You may have heard of the Drake Passage, which is one of the most feared stretches of water in the world. But it is also one of the most special and is, in fact, the only unhindered areas of ocean on the planet. Drake Passage is approximately 1,000km in length and passes between South America’s Cape Horn and the South Shetland Islands, which are situated at the north tip of Antarctica. Before the Panama Canal opened in 1914, the Passage was an important trade route for the commercial vessels of the 19th and early 20th centuries.
However, the Drake Passage has a reputation for being one of the most demanding and roughest seas imaginable for sailing, due to the passage’s unique location, as the Atlantic, Pacific and Southern oceans converge at this point. But that isn’t the only reason for the famously choppy waters: at these latitudes, there is no significant landmass to provide resistance to the Antarctic Circumpolar Current, which carries water through Drake’s Passage and around the continent of Antarctica. Additionally, the passage is renowned for its extremely high winds. Although an interesting feature of these waters is that they can be notoriously unpredictable and the area can be eerily calm.
The Drake Passage is known by two different names: the Spanish name for the passage is The Mar de Hoces, as in the 1500s, the famous Spanish navigator Francisco de Hoces sailed far south enough to see the edge of South America. The English name for Drake’s Passage comes from the famous 17th Century British explorer and sea captain Sir Francis Drake, who was blown off-course and into the area, more than fifty years later. However, due to Sir Francis Drake’s involvement in piracy, the Spanish name for the passage is still used widely. It wasn’t until 1616 that the passage was finally traversed, by the Flemish sailor Willem Schouten.
So why do ships continue to brave the choppy waters, which are notorious for reliably inducing a severe bout of sea-sickness in even the most experienced and intrepid passengers? Both cruise and expedition ships sail to Antarctica using the passage, as at its shortest point, the journey is only 800 kilometres from Cape Horn to Antarctica’s Livingston Island. Additionally, the two alternative routes around the bottom of South America, which are the Strait of Magellan and the Beagle Channel, can become icebound, experience strong winds and also have the problem of being too narrow for some modern ships. Whilst Drake’s Passage is incredibly rough, there is a large body of open water in the area and therefore ships do not suffer from the problems caused by the alternative routes. However, if you can brave the choppy waters, the passage is renowned for its abundance of fantastic wildlife, which is a particular highlight of the many cruises which frequent the area. For example, visitors regularly see dolphins, whales and birds including migrating albatross, giant petrels and penguins.