The bow of the Antarctic expedition ship whilst sailing in the Drake Passage.

Crossing the Drake Passage on the way to Antarctica

Going on a trip to Antarctica, especially on a luxury expedition cruise ship, may seem like a perfectly pleasant and comfortable way to travel to the most inhospitable continent on Earth! And you are right! It is an unforgettable trip of a lifetime that should be on everybody’s bucket list! However, if you are travelling from South America to the Antarctic Peninsula, crossing the Drake Passage can certainly test your vestibular and digestive systems, as well as your mental strength! The good news is, as soon as you get the first glimpses of the stunning landscape of the frozen continent, Drake Passage will become nothing but a tiny inconvenience in your overall Antarctic Expedition experience! 

Personal encounter with the infamous Drake Passage

We had the pleasure to do a return trip across the Drake Passage in December 2022 on the MS Nansen Fridtjof expedition ship, sailing from the southern tip of South America to the Antarctic Peninsula. 

Dates: 10-11 December and 16-17 December, 2022.  

Conditions: Rouch seas, strong winds and 9m high waves (Drake Shake) on the way to Antarctica. The second voyage across the Drake Passage allowed us to experience calm seas (Drake Lake). 

Notable Things We Saw: 

  • Sailing from Ushuaia, before we hit the Drake Passage, we sailed through the scenic Beagle Channel full of whales and dolphins. The sunset was stunning!
  • Cape Horn was left on our right in the distance, only possible to see through binoculars. 
  • Hundreds of humpback whales surrounded the ship and put on a real show for us on Day 2 of the Drake Passage crossing. 
  • An array of Antarctic seabirds. 
First sight of South Shetland Islands after crossing the Drake Passage.

The Antarctica trip was our bucket list item, and our expectations were high. So high, in fact, that I was worried about being underwhelmed. And I am pleased to say that the 7th continent blew us away beyond anything words can describe. We cannot wait to come back in the near future (and we never went back to the same place twice before…). 

First things first – was it worth it?

Oh yes! No questions asked! As a matter of fact, based only on the things we saw whilst crossing the Drake, we wouldn’t have been disappointed if our trip ended there!

The Drake Passage is the shortest route to Antarctica from any mainland in the rest of the world, so, unless you are flying to King Goerge Island, it is the quickest way to get to the Antarctic Peninsula (and as expensive as it is, it is also the cheapest way!). If you don’t feel well in the rough seas, you will forget all about it once you arrive, and if the weather is calm and you do not suffer from motion sickness, you will have a blast onboard the ship learning all about the frozen continent in the lecture hall or wildlife watching out on deck. 

A few facts about the Drake Passage

  • Where is the Drake Passage located? It is located between South America’s Cape Horn and the South Shetland Islands of Antarctica. This infamous body of water is known for rough seas where the Southern, Atlantic and Pacific Oceans Converge. 
  • How Deep Is The Ocean in the Drake Passage? The average depth of the Drake Passage is about 11,150 feet (3.4 km), with the ocean floor believed to reach depths of up to 15,700 feet (4.8 km) near its northern and southern boundaries.
  • Why is it called “Drake Passage”? The passage was named after Sir Francis Drake, but you may be surprised that he never actually crossed the passage. The story tells us that Drake’s ship drifted far south after navigating the Strait of Magellan in his 1578 expedition. It led Drake to inadvertently discover what would later be called the Drake Passage. The Drake Passage is also known as Mar De Hoces in Spanish. Mar de Hoces, so named in honour of Francisco de Hoces who mentioned the passage in his notes years before Drake was born.
  • Who Was First To Cross the Drake Passage Then? The first recorded individual to navigate the turbulent waters of the Drake Passage was a Dutchman named Willem Schouten. He completed the passage in 1616, nearly four decades after Drake’s initial Antarctic exploration.
  • How long does it typically take to cross the Drake Passage? 36-48 hours depending on weather conditions. 

The Antarctic Convergence is a marine region encircling Antarctica that experiences seasonal shifts in latitude. It serves as a dynamic meeting point where frigid Antarctic waters flow northward to interact with the comparatively warm waters of sub-Antarctica. This phenomenon results in an exceptionally high level of marine productivity that serves as a feeding ground for many species, including migratory seabirds and marine mammals. It also plays a critical role in global carbon and nutrient cycles.

The aft of the expedition ship leaving the mainland to cross the Drake Passage.

The roughest seas on the planet

The Drake Passage is a stretch of water between the Southern, Pacific and Atlantic Oceans and is famous for its rough seas. The three oceans collide into one infamous body of water that can create a washing machine-like experience for those brave enough to cross it.

