An Antarctic Voyage On Silversea: Part Four, Intermezzo, The Drake Passage

 

Stanley, Falklands
Stanley, so close, yet so far. Wind and waves kept us from going ashore in Stanley, situated in the Falkland Islands. © 2018 Tamera Trexler

 

In case you’ve missed it, I’m covering our Silversea Antarctic voyage as if it were a five-course dining experience. Late for our meal together? Here’s what you’ve missed so far … 

On Silversea’s dinner menus, you’ll typically see the following: the appetizer, the Intermezzo, the main course and dessert. Along with the aperitif, these make up our five-course dinner. I’ve already covered our aperitif and appetizer as they relate to our Antarctic cruise. In this post, I’ll focus on the Intermezzo.

An Intermezzo is a “palate cleanser” that comes between the appetizer and main course, champagne poured over orange sorbet, for example. The word derives from the music world, where an Intermezzo is defined as “a short dramatic, musical, or other entertainment of light character, introduced between the acts of a drama or opera.”

Our Intermezzo is the Drake Passage, which indeed is a drama that comes between two major acts, the Falkland Islands and Antarctica. Unlike the musical Intermezzo (or our palate cleanser), the Drake Passage is not short. It can take up to two days to cross the Drake, and that’s under good conditions.

Leaving Stanley
Leaving calm seas for the Drake Passage. © 2018 Ralph Grizzle

You won’t read much about the Drake Passage on cruise line websites or in brochures. Cruise company marketing execs would prefer that you not think about the Drake at all and focus only on penguins and seals and snow and ice. But you’ve got to get there first, and everyone who considers a cruise to Antarctica thinks about the Drake. Some are excited about it, some have what I call TrepiDRAKEtion about it. The prospect of having to cross the Drake puts some people off from visiting the planet’s most mysterious continent. It shouldn’t. The Drake often has more bark than bite. And though it may not come as much consolation, after having crossed the Drake three times, I’d gladly do it again to experience Antarctica. And you should too if Antarctica is on your bucket list.

Stefan, Drake Passage
Expedition Leader Stefan informing us that we would be charting a course behind the weather system to avoid the highest winds and waves. © 2018 Ralph Grizzle

There’s no doubt that the Drake can thrust some daunting waves (and wind) at ships. When we left the Stanley at noon on Wednesday, passageweather.com was forecasting waves up to eight meters between the Falkland Islands and Antarctica, a distance of 838 nautical miles. Silver Cloud’s expedition leader, Stefan Kredel, told us that we would chart a course behind the worst of the weather system to avoid the highest winds and waves (depicted in orange and yellow in the image above). Doing so would take a little longer than making a beeline to the Antarctic, but by avoiding the worst of the weather system we would mitigate some of the shake, rattle and roll. Even so, we’d need to endure those agitated seas for two days, setting foot on Antarctica more than 48 hours after leaving the last sight of land.

Was our crossing rough? Bouncy, might be a better description, or as I once heard a Silversea hotel director describe it, “uphill.” There were two memorable events. The first event came the morning after we left the Falkland Islands. Silver Cloud was sailing south under sustained winds of 35 knots, which was fine. What was not fine (and what had not been in the forecast) were gusts up to 55 knots. Those wind gusts and an eight-meter wave caught us by surprise. I was in the Panorama Lounge when a few glasses went tumbling as the ship listed and lurched. The jost was over as fast as it happened, though.

The second memorable event came in the afternoon when we were in our stateroom. I had my back to the sliding glass balcony doors, preparing my camera so that I could take a photo of the rolling sea. “I want to get a picture of these waves,” I said to Tamera.

“If you turn around now, you’ll get an impressive one,” she said.

I turned and was surprised to see a wave that appeared higher than our fifth-deck stateroom. The wall of water slammed against the ship. Our sliding glass door was slapped pretty hard but sustained no damage. A few loose items were thrown across the room, but again, it was over as quickly as it came.

Drake Passage
Sea spray on our fifth-deck veranda. © 2018 Ralph Grizzle

Were we scared? It’s difficult to describe the feeling. What we felt was a mix of trepiDraketion and excitement. We could feel the power of Mother Nature and the force of the sea, which was, in some ways, invigorating. Moreover, the rolling seas were a reminder that we were on an expedition cruise to one of the world’s most remote regions. The experience was raw and unadulterated, just the way it should be. Yes, we were on a luxury cruise with butler service, multiple dining venues and champagne that poured as freely as tap water, but Antarctica was still Antarctica, and the Drake was still the Drake, incapable of being embellished with luxury trappings.

