Crossing the Drake

This blog encapsulates our first days on our expedition to Antarctica, as started crossing the Drake with Hurtigruten on Feb 5, 6, and 7, 2022. At a brief bit in the night our cabin started rocking a bit, but otherwise the first night was smooth sailing. We both slept through breakfast, but awoke around 930AM for the various activities of the day. Throughout the day we passed through the Beagle Channel, which was named after the ship that Darwin sailed on and passed mount Darwin at one point as well.

Following in Darwin’s footsteps (always a good place to be if you ask me) we passed 5 glaciers: the Romanche, Germany, France, Italy, and Holland otherwise known as the Nation Glaciers.

The immensity of the glaciers was something to behold, but also a bit sad to know how much they had receded due to climate change. How different they must have looked to Darwin on his travels, as only the Italy glacier still reaches from mountain top to sea due to climate change. Still, the majesty was overwhelming and our sense of adventure was aroused.

Meals became a highlight of the day, at least initially, when the food and style was still new. We also got used to the handwashing stations and temperature check stations in front of the mess hall.

For lunch we both had Onion soup with a giant Cheese crouton on top. CJ then had the chickpea ball (aka falafel) and I had Penne pasta, we finished it up with fresh fruit. We met our seat neighbors from England, Yvonne and Mike, two retired chemists and teachers, with a daughter who was working in zoology with humpback whales near Cape Town in South Africa. To be Covid safe there was a glass barrier in between the two seating areas adjacent on a long table, with couples sitting across one another and next to other passengers.

We enjoyed getting to know the fellow passengers, as many had a scientific or explorer bent to them, and most had lived impressive lives. This was not a trip for lightweights or casual travelers.

We stopped at Port Williams to gain authorization for the rest of our voyage. This only took about an hour, and then we continued on our way to start our crossing the Drake.

For dinner we had Beetroot tartar with pumpkin seed kurkuma panko and horseradish, spelt like risotto, artichoke foam, baked root vegetable, curcuma panko, leek oil, caramelized apples, sour-cream, crumble and hazelnut ice cream. Many of the desserts had a Norwegian bent to them.

After dinner we finally headed out into the crossing the Drake Passage part of the journey, a notoriously rough part of the ocean, where many ships have been lost over the centuries. I was excited for potentially rough seas. CJ was less so. Here was our progress from the day:

However, before we fully got into the open ocean though, some friends wanted to give us a send off. I ran out from dinner, and was able to see a few Dusky Dolphins frolicking next to our boat.

For our second day at sea crossing the Drake with Hurtigruten, CJ was seasick most of the day even with meds, but got a bit better towards the end of the day. As we later found, even though CJ got seasick a lot of the tenured crew said we got lucky and referred to our passing more as the “Drake Lake” because it had been so calm, relatively. Though “relatively” is pulling a lot of weight there. Since it was a small ship, anyone prone to seasickness definitely feels it more than on a large ship.

For the days at sea crossing the Drake, there is not much to do, so a lot of the day revolved around meal time. We went to breakfast with the usual fare (with a British orientation, such as baked beans and tomatoes), but with the servers walking around giving out bread, and you could go up to the buffet, but they served you. Their scrambled eggs were stellar, the perfect amount of fluffiness and creaminess. CJ skipped lunch, but I went down and had the pesto linguine, it was very tasty.

For dinner, I had a raw mushroom plate with a great sauce, and CJ had an amazing Ribollita white bean soup, which was pureed yet filling. For our mains, I had pork tenderloin, and CJ had a sweet potato and black bean bowl with rice.

At this point in the trip we found the variety of the vegetarian options to be still quite good as nothing had repeated and it was different than the vegetarian fare we had at home.

During our crossing of the Drake, we attended sessions on whales and how to identify the species that are in the Antarctic region.

We also learning about the sailing of the Belgica Expedition a harrowing journey (as most of them were in this region during the Age of Heroes) where they got stuck in the pack ice for 13 months, and only just barely made it out to tell the tale. However, they lost one man overboard early in their journey (Winke) – who had tragically fallen overboard and died when his hands became too frozen to grasp the ropes thrown out to him. Some men went mad during the long cold winter with 72 straight days of eternal night, and only made it out by ultimately sawing a kilometer long path in the ice, which took them a month to accomplish. From that voyage only Amundsen would return to the Antarctic when he made it to the South Pole. Frederick Cook, also from this voyage, would purportedly be the first to journey to the North Pole. We watched the lecture from our cabin, since Hurtigruten was not yet allowing crowds to gather in the lecture hall due to Covid precaution.

