Home » Your guide to tackling the Drake Passage, the gateway to Antarctica

Your guide to tackling the Drake Passage, the gateway to Antarctica

written by Lucy Piper July 9, 2015

They say you have to earn the Antarctic. I don’t know who ‘they’ are, but I’m assuming that what ‘they’ mean is that you need to sail across one mighty body of open sea to reach the Antarctic Peninsula. And not just any open sea – this is the Drake Passage: the only unhindered flow of ocean on earth.

The Circumpolar flow of the Southern Ocean travels in a clockwise direction around the bottom of the planet, picking up momentum, storms and hurricanes along the way. To make it even more exciting, the most southerly tip of South America and the most northerly tip of the Antarctic Peninsular reach towards each other like Michaelangelo’s angels in the Sistine Chapel, creating a landmass funnel through which the wild Circumpolar currents must then squeeze themselves. And this is just about as pretty as it sounds. The swell gets big people, let’s not beat around the bush.

Now I’ll be honest with you: I got seasick along the Amalfi Coast in the Mediterranean. I used to get seasick on the ferry from Dover to Calais. I get queasy on the Manly Ferry when it goes past the heads in Sydney Harbour. I’ve even been known to get car-sick in the back of taxis.

So I certainly anticipated some trouble with the Drake Passage. But it’s been my lifelong dream to visit Antarctica, so I decided to put my big girl pants on and deal with whatever the Drake could throw at me.

And here are the lessons that I learnt:

Get some seasickness medication from your doctor before you travel

Unless you are some kind of Master and Commander, you WILL feel queasy. Even if it’s not full-blown bed-ridden seasickness, most passengers on a cruise to Antarctica get sick. And no, those little seasickness wristbands will not work out here.

Think you can handle the Drake Passage? Book an Antarctic cruise >

Pack a ‘Drake Survival’ bag before you set sail

Going below deck every time you need something is the worst. Once your ship leaves the Beagle Channel and you start to enter open water, you will soon start to feel queasy. And by then, you will be lying down on the floor as much as possible. So pack a mini-survival bag that has everything you might want with you (your camera, wallet, spare layers etc). The less you need to go downstairs, the more you will be winning The War on Seasickness.

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Do everything you can whilst horizontal

This one’s not for everyone, but I found that as soon as I got out of my bunk in the morning, if I maintained a horizontal position for as long as possible, everything would be ok; I dressed myself lying down, put my boots on lying down – even brushed my teeth lying down (with a quick upright burst to rinse). It was unfortunate that my roommates were strangers, as they found my behaviour peculiar to say the least. But when you feel this queasy, to hell with what strangers think. This is about survival.

Don’t think you could handle the Drake Passage? Fly it and join your ship on the Antarctic Peninsula >

Keep one eye on the horizon and one hand on a steady rail (apparently)

This is designed to trick your senses into thinking that you’re stable. That ‘you got this, right?‘ feeling. Apparently, by staring at the horizon, your eyes and ears recalibrate to make you think you’re on steady ground, and the hand on a sturdy surface is meant to do the same. (NOTE: neither of these tricks worked for me.)

Stay off the booze

It’s all too easy to get into the swing of cruise life on your first night; you’re leaving the Beagle Channel, everything’s plain sailing, the atmosphere is buzzing with anticipation – ooh let’s have a cheeky champagne to celebrate! Do not do this unless you would like your drink to revisit you in a few hours. Alcohol is the worst enemy of The War on Seasickness.

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The good news

The good news is, the Drake Passage is finite, and for every moment of sickness you experience, just remember that you’re getting closer to the frozen continent at the end of the world. But that’s hard to bring to mind whilst you’re suffering what can feel like a two day, constant, hangover from hell, where sudden death feels preferable to the queasy torture that you’re experiencing.

The good news is, that as soon as you reach the sub-Antarctic islands and the Antarctic Peninsular, the water becomes calm, and you will start to feel like a billion dollars – there is no happier person that one who has seen the inside of seasickness hell and come back from the brink.

Feature image c/o TravPacker, Flickr 

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13 comments

RK December 13, 2017 - 6:34 pm

I am an avid dinghy sailor, kitesurfer, scuba diver, I spend lots of time on the water and in the boat. I have never ever had sea sickness in my whole life, that is, until crossing Drake passage last February from Ushuaia to Antarctica. It was the second day of crossing, I felt perfect fine, and had a big breakfast with mimosa on the ship, then after I got back to my cabin, my stomach suddenly started to feel turning upside down and dancing on its own, next thing I knew, my head was in the toilet stool throwing up. But damn, it felt good after puking. I never know what sea sickness is like, until that morning. Then I put on sea sickness patch behind my ears and went about my day as usual, and still had a big lunch and wine. But after I put on the ear patch I was fine the rest of voyage.

