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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, August 20, 2006

Drake Passage challenges Antarctic adventurers

By BRIAN WITTE
Associated Press

IN THE DRAKE PASSAGE It's a strange way to wake up, sliding down feet-first in bed and then rolling back head-first. And again and again and again.

Call it a bumpy welcome to the Drake Passage.

It's notorious for having some of the roughest waters in the world, courtesy of winds from the west and ocean currents roaring through a very narrow gap without much land to slow down the movement of water and wind.

The dreaded Drake is credited with spawning the old mariner's saying about latitude: "Below 40 degrees, there is no law. Below 50 degrees, there is no God."

A cruise from Argentina to Antarctica requires a trip through the so-called "furious 50s" and the "screaming 60s."

Drake Passage is named after the 16th-century English explorer Sir Francis Drake, even though he picked a less-chaotic route through the Strait of Magellan.

It takes about two days to get through this powerful force of nature.

The trip can be an exhilarating and hilarious ride. It also can be frustrating, nauseating and even painful.

When I felt the boat rolling at about 5:30 a.m. on the first morning of the trip, I thought the movement might only be temporary and that I might be able to get back to sleep. It wasn't, and I didn't.

The small bathroom in my cabin had a handle on the side of the wall to hold on to during a shower, but the ship's movements were jerky enough for me to abandon the idea.

Walking around the ship can be challenging. Unexpected deep rolls knocked me off balance a couple of times as I tried to walk up to the dining room with carefully timed spurts of movement. Secure on a couch by the ship's bar, I watched my fellow passengers struggle along, reaching for handrails and walls for support.

There also was lots of bumping in the buffet line as passengers careened awkwardly with plates of food back to their tables, which were covered with dampened tablecloths to help keep plates from sliding off.

But wet tablecloths were of no use to my unguarded glass of orange juice, which abruptly tumbled over during a deep roll.

With time, people get used to the movement.

Waitresses aboard who have made this trip before walk with remarkably little trouble by leaning skillfully during rolls. But passengers don't have their practice.

After breakfast, the rolling seemed to pick up, and I started feeling queasy. I regretted how much I indulged my appetite but thankfully didn't have to make use of the seasickness bags scattered around the ship.

Most of us aboard attended lectures in the afternoon. People seated on beanbag chairs slid around from time to time.

A thick rope hung around the stage where the lecturers talk, so they could grab on, if need be.

Every now and then, however, a passenger had to make a quick exit from the auditorium.

I tried to avoid looking out the window, where the horizon flew up rapidly in the distance and plunged again with stomach-turning speed.

Despite two days of bumping around without respite, the crew described this as only an average crossing.

Weller said the Drake presents a natural barrier that helps protect Antarctica from being invaded by too many tourists who aren't willing to endure the "Drake shake," also known as paying the "Drake tax."

"It scares a lot of people off and, you know, that's probably a good thing," Weller said.

But it's not always rough. Sometimes travelers get a calm crossing, when the passage is known as the "Drake lake."