Today was also the day for getting fitted for boots during our crossing of the Drake with Hurtigruten. The Muckboots that stayed with us for the rest of the journey. We ended up using them on every single landing, and liked them so much that we added them to our shopping list when we returned home. They were cumbersome when not in snow and towards the end when we were on dry land in a warmer climate, we wished we had regular hiking boots. Still, on the Zodiacs they were useful as often water splashed in as the seas and weather could unexpectedly change at a moment’s notice.

Here was our progress from Feb 6:

The next day, Feb 7, CJ went to breakfast, but I skipped and slept in a bit more, as we continued crossing the Drake. We attended sessions on penguins and met the 7 species that are found in Antarctica: Adelie, Chinstrap, Gentoo, King, Macaroni, Rockhopper, and Emperor.

The at sea days were populated with lectures, so we also attended a session by a woman who had wintered over in Antarctica back in the 90s, and had been coming back in various ways ever since. Her name was Rachel Duncan Morgan, she was British, and had over 25 years of experience in the region. She was a fascinating woman, who had taught herself a multitude of skills to be chosen to come down to the white continent, not least of being able to fully take apart and put back together a skidoo. All of the Hurtigruten expedition team were interesting and accomplished, adventurers to be sure.

For lunch, CJ had the Tomato soup and fried herbs, it came with a boiled egg as well, but she had them hold that since she still wasn’t feeling well. I had the Rigatoni with broccoli and cream sauce, sticking with my pasta for lunch kick.

After lunch, I got in a workout at the gym, a tiny but efficient space. As CJ tried to nap and/or focus on the horizon to ward off seasickness, I caught a glimpse of some whales off in the distance, more from their spouts than anything else. I never had a chance to see what kind of whales they were. I saw a seal swimming near the ship, and a number of Petrels and Albatross gliding by overhead as we crossed the Drake.

We took one more PCR Covid test on the ship in the morning, never heard anything back, but assumed no news was good news. It would have been nice to hear back that our results were negative, as well as the overall results of the entire passenger manifesto. Hurtigruten took Covid and mask wearing very seriously, and even though some of it was security theater, we appreciated most of their efforts – we did pay a fortune for the trip and no one on board wanted to entertain risk of someone potentially getting COVID.

Today was the day for going through our bio security check as well, which essentially consisted of vacuuming anything off of our outdoor gear that could be harmful to the ecosystems of Antarctica. Specifically looking for twigs, seeds, etc., but also we made sure to get rid of the sand that had been at the bottom of my drypack since I had used it in Vang Vien, Laos. 

We also had a mandatory kayak briefing, essentially walking people through the dry suits, and what to do once out in the water, and if you tipped over into the drink. Besides lectures galore, the at sea days were also used for cleaning tasks and briefings around the expeditions. Hurtigruten made efficient use of our time crossing the Drake.

CJ’s sea sickness picked back up, so she skipped the dinner sitting, but the servers and kitchen were very gracious, and they were able to provide me a broth bowl with herbs, sliced apple, and a ginger ale to take back to her. At dinner, I had the corn and vegetable chowder to start, and then progressed to a red beet bourguignon with lentils, sautéed mushrooms, roasted pumpkin seeds, and beetroot chips.

Poor CJ. Hell is seasickness, and seasickness is hell. It is also quite possibly hell, or at least heck for those around you, since it makes you irritable as well. This is what CJ was experiencing today after us both thinking she had beat it the day before. Not sure if it was rougher seas or what, but it came back with a vengeance today, and didn’t start to subside until later in the evening after a bit of broth and apple, and a few prayers to the porcelain God. She was having issues with the medication she brought as well. Previously she had successfully used the Scopolamine patch and been fine, but on this trip she had continuous nausea and gnarly side effects like extreme light sensitivity and pupil dilation, as well as severe dehydration and dry mouth. Obviously that wasn’t going to work for the white continent, where literally everything is intensely white and bright, so she went to sick bay a few times to try to get some different medication but they were less than helpful and kept forking over dramamine, which didn’t work for her either. She spent all at sea days, which were about a third of the trip, seasick.

We took a trip to the gift shop on the MS Fram.

I was able to purchase a hat and t-shirt at the gift shop along with what better be the best sweater of my life given that it cost over $200 Euros. However, it was coming up on my birthday and I decided to splurge. Tip: the gift shop sells out of things and sizes, especially the cheaper items, quickly, so if you really want something I’d recommend buying it on the first day so you get your choice of what you want.

Brendan's awesome sweater while crossing the Drake
Brendan’s awesome sweater that made an appearance at a future dinner

Just as we were about to get to sleep for the next big day, through the mist the first glimpse of the continent appeared as we completed crossing the Drake. A quote from Frederick Cook came to mind:

The scenery, the life, the clouds, the atmosphere, the water – everything wore an air of mystery”. Many years of my hoping and trying to reach the continent were finally coming true. The majesty of it brought tears of joy to my eyes

Frederick Cook

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