Trashed Ship, Perilous 2007 Drake Passage Crossing

All the Antarctica tour descriptions I have read do not have an adequate description, or disclaimer of the dangers of crossing the Drake Passage. Having served 4 years in the Navy, I knew what was possible. Our return passage from Antarctica was very rough. I have been in only one worse storm at sea. Few of the passengers or crew expected, or were prepared for, what happened to us. Many passengers were traumatized by the experience. I heard several passengers say they would NEVER go on ANY cruise, ever again.

Our first crossing had been smooth. The return trip, however, on Thursday February 1st, 2007 started out much rougher. We were still able to eat breakfast in the dining room. Around 8 am, as I was approaching the deck 3 dining room, I noticed 2 rivulets of water on the carpet, coming from the port side entry hatch, which I reported to the crew. After breakfast, I noticed crew members wet-vacing the water from the leak.

After we left the protection of the Shetland Islands, the seas became progressively worse. There were swells both from the northwest and from the south. I hope to add a short video clip at the bottom of this page, which was taken at 9:30 am, when the swells were only 7 meters. By mid-afternoon, we would be experiencing a Beaufort Scale 12 event (the highest). The Buenos Aires paper reported swells of 20 meters (65 feet). Rogue waves of 30 meters are possible in the Drake Passage. We were very fortunate that it was not cold enough for ice to form on the upper decks.

After mid-morning, the coffee and hot water urns tipped over in the Deck 4 small salon. An attempt to serve snacks for lunch was made, but suspended.

I spent some of the late morning watching the storm from the Deck 7 Observatory, which is above the navigation bridge. When I entered, wearing my parka with camera in hand, another passenger warned me that a few minutes before, a passenger had attempted to take pictures outside on the deck, and was drenched. The spray and foam from the tops of the swells was constantly washing the front and side windows. Another person tried to take a picture through the side door and was soaked. I noticed the grand piano was constantly shaking on it's legs. A lady sitting on one of the round red chairs was pitched over backwards, striking her head.

As I moved around the ship, I noticed things tipped or broken. 'Motion sickness' bags had appeared on the stair and passageway railings.

There are pluses and minuses for all cabin locations. People in higher cabins experience more roll. People in forward cabins experience more pitch. My cabin, 601, right behind the bridge, was both high and forward. Deck 3 cabins amidship moved less, but were under water more, especially those on the starboard side.

Shortly before noon, the captain confined passengers to their cabins. He had trimmed the ship so it was listing about 15 degrees to starboard. This raised the port side a little, so the upper decks would not be pounded as hard. The list was supposed to make the ship slide through the waters a little smoother. The ship was rolling from about 0 degrees to 30 degrees starboard. The ships elevators appeared not to be working. Passengers on the deck 3 starboard side reported that their cabin port holes were below water most of the time. Some passengers attempted to close the inside steel port hole covers. Crew eventually came by and secured the steel covers, which made the port holes watertight, but made the smaller deck 3 cabins claustrophobic.

About this time, everyone's favorite passenger, Harold, was trapped in his bathroom for 2 hours when the closet doors swung open and the drawers rolled out. Seems like hazardous cabin/closet design.

I returned to my cabin, took a seasickness pill, and laid down with my feet towards the outboard wall. Decided I should not read. Lying flat on my back, at times I could see the horizon through the middle of the rectangular window. The round glass coffee table had tipped and slid outboard, smashing against the cabinets. It came loose and the glass was chipped. Most of what was on the desk slid off and crashed against the outboard wall. Later, all the rest of what was on the desk, including the telephone and glasses behind it also smashed to the floor. The telephone case and one wine glass were broken. Never saw the other glass again. Later, the metal flower vase and contents of the cabinets above the desk crashed to the floor. After a few hours, I got up, and one particularly violent pitch and roll threw me against the outboard wall. My forearm was bruised and scratched, but nothing was broken. I later saw many people with bruises and head bumps.

Just past mid-afternoon, my roommate showed up. He had been alone in the 7th deck observatory for several hours. He saw the grand piano break loose and flip. Later, he saw a large wave smashed out the forward-most window on the port side. The bottles and glass behind the bar crashed to the floor.

There were 10 cabins on the 7th deck (highest). These cabins had sliding patio-type doors, which provided little protection against the raging seas. Consequently some cabins had water leaks and sloshing.

