Sailing the Drake Passage, first day!

Dec 27, 2017 - National Geographic Orion


The time has arrived. We must return to Ushuaia, in Tierra del Fuego, the southernmost city on Earth, where we departed a week ago.

One more time, the tension aboard National Geographic Orion is quite evident. The legendary Drake Passage is in front of us. 500 nautical miles of open water famous for storms and tempests. No doubts that our Captain Martin Graser and his crew are able to bring us back safely—it’s the idea of 48 hours of seasickness that scares the most.

But every storm has a period of calm and this is what the weather forecast predicts to us. So, the smile comes back on our faces and we are prepared to enjoy these last two days aboard.

I’ve had personally crossed the Drake six times.The first time is impressed in my memory and carved in my head. I crossed on a 48 feet monohull sailboat. The forecast gave strong wind from west. A perfect recipe for me coming from the Pacific. I got the wind in the middle of the night and Profilo (the name of my sailboat) started surfing on the waves heading South Georgia. 13, 14, 17 knots. When the speed is over then the length of the boat (in meters, so about 15mt for a fiberglass hull), the boat can start to vibrate like a guitar string. And it happened to me. I needed to maintain the keel always on the top of the waves to avoid a deeper vibration that could brake some component bringing Profilo to the disaster.

I’ve exactly this in my mind while watching the bow of National Geographic Orion moving on the waves, with gentle sprays all around. For sure the Drake is calm, permitting a soft day of activities on board. I leave the observation deck to finalize my talk, scheduled for the afternoon. 130 years of history of National Geographic condensed in an hour.

My mind goes often to my memories of the Drake. Yes, I’ve seen it quite angry, but still I knew what was going on. I was prepared. Received the forecast. Changed my sail. Checked all the ropes. Fixed stuff that could move. Last hot soup and coffee to invigorate, then “go” into the storm.

It’s quite impossible to not think at the Drake for what is sadly famous for—ship and crew disasters. But today is wonderful. Gentle and lovely. The Drake does not stop anyone anymore. It’s not the natural filter, as it was then: only for the temerarious, the bravest. Now all can enjoy the wonders of the Antarctic Continent. But we cannot forget that we are ambassadors of the protection of this wonderful environment. We have to preserve the wonders. Let’s give a future to Antarctica.


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About the Author

Massimo Bassano

National Geographic Photographer

Massimo Bassano has worked as a freelance photojournalist since 1990. His work appears in National Geographic Traveler and National Geographic online edition, as well as many publications throughout Europe. Massimo's photographic subjects know no bounds—his recent assignments have covered social issues, international travel, fitness and health, fashion, and portraiture. In 2004, he was awarded a Ph.D. in journalism from the Italian Association of Journalism.

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