‘Like going to the moon’: The world’s most terrifying ocean crossing

The Drake Passage is feared by travelers and sailors alike.

The Drake Passage is feared by travelers and sailors alike. 

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It’s the body of water that instils fear and inspires sailors in equal measure. Six hundred miles of open sea, and some of the roughest conditions on the planet – with an equally inhospitable land of snow and ice awaiting you at the end of it.

“The most dreaded bit of ocean on the globe – and rightly so,” Alfred Lansing wrote of explorer Ernest Shackleton’s 1916 voyage across it in a small lifeboat. It is, of course, the Drake Passage, connecting the southern tip of the South American continent with the northernmost point of the Antarctic Peninsula.

Once the preserve of explorers and sea dogs, the Drake is today a daunting challenge for an ever-increasing number of travelers to Antarctica – and not just because it takes up to 48 hours to cross it. For many, being able to boast of surviving the “Drake shake” is part of the attraction of going to the “white continent.”

But what causes those “shakes,” which can see waves topping nearly 50 feet battering the ships? And how do sailors navigate the planet’s wildest waters?

For oceanographers, it turns out, the Drake is a fascinating place because of what’s going on under the surface of those thrashing waters. And for ship captains, it’s a challenge that needs to be approached with a healthy dose of fear.

The world’s strongest storms

The Drake Passage can see waves of up to 49 feet.

The Drake Passage can see waves of up to 49 feet. 

At around 600 miles wide and up to 6,000 meters (nearly four miles) deep, the Drake is objectively a vast body of water. To us, that is. To the planet as a whole, less so.

The Antarctic Peninsula, where tourists visit, isn’t even Antarctica proper. It’s a thinning peninsula, rotating northwards from the vast continent of Antarctica, and reaching towards the southern tip of South America – the two pointing towards each other, a bit like a tectonic version of Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam” in the Sistine Chapel.

That creates a pinch point effect, with the water being squeezed between the two land masses – the ocean is surging through the gap between the continents.

“It’s the only place in the world where those winds can push all around the globe without hitting land – and land tends to dampen storms,” says oceanographer Alexander Brearley, head of open oceans at the British Antarctic Survey.

Winds tend to blow west to east, he says – and the latitudes of 40 to 60 are notorious for strong winds. Hence their nicknames of the “roaring forties,” “furious fifties” and “screaming sixties” (Antarctica officially starts at 60 degrees).

But winds are slowed by landmass – which is why Atlantic storms tend to smash into Ireland and the UK (as they did, causing havoc, with Storm Isha in January buffeting planes to entirely different countries) and then weaken as they continue east to the European continent.

With no land to slow them down at the Drake’s latitude anywhere on the planet, winds can hurtle around the globe, gathering pace – and smashing into ships.

“In the middle of the Drake Passage the winds may have blown over thousands of kilometers to where you are,” says Brearley. “Kinetic energy is converted from wind into waves, and builds up storm waves.” Those can reach up to 15 meters, or 49 feet, he says. Although before you get too alarmed, know that the mean wave height on the Drake is rather less – four to five meters, or 13-16 feet. That’s still double what you’ll find in the Atlantic, by way of comparison.

And it’s not just the winds making the waters rough – the Drake is basically one big surge of water.

“The Southern Ocean is very stormy in general [but] in the Drake you’re really squeezing [the water] between the Antarctic and the southern hemisphere,” he adds. “That intensifies the storms as they come through.” He calls it a “funneling effect.”

Then there’s the speed at which the water is thrashing through. The Drake is part of the most voluminous ocean current in the world, with up to 5,300 million cubic feet flowing per second. Squeezed into the narrow passage, the current increases, traveling west to east. Brearley says that at surface level, that current is less perceptible – just a couple of knots – so you won’t really sense it onboard. “But it does mean you’ll travel a bit more slowly,” he says.

For oceanographers, he says, the Drake is “a fascinating place.”

It’s home to what he calls “underwater mountains” below the surface – and the enormous current squeezing through the (relatively) narrow passage causes waves to break against them underwater. These “internal waves,” as he calls them, create vortices which bring colder water from the depths of the ocean higher up – important for the planet’s climate.

“It’s not just turbulent at the surface, though obviously that’s what you feel the most – but it’s actually turbulent all the way through the water column,” says Brearley, who regularly crosses the Drake on a research ship. Does he get scared? “I don’t think I’ve ever been really fearful, but it can be very unpleasant in terms of how rough it is,” he says candidly.

Fear breeds fear

In 2010, tourist ship Clelia II declared an emergency after suffering engine failure in the Drake.

In 2010, tourist ship Clelia II declared an emergency after suffering engine failure in the Drake. Fiona Stewart, Garett McIntosh/AP

One other key thing that makes the Drake so scary: our fear of the Drake itself.

