I grew up on the edge of Lake Superior, and ventured out onto it a few times, but I always felt and feel most at home when surrounded by tall trees. After moving to Northfield, I had to get used to the prairie. I think I’m pretty comfortable now in wide-open spaces. The Southern Ocean, though, was an entirely other sort of wide open.
I guess I expected to see endless empty ocean when we set sail on Minerva from Ushuaia, a busy port. The commercial pier where we boarded Minerva was lined with other cruise and merchant ships, and not far from a marina that wouldn’t look out of place on any of the Great Lakes.
The Ushuaia harbor was crowded with big vessels. These cruise ships were supposedly full of passengers and crews who were waiting out their COVID quarantines.
But after we left the harbor and steamed down the Beagle Channel toward the Drake Passage, the only craft we saw was the boat the took the channel pilot off Minerva in the middle of the night. (I had just returned to my cabin after watching Ushuaia disappear behind us.)
The Practicaje was the last ship we saw for days. No ships, no other people, nothing but the open ocean. Well, the ocean and the sky. If Ralph Waldo Emerson is right that “the sky is the daily bread of the eyes,” then we gorged ourselves.
When we reached Antarctica, the mountains, glaciers, icebergs, and wildlife added to the feast, as I hope my post are showing. But through the couple hundred of us on Minerva felt like the only people in the world, or at least the only people in our part of Graham Land, we weren’t. Almost every day, we caught a glimpse of another ship.
The night of February 2, after our landing on the continent at Orne Harbor, we headed down the Gerlache Strait and passed two other cruise ships cutting away up the Schollaert Channel. They glowed almost obnoxiously in the midnight gloaming. I’m sure we looked just as artificial to them.
The next day, high winds prevented us from making any landings and forced the Minerva to keep moving. We sailed down the Neumeyer Channel right past the British “Station A” on Goudier Island in Port Lockroy, a tiny cove in the western side of Wiencke Island. Several sailboats were hiding behind Goudier in the cove. Their masts and the antennae of the Station A buildings stood out straight and sharp against the natural shapes of the coastline.
Later that day, still looking for shelter from the wind, we sailed around Cape Errera at the very southern tip of Wiencke Island. Another cruise ship was going in the other direction – one of the two ships we’d seen the previous night. The spectacular cloud plume off the headland suggests the strength of the winds that day.
The winds calmed on February 4, allowing us to try to sail down the Lemaire Channel, a passage famous for its truly jawdropping mountains. More on that cruise another day – suffice to say here that Lemaire’s fame drew other ships too. As we approached the northern end of the channel, we could see the the French cruise ship Le Lyrial
coming in behind us.
Our captain found too much ice in the mouth of channel to risk a run, but while he brought Minerva about, Le Lyrial snuck past us, close to the cliffs, threaded its way through the icebergs, and successfully sailed down the channel. We watched its progress on the navigation screens aboard Minerva.
Minerva on the other hand spent the morning sailing counterclockwise around the islands that form the western wall of the channel. Just before noon, we emerged in the French Passage, a more open reach that feeds into the southern end of the Lemaire. The passage was full of ice that had been trapped there by the previous day’s winds. We had a grand outing, to be described in another post, but we also saw a tiny sailboat in the white floes and black water.
As with the boats we saw at Port Lockroy, the straightness of the mast looked alien. I wound up talking for quite a while with another passenger, an experienced sailor, about what that boat’s crew must have been doing and seeing. They were in hazardous waters, which meant they were either stupid or, more likely, consummately experienced. Either way, what an adventure they were having!
That little sailboat was the last ship I saw until we crossed the Drake Passage and headed back up the Beagle Channel to Ushuaia, on February 6 – at which point I was quarantined in my cabin. I took a few bad photos through my water-splattered porthole of traffic in the Beagle and in the harbor after we docked, but nothing worth the pixels. Five days later, when my cuarentena ended, I walked from my hotel outside Ushuaia into the city and down to the harbor. The pier was crowded with beautiful vessels – several cruise ships, a Russian research vessel, an Argentine Coast Guard cutter, even a Greenpeace ship. Minerva had already sailed back to Antarctica.