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Crossing the Drake Passage: How to Prepare for the Drake Shake

11 min read

One the great unknowns for many people preparing for their Antarctic expedition is what to expect of their Drake Passage crossing.

I recall how I had packed a few seasickness remedies for my Antarctic Explorer: Discovering the 7th Continent expedition (Sea-Band wristbands, Transderm Scop skin patches for motion sickness, and that old staple from the medicine cabinet: Gravol) just in case, but I wasn't expecting any issues and looked forward to crossing into the Polar Circle and starting their adventure in Antarctica.

The Drake Passage weather looked promising enough and I've had plenty of experience on boats, even taking one to work for a few years across the sometimes punishing waters of Georgian Bay.

Waves during the Drake Passage. Photo: Acacia Johnson
Waves during the Drake Passage. Photo: Acacia Johnson

As I quickly learned though, seasickness can occur on any kind of waters, so calm conditions or rough seas really doesn’t matter.

In this post, I’ll share my experience crossing the Drake Passage, as well as helpful seasickness tips from Dr. Dan Zak, one of Quark’s onboard physicians, to help you prepare to cross the infamous Drake Passage on your next expedition.

Why Crossing the Drake Passage is Such a Travel Achievement

Visiting Antarctica is a bucket-list travel achievement for many world travelers, and so too is to the chance to cross the Drake Passage and enter the Antarctic Circle.

Staff assured me our Drake Passage crossing in December 2016, in the middle of the Antarctic summer, was nearly the ‘Drake Lake’ passengers hope for as opposed to the dreaded Drake Shake.

While there is no such thing as the best month to cross Drake Passage, we were crossing the passage during the Antarctic summer (from October to February) when the Antarctic weather helps create calmer seas.

But it wasn't the calmness of the water, it was the length of time we spent out in open water that got me and by about six hours in, I was really feeling it. I wasn’t the only one, either… even in the relatively calm seas, dozens of people were missing from their dinner tables.

Yet afterwards, the talk around the ship was positive! How well we’d been taken care of, and what a rite of passage and truly Antarctic experience we’d all shared.

Views from the bridge of the Ocean Diamond. Photo: Acacia Johnson
Views from the bridge of the Ocean Diamond. Photo: Acacia Johnson

The Drake Passage is the confluence of three Oceans in the Southern hemisphere: the Atlantic, Pacific and Southern which can sometimes leave to a rough crossing.

The sheer volume of water is massive, with about 600x that of the Amazon river. Waves out there can range from gentle swells of 2-3 metres to a roiling sea of 12-13 metre high waves. Gale force winds and stormy seas can often leave explorers feeling sea sick.

The Drake Passage is 800 kilometres (500 miles) of open sea from Cape Horn, the southernmost tip of South America, to the Shetlands Islands north of the Antarctic Peninsula making the crossing from Ushuaia the most direct route and shortest distance to cross the Drake Passage.

For explorers uninterested in crossing the infamous Drake Passage by ship, there are benefits to flying across the Drake Passage on your Antarctic adventure that you can experience on expeditions like the Antarctic Express: Crossing the Circle.

How Can I Prevent Seasickness?

Take ginger, drink ginger ale, don’t drink, eat saltines, wear wrist bands, try acupuncture, stare at the horizon, close your eyes… the dizzying array of suggestions to fend off seasickness may have you feeling queasy. But which one really works?

A fiery sunset lights up the port of Ushuaia just after the Ocean Diamond’s departure on December 21 2016, as a brand new expedition group heads into the Drake Passage.
A fiery sunset lights up the port of Ushuaia just after the Ocean Diamond’s departure on December 21 2016, as a brand new expedition group heads into the Drake Passage. Photo: Miranda Miller

It may surprise you to learn that up to 50% of the people in any given journey across the Drake Passage will feel some degree of seasickness even in calm weather. Dr Zak has some recommendations that could help:

Start preparations in advance of your trip

“Ideally, we’d like you to have consulted with your family physician before departure, to ensure there are no interactions with other medications you may be taking,” he said.

