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Journey to Antarctica: How I Survived Drake Passage

Dodging two storms and on the lookout for ‘rogue waves,’ the Nathaniel B. Palmer navigates a notorious stretch of sea

Stormy sea, Drake Passage, AntarcticaVARIOUS

Drake Passage, Antarctica

Mint Images/REX/Shutterstock

This is the fourth dispatch in a series from Jeff Goodell, who is in Antarctica investigating the effect of climate change on Thwaites glacier.

This morning, the rolls are bigger. Just getting out of bed is a challenge as the Nathaniel B. Palmer navigates the famously rough waters of Drake Passage on our way to Antarctica. I try to time my movements with the swells, launch myself out of bed, grab a rail, pull myself to the bathroom door. As I brush my teeth, I hold tight to the sink with one hand. I skip the shower.

At breakfast, I learn that we have cut our speed from 10 knots to 8 knots because there is a big storm in front of us that we are trying to let pass before we plunge into it. Of course, this being the Southern Ocean, there is also another storm behind it, so we are going to try to dash between them and avoid the worst of each. I feel my queasiness and disequilibrium growing, surging in and out with the rhythm of the swell. In the mess hall, waves swirl over the portholes like water in a washing machine, darkening the room.

Later, I attend a meeting with scientists aboard the ship, but it’s clear that nobody is doing much of anything. It’s difficult to stare at a computer screen while the ship is rocking. Some people retreat to their bunks. Others are crashed in the lounge on the second floor, staring at their phones.

In the afternoon, I climb up to the bridge, where Rick Wiemken, the chief mate, is at the helm. He talks briefly with the captain, Brandon Bell, a Texan who is ultimately in charge of the ship. Wiemken and Bell go over the latest weather reports before Bell heads downstairs.

“How big is the swell today?” I ask Wiemken.

“I’d say about 15 feet. A few might be higher than that.”

As the bridge rocks, Wiemken explains how we are going to try to time it just right. With two storms in our way, we are slowing down enough to let one pass, then will try to dart across before the other hits us. “It’s like waiting for a break in the traffic to run across the highway,” he explains.

He says the ship is taking the waves pretty well. We are carrying 440,000 gallons of diesel fuel, which helps the ship ride low in the water. “You’d be feeling it a lot more if we had less fuel,” Wiemken says. “Still, we’re gonna do our best to miss these storms. We want to stay out of as much trouble as we can.”

We stand there in silence for a while, watching the waves roll in, the bow pitching down, the spray coming up at us. I notice Wiemken looking to the west, in the direction of the oncoming storm. When I ask him what he’s looking at, he says, “I’m keeping an eye out for rogue waves. This area we’re in now is known for them. If you see one coming, you hove-to and hit it head-on. You don’t want to take it on the beam. That would not be good.”

“How big might a rogue wave get?”

“You never know. In conditions like this, 30 feet. But it could be higher.”

“How do you spot a rogue wave at night?”

He laughs nervously. “I hoped you wouldn’t ask that question,” and then he doesn’t answer it.

According to Anna Wahlin, a physical oceanographer from University of Gothenburg who is on the ship, how rogue waves form is still a mystery to scientists. “We know the dynamics of one wave starts to influence the dynamics of the next wave,” Wahlin explains. “But how exactly that happens, we don’t know. Normally we would say that waves are linear, which means they don’t affect each other. You have one wave here, and one wave there, and what you get when you combine them is exactly the sum of the two waves. But rogue waves are created by non-linear dynamics, which means you get something more than adding the two waves together, and it is something you can’t predict just from adding one wave to another wave.”

By 10 p.m., when I’m in my bunk, the ship is rocking violently. My mattress is slipping around, as if I were sleeping on ice. The rock of the ship is predictable, like a pendulum. My feet rise, the blood rushes to my head, the mattress slides, then it goes back the other way, feet falling, until I almost feel like I’m standing up. The blood in my body feels like a current connected with the ocean. A coffee filter bangs around the room. Books fall off the desk. Distantly, I hear things tumbling down the hallway.

