Surf’s Up!

2 07 2008

Drake wave 1

Ever been to sea, Billy? (The Drake Passage)

My first nautical experience was on a rowboat, traversing a moat.

 

It was a fine Scottish summer’s day: the wind howled down the hills and whipped the water into a vicious chop while rain lashed our faces. Against a leaden-grey sky, the castle ruin was a foreboding silhouette that loomed higher the closer we came. The oarsman was hooded and hunched against the elements. He spoke nary a word and with a gnarled hand gestured for us to climb aboard, before setting off across the churning black waters. The soulless dungeons, glimpses of unexplained shadows and the mournful wind through the battlements were nothing compared to the prospect of the return journey across the Styx with the aquatic equivalent of the Grim Reaper.

 

I was 5 years old and nautically scarred for life…which is why many years later I was not exactly thrilled by the prospect of spending several days crossing the roughest seas in the world: The Drake Passage.

 

The Drake Passage separates the southern tip of South America from Antarctica. It marks the convergence of the Southern Ocean, the Atlantic and the Pacific and for centuries has been the burial place of ships rounding Cape Horn. The Passage is renowned for its massive waves, rolling surf and the huge storms that come from nowhere and batter for days. It is not a place for the soft of heart – or those fearful of rowboats.

 

Still, the lure of the Antarctic was just far too strong and I decided that the polar reward more than justified the torment that lay between.

 

Rowboats aside, my nautical experience was rather limited once you exclude ferries and pedal boats. I had once sailed through the Baltic on a Russian ship from Helsinki to St Petersburg and spent several days sleeping on the deck of a felucca on the Nile, but this was the litmus test that would once and for all determine whether I was indeed an old sea dog, or merely a landlubber.

 

Sadly, lack of worthy experience had left me clueless as to whether I was susceptible to seasickness and unwilling to find out the hard way, I applied a scopolamine patch behind one ear. The patches prevent nausea rather than cure it, in theory at least! All I was missing was a parrot on my shoulder.

 

We sailed from Ushuaia, Argentina late one evening. The Beagle Channel was calm and we watched dolphins ride our bow wave. Once the sun had dipped behind the mountains of Tierra del Fuego, we all headed below deck for dinner. About 2am I awoke to find us rolling wildly from side to side. The resounding slam of waves on the metal hull resonated through our bed and rattled our heads. I mesmerically watched our curtains swing like a pendulum until I realised that the curtains were hanging straight…and it was the ship that was swinging like a pendulum.

 

Drake wave 2

Ever go to sea again, Billy?

From the bridge we watched 30-foot waves crash over the bow as we rolled 35-degrees in each direction. The blue sky above belied the savage ocean below. Albatrosses wheeled and soared while more sledgehammer-blows of water pounded the hull and slammed against the portholes. We made our way around the ship like orangutans on a jungle-gym, hand-over-hand grabbing and grasping for ropes strung from the low ceilings and brass railings fastened to the walls. Dinner was served on wet tablecloths to prevent the plates from flying off and shattering, chairs were chained to the floor and soup was prepared in mugs instead of bowls. In our cabin, we watched our boots tumble from wall to wall with each roll and at night, despite the best efforts of the ship’s crew, we would lie in bed and hear bottles and glasses smash in the galley below.

 

More than half of the ship’s passengers disappeared below deck on the first evening and didn’t reappear until we’d reached the sheltered waters of the South Shetlands. The air was fresh and bracing. Whales surfaced alongside us, seals lounged on ice floes, penguins scampered across icebergs and all was bliss, peace and harmony.

 

After a week exploring the Antarctic, we turned north and headed back towards the open sea. While those who had suffered intolerably on the way down headed back to their bunks to suffer in silence, I applied a new patch and relished the lash of the salty surf and the invigorating air.

 

For the return trip, the sky was as dark as that which had loomed over the Scottish moat years earlier, but this time I was the hooded sea dog with the gnarled hands relishing every roll and mighty wave.

 

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008

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One response

5 07 2008
woody

wow! that is sure an adventurous travel…. Nice Pics.

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