Crossing the Drake Passage is one of the most notorious and exciting adventures available on the planet. Anyone who has ever considered a trip to Antarctica is posed with the singular question of whether they are up to the challenge. Or not.
I have long agonized over the requirement of crossing the Drake to access Antarctica. You see, I have this thing about the ocean. I know the power it holds and how every time we enter its domain we are at its mercy. I fear it. I idolize it. I respect it. Yet I am utterly drawn to it.
Pair that with my talent of getting motion sick at the mere mention of uncontrolled movement and, well, it is easy to see why thinking of the Drake Passage has made my palms sweat for the past decade. But you know what? I went anyways and the experience changed me.
Despite the anxiety I secretly held about crossing the Drake Passage, I knew deep down that it was something I needed to embrace, not fear. A trip to Antarctica is not your average tour, it’s not a place that the masses visit with the ease of hopping on a jet. It’s a place where intrepid explorers forged their way into the unknown, risking their lives in the name of discovery.
Crossing the Drake is a rite of passage to anyone who seeks their chance at a connection with the 7th continent and I feel very strongly that if you choose to see Antarctica in other ways that you are missing the point of going in the first place. Strong words, I know, but hear me out.
Don’t leave home without: Lonely Planet Antarctica (Travel Guide)
The Drake Passage Crossing to Antarctica
Table of Contents
Why You Need to Embrace the Drake Passage
Antarctica is a place that changes you. It’s a place that defies the written word and gives you the opportunity to see things, with your own two eyes, that can never be communicated in another way.
It evokes a level of contemplation that I have never experienced before in my travels. That said, you need some real-time to process this before and after your visit.
Leaving from the southern tip of South America at Ushuaia, Argentina, it takes a solid 2 days to cross the Drake Passage and reach Antarctica. I’ll never forget the emotions that overwhelmed me as the Ocean Adventurer pulled up her anchor and set sail down the Beagle Channel towards the passage. This was it, I was finally here, and I was headed for the Drake. Gulp.
What happened over the next 2 days was unexpected. Not because we were blessed with the Drake Lake (more on that later) but because crossing the Drake gave me mental clarity.
The 2 days at sea, surrounded by nothing but the open sea, stripped away my anxieties and detoxed my brain. Without the distractions of the chaotic world we live in I found that I was given the opportunity to focus only on the expedition.
Much of my time during the crossing was spent out on the deck, staring out into the water and feeling the surges of the ocean as it moved the boat. Doing this made me feel small and gave me an intense perspective on my place in the world. Every hour sailed took me further from what I knew and closer to the unknown.
Where I was headed, I would be insignificant. Where I was now, I was insignificant. This evoked some strong inner reflection and set the stage for what would be the most amazing travel experience I would have in my life.
Making myself cross the Drake Passage did that for me. There is no other way I would have had the time, the detox, the disconnect from the outside world to allow myself the mental preparation needed to take in a place like Antarctica at face value.
Processing Antarctica on the Return Crossing
The return journey was equally as important to me. The Drake had helped me set the stage for a transformative experience but what I didn’t expect was for it to seal the deal on the return trip.
Unlike our first crossing, we got a proper taste of the infamous Drake Shake (more on this later) as we left the protection of the Antarctic Peninsula and headed back into open water towards South America. It happened almost immediately after we started sailing north and persisted for 2 solid days.
This experience was what I had spent days, months and years dreading whenever I thought about going to Antarctica. The seas were rough, the waves were high and massive walls of water slammed against the ship as we sailed north. Mother nature in all her glory giving me a strict reminder of the privilege that had been bestowed on me to journey into the unknown.
But I wasn’t scared, and this surprised me. Something inside me had changed since we set sail from Ushuaia a couple of weeks prior. I felt like the entire moment was perfectly orchestrated to remind me, to remind every single person on that ship, that where we had been and what we had experienced was special. That it would never come easy but for those who can embrace the unknown, it would be worth it.
When we finally entered the protected waters of the Beagle Channel and all the motion came to an almost abrupt halt, I came to terms with the end of this magnificent journey. It was only then that I realized how absolutely imperative the Drake Passage is to the life-changing exploration that is a trip to Antarctica.
Ready to take on the Drake? Here’s our Antarctica itinerary
How to Prepare for Crossing the Drake Passage
Now that I have convinced you that you can do it and how vital it is to the whole journey, I want to talk about some of the things I mentioned above and go into some details.
Knowledge is power and the more information you can get about your journey, the more it will help you to embrace it and enjoy the adventure.
Drake Passage Map
If you’re reading this, you probably don’t need to see a Drake Passage map, but we’re going to show you anyways for context. It also helps to understand why Drake behaves the way it does.
As you can see, the passage is a narrow area that moves between South America and Antarctica. It is the only southern connection between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, a phenomenon that has only existed for the past 41 million years.
