Wednesday, January 6, 2010


So much for the most treacherous waters on earth! Crossing the Drake Passage was like skipping across a playground. No one on the ship had seen such a smooth crossing, except the captain who said it was in his “top three.” I think he just didn’t want to admit that it was the best. Always leave room for improvement, you know. I was hoping to tell stories about 65 foot waves, or how I was thrown out of my bunk but alas! now I’ll just have to make them up.

Our ship was named after Laurence M. Gould, a geologist and early science administrator. It is 230 feet long accommodates 22 scientists, 8 support staff (machinists, technicians) and about 10 deckhands. Our two days in port were full of preparations – loading containers onto the ship using the boom and securing everything for the crossing. It takes four days to reach Palmer Station, Antarctica from Punta Arenas: one day sailing east through the Strait of Magellan, two days in the open waters known as the Drake Passage and then one day along the fjords and glaciers of the Antarctic peninsula.
Drake Passage

I was surprised at how exciting it felt to pull away from the pier. I was excited about the general idea of leaving Punta Arenas on the ship, but I didn’t realize how intensely the anticipation would solidify at the moment that we cast off the ropes and set sail. Suddenly Antarctica seemed a lot closer. The port crew was standing on the pier, waving at us and whooping as we began our journey.

The ship has five decks in addition to the hold: a level with science labs and the galley, a level with the scientists quarters and the lounge, a level with the crew quarters, another which I’m not sure about, and the bridge on top. The bridge was my favorite place because it has windows looking on three sides, and the engine’s roar is very quiet. The swell was most sensible there, and the slow rocking was relaxing. The pilot explained how he uses GPS and compass bearings to steer the ship, and showed how he marks our hourly position on the nautical chart. There were bird and sea mammal books and binoculars as well. I saw penguins and dolphins in the Strait of Magellan, as well as seabirds: petrels, scua, shearwaters, and my favorite, the albatross.
The galley looks a bit like an old diner, with swiveling stools arranged around three long turquoise tables. Their metal rims to keep plates from sliding off are reminiscent of chrome piping. Another space of note is the lounge, with couches made out of huge lazyboy chairs and a big TV with lots and lots of movies. There is also a sauna and a small exercise room.

We could also go outside on the deck and stand at the bow, feeling the wind and seeing water all around. I have never seen such blue water in the ocean, because here there are so few of the photosynthetic plankton that make seawater green. It’s a deep color but luminous where the sun penetrates it. Maybe what you would call cobalt?

Standing at the bow and looking due south, I imagined all the great explorers who have looked ahead in this direction from the bow of a ship. It is inspiring to think that I am following in their footsteps, although in much greater comfort!

I loved watching the Dark Browed Albatross, which has a gray body and white wings, and a heavy black brow that makes it look very stern. It glides along just above the surface of the water, particularly in the wave troughs. When it turns it lifts one wing tip up while the other wing tip almost touches the water, and it pivots around that point. Its precision and grace are mesmerizing. One albatross flew alongside the ship, gaining on it and I ran forward along the deck, eye to eye with the bird. It was an intense moment that sticks in my mind. When I went back inside the ship, everyone asked me what I had seen because my face was so full of excitement and joy.

I slept in the hold, in a “berthing van,” a small shipping container modified for sleeping quarters, which I shared with 3 other girls. Our bunks were cozy, with curtains and reading lamps. The rocking of the ship is less severe in the hold than anywhere else, which was good for us first-timers. The down side was that we had to go up a flight of stairs for the bathroom and two flights for the shower. Those stairs are very steep, and they seemed steeper in the morning as I stumbled up them. At first I had to hold onto the railings on both sides. All the spaces are pretty small, and it was almost painful to see some of the very tall crewmembers walking around almost grazing their heads on the ceiling. A ship doesn’t seem to be the best place for a tall person.

I settled in into a feeling of being calmly adrift. The almost continuous daylight and my lack of responsibilities on the crossing combined to eliminate my sense of time. In addition, the van was entirely dark if the light wasn’t on so when I woke up I had no idea what time it was. However I was very happy waking up whenever I wanted, reading, going up to the bridge, reading, eating a meal, and repeating. Sometimes I would stop by the blow-up NYT Sunday crossword puzzle pasted in the hallway and try to help out. I can imagine that so much unstructured time could be disorienting, but I loved drifting along.

Standing at the bow and looking due south, I imagined all the great explorers who have looked ahead in this direction from the bow of a ship. It is inspiring to think that I am following in their footsteps, although in much greater comfort!

Our New Year’s celebration was unusual. The first mate sent a prank email about a party in the sauna, but it sounded like a good idea to enough people that we made sure it happened. We dressed up in our “Extreme Cold Weather” gear and had a rockin’ dance party in the ship’s sauna. At midnight, when we were about to faint from overheating, we put on handmade party hats and trooped up to the ship’s bridge where we stood outside and banged pots and pans to ring in the new year at the bottom of the world. The cloud cover made the sky dark except at the horizon, where a thin strip of clear sky glowed pink from the lingering sunset. Even though there is no alcohol allowed on the ship some people felt hungover the next morning because of the dehydration of the sauna!

As we continued south, the energy of the scientists and crew alike seemed to increase. I could feel the excitement of the chief scientist building. Even on his 25th crossing of the Drake, he became more and more animated by the hour. I began to understand the draw of the white continent even before I saw it.

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