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The Drake Passage: Sail or Fly-the-Drake. Which is Better and Why?

To “Fly the Drake or Sail the Drake?” That is the question!  

A Dramatic Arrival in Antarctica: Sailing into Hope Bay.
A Dramatic Arrival in Antarctica: Sailing into Hope Bay.

Let’s try to answer the question, keeping in mind that due to new availability, ultimately, it is a personal choice.  But drilling down – rather than jumping to conclusions – I will assist you in making the best choice for you.  (And, yes, I understand that fear is usually generated through the unknown and rumor, but it is also very real and to be respected!)

Having been on expeditions in Antarctica six times and on all sorts of ships, from converted ferries to modified cruise ships, to true expedition ships, I have never experienced a “Fly the Drake” expedition, but I will be next week with Silversea’s Silver Endeavour. 

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Minke Whale
Minke Whale

But first, some background!

The first words uttered by many when speaking of Antarctica are “The Drake Passage.” Oh, the weight of myths and legends!  This “fear of The Drake” phenomenon was created through a history of wooden sailing vessels that spent many days, if not weeks, bobbing in the southern oceans and, in doing so, at times – especially during the southern hemisphere winter and autumn months – may have encountered terrible storms and seas.  

To be fair, The Drake Passage has had its way with some modern-day vessels, usually research-related – almost always sailing during seasons other than the Antarctic summer.  But there are some limited exceptions…and in the case of at least one cruise line that recently entered into the pseudo-expedition business, some serious misinformation. (But that is for another story!)

Fairly Typical Seas Crossing the Drake Passage
Fairly Typical Seas Crossing the Drake Passage

On the other hand, the number of cruise and expedition ships crossing The Drake Passage has increased remarkably over the past decade; in fact, at a somewhat disturbing level.  It was not so long ago that when sailing in Antarctica, you would never see another ship, then it was a ship or two, but now you will see quite a few…including classic large cruise ships (doing a “sail by” with no landings). 

With technological advances, including publicly available apps such as Windy, fairly accurate forecasts of seas, winds, and storms allow for alterations of courses – whether it be to speed up, slow down, change direction, or even delay a bit – so that the most comfortable and efficient crossings can be had. We are not talking about sailing on “The Drake Lake” every time – and I have experienced that more than once! – but definitely better than days of old blindly sailing into rough seas.

With this increase in sailings – if the myths and legends were true – one would think there would be regular stories of terrible passages across The Drake. But, alas, they are far and few between…and most of the reported ones have seas that are no worse than one might encounter off the coast of Great Britain or the Caribbean.

That said, in all of my crossings, I had one notably rough one (later finding out the stabilizers on that older ship were not functioning!) and one that most would consider uncomfortable for about 24 hours.  Personally, I have no problem lying in bed for a few hours watching movies and sleeping, if being out on deck is problematic. 

Personally, I believe crossing The Drake Passage is an integral part of the Antarctic Experience. You have time to settle into your expedition, something that for many is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, so why rush it? You will have time for the required lectures on how to protect Antarctica and better understand some of the nature and science of it…leading to a deeper appreciation. You will have all your clothing and equipment checked for any biohazards (such as seeds). And, of course, you will have time to be out on deck birdwatching, whale watching, getting to know your Expedition Team and fellow guests, and, of course, enjoying some relaxing time at sea.

But, for me, most importantly…and memorable…you will have the breathtaking opportunity for an early morning arrival into Antarctica, which will be like nothing you have ever experienced.

My first ever sighting of Antarctica. It was definitely emotional!
My first ever sighting of Antarctica. It was definitely emotional!

For some, those things may be more of the “icing on the cake” rather than a real motivator, even though those decisions are made without having any way of measuring it.  I hope to fill in the blanks a bit as I experience the Silver Endeavour’s Antarctica Expedition.

So, what am I doing this time?  I have left myself in Silversea’s hands other than my international flights and transfer to the hotel in Santiago, Chile.  

I arrive in Santiago, Chile on the morning of November 19th and transfer to the Ritz Carlton Santiago, where my Silversea experience will commence, receiving a Welcome Kit, which will include your boarding passes for your upcoming flights. Unfortunately, I arrive on a Sunday and Santiago is notorious for being pretty much closed on Sundays. Oh well.  (This sort of overnight is fairly typical even if you were sailing to Antarctica, though if not Silversea you probably would be flying to Buenos Aires, Argentina.)

The next morning, Silversea transfers its guests to the airport for a charter flight on LATAM, departing somewhere between 11:30 AM and 12:30 PM for a three-hour flight to Punta Arenas, Chile. It is a full plane charter.  You are restricted to one checked luggage of no more than 50 pounds and one carry-on + a personal item (hand or laptop bag). You cannot purchase excess baggage. (This sort of charter flight – whether full or partial – is also fairly typical when sailing to Antarctica – though other than Silversea you probably would be flying to Ushuaia, Argentina if not boarding the ship in Buenos Aires.  The luggage restrictions are universal.)

In Punta Arenas, Chile, I will be staying at the Hotel Dreams del Estrecho for the evening.  The guests will be spread over three different hotels that evening. Hopefully, I will be able to get out for the evening and have a pisco sour at Shackelton’s Bar. (This additional night on land has only happened to me once before and, to be sure, I was a bit antsy by then! Also, guests staying at a variety of hotels is routine; especially in smaller cities). 

Shackelton's Bar, Punta Arenas, Chile
Shackelton’s Bar, Punta Arenas, Chile

The following day, November 21st, our approximately two-hour Antarctic Airways flight to King George Island. When our flight departs will be determined by the weather. And this, of course, is one of my concerns…not only getting there, but getting back!  I don’t want to get ahead of myself on that count!  (I checked on the Windy app and it looks good for an on-time departure.)  

Silversea's Silver Endeavour in Greenland
Silversea’s Silver Endeavour in Greenland

Once we arrive on King George Island and board the Silver Endeavour between 2:00 PM and 4:00 PM and set sail around 6:00 PM when the real Antarctica Expedition finally begins.  With there being daylight pretty much 24 hours a day, I am sure I will find myself out on deck!

After our Antarctica Expedition, which substantively will be five days (November 22-26), we disembark and fly back to Punta Arenas, Chile on the morning of November 27th, where we will overnight at the same hotel.  On November 28th, there is another LATAM charter flight between 12:20 PM and 1:30 PM back to Santiago, arriving between 4:00 PM and 5:00 PM.  

Fur Seal Pup
Fur Seal Pup

With most flights back to the United States departing late at night (my flight departs at 10:45 PM) there is the pretty much unavoidable sitting around in the Santiago, Chile airport with your luggage for about three hours just waiting to check-in. (This sort of very long day is typical for all expeditions, but with the “Fly the Drake” option you aren’t up and out of the ship early in the morning, so it should be a bit more civilized.)

Note: The airport in Santiago, Chile is notoriously uncomfortable and one where you definitely need to keep a very sharp eye on your bags. In fact, I highly recommend you use Apple Air Tags, just in case! Airport Equality rates the airport as “Horrible” and so do most other reviews…including my personal one. Because of this, if you are not in a rush to get home, consider spending a night in Santiago or even getting a day room at the Holiday Inn across from the terminal. 

With the logistics explained, but not yet personally experienced, hopefully you have a better idea of what is ahead of you…and me!  Follow me on this expedition to see how it all plays out, and, most importantly, no matter whether you decide to Fly the Drake or Sail the Drake on Silversea (yes, there are both options), let’s experience the Silversea Expedition Experience!

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