The Wild and Wonderful Adventure of The Drake Passage

The Drake Passage is a body of water that connects the Atlantic, Pacific and Southern Oceans. It is the stretch of open water between Cape Horn; the southernmost tip of South America and the South Shetland Islands of Antarctica. Notorious for its fierce and turbulent weather conditions and frequented by low-pressure systems, the Drake Passage is not for the average sailor. It is the graveyard for many ships that went missing during explorations and the foundation of horror stories from many sailors who dared to take it on. With the most harsh sea currents, tallest waves, and strongest wind speeds of any body of water on earth, it is considered the most difficult area to navigate, and thus a great accomplishment for any sailor.

I was jet lagged, exhausted and experiencing a new level of cold, however, being the newest edition to the crew, I was put on first watch to re familiarise myself with Windjammer. I took control of the helm whilst harnessed to the railing, and with every strength in my body, fought the weather helm and guided her safely down the five meter violent and chaotic swell around Cape Horn. It was physically and mentally draining as I battled the fierce gale force winds and the blistering cold as the waves continued to roll over the exposed deck. I continued to brace myself to be thrown against the side railing over and over again. The adrenaline quickly built up and before I knew it I was proudly chanting sea shanties as the battle progressed. Windjammer rolled side-to-side forcing me to find edges around the cockpit to grip onto as we healed to a 40degree angle and the wind blew gusts of up to 65kts. The open deck was not ideal for these weather conditions, however it made the experience truly real. You could hear and feel every part of the plague that Cape Horn threw at us and boy did Windjammer and her crew put up a fight.

The wind direction held its course throughout the entire passage, allowing us to sail on the same tack the whole way. However, this meant the boat was constantly leaning to one side for five long, continuous days. Simple tasks such as using the toilet became quite an adventure that involved finding edges to lock your feet onto to stop you from sliding off the toilet.

Someone was required to be on watch to steer the boat and look out for icebergs at all times. There was no question about it, the risks of not having someone on watch were far too fatal. We had six crew, however as Cathie was still recovering from a broken shoulder bone, we decided to keep her below deck and rotate only five watches. We broke it down to each crew standing watch for four hours on and twelve hours off. In such a confined space with a lack of familiar comforts, the watch duties helped to develop a routine to help us get through the passage.

The first two hours of the shift we were required to be on standby to assist the helsman on deck steering the boat. This meant monitoring the navigational instruments to ensure we were on course and keeping an eye on the radar to be aware any boats nearing our course and on alert for potential icebergs as we neared the end of the passage. We would also be fully geared up to be the first to assist in the event of an emergency. After the first two hours had passed, we would wake the next crew member and make our way onto the deck to face the blistering cold. After taking the helm, the harness was immediately attached to the windward rail as we secured ourselves in a position where we could be in control of the boat. The other crew member would brief the new helmsman on what had been happening over the past two hours; if any icebergs had been sighted, wind shifts, or anything of concern to watch on the boat. In these harsh conditions, two hours can feel like days. Each of us had our ways of keeping warm and alert on deck, mine was to sing to keep me alert and dance to keep me warm.

The most exciting part of the day was when your watch was over and you could make your way below deck where Cathie greeted you with a warm stew while exchanging the wet jacket for a woolly jumper and Ugg boots. I can’t begin to explain how this small comfort became such a novelty that we had such great appreciation for.

The next twelve hours while we were off duty we used to sleep, read, write and play games to entertain our minds. Even though we are all salty sea dogs, seasickness came around as a result of the inhospitable conditions. It was a rude shock to the body to be thrown around so much, we craved stability. Many occasions when you were off duty, the weather would radically change. The wind direction or speed would unexpectedly alter and all hands on deck would be called for a sail adjustment. It didn’t matter if you were cold, wet and exhausted, it became clear that no one was ever really off duty.

There was no luxurious cabin to retreat to when the weather turned bad. If you were on watch you had to tighten your harness, tie down your hood on and focus on steering the boat on course. If you were below deck, it was wise to crawl into bed and strap yourself in and try to put your mind to sleep. However, this wasn’t always easy when your body stayed alert and fought gravity as each wave that hit would try and throw us out of our bunks. The waves on the starboard quarter would lift Windjammer, rolling her onto the next wave and rolling us around with her. The intensity of the list was so great that the crew spent most of the passage sleeping on the lee sheet, a canvas piece of material that is tied from the bottom of the bunk to the ceiling to prevent you from falling out of your bed. Apart from Murray who, unfortunately chose the only bunk on the starboard side.

Showering was not an option, the boat was healing too much, the weather was too unpredictable and it was just far too cold to undress from our thermals. After four days on the same tack at the rate we were healing, pushed the boat to a new level and uncovered an issue we had not anticipated. The water tanks under the port bunks leaked into the captain’s cabin and soaked through the mattress, forcing Ashley and Cathie to sleep on the couch in the Saloon (with no lee sheet).

The heater was also an uncomfortable and frustrating issue, this one comfort in the extreme cold is something that was cherished so dearly, until it was no more. The diesel heater was specially designed and fitted in Canada and had not been used much in Windjammers recent travels. The fuel we stocked up on in Argentina was unknowingly dirty and thus continuously clogged the filters. As we had not anticipated this, we went through our spare filters within the first two days. The fire would burn out and the diesel fumes would furiously fill the boat. All ventilation had been secured to keep the cold out, which effectively allowed the fumes to linger. The crew would gasp for fresh air through the cockpit hatch which was the only source of ventilation. This became unbearable and the crew took to a vote that had us sleeping in thermals and layers of warm clothes to avoid the discomfort of the fumes. I was so cold that I never took my thermals off for the entire five days we were on the passage.

The exhaustion from sleep deprivation, seasickness, sail changes during dangerous weather conditions and the constant feeling of cold became a reality that was inescapable. We had to ask ourselves; was this hostile and isolated environment we were destined for, with such a lack of resources, that we so desperately craved, going to be worth it?

By 0230hrs we were in sight of Smith Island, one of the South Shetland archipelago Islands, and when the sun rose around 0430hrs it lit the icy shear cliffs and all the worries we once had, now seemed so distant. Later in the morning we sighted our first big iceberg near the low profiled Snow Island. It was surreal, we estimated it to be about 100m tall x 400 wide and 600m long, and as expected it was beautifully ice blue. The crew assembled on deck sipping hot chocolates and admiring the sight and the much-anticipated calmer waters.