"Sailing 14:00 12 Feb" was written on the message board of the Laurence M Gould, the ship that would transport us to Palmer Station. The Gould (LMG for short) was not at anchor in a harbor, but rather tied up alongside the dock at Punta Arenas, Chile. Our dock mates included many small bright blue hulled fishing boats, steel gray Chilean naval ships, a monstrous 7 story Japanese cruise ship and even a 4 masted tall ship. True to the message board, shortly after 2 PM Thursday afternoon, the gangway, linking the ship to the Punta Arenas dock was removed. One by one the massive orange mooring lines wrapped around fire hydrant sized bits (steel mooring points) on the dock were released and hauled aboard by crew. Lines aweigh! We were freely afloat and heading south to Antarctica! The ceremonious 3 loud blasts of the ship's horn sending shivers of excitement and anticipation through me.
Punta Arenas is on the shores of the Straits of Magellan. The scenery from deck was all too familiar, not because this is my umpteenth sailing from Punta Arenas. Just two days earlier, Chuck, Anne, Hla and I took a 2 hour ferry ride in this same north-easterly direction to visit Isla Magdalena, a wind swept, treeless island home to 120,000 magellanic penguins. These burrow dwelling penguins were tending to their month old chicks and this barren but for grass island was packed in every direction with squaking penguins. As we cruised by, aboard the LMG a few penguins porpoised by as if to say bon voyage. Even a few porpoises, Commersons dolphins, swam by- their glossy jet black body with large white patches on either side made them easy to see in the clear waters.
Standard sailing day routine includes a safety drill. At 16:00 (4 PM) the alarms rang and all passengers mustered in the lounge with the survival gear furnished in each cabin, a floatation vest and more importantly for polar waters, a total immersion survival suit. Bright orange and one size fits all these survival suits are commonly called Gumby suits in reference to the cartoon character. Check out Jim's journal entry to see him enclosed in his suit. The final part of the safety drill includes a tour of the life boat. The lifeboats are fully enclosed and just one of the two carried by the LMG can carry the entire ship's complement. It would not be comfortable however! With just the passengers and a few crew inside, we were packed shoulder to shoulder on the exterior bench seating. The crew would occupy an inner ring of seating and then it really would resemble a can of sardines. Not that floor space would allow it at full capacity but there is not enough head room for even me to stand upright. So we will all just be real safe and not need to launch the boats!
Later that evening, we exited the Straits of Magellan and cruised south in the Atlantic along the eastern coast of Argentina. Friday the 13th did bring us a bit of bad luck. Wind and waves were out of the south, south east. So much for having land on one side to buffer Mother Nature's blow. The Gould spent the morning and some of the afternoon hobby horse-like bucking into the seas. The decks were awash and for safety sake, no one was allowed out on deck. A group of oceanographers onboard for a month long cruise that will start once we are dropped off at Palmer were not able to proceed with their gear reparation. Late in the afternoon though, conditions eased and limited deck use was granted by the Captain. By midnight we would be clear of the South American landmass (Cape Horn) and out in the open waters of the Drake Passage. Maybe Mother Nature will be smiling on us instead of blowing us around!
Well, the Drake was a lake! A real sweetheart to us on Valentine's Day. The deep sapphire blue water was occasionally spotted with a gently frothed wave. The ship rolled just enough to remind us we were at sea. Sonar readings registered 4000meters (12000ft) of water beneath us. A cloudless blue sky coerced me to work out on deck in a sunny, wind sheltered corner of the deck. I needed to put finishing touches on those ropes I wrote about in my first entry. The wind chill was -2 C (28F) and the air temp registered 8 C (48F), but it was tropically hot in the sheltered sun. My purple batiked Bahamian visor shaded my face and influenced thoughts of swinging in a hammock beneath palm trees with waves gently lapping at the beach- umm err I mean against the ship's hull. That evening a Science Saturday talk was given by the various projects involved in the oceanographic cruise I mentioned above. They will be working out in the Drake for 30 days and hopefully will have as benevolent seas.
Later that evening, we officially crossed into Antarctic water. A hydrographic barrier in the Drake, the Polar Front, determines where Antarctica begins. The exact position changes throughout and between years. It is determined by monitoring the surface temperature of the seawater. The water temperature in the Magellan Strait was about 12 C (56F). Around Cape Horn (56 degrees S latitude), the water was down to 9 C (50F). At 58 deg S the water temp was 5.8C (44F), by 59 deg S had dropped to 3.8 C (39F). Generally, once below 4 C (40F), the water is Antarctica. So greetings from Antarctica!!
The Drake continued to endear itself to us on the 15th. Although the weather turned cloudy and misty, the seas were still nothing but a gentle lullaby-like roll. The oceanographers slowed the ship for several hours to test some new equipment. Once that was complete the LMG headed toward the coastal waters of the Antarctic Peninsula.
Land ho!!! The first look out my port hole cabin Monday morning was a sight for land deprived eyes: a snowy island and small iceberg. Hurrah! The islands of the Peninsula! I quickly dressed and shot up to the bridge for a more panoramic view of Low Island. The Gould was now at 63 deg S. Sonar readings were now less that 1000m (3000ft) indicating our arrival to coastal shelf waters. The air temperature was a brisk 1C (34F), and after a few bare handed photographs taken outside I believed the wind chill reading of -13 C (6F). The surface seawater registered a chilling 1.5C (35F). Just a few more hours and we will be tied up at the Palmer Station dock. In the meantime, there will be lots of fabulous scenery to see. Check our site in a few days for words and images to match the sure to be stunning views of what will be our neighborhood and home for the next few months.