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تندخوانی July 19, 2017 - 4:00 pm

Thank you very much

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Anonymous May 18, 2017 - 4:32 pm

We are going on a cruise to Antarctica in Nov 2017 and just so looking forward to it. Will be armed with the patches that go behind the ear so hopefully we should be reasonable company.

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Rebecca Shapiro May 19, 2017 - 5:11 am

Have the most wonderful time in Antarctica. It’ll be amazing – excited for you 🙂

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Nancy Maxwell March 28, 2017 - 3:17 pm

Excellent article, Lucy! Spot on! We went to Antarctica (out of Ushuaia) early March 2004. We were the last ship of the season to go below the Antarctic Circle before advancing winter and freezing seas made it impossible for ships. Antarctica is breathtaking, spiritual in its beauty. The Drake Passage, OMG: we had 35-40 ft seas. When we had our daily briefings in the lounge, a journalist covering this (inaugural) cruise would just lay on the floor and raise her microphone from her elbow, she was that seasick; but, she was a trooper. Everyone got through it and then, oh, the things we did see. A Minke whale rising vertically next to our Zodiac to look at us with one of its dinner-plate-size eyes. It was curious and it maintained position for a minute or two before sinking back down. We watched a mother Humpback and her calf surrounded by Orca whales. They tried to swim closer to get near the calf but she kept pirouetting in place, using her massive tail to create a backwash that they couldn’t swim past. If they got too close on one side, the calf jumped over the mother’s back and stayed close/parallel to her on the other side. This drama was playing out as we entered a bay. The Captain kept the boat back far enough to not distract her and we watched for over an hour before the Orca contingent swam away, without dinner, and the Humpback mother and calf swam the other way. Who knows how long she was doing that before we came upon the scene?! We were told in our briefing that this behavior had never been witnessed before, anywhere, and anyone who had pictures / video, please send them to a scientific station in New Zealand. They said Humpback mothers and calves typically try to swim away from Orca predators; but, the calf becomes fatigued and then… What we witnessed was, at that time, never before seen behavior. Back to nausea or no nausea … during our rough crossing to Antarctica, passengers were instructed to go to their cabin and stay horizontal. The return passage? Bumpy but not as bad. I took oral meds, never “tossed” but was nauseous for the two days going over. No alcohol for me, just water. We were fortunate to afford the trip; and, yes, we are planning to go back one more time. When we think of the beauty – we simply must see it one more time before it is no longer an option for us due to our age. And yes, we want the cruise that goes down below the Antarctic Circle, again, thank you very much!
Hugs and best wishes for everyone blessed enough to experience Antarctica.

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Anshu Saxena March 29, 2018 - 7:00 am

Sir, I am planning for Antarctica in March,2019 (for crossing circle) but I read that as March is the end of season, wild life will be less there.. is that true?

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Rola January 1, 2017 - 6:52 am

I am going the end of January. Am excited but afraid of getting seasick. I will have the patch and hope it will work for me

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Tabitha June 13, 2016 - 8:53 pm

We have been there twice, and were lucky enough to have ‘Drake Lake’ on the way back the second time – the other three crossings were definitely ‘Drake Shake’. I would highly recommend asking your GP for the Scopolamine patches that go behind your ear. I am lucky enough not to get seasick, so only used as a precaution; my husband does get very sick, but using these he was fine, even with drinking alcohol.

We noticed that our fellow passengers using the patches were fine, but some of those taking other medications were still unwell. And this is full blown, stuck in your bed for two days, sickness, not just a bit queasy. But don’t be put off, as even those who had it the worst, still said that Antarctica was worth it.

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Peter O September 23, 2015 - 3:12 pm

I’m off down there this December for three weeks in the Antarctic region and the thought of seasickness was my only concern. At least I will be in esteemed company. Some good tips so I’ll be seeing my doctor!

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James Shackell September 23, 2015 - 4:28 pm

We’re jealous Peter. You’re in for a pretty amazing adventure. Enjoy Antarctica – here’s wishing you a peaceful crossing!

Cheers
James

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brendon isbister September 21, 2015 - 8:25 pm

Thanks, best I can say THANKS, as I got sea sick doing my scuba lic in a 14 ft tinnie in sydney. My Doc said they make pills for everything now. Sorry to say this BUT thanks for saying its worth it, nomatter the sickness. Thanks. I do have to consider this now. Cheers BRENDON

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Abby August 12, 2015 - 5:05 am

Thanks for sharing your tips, Lucy. Very helpful for my preparations for my journey March 2016.

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Eliska July 19, 2015 - 7:53 pm

I went there this year, and the Drake was hell. But so so so worth it. I wondered why the hell I came, I hated the ship and hated myself for going on a cruise. But the crew were amazing and I had the best time on the ship and Antarctica.

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