Brearley points out that until the Panama Canal opened in 1914, ships going from Europe to the west coast of the Americas had to dip round Cape Horn – the southern tip of South America – and then trundle up the Pacific coast.

“Let’s say you were shipping goods from western Europe to California. You either had to offload them in New York and do the journey across the US, or you had to go all the way around,” he says. It wasn’t just large cargo ships, either; passenger ships made the same route.

There’s even a monument at the tip of Cape Horn, in memorial of the more than 10,000 sailors who are believed to have died traveling through.

“The routes between the south of South Africa and Australia, or Australia or New Zealand to Antarctica, don’t really lie on any major shipping routes,” says Brearley. “The reason it’s been so feared over the centuries is because the Drake is where ships really have to go. Other parts [of the Southern Ocean] can be avoided.”

‘We don’t gamble’

Captain Stanislas Devorsine regularly crosses the Drake.

Captain Stanislas Devorsine regularly crosses the Drake. Sue Flood/Ponant Photo Ambassador

Navigating the Drake is an extremely complex task that demands humility and a side of fear, says Captain Stanislas Devorsine, one of three captains of Le Commandant Charcot, a polar vessel of adventure cruise company Ponant.

“You have to have a healthy fear,” he says of the Drake. “It’s something that keeps you focused, alert, sensitive to the ship and the weather. You need to be aware that it can be dangerous – that it’s never routine.”

Devorsine made his Drake debut as a captain over 20 years ago, sailing an icebreaker full of scientists over to Antarctica for a research stint.

“We had very, very rough seas – more than 20 meter [66 feet] swells,” he says. “It was very windy, very rough.” Not that Ponant’s clients face anything like that. Devorsine is quick to point out that the comfort levels for a research ship – and the conditions it will sail in – are very different from those for a cruise.

“We are extremely cautious – the ocean is stronger than us,” he says. “We’re not able to go in terrible weather. We go in rough seas but always with a big safety margin. We’re not gambling.”

Even with that extra safety margin, though, he admits that crossing the Drake can be a hairy experience. “It can be very rough and very dangerous, so we take special care,” he says.

“We have to choose the best time to cross the Drake. We have to adapt our course – sometimes we don’t head in our final direction, we alter the course to have a better angle with the waves. We might slow down to leave a low pressure path ahead, or speed up to pass one before it arrives.”

The ‘Drake shake’ and broken plates

Captains check the weather up to six times a day before departure to ensure a safe crossing.

Captains check the weather up to six times a day before departure to ensure a safe crossing. Jamie Lafferty

Of course, every time you get on a ship – whether it’s a simple ferry ride or a fancy cruise – the crew will already have meticulously planned the journey, checking everything from the weather to the tides and currents. But planning for a crossing of the Drake is on a whole new level.

Weather forecasting has improved in the two decades since Devorsine’s first ride, he says – and these days crew start planning the voyage while passengers are making their way to South America from all over the globe.

Sometimes they leave late; sometimes they head back early, to beat bad weather. Devorsine – who makes the return journey about six to eight times per year – estimates that the unusually calm “Drake lake” effect happens once in every 10 crossings, with particularly rough conditions (that “Drake shake”) once or twice in every 10 journeys.

Of course, he knows what’s in store long before the passengers reach the ship.

“We look ahead to have the best option to cross. Normally I look at the weather 10 days or a week before, just to have an idea of what it could be,” he says.

“Then I check the forecast once per day, then two or three days before departure I start looking at it twice per day. If it’s going to be a challenging passage you look every six hours. If you have to adjust your departure time, then you look at it very closely to be very accurate.”

His safety margin means that he’s calculating a route that will get you across not just alive, but also as comfortably as possible. Hearing an anecdote about broken crockery and furniture on another operator, he sighs, “That’s a bit too far for me.”

“Before you have any issue with a storm, you have to keep a comfortable ship,” he says. The safety margin is to be sure that the guests will enjoy being in Antarctica, and that we won’t turn around because we have a problem… like injured people.”

In extreme conditions, he orders extra weather advice from Ponant HQ, but if you’re imagining the staff on the bridge desperately radioing for advice as waves batter the ship, think again.

“It would never happen to be in the middle of the Drake with bad conditions, needing assistance from headquarters because it would mean we didn’t have any safety margin before departure. When we cross and it’s going to be challenging, we have a big safety margin and the ship is not at all in danger.”

They are in contact with headquarters with high level satellite antennae throughout the crossing, with both satellite and radio backup if needed – Devorsine says he can’t imagine ever losing contact, whatever the weather.https://popicedingin.com/

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