Into the Drake Passage – Sailing to Antarctica on Bark Europa

On Lookout in the Drake Passage

One of our duties on Bark Europa was to be on watch during our sail through the 450NM dreaded Drake Passage on our way to Antarctica. I had heard about the Drake and how extreme it can be. It’s known as one of the most difficult sailing passages in the world and the Dog Watch from 12 pm until 4 am sounded nasty. My Dog Watch, however, was remarkable! I was alive. The ship took on a life and made me feel in control and powerful. At the helm, I was controlling the wind and the sea and the sails. It was a huge rush. At 4:00 am after my watch, I could have run a marathon I was so full of adrenaline.

On Watch with Andy in the Drake Passage

Our watch shift was four hours, and we were a half hour on either the helm or lookout and a half hour off. At the helm, we were told the course to steer, either from the person whom we were relieving or from the officer of the watch. This course was in a three figure notation such as 3-1-5 degrees, and also referred to the wind and the sails, or a landmark. We were able to hold a steady course by observing the compass, watching the wind and the sails, and by controlling the rudder angle.

The first half hour was at the helm sailing the ship. We worked in pairs and Andy was my partner. He’s a fifty something English fireman. Willing to step up and always thoughtful, he was a great partner, and I don’t imagine putting up with my constant singing and never ending questions was an easy task. He manned the helm first and he quickly became precise after only a few watches. I watched the compass and helped him stay on our course. 30 minutes flew by. I was anxious to give it a try but nervous of the responsibility.

We then had a hot cup of coffee while two others from our watch took over. The break between watch seemed to tick by more slowly than the actual watch.

Our next shift was on lookout. It’s definitely the easier part of the shift. There are lookout spots on the foredeck where you can watch for other ships, whales, ice, or basically anything that could harm or slow the ship. It may be less strenuous but it’s colder just standing there looking into the darkness. I tried to convince Andy to play games with me. He’s a fantastic person with a great personality but he drew the line at games like Two Truths and a Lie. I spent the better part of the watch dancing and singing on the spot. I bet Andy would be happy if he never heard Mr. Sun or anything from Frozen ever again. I was famished after 30 minutes.

We were thankful for a hot bowl of soup during our next rest. It took less than five minutes to down a bowl of vegetable soup and a cup of tea. I’m normally not a tea or coffee drinker but there is nothing more soothing than a warm cup in your hands after the bitter cold outside.

At the Helm on Bark Europa

Then, it was my turn at the helm. I was way more nervous than Andy, but once I found a rhythm, it was exhilarating. It’s like finally going skydiving solo rather than tandem. You’re completely in control of life and death situations. I suppose after years of sailing it would be more like driving car but for now I’d compare it to skydiving. (Ok, maybe I wasn’t going to kill us if I was a few degrees off course but I was controlling the ship.)

I was wide awake during our last half hour of watch. We chatted about family, children, spouses, and careers during our break and during the following lookout. The four hours seemed more like one and the idea of sleeping was completely lost. I was falling in love with Europa and becoming a sailor.

Without Bark Europa, Whitecaps Marine, and Pilotur, this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity wouldn’t have been possible.

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67 thoughts on “Into the Drake Passage – Sailing to Antarctica on Bark Europa

    • Thank you! That is a beautiful thing to say, and my mom is proud. She’s a little nervous sometimes since I’m always doing something outside the norm, but she’s supportive and encouraging. It has shaped my character 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Wow, that sounds exciting and loved how you explained it. Never knew about “Dog Watch” either. It must be something to be at the helm and steering and watching. Thanks for including us in your world on the ship. Looking forward to hearing about the whole experience!!

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  2. What an exciting trip! Really! Thanks for taking me with you! I enjoyed it a lot!

    I also would like to say that I have nominated your blog for 4 blog awards. Haha, yes 4! But no pressure! It is up to you what you would like to do with it. Or if you would like to accept it or not. I just want to say that your blog is one of my favourites.

    http://www.placespeoplestories.com/2015/02/06/four-blog-awards-nominations-yey/

    Wish you a wonderful weekend!

