Setting Sail across the Drake Passage
Setting sail for Antarctica was easily one of the most exciting moments of our lives. Boarding the Akademik Sergey Vavilov felt like we were boarding a ship to an alien world. There was a palpable sense of epicness, of venturing into the unknown, that is quite rare in the 21st century. I’m sure my fellow shipmates felt much the same. One by one, we walked up the ramp into the converted Russian research vessel to be greeted by our One Ocean Expeditions crew. From the first handshake, it was clear that the trip was going to be “awesome”.
Thomas and I slowly made our way up to the fifth deck taking in the details along the way. Signs and labels were all in Russian with English subtitles where necessary. Raised door portals and steep functional staircases distinguished the Vavilov from typical cruise ships. This baby was designed for real expeditions, not some spin around the Caribbean.
Our double cabin with private bathroom was larger than I had expected: it had plenty of storage as well as a writing desk (like it had been designed just for bloggers.) Our heavy bright red Wetskins, durable galoshes, and pre-booked binoculars were waiting for us in our room. One Ocean very wisely includes the Wetskins and galoshes in the price of passage to ensure everyone is appropriately dressed for the potentially extreme weather in Antarctica.
After exploring our room and poking our heads out the windows, we climbed to the bar on the sixth deck and celebrated our departure with champagne, smoked salmon and blue cheese as well as a huge plate of chewy chocolate chip cookies. Apparently, someone had crawled into my head to determine all the foods I love most and served them up on departure. (Seriously, those are like my favorite things in the world.) We all gathered on deck for an evacuation drill which included an introduction to the ship’s super-modern lifeboats. They even let us crawl into the lifeboats and explore them for ourselves. This was also our introduction to One Ocean’s hands-on approach to training. Love it.
As we sailed along the protected waters of the Beagle Channel towards the open ocean, the tiny port of Ushuaia and the snow-capped peaks of Tierra del Fuego faded into the distance. Black-browed albatrosses and southern giant petrels started to appear around the boat as we floated past the tiny Chilean enclave of Puerto Williams signaling the ocean was not far away. A massive, strangely rounded yellow cloud hovered above the ship; I took it as a sign of an unconventional journey. That’s when a Japanese crew member, who I would later discover was named Shiho, dashed by swinging a hula-hoop around her neck.
We moved into the dining room where our expedition leader Cheryl introduced herself and her fellow crew members. A corporate lawyer who left it all behind to explore the poles with One Ocean Expeditions, Cheryl seemed to be the love child of a gorgeous super hero and a swashbuckling adventurer. (I’m sure Charlie has been trying to add Cheryl to his Angels for years, but she has much bigger adventures in mind.) She immediately inspired our total confidence.
Next up, Dr. Alan, the ship’s onboard doctor and hula-hooper extraordinaire, who informed us that we were approaching the dreaded Drake Passage. It was time to slap on those patches and pop those pills in preparation for one of the most notoriously rough bodies of water on the planet. Dr. Alan told us that we had about 4 hours until the swells began. Ugh.
It’s important to understand that Antarctica cruises involve some serious ups and downs – literally. The two-day, 1,000-kilometer voyage across the Drake Passage to the Antarctic Peninsula can be really rough. The Sergey Vavilov possesses a unique built-in ballast trimming system designed to help offset the movement of the seas, but the Drake is the Drake. Apparently, our crossing was quite average, which meant that only about half the passengers were suffering from the swells.
Unfortunately, Thomas was pretty much bed-bound for the first 36 hours despite using a scopolamine patch. Luckily, each deck has an adventure concierge, a position unique to One Ocean cruises, who regularly checks seasick passengers and provides them with soft drinks and soda crackers to keep them going. Our concierge Annie and Dr. Alan took excellent care of Thomas, which freed me up to explore the ship and attend lectures.
Since passengers who are capable of being vertical have several days to kill during the crossing to and from Antarctica, One Ocean offers a series of lectures on a diverse range of topics from polar biology to climate change to the politics of Antarctica. I attended every lecture I could and learned about everything from katabatic winds to evolutionary adaptations in penguins and polar seal species.
John, who first ventured to Antarctica in 1966 as a contract physicist for the British Antarctic Survey, gave a fascinating lecture on the Antarctic Treaty and the politics of Antarctica. The lecture and John’s personal stories from his Antarctic adventures really brought home the fact that we were traveling to the world’s last true wilderness region. For ten days, we would be completely outside the nation-state system. We would be walking on the only land on earth which was not within a recognized country. It really was like traveling to another planet.
As the series of lectures progressed, we entered the Antarctic convergence, the area where cold Antarctic waters meet warmer subantarctic waters. The convergence was veiled in eerie fog which increased the sense of mystery and anticipation. One Ocean ships have an open-door policy on the bridge, which means that passengers can access the bridge freely during the voyage. I spent several hours staring out of the bridge windows into a blanket of fog loving every moment of it. By the end of day one, somewhere in the middle of a foggy Southern Ocean, I had already decided that one trip to Antarctica was not enough for me.
For some, the blankness and monotony of the Drake Passage are a trial to endure. (Not to mention the seasickness). To me, it was an exciting period of anticipation and reflection, which heightened our Antarctica adventure in every way. So at the end of day two, when we emerged from the fog and the Captain announced that Anvers and Brabant Islands had been spotted in the distance, I was as thrilled as all the other celebrating passengers. But I was also a little saddened that my first intercontinental open-sea adventure had passed.