Be aware of medical side-effects and age limitations

One of the most effective and popular seasick preventatives is the transdermal scopolamine patches, which you stick behind your ear about four hours before you think you’ll need them.

The patches last three days and release medication gradually that works its way out of your system over that time.

However, Dr. Zak cautions that this particular drug has more side effects than the others and should not be used by anyone over the age of 50. Please speak to your family doctor if you plan to use transdermal scopolamine patches.

Seasickness Medication

There are also seasick pills available, but you’ll have to remember to take them every four to six hours, eat light meals and watch your alcohol intake.

Other physical factors can affect how you're feeling

Remember that there may be other physical factors in play, as well, depending on your journey to that point. Some people are more sensitive than others to changes in altitude and other climate conditions.

Use your surroundings for stability

Dr. Zak’s advice for navigating your way around the ship is this: “Keep a hand on the railing as you navigate the stairs on board, as they can be quite steep. Holding on can help keep you from falling, but also adds a sense of stability.

If you have any questions about seasickness prevention or treatment, an onboard doctor will be happy to assist.”

What’s It Like Onboard During a Drake Passage Crossing?

We entered the Drake Passage late in the evening and by morning, empty seasick bags had popped up around the ship. They were tucked into the handrails in the hallways and hanging on the banisters on the staircases.

Alex, our Maitre D’, had a ready supply at the entrance to the dining room. We joked and laughed at breakfast, taking bets at the table as to who would be the first to reach out and grab one while venturing around and exploring the ship.

The Drake Passage crossing is a great time to take advantage of Quark’s Open Bridge policy and see the Captain and his crew in action. You’ll often find an Expedition Team member there, as well, watching out for whales or unique birds to point out to passengers.
The Drake Passage crossing is a great time to take advantage of Quark’s Open Bridge policy and see the Captain and his crew in action. You’ll often find an Expedition Team member there, as well, watching out for whales or unique birds to point out to passengers. Photo: Miranda Miller

Maintaining Good Hygiene

Another thing our Maitre D’ did was stand at the entry to the dining room before each meal, dispensing hand sanitizer to each passenger to help prevent any illness on board.

Dr. Zak says, “Health and safety on board the ship are key in keeping passengers healthy during their expedition. Wash your hands with soap and water after using the washroom, before every meal, and frequently throughout the day, to prevent contracting any illness.”

What is seasickness?

At first, the gentle rolling of the Ocean Diamond was actually pretty peaceful and soothing, but that repetitive motion soon wreaked havoc with my sense of balance.

In seasickness, your eyes and inner ear disagree about your body’s position in space. The resulting conflict can cause drowsiness, cold sweats, dizziness and vomiting.

If you’re one of the lucky ones who doesn’t notice that gentle rolling of the ocean, congratulations - for the first couple of days of your expedition, you won’t have any trouble getting a seat in the dining room or in the lecture hall!

And if you’re feeling up to being out on deck getting fresh air, the Drake Passage seabirds might put on a great show for you, too. Check out this passenger video of a crossing that highlights some of the birds seen on that trip:

Those concerned about safety will be happy to know that the entire fleet of expedition ships are equipped with stabilizers, which does reduce the “shake” you’ll feel out on the Drake.

What Happens When Passengers Get Seasick?

By lunchtime on our expedition, many tables were only half-full. I’m told that our Expedition Leader, Shane Evoy, made an announcement encouraging passengers to check on their fellow travelers. The service staff would arrange to bring light fare to their rooms, if needed.

My in-cabin phone rang just after lunch. Our onboard doctor, Shannon, had noticed I was absent and wanted to make sure I was okay. She must have had her hands full that afternoon!

My travel partner had brought a bowl of soup to the room and I was doing my best to stay hydrated, so the doctor encouraged me to lay down, get comfortable and call her if needed.

A black browed albatross swoops low over the water, as seen on a Drake Passage crossing.

