Nerves and Scopolamine on the Drake Passage

Posted by on January 9th, 2019

When I confirmed my trip to Antarctica and the initial excitement had subsided, I was gripped with anxiety about crossing the Drake Passage.  Many travelers know that this stretch of open ocean can be one of the roughest bodies of water in the world.

Albatross following the ship, Drake Passage

The Drake Passage is approximately 600 miles wide and connects the Atlantic and Pacific oceans between Cape Horn and the South Shetland Islands. The Drake also defines the zone of climatic transition between the cool, subpolar temperatures of Tierra del Fuego and the frigid polar regions of Antarctica. The water within the Drake Passage flows mostly from west to east and forms part of the Antarctic Circumpolar Current, which is the current with the most volume in the world. This current is accelerated by the physical constriction of the passage. This combination of volume, speed, and temperature change can lead to rough seas.

I had heard, through the industry grapevine, travelers’ tales of rogue waves hitting ships and smashing out all the windows. These are the kinds of stories that can understandably generate a little trepidation. Add to this the fact that I am the absolute biggest wimp when it comes to motion sickness (I’ve gotten nauseous in a canoe on a calm lake before) and I certainly had some fear going into it.

My personal experience crossing the Drake was as follows: According to my seasoned guides, we experienced Level 2-4 out of a roughness scale of 10.  I certainly knew I was on a ship crossing an active body of water, but it wasn’t so violent that we couldn’t walk to the dining room (holding to the hand rails), and glasses were not flying off of tables, for example.  At night during the crossing, the ship would dip to one side and then to the other. My bed was oriented in such a way that I felt like I was being rocked in a vigorous cradle.  It was actually somewhat pleasant, and the novelty was certainly fun!

I also chose to take Scopolamine, a prescription medication that is normally administered by a skin patch that you put behind your ear.  There were quite a few people on my cruise who were also sporting the patch. This is a popular and, I can now attest, effective method of dealing with the motion. While using the patch, I didn’t experience any nausea; without it I likely would not have been able to leave my cabin.

Scopolamine requires a prescription, so it’s important to talk with your doctor about this option before your trip. There can also be side effects to using it. I personally experienced dry mouth and also felt some withdrawal when I took the patch off. On most Antarctica cruises there is a doctor on board who will host a “Drake Passage Seminar” on the way out and the way back. Many travelers on my cruise took advantage of this to educate themselves about the potential motion sickness they would experience, and some of them received medication from the doctor on board as well. Still, it’s a good idea to think about what you might need before boarding the ship and to come prepared, especially if, like me, you are prone to motion sickness.

Although it’s easy to get intimidated by all the stories, the cruise companies that VAYA works with have decades of experience operating successful trips to Antarctica. They use sophisticated equipment to track the storms in the Drake. On occasion your cruise may be delayed departing Ushuaia, or your captain will adjust the return timing to get ahead of a big storm that they know is coming. Weather determines absolutely everything during your Antarctica experience, and it’s important to be flexible and to go into it with a sense of adventure.  Your captain and trip leaders will always make the decision that means you will have the safest experience crossing the Drake.

Of course, there are a number of “Fly the Drake” programs that are popular. This is when you take a flight from Punta Arenas, Chile to King George Island in the Antarctic Peninsula, skipping the Drake altogether. But I would argue that crossing the Drake by vessel enhances one’s journey to Antarctica. I felt like I was experiencing a rite of passage. At night as I rocked in my bed, I read Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing, which details Ernest Shackleton’s epic survival story during his 1914 expedition to Antarctica. Being on the Drake and feeling the power of the water while reading that story made me feel like I was connecting with those brave, intrepid souls. It gave me a deep sense of awe that humans ever made it to Antarctica. It gave me greater respect for the wild, precious, and utterly remote environment which I was so privileged to visit.

Also, the guides use the time on the Drake extremely well. They host multiple lectures throughout the day on interesting topics that range from how best to take photos in specific lighting conditions to the unique aspects of the fauna we would soon encounter. Flying in and out does not give you those two days of sloshy excitement and anticipation and valuable time with your knowledgeable guides.

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