The two major oceans are met by the frigid cold water of the Antarctic Ocean causing the Antarctic Convergence. The meeting of cold and warm waters causes some interesting currents.
While this may make for the perfect breeding ground for krill, navigating by ship can be a bit more tricky. Luckily, today’s technology makes sailing the Drake to Antarctica a breeze.
Why Do We Sail the Drake from Ushuaia to Antarctica?
At 500 miles wide, it is also the shortest crossing from any other continent to Antarctica. I have to admit that in learning all this it actually eased my mind to know that captains, for centuries, have chosen to embrace the open water and use it for successful navigations from Ushuaia to Antarctica.
It was first discovered that there was a connection between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans in 1578 when English privateer Sir Frances Drake encountered some strong winds that blew his far to the south after passing the Strait of Magellan.
Thus, where the passage gets its name although the first recorded voyage of the Drake was by the Dutch navigator Willem Schouten in 1616. He was also responsible for naming Cape Horn.
Despite the passage’s notorious weather and deadly encounters over the centuries, it is still the preferred place to navigate between the two major oceans.
The Straight of Magellan and the Beagle Channel are very narrow, can often be filled with pack ice and experience very strong winds, making the open water of the Drake Passage a welcome challenge. Despite the passage often experiencing rough conditions, it is actually easier to sail and navigate.
More Than Endless Water
While you will literally be surrounded by nothing but water during your Drake Crossing, I want to point out that there is no shortage of entertainment along the way.
The ship we sailed on was outfitted with a beautiful library containing many books on historical Antarctic expeditions, Antarctica science books, and just about anything you could want to read regarding polar travel.
For anyone that doesn’t do some reading before the trip, it’s a great opportunity to ‘get in the mood’ for when you finally reach the 7th Continent.
The expedition crew also scheduled and presented educational seminars about various topics including wildlife, history, geology, glaciology, to name a few, during the entire crossing. All were conducted in the lounge with comfortable seating, a large screen and 24-hour access to coffee/tea/hot chocolate.
Since I spent a lot of time on deck, I was treated to some spectacular bird sightings during the crossing too. Massive Black Browed Albatross, with a wingspan around 6 feet, would hover in the air channels behind the ship. They were often accompanied by a variety of gulls and other sea birds making for great photography opportunities.
As we got closer to the South Shetland Islands, we started to see ice. We had the rare opportunity to see an enormous tabular iceberg floating in the Drake Passage, the only piece of ice for as far as the eye could see, and the first one we spotted.
With the ice came the penguins. Healthy rafts of penguins swimming in the ocean and even porpoising alongside the ship were the highlight for anyone that was out on the deck. It is the kind of stuff you only see on TV and proved to be a real pinch-me moment on our Drake crossing.
Experiencing the Drake Lake
Awe, the Drake Lake. The ever-elusive experience that everyone secretly hopes they will have after they win the battle with themselves and finally book that trip to Antarctica.
Truth be told, I had never even heard this was possible up until about 2 weeks before we went. I believed, deep down, that the Drake Passage was a treacherous stretch of water that would rock my world when I finally took it on.
But I guess it can happen and surprisingly, it happened for us on our voyage south. Every once in a while, the weather patterns soften and nasty weather ceases to blow through the channel between South America and Antarctica. The result is a relaxed, hammock swinging experience on the Drake Passage.
I am going to level with you that I had two very different reactions to this. First off, I was relieved when our expedition leader gave us the news that we would experience the Drake Lake. This was almost immediately followed by utter disappointment.
I know, I’m a strange one. I was going to Antarctica and I was mentally ready for the Drake. Not being able to experience it as I had always pictured was a bit of a letdown for me.
Either way, I couldn’t change it and instead used it as an opportunity to spend my days outside, gazing into the open ocean, watching birds, spotting ice, laughing at penguins and setting my mind on Antarctica time.
Experiencing the Drake Shake
Well, the Drake Lake was short-lived and we experienced the full force of the Drake Shake on our trip North. The levels of this are varied, entirely dependent on what and how the weather patterns are moving through the area during your crossing.
The ships have high-quality technology installed on board that sends to the minute weather reports that allow them to make decisions to keep you safe. They would never attempt a crossing if the weather was too harsh. They would alter your itinerary to ensure your safety.
Knowing this gave me the confidence I needed to push my anxiety aside and embrace the ever-notorious Drake Shake on our return trip. I won’t lie to you, it was intense! Massive walls of water crashed against the ship and waves crashed up over the bow. Access to the decks was off-limits, nobody was allowed outside.
Educational seminars went on as normal, giving you a distraction in you wanted it and the library remained open. Mealtimes were, hairy. All meals went off without an issue on the first day but by dinner we had some good swinging going. Breakfast the next morning was postponed. It was not possible, nor safe to attempt serving a meal in the dining room.
