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Journey to Antarctica: How Does One Navigate the Wildest Waves in the Southern Ocean?

As the Nathaniel B. Palmer barrels toward Drake’s Passage, Jeff Goodell confronts the raw power of the sea

Stormy seas of Drake Passage, the water channel between Antarctica and the tip of South America, which is where the waters of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans meet.VARIOUS

Stormy seas of Drake's Passage.

Mint Images/REX/Shutterstock

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

This morning, from the top deck of the Nathaniel B. Palmer on our way to Antarctica, I notice a wandering albatross soaring beside the ship. Albatrosses are remarkable birds, with broad, narrow wings that allow them to fly for thousands of miles over the ocean without landing. But there is also something spooky and otherworldly about them, with large, intelligent eyes and a curious manner, as if they were messengers from beyond. Scandinavian sailors believed that albatrosses carried the souls of dead sailors.

As I write this, we are roughly 200 miles off the coast of Chile, preparing to enter Drake’s Passage, the notoriously rough and treacherous stretch of ocean between South America and Antarctica. The passage, named after English explorer Sir Francis Drake, has long terrorized sailors who venture into what is called “the inhospitable latitudes.” The winds often scream through the Drake from the west, swirling around Antarctica with nothing to stop them, giving them plenty of time and space to build monstrous waves.

The Antarctic Circumpolar Current, the strongest ocean current in the world, five times more powerful than the Gulf Stream, swirls around the continent, amplifying the waves and making navigation difficult. Thirty-foot waves combined with 70-knot winds are not uncommon. In 2017, a buoy just west of the passage recorded a wave about 80 feet high, the largest ever recorded in the Southern Hemisphere. The Drake is widely recognized as the most dangerous passage in the world for ships, where the forces of nature can overwhelm even the most experienced sailors and technologically sophisticated vessels. It is seascape haunted by generations of broken masts, abandoned boats, lost sailors.

Today, I feel the swell growing. The Palmer rocks with a predictable rhythm that is, so far, not terribly alarming. At lunch today in the mess hall, I sit with some of the marine technicians and science support staff. The ship is already swaying and rocking pretty well, but this crew ignores it. Most of them have been through the Drake a dozen times or more. They all agree that if they had to be crossing the Drake on any ship, it would be this one. The Palmer is 308 feet long, with four large diesel engines and a deep, strong hull built out of 10-by-forty-foot steel plates. The ship is classified as an ABS-A2 icebreaker, which means it is capable of plowing through three feet of ice at three knots. In the bow, the plates are 1 9/16” thick and are twice as strong as regular steel.

As the Palmer tilts and rolls, you can tell the experienced sailors from the landlubbers like me by their walking skills. The veterans compensate for the tilt of the ship with their bodies, leaning this way and that like they are in a fun house, but generally keep their balance. Rookies like me, who are already woozy with various medications to help with sea sickness, bounce down the halls like a pinball and cling to railings for dear life.

After lunch, I climb five flights of metal stairs to get a view of of the sea. The bridge of the Palmer is a remarkably tranquil place, spacious and surrounded by windows on three sides. The rumble of the engines is muted — it feels like you are flying. There are mountains of waves all around us, with a swell coming in from the west. The Doobie Brothers, the Grateful Dead and Pat Benatar play on the bridge’s sound system. It’s an odd juxtaposition: wild seas and classic rock.

Rick Wiemken, the chief mate, is at the helm. He is tall and lanky, with a quick smile, eager to explain the workings of the ship. He grew up in a small town near Chicago and fell in love with the sea when he sailed around the world with his brother when he was 18 years old. Now he has two kids and lives in Honolulu and spends half this life on the sea, piloting ships like the Palmer.

Wiemken shows me how the ship’s autopilot works, and how, in an emergency, he can switch it off quickly. “If we need to, this boat can turn on a dime,” he boasts. To demonstrate, he flips a switch and pushes a small lever — the Palmer makes a quick turn to the right. Despite its size, this is a nimble ship.

I ask him how many times he has been across the Drake.

“Oh, eight or nine times.”

“Have you had many rough crossings?”

“I think the first one was the worst,” he says. “We had 70-knots-per-hour winds. It was dark. I was afraid we were going to tip over.”

I ask him how high the swell is now. It’s hard to tell, with no perspective out there.

“Maybe ten feet,” he says. “It will get worse tomorrow.”

“How big?”

“Depends on the storms. We’re trying to figure that out now. This is a good ship. It can handle whatever comes our way. The trouble is, when the big waves come, and they hit you on the beam [the side of the ship]. Then you have the risk of rolling. If they get too big, you have to hove-to, which means turning into the wave and facing it head-on. You ride up and over them. That is much more stable.”

“What does tomorrow look like?” I ask him.

He smiles. “It will be interesting.”

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