Now, I don’t know about you, but the opportunity to veg in my cabin, watch an historic movie about the Shackleton expedition on my in-room TV and just mentally prepare myself for what was sure to be a mind-blowing week ahead of experiencing Antarctica was actually a welcome respite! I had no one to chase around, clean up after or take care of. There were no emails to attend to. No pressing tasks that needed done.

So what happens when you get seasick?

Not much of anything has to happen, it turns out. Dr. Shannon brought me a Phenergan tablet late in the afternoon, when it was clear the Gravol and Sea-Bands weren’t cutting it.

My neighbour and travel buddy kept me well-stocked with anything I needed, bringing me juice, crackers, and delicious freshly prepared soups sent by the Chef and his team. As much as I could, I just relaxed my way through it.

About half of the people on our ship experienced some degree of sea sickness, while the other half participated in optional lectures, explored the library, hung out in the lounge, took amazing pictures on deck, and took care of the rest of us.

It turns out, that shared experience was actually a great bonding exercise!

By the time we entered the glass-like waters on approach to the South Shetland Islands and Shane announced that our first iceberg had been spotted on the horizon, we all had something in common: we’d survived the Drake Passage crossing.... some of us laid out in our cabins, the rest watching out for us.

But we’d all made it.

Our expedition’s first sighting of penguins at Barrientos Island, part of the Aitcho Islands at the entrance to the English Strait.

The excitement of that first sighting of chinstrap penguins we encountered ensured the discomfort of the Drake Passage was a distant memory and just like that, we were transported and began our fantastical, frozen Antarctic adventure.

By the time you reach Antarctica and start exploring the Antarctic Peninsula, Falkland Islands, South Georgia, King George Island, and South Shetland Islands while experiencing the Antarctic wildlife including humpback whales, minke whales, leopard seals, and Emperor penguins from adult penguins, to baby penguins and even penguin chicks, you'll forget all about seasickness.

What to Do for Moderate to Severe Seasickness on the Drake Passage

The passengers I spoke with on our expedition had varying degrees of success with their seasick skin patches and tablets.

Unless you’ve been seasick before, you can’t tell which solution will work for you. The good thing is that you have time to figure it out, and there are a lot of options available to you.

Just remember, even a major bout of seasickness doesn’t have to ruin your trip to the remote places of the white continent of Antarctica.

Every Quark vessel has a small onboard clinic and the onboard doctors are experts in dealing with seasickness. The best part is that they do housecalls!

Dr. Zak said,  “Once vomiting kicks in, dehydration becomes a risk – and if we determine you are becoming dehydrated, a shot of anti-motion sickness medicine in the buttocks may be in order.”

Throughout the expedition, everyone on board really looks out for one another, so you don’t have to worry about being confined alone to your cabin and suffering through it without help.

Like the Drake Shake, Your Seasickness Won’t Last

There’s no shame in getting seasick - many veteran sailors admit to an occasional bout.

It’s almost impossible to tell whether you’ll be seasick, but if you are prone to motion sickness, an ounce of prevention could be better than a pound of cure.

The Ocean Diamond in December 2016 just off Barrientos Island, after another successful Drake Passage crossing.
The Ocean Diamond in December 2016 just off Barrientos Island, after another successful Drake Passage crossing.

The good news is that seasickness passes very quickly. Once through the Drake Passage, you’ll find the symptoms disappearing and your appetite returning (which is really good news, because the food on board is delicious and plentiful! You don’t want to miss out on it).

What might you bring with you to help prevent or combat seasickness? (Ask your doctor for a recommendation in keeping with your health history.)

  • Transderm Scop skin patches (not recommended for anyone over age 50)
  • Dramamine
  • Meclizine
  • Gravol
  • Sea-Band wrist brands

What’s available onboard to help treat seasickness?

  • Phenergan (promethazine)
  • Antivert (meclizine)

Looking for more info to help you get ready for your Antarctic expedition?

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