The talk before boarding our ship to Antarctica was not of the seventh continent but of sea-sickness and the crossing of the Drake Passage. When we met Helgita the Austrian in Puerto Natales, she was traveling north after having journeyed to Antarctica with the same expedition company we were. Helgita was generous to a fault with unsolicited information.
She took it upon herself to scare us to death about several potential issues. First she raised the specter of our bus tickets to Ushuaia not being available. Then she told of her crossing of the Drake Passage – infamously one of the roughest bodies of water on earth.
On Helgita’s voyage, everyone was violently ill, including herself. Instead of telling us about the variables of the crossing, she gave us fascinating tips on how to manage one’s projectile vomiting.
On the night before our voyage (we had no trouble getting tickets to Ushuaia) we met other passengers who would be on our boat and had met their own Helgitas and had heard similar horror stories. It would depend on the weather, but everyone agreed motion sickness pills were a must. Dramamine, transdermal scopolamine patches, promethazine. When to take, what dose, how drowsy, how loopy.
After a day in Ushuaia, we met at the docks and boarded buses that would take us to the end of the pier and to our boat the ‘Ocean Diamond’.
She was a sturdy enough looking vessel. Seven decks, 124 meters long, stabilizers. Her size made us relax a little, but no one rested easy. (Note that the photo we’ve included is of the ‘Ocean Diamond’, which is in the lower left of the frame. Giant cruise ships like the one behind it are not allowed in Antarctica.)
We checked in, met our fellow passengers, unloaded our packs into our cabin and explored the ship. When we started to feel movement, we assessed our state. Queasy yet? That gentle rocking is not too bad. Is this all the Drake could offer? We peeked out a porthole to see that we’d not yet been untied from the dock.
When the engines finally roared to life and we pulled into Ushuaia’s harbor, we climbed up onto the upper decks and watched the little city recede away down the Beagle Channel. The building scenery was replaced by the hills and mountains of Tierra del Fuego, miles of unspoiled wilderness rolling past the ship. The sun, low but not yet threatening to set, painted the smoky clouds a dusty pink.
In the channel the water was calm, the waves no more rough than a lake. Still, we felt the movement and like the rest of the passengers were wary, scanning our internal sensors for any sign of queasiness. From the bow of the ship a hole in the landscape beckoned; ahead yawned the mouth of the channel and the Drake passage beyond.