At breakfast in the mess hall the next morning, there are a lot of ashen faces. The ship rocked violently all night. Nobody slept well. Water constantly washes over the portholes, creating the feeling that we’re almost underwater. Lars Boehme, a scientist at St. Andrews University who is on the trip, jokes, “When you see penguins flying through the portholes, you know you are in trouble.” How the kitchen staff gets breakfast out in these conditions is unfathomable. Slicing a strawberry as the ship rocks like this requires supreme confidence.

I bump into Wiemken after breakfast, who is just off his 8 a.m. shift at the helm. He says they made a course correction at 7 a.m., turning the ship due south — “too much synchronous roll,” he says. By turning south, instead of southwest, as the course had been, the ship takes on the waves more directly and the roll is reduced. “It’s not so much dangerous as it is uncomfortable,” Wiemken explains. “We are worried about people getting hurt, doors slamming, gear flying around.”

I climb up to the bridge, where Captain Bell and one of the mates are at the helm. I notice that the ocean is in a different mood today — instead of yesterday’s furious white-capped waves, it’s a horizon of long, peaking swells. They heave the ship to 30 degrees and flood the main deck. As I watch, “Brown Sugar” is playing on the bridge sound system. The ship moves from side to side in rolling waves that don’t look like anything from a distance but lift the ship up like a rubber ducky in a bathtub. I secure myself in an observer seat on the port side of the bridge. As we roll, the horizon tilts radially and the bridge dips down toward the sea. At the end of each roll, it almost feels like I could reach out and touch the water.

As the ship rocks, Captain Bell is cool. He grew up in north Texas, on a ranch his family has had since the 1800s. He raises commercial cattle and rodeo bulls. He has been through the Drake many times. “This is our stretch of the highway, we know it pretty well,” he says. I ask him about the highest wave he’s seen in the Drake — “60 feet,” he says.

I joke that waves like that must be like riding a rodeo bull. “It’s just a different kind of ride,” he says, smiling, and explains that the waves are more spread out, so you go up one side, and then over the top, and down the other.

Today, despite the course correction, the swell is still hitting the ship on the beam, which is causing a big roll. On the wall in the bridge is an instrument that tells you how far the ship is tilting. I watch it roll past 30 degrees. I ask him where he gets worried, and he says 35 or 40 degrees. “It’s not like the ship is going to roll over,” he explains. “But there can be a lot of damage, a lot of computers flying around.”

In the early afternoon, I retreat into one of the labs on the main deck of the ship. The rolls continue to build. Then one hits that is bigger than the others, and the ship keeps tilting until if feels like we are almost sideways. I grab the desk, and ­it takes all my strength to hold on. I hear things tumbling in the halls. Chairs topple over. A fellow journalist sitting a few seats away from me struggles to hold on, but loses her grip. Her chair flips over with her in it. Everything that isn’t secured flies across the room. Across the hall, in another lab, a freezer door flies open, contents spill out. The ship rocks back the other way and­ it is impossible to stand up. For the first time, I see real fear in people’s eyes.

But as it turns out, that is the worst of it. The rolls continue, but become gentler. We all pick up the chairs, clean up the debris that has scattered around the lab and double-check to make sure everything is strapped down.

When I get up to the bridge around 8 p.m., Wiemken is at the helm again. “Quite a ride, huh?” he says, smiling. “I think the worst is over. We squeezed through the storms. We’re back on course now.”

Mother Nature’s rage has passed, the sea around us is laying down. We are back up to speed at 10 knots. Chicago is playing on the bridge’s sound system. We are hitting 60 degrees latitude, near the edge of the Antarctic Convergence, where the water changes and the temperature drops and we arrive in a different world.

“Tonight, we’ll turn on the spotlight for the first time,” Wiemken says coolly. “It’s time to start looking out for icebergs.”

 

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