In December 2010, I joined some friends to explore the southernmost continent in the world with Lindblad Expeditions and National Geographic. It was a harrowing journey from Ushuaia, Argentina in a 150-passenger ship from the Beagle Channel through Drake’s Passage to the Shetland Islands and then Antarctica’s mainland. Drake’s passage is known for its mountainous waves and high winds. To put it mildly, I attempted running on a treadmill on the ship and I went side to side more than forwards.
But it was relatively smooth sailing for the following 10 days exploring penguin colonies, leopard seals, a research center, icebergs, ice floes, unbeaten trails, the Antarctic Sea (yes, we did a polar plunge) and a store with the only mailbox on the entire continent. However, the way back to Argentina was far more treacherous than the way to Antarctica.
We were sitting at the ship’s bar around midnight when our Swedish captain’s voice came over the loudspeaker: “Please go to your cabins as we’re about to go into open water and there is a terrible storm. The conditions are rough so there will be a lot of motion.”
Well that was an understatement. Just about every passenger got seasick, myself included, except for my roommate, Christine, who miraculously was able to fetch me water and Saltines in the middle of the night. There is a time for everything, and that time was mine for being seasick.
The next morning, ropes had been installed to help up navigate our way to the dining room. There, strapped down furniture supported us while we attempted to eat breakfast on paper plates as the ship rocked and rolled. The gift shop that we passed by was destroyed. Absolutely everything in it was on the floor. By noon, we were confined to our cabins. Thankfully beforehand, my roommate and I asked the crew to air the movie “Happy Feet” on in-room televisions.We watched animated penguins dance as we rocked and rolled side to side in our beds. We were instructed to put everything on the floor if it had not fallen down already. We slid from one side of the cabin to the other in our socks as the water went all the way the cabin window, then filled it to the top.
As we were laughing at “Happy Feet,” our British expedition leader came onto the PA system and said calmly in his charming British accent: “It has been brought to our attention that we’re going to have to rescue another ship.”
“What?” Christine and I looked at each other in shock. “Happy Feet” just gave us cold feet.
“Please take care and stay in your cabins,” the Brit went on. “We must go into the eye of the storm to help this ship as we are the closest to it and maritime rules call for it. We will serve you lunch under your doors on paper plates.”
It turns out that the captain of this other ship went into the eye of the storm to try to rush back to Argentina so his passengers could make their flights in spite of the fact that his ship was not outfitted to handle such storm conditions. The result? His ship lost power steering and an engine, and a beam crashed through his navigation center, flooding it and shutting down all forms of communication except a satellite phone. But alas, that captain had not paid his phone bill, so it was out of service (this fact we uncovered after the trip). So then it became our captain’s duty, who had nine satellite phones, to supply the moron with one.
How did this happen? By rocker launcher. That’s right. Three times was a charm. Once we got close enough to the other ship, our crew duct-taped a satellite phone to a string and rocket launched it over the bow. After a few attempts, it was well received. This was the only bastion of communication the other captain had with the outside world. Meanwhile, our crew notified the Argentinian and Chilean coastguards.
We watched the other ship in horror as it limped along the ocean being thrashed into huge waves while bouncing up and down. Of course, diehard photographers like myself could not stay in their cabins as instructed and risked turbulence to document the whole adventure. In fact, one videographer leaked footage to a U.S. national news network. Boom, then came the headliner: “Antarctic Ship Perils at Sea.”
I quickly emailed my family and employees by satellite: “We are the rescuer, not the rescue-ee!”
Thank goodness, the other ship was able to retain its passengers as lifeboats would have been more perilous than bouncing people along the angry sea like popcorn. Delivery done, we waved goodbye as the Argentinian coastguard arranged for more boats and itself to check up on our beaten friend. We made our way back to Ushuaia to catch flights out of dodge.
When I returned, friends and family asked me: “Weren’t you scared?”
“No,” I replied. “I totally trusted our crew and especially our captain, who has been sailing the Antarctic Sea for decades. Plus, he keeps nine satellite phones on hand!”
As the small world works, one of my friends knew a couple on the other boat because they belonged to the same business club in Chicago. We met them after our journeys to compare notes. They said they were offered a $2,000 credit towards another expedition with the same tour company. What?!
Ernest Shackleton got lucky surviving an Antarctic shipwreck. But don’t take a chance. If you decide to go to Antarctica, ask the tour operator how many satellite phones are on board the ship first!