Tag Archives: Hondius

Ducking the Drake

Wednesday 21 February 2024 – There was a certain frisson in the air as we went to bed yesterday evening, as we had no idea how rough the passage was going to be across the Drake Passage (which you know is infamous, ‘cos you read my last post, didn’t you?).  Thus far, the conditions were, in the laconic assessment of the ship’s captain, “not too bad”; what, we wondered, awaited us.

Before we turned the lights out, I looked around our cabin and tried to make sure that things had been placed where they were least likely to leap off and either self-immolate or take one of us with them as they went. Given my lack of experience in Antarctic cruising, I can’t say I was hugely confident that everything was competently stowed. And in the end it didn’t matter.

At some stage during the night the boat’s rolling motion increased, but only by enough to signify that we’d moved out from relatively sheltered waters. That the rolling was not at all severe was soothing, but the motion was not actually as soporific as I’d imagined it might be.  I didn’t sleep badly, but equally there seemed to be several periods when I just lay awake awaiting the return of Morpheus.

The net of it is that we were lucky – our first 12 hours in the Drake Passage were uneventful. There was enough rolling motion to make walking about something that had to be undertaken with care and a firm grasp on any nearby railing; but no worse.

This cruise is testing some of the calm certainties that underpin normal life as we know it in the decadent west.  For example, one normally expects the ground underneath one’s feet not to be moving in unpredictable ways. One also expects there to be an unlimited amount of internet on tap via our phones, and our lives have evolved to the point where its presence is of great importance. Neither of these things is true on this boat. And, given the current calm conditions, dealing with internet-less life is a greater challenge than having to concentrate when trying to walk.

It is possible to get internet access. But it’s strictly metered.  Each guest is given 200MB of free data, after which further access costs money. We’ve done our best to make sure that the right people know we’re away and so not to contact us; but there’s still the nagging voice in the back of the mind suggesting that one should at least check that there are no urgent messages. The trouble is that the simple act of turning one’s phone on will, by default, suck in enough data to wipe out that 200MB within a second or two as e-mails, app updates, social media and news flood in. So we’re reduced to scrolling through the hundreds of apps on our mobile devices, anxiously seeking out and turning off all those unexpected sources of data usage. Should we be ashamed that we can’t switch off so easily?  Perhaps, as the cruise progresses, we’ll be able to wrench our attention away from such (we hope) irrelevant distractions.

Today might have been a “sea day” (rather than a “see day”?), but there was plenty to do after breakfast, starting with a mandatory briefing on (a) behaving as safely as possible getting in and out of the Zodiac RIBs that will be used to take us on whatever expeditions are planned and (b) behaving responsibly should we actually land somewhere.  There was a firm emphasis on the unspoilt nature of Antarctica and the importance of not fucking it up by being irresponsible – not touching anything, giving any wildlife a decently wide berth and cleaning and disinfecting our boots and anything else which touched the ground in order not to transport microorganisms from one place to another. An especially noteworthy one such is the avian flu virus, which is gradually making its way southwards from the northern hemisphere and decimating bird populations as it goes (as well as killing marine mammals such as elephant seals, seal lions and, in rare cases, humans).

As well as attending lectures, people had different ways of watching what was going on in the world outside the boat.

The answer was “not very much”. As we found out in the next lecture, one of the reasons we saw so few seabirds was that there was very little wind.

Today’s lectures told us about the likely types of birds and cetaceans we might see. There are many different sorts of, for example, albatrosses, and it can be quite difficult to tell one type from another, as their distinguishing features are not often unambiguous – some have a black tip to the tail – but actually it might not be all that black, or even there at all.  Similarly, there are over 40 different types of dolphin, about half a dozen of which we might be able to see over the next weeks; but since their colouring is pretty much always black and white, it’s a matter of some expertise to be certain about exactly which variety of dolphin one is looking at. Whales are more helpful to people trying to identify them, since they also come in shades of blue and grey. I suspect that trying to get photos of birds and whales is going to try my patience, but at the very least it should increase my skill (actually a pretty low bar, there).

The final lecture in a busy day was about the ocean currents and their considerable effect on how the world runs. Antarctica is, according to one of the more scientific definitions, delineated by a circumpolar current which effectively cuts it off from the other oceans which it borders. The waters in it the Antarctic Ocean may contain only 1/20th of the world’s water, but they contain 1/5th of the world’s biomass.  The weight of all the krill that underpin the food chain here is greater than the entire weight of humanity on the planet.

For the moment, our brains are full, and it’s Time For The Bar, I think….


Aaaand….we’re off!

Tuesday 20 February 2024 – We were Being Called For at 11.00 to start our Antarctic expedition, so we had a relaxed start which mainly involved discovering that the breakfast we had back in Buenos Aires seems – on the unscientific basis of two samples – to be standard. Some fruit, many sorts of pastry and bread. Oh, and liquid yogurt and scrambled egg – not together, I hasten to add. We filled ourselves up, checked out and were duly collected on the dot of 11am by a man with a van, who took us a short distance down to the seafront and a place called Club 1210; normally a bar, but today a holding place for the bags of people such as us who were boarding Hondius.  As we had suspected and I had feared, boarding wasn’t until much later – 16.00 – and so we now had four and a half hours to kill before being allowed on the boat. So we went for a walk. Obviously.

