“Antarctica? You want to go where?” That was the response to my 84-year-old mother’s suggestion to “look into a trip” to the coldest, driest and windiest of all the continents located in the southern hemisphere—the same land mass that sweeps the bottom of the globe. Almost 98% of the continent is covered in a deep layer of ice, as much as a mile thick in most places. And this was our destination?
After much research, we chose the MV Discovery ship because of her reputed hull strength and iceberg-navigating ability, a feature we viewed as important while envisioning ourselves cutting through miles of icebergs to get to “Destination Antarctica.” We later found that the Discovery does not carry the special international credentials for navigating ice fields (Swedish-Finnish Ice Class rating), but the captain masterfully steered us through safe waterways and provided us with a memorable and thrilling experience.
Once aboard, we realized we’d been on this ship before: sailing through the Panama Canal in 1978 when she was the Island Princess, a sometime stand-in for the Pacific Princess on the popular “Love Boat” TV show. Being one of the first passengers to book our cabin and my mother, being the old salt that she is, insisted on reserving the lowest, most mid-ship one available to reduce motion in the event of high seas. The cabin was small and sparsely decorated, but comfortable, considering Discovery’s time at sea. In spite of a multi-million dollar retrofit in 2003, the old girl remains fatigued, and her food and service are lacking. But, adventure was what we were after, not fine dining.
The ship set sail from Ushuaia at the southern-most tip of Argentina on a blustery, cold day in January, which is the southern hemisphere’s summer. The first part of the voyage entails crossing Drake Passage, the body of water between the southern tip South America and the South Shetland Islands of Antarctica, where the Atlantic and Pacific oceans connect. Depending on weather conditions , the journey through the passage is either in calm waters or in high, treacherous seas. As luck would have it, we cruised through high seas.
After a firm warning from our captain to take seasickness pills before bed, we dutifully took our meds before retiring for our 18-hour summer night’s journey through the anticipated 20 to 30 foot waves. Before lights out, we noticed that the cabin steward had literally “battened down the hatches,” since our porthole cover was now closed and tightly sealed.
We knew the moment we entered the passage, around 4 a.m., when we were being tossed from our berths. “Oh! The places you’ll go!” (Dr. Seuss) Being somewhat prone to seasickness, we both took another pill, just to be certain our stomachs would survive the ride, and in what seemed like minutes it was high noon when we awoke to even higher seas.
After a cup of tea and a few crackers, we headed to the top deck to experience the crossing in the open air. While exhilarating, we were back in our beds to finish out the next five hours when Discovery would leave the passage and head toward the ice-covered continent. But before succumbing to the last of the meds, we unscrewed the porthole cover and found the most wonderful photo opportunity: Drake Passage in its full glory, swells higher than our porthole and giant waves crashing onto the side of the ship. It was better than a roller coaster ride. Yes, we were the lucky ones.
With the Drake Passage behind us and photos in hand, we were now full speed ahead to the Antarctic Continent.