What is more, currents in the Drake Passage meet no resistance from any landmass for hundreds of miles. This allows 12 m waves to run wild. Antarctic Circumpolar Current, which is like a mighty, unceasing river encircling Antarctica poses further challenges for sailing across the Drake Passage. It significantly accelerates travel from west to east but poses significant challenges for sailing from east to west. When this current meets the open waters of the Drake Passage, it stirs things up. It causes big waves making the seas pretty choppy.

So, if you’re sailing through the Drake Passage, be prepared for some bumpy and rough conditions! However, Drake Passage is not always so savage. If you are not experiencing the “Drake Shake”, you are probably enjoying smooth sailing across the “Drake Lake”. 

Drake Shake or Drake Lake? 

“Drake Shake” and “Drake Lake” are terms used to describe the varying sea conditions experienced when crossing the Drake Passage. These conditions are influenced by natural forces, primarily wind and ocean currents.

  1. Drake Shake refers to the rough and turbulent sea conditions experienced when the Drake Passage is stormy. During Drake Shake, the sea can be quite rough, with large waves and choppy waters. Prevailing westerly winds in the Southern Ocean can whip up the surface waters, creating strong winds and waves as high as 12 meters. What is more, the powerful Antarctic Circumpolar Current, which flows clockwise around Antarctica, can interact with the open water of the Drake Passage, intensifying the turbulent conditions. Storm systems and low-pressure areas in the region can further exacerbate rough seas, causing the Drake Shake.
  2. Drake Lake, on the other hand, refers to relatively calm and tranquil sea conditions in the Drake Passage. During Drake Lake, the waters are relatively smooth, and the journey is less physically demanding for travellers. There are fewer active storm systems in the region, leading to reduced wind and wave activity.

Prepare for the shake and keep your fingers crossed for the lake. But in all honesty, now that it is all over, we are so glad to have experienced both! 

A woman looking out the windows into the rough seas in the dining room on a cruise ship.

What is the best month to cross the Drake Passage?

Expeditions to Antarctica are typically only possible during the Antarctic summer months. The good news is that this time of year often comes with better weather conditions and a smoother Drake Passage crossing. Some sources say that the best times are December and January, and that you should avoid shoulder seasons (October and March) if you are not keen on a wild ride. 

However, even during the best months, there’s no guarantee of encountering calm weather throughout your journey. Weather patterns tend to persist for several days, so it’s entirely possible to encounter rough conditions both en route to Antarctica and on your return voyage.

Advancements in technology, though, have significantly improved the ability of the ships to navigate the Drake Passage since the early expeditions to the region. Today, captains can leverage specific data regarding timing and routing to steer clear of bad weather conditions. Moreover, the crew on Antarctic cruises excel at manoeuvring through the volatile waters, especially when weather conditions take a turn for the worse.

Preparing for the crossing

Many people are apprehensive about crossing the Drake Passage in fear of having severe motion sickness or simply being bored with nothing to do on the ship. The good news is that with a bit of planning, you can be properly prepared for whatever the open ocean will throw at you. When packing for an Antarctic cruise, it’s a good idea to take into account that you will be spending at least 4 days at sea. Here are some of the things that we feel are a must-have when crossing the passage.  

Don’t forget these

First thing first, pack some seasickness medication (yes, even if you never experienced seasickness before). We discuss various ways to help you feel well aboard the ship in the rough seas in the section below. And once you feel well enough, you can start your adventures before you’ve even arrived on the frozen continent. 

  • Packing warm clothing for deck activities. Yes, you will already be packing warm clothes to wear in Antarctica, but we have to stress that it is a lot colder on deck than it is in Antarctica. Strong winds and not a lot of movement will get you chilly in moments, so make sure you have a snood and a warm hat. Many cruise lines provide a windproof jacket once you’re on board, but if the company you’re travelling with does not, make sure to pack one. You will want to stay on deck, spotting those whales in the Southern Ocean. 
A woman dressed in warm clothes and red windproof jacket on deck of an Antractic Cruise ship.
  • Bringing binoculars for bird watching. Crossing the Drake Passage gives you a great opportunity to relax and go bird-watching on deck. Binoculars will certainly come in handy! And if you don’t have them, check with the ship’s reception – they have some to loan. 
  • Camera gear. You may think that there is not much to take photos of in the open waters, but trust us! If the weather conditions are good enough to spend some time on deck, you may be able to take some great photos of seabirds and whales. Visit our Antarctica Photography tips for more information.
  • Bring a notepad. Expedition cruises are different from other cruises in the sense that they are typically very educational. There are many lectures and workshops during the days, especially when crossing the infamous passage. Many times we caught ourselves taking notes on our phones, so we certainly wish we had a proper notepad. What is more, the experience of crossing the Drake Passage is somewhat ethereal and can evoke many different emotions and creative thoughts that you may want to scribble down. 