Not even a century ago, getting to the White Continent was fraught with danger and took much more than two days from the mainland. There was no passageweather.com for somewhat reliable information about weather systems, and ships back then had no stabilizers. Silver Cloud appeared more than capable of weathering the high seas, and our captain, Vincent Taillard, showed no sense of worry or concern. He told me on the bridge that he had faced 15-meter seas at one point in his career. “I turned the ship around,” he said. So the captains are always erring on the side of safety and caution.

Were we seasick? Not really. Tamera was a bit woozy, some of that due to the tablets she had taken, and spent much of the crossing in bed, which I think is the best way to combat motion-sickness on ships. I skipped taking motion-sickness tablets, but stuck to green apples, crackers and ginger ale. I went about my normal routines, as did many others. Some venues were closed, the Pool Grill, for example, and some events were canceled, but otherwise, it was business as usual, with photography workshops and lectures and most people attending breakfast, lunch and dinner. Even the gym was busy on the sea days.

I am trying to give you a good idea of what it was like to cross the Drake, and I’m also trying to convince you that it is not as bad as you imagine and that you should not let it stop you from making the journey to step ashore in Antarctica. As I wrote in  my first post, An Antarctic Voyage On Silversea, A Veritable Feast, you may have seen, for example, photos of penguins nesting on their eggs against dramatic snowy backdrops and ice-choked seas, but when a Zodiac brings you ashore to a place uninhabited by humans, where the cacophony of penguins and petrels are among the only sounds piercing the silence, and there you are clad in a parka, thick gloves and snow pants to guard against the bracing Antarctic chill, it is quite a different feeling than you get when looking at a photo.

You find yourself suddenly struck with emotions that bring some who have stepped ashore here to tears. Having been to Antarctica on three voyages now, I have felt it myself and seen it in others.

I’ve crossed the Drake six times now, and here are a few observations that I hope will help anyone contemplating an Antarctica cruise but put off by the Drake Passage crossing to overcome those fears.

  1. Crossing the Drake is not as bad as you may imagine. On my first trip to Antarctica, the prospect of crossing the Drake made me anxious. I’m not quite sure what I pictured in my mind, but it was something like what you may have seen in the motion picture, The Perfect Storm. None of my crossings have been anything like that.
  2. Sailboats do it. Sailboats cross the Drake from Ushuaia. They wait for the perfect window of opportunity, by monitoring passageweather.com, but even so, the crossing takes sailboats four to five days to do more than 500 nautical miles.
  3. It is a Right of Passage. Getting to Antarctica should not be easy. You’re visiting one of the most world’s remote regions. It is quite something to leave “civilization” and to sail for two days and then to see your first icebergs and then to step ashore among snow, ice, penguins and seals.
  4. You will forget all about it. When you first step ashore on the White Continent, the Drake becomes a distant memory.
  5. Some people prefer the rough seas. The waves are not like white-capped crests that pound and pound the ship. They are more like rollers. When they come from the side or back, they rock you to sleep at night. Birders say they prefer the rough seas because it stirs up the sea and brings more birds. All during our cruise, people were out on the decks photographing birds or looking for them through binoculars.
  6. Once you’re there, you’ll be glad you endured. On the night that we left the Falkland Islands, the seas were getting rough. I asked asked Tamera if she were given the option to head back to land and end the cruise, would she do so, at the expense of skipping Antarctica? Her response? Maybe. I said I would ask her again when we reached Antarctica. Two days later, we were trekking on Cuverville Island on a beautiful sunny day. I asked the question again. She smiled. She got it. She was glad to have braved the seas to experience the glory and grandeur of Antarctica.
  7. You get to cross the Drake twice. If you’ve learned to appreciate the Drake, you’re in luck. You get to cross again going back to the tip of South America.

The Drake has a nastier reputation than it deserves. Don’t let the prospect of crossing it stop you. And if you’re lucky, as I have been three of my six crossings, you experience Drake’s Lake instead of Drake’s Shake.

Next up, the main course, our first iceberg sighting and stepping ashore in Antartica.

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