Chapter 13: All Aboard! — Crossing the Drake

November 13-15, 2016: Ushuaia, Beagle Channel, Drake Passage, South Shetland Islands

Trivikrama and I ate Sunday lunch (take-out salads from Marco Polo Freelife) in our B&B room and then prepared to leave. Having done our homework about seasickness and the perilous Drake Passage, we each applied a Transderm Scop patch behind an ear as recommended (at least 4 hours before a voyage). Once Srila Prabhupada was packed away in his traveling case, we bid Maria Cristina farewell, brought all our bags out front, and waited for our taxi to take us down the hill to the pier. The cab arrived on time and we managed to fit everything, including ourselves, into the vehicle for our short drive to the dock area. Once there, we struggled to maneuver our heavy luggage into the “port authority” building where it was scanned (and where one of the port agents got darshan of Srila Prabhupada during the inspection).

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Lugging our luggage to Antarctica

After making it clumsily through the line, we found a couple of rickety luggage carts, which we quickly loaded up to the hilt. We then proceeded slowly down the pier toward another building where we met other MV Ushuaia passengers waiting for the go ahead to board the ship, which was docked even further down the pier. It’s a good thing we left our guns, explosives, and “sttuf radiation” at home.

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“Lost in translation” at the port authority in Ushuaia

No one seemed to know what was going on, but the delay afforded an opportunity for introductions among our soon-to-be shipmates. In a short time, someone from the Antarpply Expeditions company showed up and directed us toward MV Ushuaia, where we were met by crew members with clipboards and chalk. Upon matching our names on the ship’s roster, our cabin number was etched in chalk on our large bags, which were then then loaded on board (it was at this point when Trivikrama and I found out that they had assigned us a different cabin number than expected). Ascending the gangway with only our carry-on bags in tow, we stepped onto MV Ushuaia, our home for the next ten days and our “Jaladuta”* to carry Srila Prabhupada to Antarctica.

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All aboard for Antarctica!

*Srila Prabhupada made his historic voyage to America on board the cargo steamship MV Jaladuta (“Messenger of the Water”) in 1965.

MV Ushuaia, an ice-strengthened polar vessel, was built in 1970 for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and served for twenty years under the names “Researcher” and “Malcolm Baldrige.” Refitted and refurbished to accommodate 90 passengers, she is now owned and operated by Antarpply Expeditions, based in the city of Ushuaia.

Above: Quick video tour of MV Ushuaia courtesy of Chimu Adventures

Click here for more information about MV Ushuaia (deck plan and technical facts)

Once aboard, we checked in by turning over our passports and getting our new cabin assignment. Way back when, I had originally reserved Cabin 411, an “economical” Twin Standard semi-private cabin on the Lower Deck (E). Equipped with bunk beds, portholes and a washbasin, it shared a bathroom with another cabin. After inheriting some money, I upgraded to Cabin 637, a Twin Standard Plus private cabin — still on the Lower Deck (E) — but with twin beds, private en-suite facilities, and a window. So when the crew had chalked 304 instead of 637 on our bags as they loaded them from the dock, I knew something was up.

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Kicked upstairs to Superior Twin cabin 304 on the Upper Deck (G)

Apparently, as a departure date approaches and there are still “unsold” cabins on a ship, some passengers are moved up to more expensive cabins, at no extra cost. This releases less expensive cabins to be discounted for last-minute bargain hunters (yes, that’s a thing — people hanging out in Ushuaia waiting for eleventh-hour, Antarctica cruise deals). Trivikrama and I became such fortunate passengers who were “kicked upstairs” to more “luxurious” quarters — Cabin 304, a Superior Twin private cabin on the Upper Deck (G). Our new digs came with twin beds, an en-suite bathroom, a window, and, most importantly, a writing desk and chair. The desk was a real blessing, since it had plenty of room to accommodate Srila Prabhupada’s vyasasana and an altar.

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Srila Prabhupada aboard MV Ushuaia in Cabin 304

After settling into our cabins, everyone was summoned to the observation lounge on the main deck for our initial briefing. There we were met by expedition leader Agustin, who welcomed us aboard and introduced his assistant and biologist Lida, as well as the three other biologists/guides Natalia, Eduardo, and Alejandro. They would be giving daily lectures during our voyage to Antarctica and taking us ashore when we got there. Then there was a “Welcome Cocktail” toast of champagne (I think) — apple juice for Hare Krishnas and other teetotalers.

