Lake or Shake: Crossing the Drake

Posted by on August 10th, 2018

Many of our travelers ask us about the Drake Passage, a body of water that is crossed on the way to Antarctica. It’s well-known as an unpredictable place, where the waters can be so tempestuous that captains refuse to cross, or so calm that they refer to it as “Drake Lake.”

Thinking back on my own first trip to Antarctica, I can remember my own nerves and expectations about crossing the Drake Passage. If the waters rough, how would I react and what would that mean for my trip? I decided, in the way of many travelers, to prepare for the worst and hope for the best. I also thought about the advantages of having those days on the ship and how best to take advantage of them. 

After a short stay in Ushuaia, I boarded my ship in the late afternoon, which is typical of most vessels heading to the Antarctica. Our ship began sailing as soon as everyone was aboard.  The first few hours on the ship were a bustle of activity as passengers settled into their cabins, tried on and selected parkas, and found our assigned lockers in the mud room, where we would keep out parkas and boots in between Antarctica peninsula excursions. There was a briefing with safety drills, and then I got to explore the ship. I spent some time outside on the decks, enjoying views of the Beagle Channel. The mountains on both sides of the fjord were a breathtaking send-off as we slipped away from the continent.

Our first briefing covered the expectations of our journey to Antarctica and the important role weather would play throughout our journey.  Our expedition leader showed us a few maps of the Drake Passage and Antarctica.  He also showed us a radar image of weather patterns in the area and explained how the crew tracks the weather constantly in case adjustments have to be made to the timing or direction of the cruise. When it came to the Drake Passage, he gave us his particular shorthand for the experience: it would either be “Drake Lake” or “Drake Shake.” I understood that to mean that it was going to be smooth or it was going to be rough, without much probability of anything in between. Luckily, the strong weather patterns were behind us, pushing us ahead of them toward Antarctica through relatively calm waters. After the briefing I felt much more comfortable, with a good idea of what to expect as we crossed the Drake Passage.

Once the briefing and safety drills concluded it was time for dinner.  In the dining hall, passengers were smiling and laughing, introducing themselves, talking about where they came from and about past travels and their reasons for traveling to Antarctica. The excitement was palpable – for many, Antarctica was the final continent on a travel bucket list, a lifelong dream finally coming true. After dinner it was time for bed, and although the sun didn’t set until nearly 11:00 p.m. – a neat quirk of latitude – I was exhausted and slept soundly.

When I woke up, the ship was in the middle of the Drake Passage.  I went out to the decks to see a wide expanse of ocean sprawling in all directions.  There were a handful of Petrels flying over our wake.  This was the first of two full days of sailing. There were plenty of things going on around the ship to stay busy. Our experienced guides gave lectures on a wide range of interesting topics: penguins, seals, whales, ornithology, geology, glaciology, photography, and the discovery of Antarctica and stories of the ‘Heroic Age’ of exploration. I took in as much as I could. Meanwhile, the Drake Passage remained calm and I began to get my sea legs. 

Toward the end of the second day of sailing, a dense fog set in. We were told we’d reach the peninsula that evening, but it was impossible to see anything through the mist. Dinner was a long, relaxed affair. Everyone was a bit subdued because of the fog, and since there was no visibility from the decks, everyone was happy to linger over wine or coffee and conversation. Then, as if we had been floating through a cloud in the sky, we suddenly emerged from the fog.  The sun was shining, the air was clear, and passengers got up from their tables to rush to the windows. Icebergs!  Huge Icebergs!  The dining room erupted with excited shouting.  People were hugging and giving each high fives.  Quickly, everyone put on their parkas and rushed out to the viewing decks.

The views were beyond amazing. Passengers were spotting whales, a sea lion on an ice floe, little hordes of penguins. We had made it to Antarctica.

For my trip to Antarctica, crossing the Drake Passage was quite easy; our vessel was lucky with regard to weather. However, crossing the Drake is always going to be a roll of the dice. From time to time, vessels departing Ushuaia for their trip to Antarctica are delayed.  Other times vessels must travel back to Ushuaia early to get ahead of the potential rough seas.  These are all expectations and risks you have to be aware of when preparing for your trip to Antarctica.  Of course, once you arrive to Antarctica all the things you will see and do make braving the Drake Passage well worth it.

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