Dealing with seasickness

Whether or not you are prone to motion sickness, Drake Passage is a different kind of beast that may surprise you. Don’t be caught off guard, and make sure to pack sea sickness medication to help you alleviate the symptoms, so you can make the most of your trip. Mind though that some mediation (especially ones with hyoscine hydrobromide/ meclizine hydrochloride) will make you feel drowsy. Different medications will affect people in different ways, so if you have never taken seasickness tablets before, consult with your doctor, and take a few different types with different active ingredients. 

I personally found that Kwells and Joy-Ride made me extremely sleepy, and I preferred ensuring mild nausea to feeling extremely fatigued. On the other hand, Sturgeon (with the active ingredient of Cinnarizine) worked a treat for me. Seb, on the other hand, much preferred Kwells. 

There are also seasickness patches that you can stick onto certain parts of your body for a similar effect (however, we have not tried them and cannot comment on their effectiveness).  

Here are a few more tips that may be worth considering: 

  • When choosing a cruise line or ship to travel to Antarctica with, you may want to look for larger ships. We went on a relatively large MS Fridtjof Nanase, and it seemed that we could feel it move all the time, but our fellow passengers who had crossed the Drake Passage on smaller vessels, told us that this was nothing). 
  • Choose the cabin that is on the low deck and in the middle of the ship for the least motion.
  • Incorporate more ginger into your diet as it is shown to alleviate the nausea. Have some ginger biscuits, drink some ginger ale, chew some ginger gum, or take ginger tablets. 
  • Some fellow travellers advised that they had to rest in their cabins on the floor to feel less motion (fortunately, it’s not come to that for us). 
  • Instead of reading, looking at a mobile phone screen or TV, try looking at the horizon out your window. 
  • Stay away from the bow of the ship (and the aft, if you can). The lecture hall on MS Fridtjof Nansen was located on the front of the ship, and it was a true test for all of us crossing the Drake Passage (I believe that deep, well-timed breaths got me through those mandatory briefings that I attended). 
  • Try and eat something. I know it may not sound like a good idea, but for us, having a light bland-ish meal really helped with the symptoms. Some ships will also offer room service if you are not well enough to have a meal in the dining room. 

And if all fails, call the onboard doctor or contact reception for advice. The crew were really accommodating on our ship. There were seasickness tablets on sale at the 24-hour reception and takeaway service at the restaurants. 

The bow of the Antarctic expedition ship whilst sailing in the Drake Passage.

Activities during the crossing

Even if you are leaving from the nearest port of Ushuaia, Antarctica is a long way away. Feel well enough to start your Antarctic adventure? There are plenty of things to do whilst crossing the Drake Passage.

Mandatory briefings that are actually very interesting

Depending on the cruise line, you will have a daily program, including mandatory briefings and optional lectures and workshops. For example, everyone travelling to Antarctica is required to attend an IAATO briefing as well as a safety drill. Travellers who want to go kayaking or camping on Antarctica will further need to attend briefings for those specific activities. You are also likely to be required to take all your outerwear to the vacuum cleaning station to make sure they are in line with Antarctica’s biosecurity guidelines. If your cruise line provides rubber boots and windproof jackets, you will need to pick them up too.

Fun educational activities 

All the mandatory things aside, there are a number of ways to spend your days at sea. 

Read through your daily program and note any lectures or workshops you may want to attend:

  • We had some excellent educational talks about Sustainable travel, the History of Antarctic Exploration and the Wildlife we can expect to see in Antarctica. 
  • Citizens Science NASA cloud observation sessions
  • Sea birdwatching and wildlife viewing sessions on deck with the ship’s ornithologist and environmentalist. 
  • Navigation and Bird Photography Workshops.
  • And many more…

What is more, the expedition team members were always around to answer any questions or to simply have a chat and get to know them better. The bar and dining places were always open and served food and drinks. Furthermore, many ships have a library and sometimes a display of various scientific artefacts relating to Antarctica, informational boards on wildlife, geology and sustainable travel. 

Have fun

Explore your ship’s facilities! You may find a board game corner, a gym, a spa, and even a knitting corner! Crew members often organize specific gatherings for solo travellers or those with similar interests. 

Having said that, one of the best ways to spend time on the way to Antarctica is to wrap up warm and get out on deck (if the weather conditions allow). Whilst crossing the Drake Passage we saw numerous different sea birds, including Southern Fulmars, Antarctic Petrels and various albatrosses.