We weren’t at all ambitious in our wandering – coffee was basically the objective, rather than any further cultural enlightenment.  We found the Banana Bar, which provided an approximation to coffee but also some internet, and spent an hour there before deciding we ought to move on. Just around the corner was Parrilla La Estancia, which Google promised was open, so we hied ourselves thither.  Open it was, and, being a parrilla, it had an open fire over which lamb was being cooked (for, we discovered, empanadas) as well as another, more conventional charcoal grill.  It was a bit unfortunate that breakfast had been so recent because neither of us were feeling that hungry; all we wanted really was a salad. And a g&t, of course.

Jane had a couple of empanadas with her salad and I had a chorizo sausage, which was tasty, but more like a conventional English sausage than the chorizo one buys in a UK supermarket. The service was very agreeable, and the price quite reasonable, which made the matter of a tip a bit problematical.  The only US currency we had was 20 dollar bills, which seemed a bit over-generous. The matter solved itself rather neatly, as our waiter asked us where we came from, and when we said England, enthusiastically talked about getting hold of some UK paper money for his son who was collecting foreign currencies.  So we gave him a tenner and he seemed very happy with that.  It might have been an entirely concocted story, but it seemed a decent way forward at the time.

This still left us with some time to kill, so we pottered around the corner – almost everything in Ushuaia is “just around the corner” – to the Museo del Fin del Monde, “Museum of the End of the World”,

which had a few artefacts from significant events in the area, such as the figurehead from the ship Duchess of Albany which was wrecked in the 19th century due to rubbish maps and worse weather.

The museum also had a very considerable collection of stuffed birds of the region. There was a sister building that was part of the museum, an old house, large parts of which had been preserved, and this took us closer to the magic four pm.

There were some Interesting Buildings on view

and I noticed that although the locals disapprove of the current ownership of the Falklands, they appear to b OK with repurposing our London buses.

Our final diversion as we ambled about wasting time was a Feria de Artisanos – a handicraft market, which lived in a slightly ramshackle, erm, shack, but which featured a great variety of sellers and goods, from paintings, through jewellery to woodwork.

This was our final and rather charming diversion before we were able to enter the port and walk up to Hondius.

Where there was a queue to board, of course.

It wasn’t a huge wait and we eventually boarded, got our cabin keys and were able – finally! – to unpack the suitcases we’d been lugging around for the past four days.  One of the nice side-effects of having to reschedule and wait and reschedule and wait for four years was a gradual uptick in the standard of cabin we were offered in return for not demanding a refund. So we had a nice cabin, which seemed to have plenty of room and decent comfort.

After we’d unpacked there were the usual sort sof things to attend that figure as part of every cruise – welcome briefing, compulsory lifeboat evacuation practice, meet the team presentations, that kind of thing, and these gave us the opportunities to grab a decent cup of tea (they have Earl Grey aboard, though not, sadly, Twinings Finest) and chat to a few other passengers, such as Pete and Pete, one from New Zealand and one from Luxembourg, who had first met each other on a trans-Siberian Express when they ended up sharing a cabin. Astonishingly, not only did they share a first name, but a surname as well, which is a statistical outlier if my grasp of statistics is still sound.

The ship is set up as a hotel, so has a hotel manager (William) to run that side of things. But the most interesting presentation was from Pippa, who is the expedition manager. She pointed out that while the hotel guys’ job was to make us comfortable on board, her job was, if at all possible, to get us off the ship, so that we could better experience the environs. Her team consisted of over a dozen people from a bewildering variety of countries and backgrounds, all of whom had developed relevant expertise for Antarctic expeditions – bird life, mammals, geology, geography, history – which promises to make the next three weeks an intensely educational time.

A key thing she stressed was that we were on an expedition ship, and this meant that any itinerary we had in mind was at best approximate and quite possibly a work of fiction, as we were entirely at the mercy of Mother Nature, meaning it might not be possible to visit some places mentioned on the original itinerary map we had been shown.

Or even, as it turns out, the very direction of travel. Pippa showed us that the current weather forecast would have likely rendered it impossible to disembark at the Falklands or South Georgia, our first destinations under plan A. Therefore her plan B was to run the entire cruise the other way round – anticlockwise, starting with Antarctica and finishing with South Georgia and the Falklands.

So the first thing we will have to do, once we clear the Beagle Channel that leads from Ushuaia into the Southern Ocean, is a right turn and a crossing of the infamous Drake Passage, which is notorious for being rough and stormy. This means two full days at sea before we get somewhere near the Antarctic landmass, two days of opportunities to attend lectures, educate ourselves and find out if we are as immune to seasickness as we hope we are.

And that’s the current state of play. We had a quick buffet dinner, encouraged that way by the fact that the bar was closed at the time, and so are now on course to hit open water during the night. Let’s see how that works out….