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Observation lounge and lecture hall on the main deck

Next, as MV Ushuaia was heading out of the port of Ushuaia, sailing through the scenic Beagle Channel toward the open South Atlantic Ocean, we had a safety briefing and an abandon ship drill. When the ship’s alarm sounded a signal to practice the emergency evacuation drill, we moved to our cabins, put on our warmest clothes, donned our life jackets, and then headed back to the muster station in the lounge. After a roll call and everybody was accounted for, we were led out to the egg-shaped lifeboats.

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Sailing through the Beagle Channel heading for the South Atlantic

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One of the egg-shaped lifeboats

Once the drill was over, I remembered that our seasoned travel adviser at Swoop, upon hearing about our Krishna South mission, strongly recommended that I speak with the expedition leader on board as early as possible in the voyage. I found Agustin and explained what Trivikrama and I hoped to accomplish, especially our plan to bring Srila Prabhupada ashore for arati and kirtan in Antarctica. He was favorable to the idea with the caveat that there were prohibitions against bringing certain things onto the continent in order to protect the pristine environment. We went over the list of items I brought for the arati and he nixed the dried roses (fortunately, I had a backup plan and also brought cloth flowers). All in all, Agustin was supportive of our mission and I took his encouragement as an auspicious omen for things to come.

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Awesome Agustin, our fearless (and funny) expedition leader

Back in our cabin, I gave Trivikrama the good news about my conversation with Agustin. Then we noticed that the emergency phone number to reach the ship’s bridge was 108 — another auspicious sign! Trivikrama plays bass in the band called 108, the number 108 having a special meaning for devotees of Krishna (and for followers of other dharmic traditions). We finished off the day with our first meal in the open-seating dining room where we started to get to know a few of the 90 passengers, who hailed from almost 20 countries on 5 continents, and whose ages ranged from the early 20s through the 70s. And we have to say that the chefs aboard MV Ushuaia did a superb job preparing us palatable and satisfying meals despite all our dietary restrictions. Between Trivikrama and I, we requested vegetarian/vegan, gluten-free/sugar-free, and no garlic/onion fare. Of course, we weren’t the only vegetarians aboard, but I think we probably required the most accommodation.

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Open-seating dining room, where we supped with our international shipmates —American, Argentinian, Australian, Belgian, Brazilian, British, Canadian, Chinese, Dutch, French, German, Indian, Italian, Kazakhstani, Malaysian, South Korean, Spanish, Swiss, and Taiwanese

MV Ushusaia Passengers

After dinner and a stroll on the deck to take in the view, Trivikrama and I retired to our cabin. Still in the relatively calm Beagle Channel, we didn’t notice too much motion on the ship. But, we had been informed that by midnight we would be entering the Drake Passage and should prepare for the “Drake Shake.” That meant putting Srila Prabhupada to rest in his carrying case for the night and securing our belongings in the cabin. And to play it safe, we took further precautions to avoid seasickness in addition to the already-applied skin patches, which were supposed to be effective for 72 hours. We placed Sea-Bands on our wrists in order to apply pressure to the P6 (or Nei Kuan) acupressure point, since “it has been proven that pressure on this point relieves nausea and vomiting.” We also had a homeopathic remedy and some ginger capsules, but decided to keep them in reserve and wait until the morning to see how we felt.

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We observed Srila Prabhupada’s disappearance day on November 14, 2016

We awoke to a different, more “dynamic” atmosphere Monday morning, one of constant back-and-forth motions as the ship heaved, pitched, and rolled in the waters of the Drake Passage. While not feeling seasick, it was still disorienting and a challenge to move around the cabin without losing one’s balance. Morning ablutions, especially in the shower, were downright dangerous (my only complaint about MV Ushuaia was the absence of a grab bar in the shower).  It took us a while to get our “sea legs,” so moving around on the ship entailed carefully navigating from one railing to the next in between the ship’s movements.

Above: Video of crossing the Drake Passage with Srila Prabhupada

Fortunately, Trivikrama and I were able to situate Srila Prabhupada securely on his vyasasana so that he wouldn’t tip over. As it was November 14, the Western date on which Srila Prabhupada left this world in 1977, we decided to honor his disappearance day by observing a half-day fast and making a special offering. We skipped breakfast and spent the morning chanting on our beads. After attending Eduardo’s 10 AM lecture about “Birds of the Southern Ocean,” we returned to our cabin to sing the song “Je Anilo Prema Dhana” for departed Vaishnavas. Then we offered Srila Prabhupada a “feast” of fresh and dried fruits, as well as a variety of nuts.

