Transitioning to Antarctica: What It’s Like to Sail the Drake

Author Melissa Goldin on a zodiac excursion in the white continent.

It was the raviolis that broke me.

“If I have to throw up, where should I do that?” I asked Andy, one of the three crew members aboard our 19-day sailing expedition to the Antarctic Peninsula.

Nonplussed, he pointed outside. I nodded, but didn’t get up. It seemed unlikely that I’d be able to get my coat on, wriggle into my lifejacket, and attach myself to the deck before my lunch ended up all over Icebird, our six-passenger, high-latitude sailing yacht. Andy seemed to sense this in my hesitation.

“Do you have time?” he asked. I shook my head. “Go, just go,” he urged me, and I stumbled out the door, onto the deck of the pitching vessel.

As I emptied my stomach over the port side, Andy grabbed the back of my sweatshirt so I wouldn’t follow my upchuck into the waves. Once the nausea had subsided, I sat on the deck, staring vacantly at the horizon, my lifejacket finally on and hooked to the boat.

The Icebird on its way to Antarctica across the Drake.

This is life on the Drake Passage — 600 miles of tempestuous waters connecting Cape Horn, the southernmost point of South America, to Antarctica — one of the roughest bodies of water in the world. It’s unavoidable for most tourists unless they fly round-trip to the great white desert. In a large cruise ship, a crossing typically takes two to three days. It took us six — six days of hardly anything but ocean, birds, and sky; six of the most tedious, most soul-sucking, most uncomfortable days of my life. But it was worth it.

In the midst of a solo, five-month journey through South America, I’d shown up in Ushuaia, Argentina on the off-chance I would be able to find a discounted, last-minute trip to the seventh continent. Luck was on my side: I scored a spot on Icebird, sight unseen, with just three other passengers.

I knew the Drake would be rough, especially on a small boat, but I saw it as a means to an end — a challenge on the way to our destination. Instead, it was a period of transition that set the tone for the entire trip. I was quickly removed from the modern world and transported to an alternate universe with no Internet, no distractions and no one but the strangers with whom I was traveling. My perception of reality slowed and I started to focus on minute details with unrelenting concentration — how the cape petrels would take a running start on the water before taking off and how the never-ending ocean made it feel like we were literally on top of the world (or perhaps the bottom). World War Three could have started and I wouldn’t have known.

After three days, we saw another sailboat. The mast was only a thin, black line on the horizon at first, but it was my top priority for half an hour as we watched it draw closer at an excruciatingly slow pace. I wondered who was on board and whether they were as excited to see us as we were to see them. It was my tether to the rest of the world, a much-appreciated break in the waves, until it disappeared to the north.

“That was the most exciting thing that’s ever happened to me,” I said to no one in particular as it passed.

But the novelty of the Drake soon wore thin. I got so fed up with the nothingness that I started cursing out the bathroom every time a big wave threw me off the toilet and napping as much as I could so as to simply do something other than stare out the window in a stupor. We were tossed around so much I could barely read or write and my hair got greasier each day I had to go without a shower. The monotony was broken only by good meals and when idle chatter turned deep (or silly).

Arrival in Antarctica!

And then everything stopped. There was no more rocking, no more splashing, no more nausea. Gentoo penguins squawked no more than 30 feet away, the bright reds and blues of two small buildings contrasted with the pure white of the snow and a cruise ship lingered in the distance, obscured by fog. It had never taken me so long to get anywhere and I thought about the early Antarctic explorers who’d really had it rough what with scurvy, starvation, and countless other hardships. Compared to them, with our GPS, motor and fresh vegetables, we’d gone for a pleasant jaunt around the lake, but it still felt as though we’d earned our anchorage.

As our plane back to civilization landed in Punta Arenas, Chile two weeks later I marveled at the miracle that is modern air travel. It took us six days to get to Antarctica and only two hours to get back. I had no desire to return to the Drake and was grateful a hot shower was finally within reach, but our arrival felt like a non-event — merely a blip on the way to my hostel. We were getting convenience over self-reflection. The nausea, however, was not missed.

Melissa Goldin is a writer and editor from Brooklyn, N.Y. who just returned home from a five-month trip through South America and Antarctica. You can contact her at goldin.melissa@gmail.com or learn more about her at melissagoldin.com.

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