Crossing the Drake Passage: A first timer's guide

Travel Advice
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Recently I embarked on an incredible journey to Antarctica, a destination that is so remote it felt like I'd stepped onto a planet from a science fiction film. The scenery was overwhelmingly beautiful and every preconceived highlight was surpassed. Penguins, albatross, whales, hunting leopard seals and incredible stories from a heroic age combined to create a once in a lifetime experience.

But, as with all remote places, the journey to get there is long, and this particular journey involved a crossing of the Drake Passage, twice. Named after the famed British privateer Sir Francis Drake, it's the area of the Southern Ocean between the tip of South America and the Antarctic Peninsula, the most northerly part of the White Continent. With no land mass to interrupt the eastward advance of the powerful Antarctic Circumpolar Current the seas in this area can be large and have earned a fearsome reputation. As a first time visitor I was a little nervous about the crossing, as were my fellow travellers, so for those who are considering an Antarctic adventure there are a few things you might want to know and consider.

Know your enemy

Usually a 2 day journey, although quicker in good weather, the Drake Passage can range from incredibly calm (imagine being gently lulled to sleep) to, well, a lot worse. Swells from 1 metre to between 7 and 8, plus wind speed and direction all have an effect. To get an idea what you're up against check out PassageWeather.com to see the current, although changeable, forecast. The site is used by most Antarctic operators, and if you look during our winter months (Nov - Mar) you'll see what you might be up against. A swell of 3-4 metres is enough to cause discomfort for some, but to ensure a quick crossing operators will do what they can to route around very rough seas, and you'll always be briefed on board by the Expedition Team so you'll know what to expect.

Location, location, location

Rooms further away from the ship's centre will feel more movement so if you can, stay mid-ship. Looking at the horizon will also help so do consider a room with window (or even better a suite with a balcony) instead of a porthole grade room, typically the lowest grade, especially as in particularly large swells it may be necessary to close the porthole cover.

Medication

Some people cope with sea sickness better than others but I recommend you have some form of medication with you just in case. There are patches and tablets each with pros and cons. Popular on my voyage was a patch placed behind the ear which lasts up to 3 days and is apparently less likely to cause drowsiness than tablets. You however may prefer to take tablets and rest up through the crossing. Ginger is also said to help (tea is good, or even biscuits!) and some recommend acupressure wrist bands. To complicate matters most medications are better started prior to the onset of symptoms, but my blanket advice is take tablets with you and if you start to feel ill take them and sleep as much as you can. Of course please get advice from your doctor or pharmacist first before you leave.

Size matters

A larger ship is more stable and in some instances can be quicker, making the crossing more comfortable. However, landings sites in Antarctica are restricted to 100 people ashore at any one time and to allow for this larger ships have to stagger landing groups. Many do so without any problems but they are less able to navigate narrow channels and access smaller bays. Your choice of ship (and operator) will also affect the inclusions, activities and level of comfort so it's worth a lengthy discussion with us so we can recommend the right ship for you.

Prepare for the worst (and hope for the best)

If the crossing is rough and your room becomes your sanctuary make sure you're happy there. I was saved by a movie on demand system which provided blissful distraction so do check if this, or an alternative, is available.

Finally, your trip will end with a return crossing so do some pre-packing in case the journey gets rough, you'll be grateful later.

Of course you might enjoy a gentle voyage watching albatross gliding around the back of the ship or attending lectures on the destination. No matter what the weather it is absolutely worth the journey, and remember, if it was easy, everyone would do it!

Alex Loizou
Meet the author

Alex is Director of Sales & Marketing at Mundy Adventures

More about Alex

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