But we all smiled. We all laughed, and we all bonded over this incredible experience we had allowed ourselves to have. Most importantly, we survived it and you will too.
Dealing with Sea Sickness on the Drake Passage
First and foremost, know your limits and don’t be a hero. There is no shame in getting sea sickness or having to take medication to prevent you from getting sick on this trip.
If you are prone to motion or sea sickness, do something about it. Don’t wait till it is too late, consult with the onboard doctor who is there to help keep you healthy.
Some of us already know that we are prone to sea sickness, others might find themselves surprised by the sudden onset of symptoms that come from being on the open sea.
In this situation, it is better to be proactive than reactive. Knowing what medications are available and how they can help you will go a long way in providing you comfort when the ship starts rocking (and it will).
Best Medications for Sea Sickness
Some of the recommended treatments for sea sickness include:
- Meclizine – this is my go-to treatment for motion sickness. It is something I have always used to treat my symptoms because it works and doesn’t make me drowsy. Something interesting I learned from the onboard doctor is that Meclizine can both prevent AND treat motion sickness, unlike the others you have available to you. I took only meclizine for both crossings and never got sick.
- Dramamine – this is the most widely known motion sickness medication on the market, yet it is only good for preventing motion sickness. It does not actually treat it once the symptoms come on. In my opinion, it is a worthless medication on a trip like this unless you plan to wake up every morning and take it every 4-6 hours, regardless of your symptoms.
- Scopolamine Patch – I saw many people on the ship with this little patch behind their ears. I have used them in the past but hate the side effects, which warrant your attention. While it might seem like a good solution, the patch can cause eye issues and put a weird metallic taste in your mouth. The medication in it is also only effective as a preventative, not a treatment. If you are wearing one and start to get sick, you’ll have to start taking Meclizine anyways.
Additional Sea Sickness Advice
Trust me, if anyone knows how awful sea sickness can be, it’s me. After years of travel around the world, I know what works and have done a good job of managing the symptoms.
In addition to the above mentioned medications, the following tips will go a long way in ensuring you have a more pleasant crossing.
- Rest – if you start to feel sick, take some medication and go lay down in your room. Laying down will help your body cope with the moving sensation, versus trying to sit up or standing. Plus taking the time to rest will give the medication a chance to work.
- Stay Hydrated – nothing will make you feel worse than being dehydrated. We had access to filtered water on the ship and made use of our water bottles to keep up with the water intake throughout the whole trip. Even more important is staying hydrated while taking motion sickness medication.
- Avoid Alcohol – just do not do it on the Drake Passage. I’m serious. You need to be quick on your feet and able to balance. Alcohol can also amplify motion sickness, making you sicker and extremely nauseous.
- Don’t Skip Meals – I know the last thing you want to do is eat when you’re feeling off, but trust me, it will help. Even if you cannot eat a full meal, go to the dining room and pick something plain to nibble on. This will help your body with nausea and make your stomach feel better when taking medication.
More Tips to Survive the Drake Passage Like A Pro
I’m a firm believer that preparation is everything. Whatever form that takes for you, do it. Know what you’re up against and give yourself the tools to make the best of it.
This applies to the Drake Passage crossing too. These are some of the things that worked for me.
- Mindset – you’ve dreamed about this trip for ages, so put some time into preparing the proper mindset you need to cross the Drake. Let yourself freak out but then rein it in. Read up about the crossing, ask questions, attend the educational seminars onboard and be curious. Mentally prepare yourself to use the Drake Passage as a transformative opportunity for your trip.
- Bring Good Shoes – they are not kidding when they tell you to bring shoes that fasten to your feet and have a good grip. Listen and bring them. When the ship is rocking you need to keep yourself stable and good footwear goes a long way in preventing you from slipping or falling. I saw people in slippers and sandals, they were struggling and very envious of those who followed the advice given to them about onboard footwear.
- Listen to the Crew – every instruction you are given is for your own safety. If the crew tells you to move around the ship in good shoes and two hands-free to hold the railings, do it. If the crew tells you to stay off the decks or places signs on the door that they are closed, listen. If the crew tells you to stay in your cabin until there is less motion, do it. They live and breathe this part of the world and know how to keep you safe.
- Skip the Drake Passage – now, you already know how I feel about this but if you absolutely cannot bring yourself to take on the Drake Passage, it is now possible to skip it altogether and take a charter flight to meet the ship at the Antarctic Peninsula. If you do this though, do yourself a favor and give yourself the time, at least on the return side, to really contemplate Antarctica before you reconnect with the chaos.
Are you ready to take on the Drake Passage?
Our trip to Antarctica was in partnership with Quark Expeditions, however all opinions are 100% mine, as always.
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