Drake Passage is the body of water separating Cape Horn and Livingston Island. The 500 miles between the two is the shortest distance between Antarctica and any other continent, making it appealing to try to cross there.
Everything but the distance makes it quite unappealing, though.
First, there is Cape Horn itself, where difficult winds and currents draw comparisons to what K2 is to mountaineers. But once you cross that, the things don’t necessarily turn for the better. An old sailing adage says that below fortieth parallel, there is no justice. Below fiftieth – no God.
I can’t lie. As we docked in Puerto Williams — a Chilean answer to the question of southernmost city in the world, although it doesn’t even fulfill Chilean own requirements to be called a city — the crossing was more less all I could think about. It’s been a few pleasant hours of smooth sailing through protected channels in moderate winds and mild weather while crossing over from Argentina to Chile to make a final stop in the civilization for the next three weeks, and after finishing the chores I had time to think.
I also had time to try to know the people I’ll be sharing the 60 feet of steel with.
We were a very mixed bag, in every sense. To start, we were eleven guys shuffled together from seven countries (Germany, France, Spain, Austria, Switzerland, USA and Croatia), which meant that German, French, Spanish and English would all be used at different times. Secondly, the ages went from early twenties to late fifties. Thirdly, our sailing experiences varied enormously – on one side of the spectrum you had sailors with tens of thousands of off-shore miles under their belt, while on the other there were a couple who basically had no idea how to sail whatsoever.
But, the most important — and the most interesting — facet was something else. Who knows how to suffer well?
It was going to be cold, it was going to be bumpy, it was going to be strenuous and I was trying to guess who would hold up well under such circumstances. The louder the individual stories of glorified experiences resonated around the dinner table of Santa Maria Australis, the more I was inclined to judge the specific storyteller as a potential risk. But, much more than that, the thing I really wanted to know was – how will I hold up.
Last organizational tidbits were discussed before starting the crossing on the next day. If you’ve ever been on a multiple day sailing trip, you know the drill – set the bunking teams (I was sharing mine with the lone American dude on board), split into watches (I was assigned to lead the “Spanish watch”), weather forecast and route planning (we had about near-perfect conditions being forecasted, with Beaufort scale 7 winds from a favorable direction), provisioning storage (one advantage of sailing through near-frozen waters is that the whole storage area close to the hull acts as a giant fridge) and some immediate food preparation (we made some 50 sandwiches for the crossing).
There was time for one more beer in the legendary Micalvi (a boat turned nostalgia bar, where boat flags and stickers resemble the Who-is-who of international sailing) before going to sleep, the last night in the civilization. Or whatever you’d like to call the few dusted roads connecting scattered gray military barracks, with very occasional little store or a diner along the road, garnered with excessive military memorabilia celebrating some supposed successes of Chilean armed forces. In a sense, it felt like home, though.
* * *
It took us just under three days to reach land.
Looking back, it was mostly uneventful. The sea was a bit rough at first, which resulted in some nausea for the most of my fellow sailors, but then calmed down. We had good wind and good speed, and kept progressing south without problems. The digestion problems of my crew meant that Adrien and I had a little competition downing sandwiches not too many were interested in, due to the state of their stomachs. It turned out that I was the only one who could cook in high seas, and after making a strong Minestrone and having wind ease up a bit, everyone was at full strength soon again.
The first contact with Antarctica was also one that is mostly atypical for the continent.
Deception island is a volcanic land, in summer equal parts covered with dark sand and white snow. It got its name due to a tricky entrance, which later widens into one of the most secure bays to anchor in. It is also a home to a Spanish military/research base, and having some Spanish guys on board we were invited to visit.
Gabriel de Castilla is manned through summer months, between December and March. A small team of military personnel and scientists perform geophysical measurements and monitor animal movements. There is a central barrack, some containers and a few special-use modules, like a gym and an ambulatory tent. Everything is nice, clean and rather high-tech for what I expected – some medical devices are remote diagnostics tools connected to a hospital center in Madrid, allowing the local doctor to make better decisions should a need arise. Soldiers are thrilled to be there, partly because it is awesome, and partly because the alternatives are called Kosovo and Afganistan.
Perhaps it was only now that I realized where I was. For weeks and weeks of preparation, I was focusing on getting in shape, on rising to the challenge of the most difficult seas in the world. Yes, I knew I was going to the possibly last resort on Earth unspoiled by the mankind, yet it was somehow in the back of my mind. And now I was there, the journey within journey starting, each day a possibility to delve deeper into something I fail to adequately describe even years later.
And the best was still ahead of me.
* * *
1. With all the flowers and colors, its appearance doesn’t really provoke respect. The deeper meaning does.
2. Seriously, Tierra del fuego beef is something out of this world. Filling it with ham and cheese didn’t hurt much, either
3. Some couldn’t really hold it in, though
4. Spanish base on Deception island as found by the arriving crew on December 8th
5. Spanish base on Deception island as found by the arriving crew on December 8th
6. The gym module in Spanish base on Deception island
7. The medical module in Spanish base on Deception island
8. Don’t you just hate it when you do a little gardening and whale vertebra keep popping out
9. Deception Island was a home to a whalery that closed in the early thirties. Lot of the buildings from that time appear almost intact
10. Remnants of an old boat on Deception Island
11. An old grave on Deception Island
12. My first penguin (of about 348950 that were to come)
13. Followed by numbers 2 and 3
14. My first steps on Antarctica soil. The ice is to come