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Antarctica: On the crest of an icy wave

Braving the icy swells of the Drake Passage is a price worth paying to explore the Antarctic

Antarctica: On the crest of an icy wave
Image: Shaney Hudson

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It’s the chill that wakes me. Jet lagged, disorientated and in complete darkness, it takes a moment for my eyes to adjust; when they do, I’m looking straight down the belly of a roaring wave. Gravity thrusts me towards it before another lurch pulls back me in the opposite direction.

I’m an idiot; earlier that evening I’d unlocked the balcony door to watch the glowing flotilla of ice class vessels in the Beagle Channel from my suite, located at the stern. Retreating to bed, I’d closed my cabin’s sliding glass door, but not locked it.

The power of the swell had forced the door open, and now, tucked beneath bed sheets with hospital corners, I had no clue what to do. If I stayed in bed hyperthermia was likely; if I got up at the wrong moment I could be pitched over the stern, never to be seen again.

Crawling on my hands and knees and holding onto the bolted furniture, I wait until my ship crests a wave. Lunging forward, I put all my body weight into slamming the impossibly heavy glass door shut, smashing my lip on the glass. Blood running down my chin, I latch the door shut, panting.

The salty guides are fond of telling you the Drake Passage is the price you pay for the glory of visiting Antarctica. It’s an old cliché, but one with a touch of truth. The Drake Passage is the nautical equivalent of the road to Mordor: mythic and unforgiving.

The Antarctic Circumpolar Current pushes between 95 and 150 million cubic metres of angry seawater through this waterway each second, while a furious westerly wind churns the swell around us, sending waves crashing over our bow.

I’d done the two-day, 620-mile crossing twice before, and like a fool, I didn’t think the Drake would get me again. But it did, not only giving me a nasty fright, but the swell putting me on my knees, gripping the porcelain toilet bowl hours later as conditions intensified. Stomach emptied, head throbbing and with the metallic taste of blood still in my mouth, I lurch down the hallways in search of solace and fresh air, pushing off walls and thumping into doors.

Woozy with seasickness, I stand on the back deck as the ship bucks defiantly against the swell, inching my way slowly to the balustrade on the starboard side. The wind snatches tears from my eyes, the liquid freezing against my raw cheeks.

An albatross dips and glides between the waves up above us. Swooping by, it coasts into the trench of a wave with its wingtip just skimming its unbroken face, before returning to its favourite spot just above the ship, an omnipresent sentinel on our journey south.

Staring back to the sea, the Drake makes me draw breath. A wall of white closes in on the starboard side, a white rage barrelling towards us. Others on the deck skedaddle for cover, but the sight of the oncoming snow squall is mesmerising, and I reach out my fingertips as it engulfs the ship whole, crossing the threshold into the great white dream again.

If Antarctica is the windiest, driest, coldest and most uninhabitable place on the planet, the Drake Passage is the roughest, most terrifying and dangerous way to get there. And every time, I wouldn’t miss it for the world.

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