Drake Passage is a great place to spot whales and dolphins in their natural habitats too. Orcas (killer whales), Southern Fin Whales, and Hourglass Dolphins can often be spotted in the icy waters of the Drake Passage. But what topped it all was the sight of the migration of the Humpback Whales we witnessed on our way to Antarctica. In the late afternoon of the 11th of December, the ship became surrounded by hundreds of humpback whales showing off their flukes in the waters around the ship stretching for miles. The whales were diving in and out of the water, breaching and making fountains everywhere we looked. 

​Towards the south of the Drake Passage, the seas become calmer. It is a great opportunity to sit on deck and start spotting small pieces of sea ice in anticipation of the first site of the frozen land. 

Is crossing the drake passage necessary?

The short answer is no, it isn’t necessary, but it all comes down to budget and time constraints. 

The Drake Passage presents the shortest distance from any other continent in the world to Antarctica. Many expedition cruise ships, therefore, leave from Punta Arenas in Chile, or Ushuaia, In Argentina. Ushuaia is an obvious choice – it is positioned on the southernmost tip of South America and it only takes about 48 hours to get to the Antarctic Peninsula by sea. So if you are crossing over from South America on a ship, crossing the Drake Passage is part of the experience. 

A gps tracking map from Ushuaia to Antractic Peninsula sailing via Drake Passage.

However, there are a few exclusive trips organised from South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, but it takes 10-15 days to get to Antarctica, and those trips are not very common and extremely costly. What is more, the ships leaving from these countries, typically visit the Ross Sea area in Antarctica, instead of the wildlife-rich Antarctica Peninsula. 

But do you have to sail to Antarctica? Surely there’s an airport in Antarctica! Yes, you’re right! Teniente Rodolfo Marsh Martin Airport is located on King Geroge Island, the largest of the South Shetland Islands. Whilst there are no scheduled flights, the airport welcomes a number of chartered flights from various places in the Southern Hemisphere. By flying to Antarctica, you can save a couple of days crossing the Drake Passage and board the ship on the island, which lies about 120km from the Antarctica continent. However, it must be noted that flying to Antarctica is a lot more expensive than travelling by ship. 

King George Island Airport (TNM) in Antarctica was officially opened on February 1, 1969. It was named after Teniente Rodolfo Marsh, a Chilean Navy officer who played a significant role in establishing Chilean presence and research activities in Antarctica. The airport primarily serves scientific research stations in the region.

The dark history and modern safety

The Drake Passage, a dicey stretch of water connecting South America to Antarctica, has witnessed a history of history’s greatest explorers and the tragic toll it has exacted on those drawn by remote locations of the South. Sir Francis Drake, in the 16th century, was among the first to brave its fierce waters, but it was the polar expeditions of the 19th and early 20th centuries that truly underscored its danger, with many courageous sailors meeting their demise in the southern seas.

In 1839, the French explorer Jules Dumont d’Urville, while attempting to navigate the Drake Passage, lost his flagship, the “Astrolabe,” along with 22 crew members, a stark reminder of the passage’s ruthlessness. The ill-fated British expedition led by Sir John Franklin in 1845 sought the Northwest Passage but instead found disaster in the Drake Passage, where all 129 souls aboard the “HMS Erebus” and “HMS Terror” perished.

The deadliest chapter happened in 1914 when Sir Ernest Shackleton’s “Endurance” expedition aimed to traverse the Antarctic continent. Their ship became trapped in ice, leading to a gruesome struggle for survival. Though no lives were lost in the Drake Passage itself, Shackleton’s heroic journey saw his crew enduring unimaginable hardships before being rescued.

In modern times though, the Drake Passage has become more navigable, thanks to cutting-edge technology and purpose-built ships. Advanced vessels boasting stabilizers and strengthened hulls provide a smoother passage. GPS navigation helps with precise route planning, while real-time weather forecasts help ships steer clear of the worst weather conditions. Furthermore, communication satellites ensure quick access to assistance, if needed.

The ship's bridge we visited whilst crossing the Drake Passage.

Bottom line – do it!

Going on an Antarctica cruise is a rare opportunity to visit all seven continents of the world. And in our humble opinion, Antarctica is the most extraordinary place on Earth that has to be seen to be believed. As a result, even the roughest crossing of the Drake cannot ruin the overall experience of the overall trip! If you are fit and able to travel to Antarctica, just do it – keep your fingers crossed for calm weather and smooth sailing, but be prepared to accept a couple of squeezy days as part of your Antarctic adventure! Crossing the Drake Passage, even at its most challenging, feels like a rite of passage (pun intended!), earning you the right to enjoy the breathtaking landscapes awaiting your exploration in Antarctica. Next stop? The South Pole itself, maybe? 

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