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Marine birds followed us as we crossed the Drake Passage

According to the crew, the Drake Passage was being relatively kind to us, but the ship still rocked and pitched throughout for almost two days, sometimes listing over 30 degrees, and many other passengers experienced seasickness. Our mild discomfort was impetus for us to meditate on Srila Prabhupada’s bravery and sacrifice through his much worse sea voyage in 1965, when he experienced seasickness and two heart attacks aboard the Jaladuta on his way to the USA.

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Albatross in the Drake passage —  traditionally, a mariner’s sign of good luck*

*In the famous Coleridge poem, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” the auspicious albatross saved the icebound ship in Antarctic waters, only to be killed by the mariner. When bad fortune befell the ship, the crew blamed the mariner for their cursed voyage and placed the dead albatross around the his neck (hence the metaphorical use of “albatross” as a burden one has to carry).

The afternoon lecture, presented by Agustin, was “Antarctica, the Land of Records.” We learned that Antarctica is the driest, coldest, windiest, highest, and, of course, southernmost continent in the world. And, it was soon to be the site of the southernmost Hare Krishna kirtan. . . . 

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By Dave Pape – own work, using Blue Marble data from http://visibleearth.nasa.gov/view_rec.php?id=2433, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1247252

Pretty much all communication to passengers (announcements, lectures, etc.) was conveyed first in English and then in Spanish. Agustin, the expedition leader, made most of the major announcements in English, and Lida, his assistant expedition leader, was usually the one who repeated them in Spanish (although, sometimes vice versa). Of course, Agustin and Lida were fluent in both languages so they always knew what the other one was saying. Besides being very informative, Agustin was highly entertaining (in a stand-up kind of way), while Lida had a wry sense of humor in her own right. Together, they made quite the Argentinian comedic duo, one translating what the other had just said while the other offered an amusing critique via facial expressions and body language. And to add to the entertainment value, this scene was often accompanied by an expert “dance” routine, performed to maintain balance as the ship tossed and turned in the rough waters of the Drake Passage. This entailed leaning in the opposite direction of the ship’s pitch (sometimes at an extreme angle) and then going with the flow as everything shifted to its next position.

Above: Video clip from Trivikrama’s iPhone of Agustin (and Lida) in action

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Agustin, in his element, and Natalia, obviously doing scientific research (Photo: Antarpply Expeditions)

For the next 24 hours or so, we continued our journey across the Drake Passage with winds of 35 mph and temperatures dipping to 28° F (felt like 12° F with wind chill factored in). Bird sightings included Black Browed Albatrosses, Southern Giant Petrels, Kelp Gulls, Pintado Petrels and Southern Fulmars.

Above: Video of petrels flying alongside MV Ushuaia in the Drake Passage

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Trivikrama on deck, pondering life’s big questions

Alejandro’s Tuesday morning lecture, “Discoveries and Explorations of the White Continent,” was an informative, historical narration of some of the early expeditions to Antarctica. For whatever reasons (probably a combination of the Drake Shake and cabin fever), Trivikrama and I found the presentation to be somewhat amusing and we would later repeatedly recall a few catchphrases with delight and laughter (especially when Trivikrama, a master impersonator, would do his impression of Alejandro’s delivery).

In her afternoon lecture, “Penguins,” Natalia educated us about everybody’s favorite aquatic, flightless bird. She also showed us slides of a penguin research project she had conducted. Later, we were again called to the lounge for Agustin’s mandatory briefings on Zodiac operations and Code of Conduct in Antarctica. These were to insure our safety traveling ashore as well as to “protect Antarctica’s pristine environment from non-native species” (AKA Biosecurity Protocols).

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Cape Petrels in the South Shetland Islands

As Agustin briefed us, we were “arriving” in Antarctica at the South Shetland Islands. And then, as if a “Welcome to Antarctica,” the voyage’s first whale sighting caused a brief, welcome interruption as everyone either turned to look through the windows or went out on deck to see the massive marine mammals.

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Passing through the South Shetland Islands, November 15, 2016

Above: Video of arriving in Antarctica, South Shetland Islands

Having left the Drake Passage behind and having passed through the South Shetland Islands, MV Ushuaia entered into the calmer waters of the Bransfield Strait as she continued carrying us further south toward the Antarctic Peninsula.


Note about the blog posting dates: They’re bogus! In order for the chapters to appear in chronological order, I have to back date them in reverse order. Go figure . . .

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