -- there is a gift shop on Antarctica. It’s at a British scientific station, which uses the proceeds from sales of post cards and T-shirts to help fund the work done there.
When the Clelia II arrived in Ushuaia, Argentina, the ship was met by ambulances, fire engines, reporters, camera crews, and official representative of the British government, sent to see if they could be of assistance to two British expedition leaders.
The passengers, however, “weren’t exactly suffering,” Bill said. They were finishing dinner -- lobster, steak, champagne and baked Alaska.
Due to the complications encountered, Overseas Adventure Travel rebated some of the ticket price for this trip and credited each passenger $2,000 for another. Bill has already decided he’ll use it to visit Thailand in the spring.
Hey, aren’t there tsunamis there?
I’d like to think I would make the crossing to see Antarctica if the opportunity arose. How about you? If not Antarctica, what adventure would you like to take?