January 9, 2003
We board the Gould the night before departure so everyone will be ready to leave first thing. In the morning all the passengers are given a safety lecture. We try on our survival suits and get in a tiny, 44-person lifeboat that reminds me of the "yellow submarine," though it's orange. With no fanfare, the ship glides away from the dock. The Strait of Magellan where Punta Arenas is located looks like a broad river twenty miles across. We begin seeing wildlife soon after departing: petrels, albatrosses and sheerwaters. Some of them circle around the boat, perhaps looking for food kicked up in the wake.
Aboard the Laurence M. Gould in Drake Passage
There's a lot to see inside the ship. The Gould is 230 feet long and
has seven levels, not including its "science mast," a tall tower holding
weather monitoring and other instruments. The vessel was built in
1997 by North American Shipbuilding in Larose, Louisiana; specifically
for scientific research in polar waters. It has a "wet lab" for for
the soggiest experiments, such as research on live krill and a "hydrographic
lab" for chemistry studies as well as cranes for hoisting scientific
apparatus and decks designed for giving researchers access to the
sea. The Gould is not technically an "ice breaker" but it is "ice
strengthened" and can cut through up to three feet of solid sea ice.
Captain Robert Verret, a native of Louisiana, operates the ship, with
assistance from three mates: Alan Arrigoni, John Snyder and Jim. Except
especially treacherous waters, when Captain Verret takes the helm, the three mates operate the "wheel house" or bridge. They have two kinds of radar with different ranges and a Ground Position System (GPS) screen that continuously plots their position with information from satellite signals. Joe Zaborny, a crew member in the engine room shows me the boat's two 2200 horsepower diesel engines.
We leave the strait for the southern Atlantic Ocean by late in the
evening and a swell starts to kick up. Soon we round Cape Horn and
are in the infamous Drake Passage. In the 1830s Charles Darwin sailed
these same waters in the HMS Beagle. The 5-year voyage was the inspiration
for On the Origin of the Species, where he explained his theory
of evolution. Reportedly, Darwin was seasick most of the time. In
the diary of his journey he wrote of the awful seas he encountered
here. "The sight," he wrote of the waves breaking on the tip of South
America, "is enough to make a landsman dream for a week abut death,
peril and shipwreck." I am ready, with a medicinal patch to prevent
sea sickness, which I had applied in the morning. As I walk around
the ship I notice the circular ban-daid-like patches just behind the
ear of a number of my shipmates. Before long, we hit 8-foot waves.
The crew is unfazed by the rocking but my anti-seasickness patch isn't
enough and I spend the night watching videos and hold down my dinner in my bunk.
The ship has been outfitted to accommodate extra passengers in the hold. Two great
big shipping containers-the kind used to haul commerce on ships and
train-beds, have been converted into bunk-rooms. That's where I've
been assigned. There are six bunks in each one, which is a tight fit.
Fortunately, the ship is not full, so there are only two passengers
in each steel box. I'm told these bunks are the best place to be during
a storm as they're right in the center of the ship's length and near
the waterline (and thus don't move as much as others when the ship
rolls). Still, sleeping in the basement of a storm-tossed ship inside
a steel box takes some getting used to.
After a day the swell subsides and I feel better. We see our last real sunset
for more than a month. The sky is deep crimson with horizontal bands
of black clouds. On the third day, we reach the South Shetland Islands,
one of the mountainous archipelagos between the Drake Passage and
the Antarctic Peninsula. I watch our progress from the wheel house.
A ship passes in the darkness but, mysteriously, fails to return our
greeting. When the sky brightens we have reached the Gerlache Strait,
a fjord-like channel between the Antarctic peninsula and the Palmer
archipelago. Snow-capped mountains rise from the sea on either side
of us, though only the bases can be seen beneath the clouds. We pass
icebergs the size of small city blocks. Some have square sides and
tops, like pieces of cake. Others are sculpted with arches, pointy
peaks and crazy curves. These probably broke off an ice shelf somewhere
hundreds of miles away and may have taken years to get here. There
are also bands of ice chunks-pieces between softball- and sports-car-size-called
brash ice. Brash ice forms when hunks of glaciers and icebergs "calve
off" and explode into hundreds of bits.
The Gould noses into Neumayer Channel, a narrow barely a mile wide
between Anvers Island and Wiencke Island. Anvers is one of the larger
islands along the Antarctic Peninsula and it is completely covered
by an ice cap. Mount Francis, towers almost 10,000 feet above the
channel. Rounding a corner, the Gould approaches a spit of land, a
tiny grey patch of rocks at the edge of the great glacier. We have
arrived at Palmer Station.
Read the December 29th entry
Read the December 23rd entry