South to Antarctica: Cruising in Drake’s wake

Photo of Stephen Scourfield

For most of us, Antarctica is a big-ticket trip of a lifetime. The cruising season is from November to March, information on Antarctic cruises is out now and it is decision time for this season.

The slow, low, big grey swells have almost unfathomable power behind them.

The ocean is flooding through this pinch point between the finger of South America pointing down and that of the Antarctic Peninsula pointing up.

Here, in the middle, the Drake Passage is a 1000km-wide bottleneck through which the great, circulating Southern Ocean squeezes. 

Its wind and water are predominantly from west to east — the Antarctic Circumpolar Current is the most voluminous current in the world, with between 95 and 150 million cubic metres of water, rich in plankton, flowing per second.

Some days it’s the Drake Shake. Other days the Drake Lake.

At this moment, it is just a mostly benign and massive sheet of grey corrugated iron.

But that is just the surface — Drake’s Passage as we see it from the deck of our ship or, comfortably, through big lounge windows.

A gnarly old ship captain once asked me where I thought the nearest land was and, when I guessed the distance to shore, he wryly pointed down — through the hull and fathoms of water to the seabed below. “A good thing to remember,” he said.

That dry old joke worked well in shallow water but the Drake Passage averages 3400m in depth, and some up to 4800m.

The silty sediments on the sea-floor range are from South America and Antarctica.

This is a remarkable piece of geography and I am glad I’m here.

I’m glad I have had the excitement of boarding the ship in the end-of-the-world town of Ushuaia, at the southern tip of South America.

I’m glad I’ve experienced the anticipation of gliding down the Beagle Channel.

And I’m glad I’m here in the Drake Passage, seeing a pod of fin whales break the surface, and the scattering bums of penguins as they zip away from the ship ... through-the-air, through-the-water, through- the-air. 

It’s brilliantly comical.

A wandering albatross wheels through the sky and then drops down to the ocean, wingtips and breast just a few centimetres above the undulating surface, gliding perfectly parallel. It is joined by two more, flying beside and behind the ship. 

For every metre these birds descend, they can glide 23m, at a maximum speed of 85km/h, and generally cruising at 55km/h. A wandering albatross can live up to 60 years and fly up to 8.5 million kilometres during its lifetime.

I stand, mesmerised.

I’m glad to feel I’ve earned the first view of an iceberg.

There is the option of flying in less than two hours from Ushuaia to King George Island and missing the passage.   

But the general anticipation and on-board lectures add to the thrill when, after the 40-hour crossing, the Antarctic Peninsula finally comes into sight.

I feel privileged.

Knight’s quest 

Drake Passage was named for Sir Francis Drake.

His ship was blown far south in September 1578, in a moment which suggested the connection between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

The first recorded rounding of Cape Horn was in 1616, by the ship Eendracht, on a voyage looking for Terra Australis — seeking the west coast of Australia.

It was a fundamental, and testing, ocean trading route through the 19th and early 20th centuries, before the Panama Canal was opened in 1914.

From Capt. James Cook’s 1768 rounding of the horn and dip into Drake Passage to Joshua Slocum on his yacht Spray and Jon Sanders on Parry Endeavour, I have read many accounts of sailing here.

Bernard Moitessier aboard his ketch Joshua, and Robin Knox- Johnson on Suhaili, came through here in the 1968 Golden Globe race — the first round the world yacht race.

I reread Moitessier’s words: “I am a citizen of the most beautiful nation on earth. A nation whose laws are harsh yet simple, a nation that never cheats, which is immense and without borders, where life is lived in the present. In this limitless nation, this nation of wind, light, and peace, there is no other ruler besides the sea.”

Fact File


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