There was other damage that we knew of. Things were washed overboard and lost. The top on the fo'c's'le (forecastle) light fixture was broken off. Much of the damage was on the port side. The grand piano in the 5th deck Grand Salon was tipped. The grand piano in the 4th deck small salon was ok. Dishes smashed out onto the deck from the outside barbecue cabinet. Other damaged items included furniture, passageway doors, lower deck cabin windows.

At sea, there are often things that 'bang in the night'. All day long there were things banging, closet doors, and other objects. I suspect more than a few passengers were praying in their cabins that afternoon. From even before my Navy days, I've been fond of the Navy Hymn. It came to mind during the worst of the storm, particularly the refrain:
"O hear us when we cry to thee,
For those in peril on the sea."
I wondered if the bridge crew was chanting it, to the beat of the swells. There were passengers who thought they were going to die that day. I was sure that we would survive, for several reasons.

The ship's video system often displayed a live image looking forward from the bridge. Sometimes a map with our position was available. Two recent movies, which changed daily, were rebroadcast 24 hours a day. One movie had French audio with English subtitles, and the other had English audio with French subtitles. Passengers were thankful that the staff chose not to show the Poseidon Adventure or Ghost Ship.

It was suggested to me that at times the screws were coming out of the water. I didn't make the connection when it was happening, but I am sure it was true, because of the surges and losses of forward motion at times.

Most of our time on the Antarctic Ocean, the skies were gray and overcast. About half way across the Drake Passage, the clouds cleared and the sky was blue for a short time. The swells did not let up, however, until we neared land and entered the channel to Ushuaia in the evening.

Sandwiches were offered about 6:30pm, until the bread ran out. By 9:00 pm we were in calmer water and even though the dining, kitchen and storage areas had sustained damage, the kitchen crew made a remarkable and valiant recovery and still served a 'Farewell' dinner of lobster tail and steak at 9:30 pm. Wonder what the wine cellar looked like.

Like some others, I was undaunted by this experience. My next cruise will likely be a round-the-world freighter cruise.

I heard some 'Monday morning quarterbacking' about the captain. I have this to say about the captain. He got the passengers to their cabins and secured (closed) the weather decks at the appropriate times. He communicated regularly and his voice was always calm. Friday morning, I thanked him and his crew for bringing the ship through the storm to port. No one died or was lost overboard. Our ship did not run aground or leak oil like the Norwegian Coastal Voyage's Nordkapp, 3 days after our visit to Deception Island.

I am far less benevolent with the cruise ship companies, who have no business running top-heavy cruise ships designed for the Inside Passage or the Mediterranean in the Drake Passage. When we disembarked the ship for the last time in Ushuaia, we saw, across the dock, a ship which was 'seaworthy' for the Drake Passage. It had water-tight hatches throughout, enclosed life boats, and was not top-heavy. There are many accounts of bad crossings of the Drake Passage, all the way back to the 1500s.

MS Le Diamant, before the storm. The single port holes near the water line are deck 2. The double port holes are deck 3. The highest deck with cabins is deck 7. The deck 7 cabins have verandas and sliding glass doors. (Above the life boat.) MS Le Diamant
Cruises always start with a life boat drill. Life boat drill
Open lifeboats for the Antarctic? Note the white 'butt prints'. Open lifeboats for the Antarctic?
Feb. 1, 2007, 9:30am, looking aft from 7th deck, when the swells were only 7 meters. The aft is at the bottom of the swell. At the top of the swell, the aft would be at or above the horizon. Feb, 1, 2007, aft pitch
'Motion sickness' bags appeared on the hand rails. Barf bags
Bruise from being thrown against the outboard wall.I saw much worse. Bruise
Next day in Ushuaia: Storm debris on Deck 5, under the lifeboats. During the storm, deck 5 passengers had to watch this stuff banging around outside their windows. Stuff washed overboard and was lost at sea. Deck 5 storm debris
More debris, further down the deck 5 walkway. Deck 5 walkway
Deck 6 barbecue cabinet lost it's dishes. We were told that 40% of the china was broken on the previous cruise. Deck 6 china
Deck 7 temporary window patch, outside the Observatory Lounge. Deck 7 temporary window patch
Deck 7 Observatory: This piano isn't grand anymore. The piano had been bolted to the deck. Deck 7 piano

Reference Links

Ships run aground or sunk