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  3. I imagined a lot of things when I thought about you on that ship in the bitter cold but singing and dancing with an English fireman was not one of them. Ha ha. Thanks for the story. Very exciting! Photos are great. You look very happy!

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  4. The original definition of the “Dog Watch” was the afternoon 4 to 8 or 16:00 to 20:00. The 4 hour watch was split into 2 dog watches, the first being 16:00 to 18:00 and the 2nd dog watch 18:00 to 20:00. This permitted the crews to have their evening meal.

    Did they issue you with a steering certificate during the voyage?

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      • That is a really good point. I learned to sail in some really rough Bay Area waters. Inexperienced sailors of a new vessel class were never allowed at the helm or rudder without a certified person right alongside. I learned quickly not to go sailing with anyone who relaxed this policy. We had plenty of wild adventures without compromising safety.

        I’m thinking Bark Europa wouldn’t compromise crew or passenger safety. Maybe Lesley can chime in?

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Now you have a sense of what military service or wilderness hiking can be. All senses alert, exposed to the weather with a relatively small margin for error. What a way to live!

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  6. In 2008 I had the pleasure of sailing past Hamlet’s (Kronberg) castle and Copehagen on a night sail aboard a 36 foot swan on our way to the East Coast of Sweden. The city has a huge bank of windmills offshore that made for a wonderful scene. It was quite the experience to have a night shift, pointing our way by the stars. I appreciate your adrenalin. I was resting on board early the next morning and started dreaming of a young woman in a traditional Swedish hat garb. So I figured I was delerious by then. Your yacht looks like such a sweet vessel. I’m so so amazed you have had the chance to sail not only an amazing ship but through the Drake Passage – to Antarctica no less. I was just talking to a woman recently who had planned to go on an Antarctica trip and her trip was cancelled because their vessel sank while at sea. She ended up joining another tour… You knocked off ONE amazing bucketlist in my books. Hundred times more impressive than a climb up Everest.

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    • That sounds petrifying to hear that the sip you were going to sail on actually sank. Europa is a beautiful ship with a century track record of successful ventures 🙂

      I have no desire to climb Everest but that would be an impressive item as well 😉

      What tops your list?

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  7. incredible experience. To see Antarctica from a sailing ship would just be out of the world. Those “For Watch” hours would of been a huge challenge.
    I have enjoyed my time in Antarctica. Ive been here now for almost 4 months.
    One Life, One Search,
    Peace Out.
    Shane

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      • Well I’ve now returned to Perth, Australia, but yes. I was working for the AAD, Australian Antarctic Division as an Electrician at Casey Station. Now I’m home I will be up dating my blog. I’ve got some stuff from Nepal, Bhutan and Tibet to catch up on, so keep posted. I had an incredible time there, I learnt so much about the continent and about myself.
        One Life, One Search,
        Peace Out,
        Shane

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  8. My two little girls and I are having such fun following this story. We have a huge world map (the pull down kind from a classroom) in our dining room, and they keep asking, “Why didn’t she just fly to Antarctica?!” Hilarious.

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    • Thanks for following along. It was the best travel experience of my life and I’d highly recommend it. I could have taken a cruise ship as well but I figured it was the last continent and worth more of an adventure. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  9. How was the weather on your trip? I am fascinated by this adventure. I am heading to Patagonia at the end of this month. I am too much of a wimp to cross Drakes Passage since with my luck the weather and sea will be terrible. Thank you!
    Judy

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    • The weather was not as cold as expected. It was around 32 degrees ferinheight or close to freezing. The Drake Passage was rough but manageable. Although there are other ways to cross, I’m grateful that I chose sailing on a tall ship. It was the last continent for me to visit and I wanted to make it as much an adventure as possible.

      The weather in Patagonia shouldn’t be too bad since it’s there summer. How long will you be there. I’m sure it will be a fantastic trip. 🙂

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