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BASILE: When cruising Antarctica, comfort isn't first priority

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Frank Basile

There are cruises to the Antarctic in large luxury ships that go near the islands—close enough to afford magnificent views. But those ships are too big to get close enough to go ashore.

That wasn’t the trip my wife, Katrina, and I took. We wanted to step out onto the ice, to experience firsthand the continent less traveled.

Well, it seemed like a good idea. The first two days of turbulent travel through the Drake Passage on the way to Antarctica were the worst two days of cruising we have ever endured. When we awakened the first morning on board, getting out of bed was difficult enough, but staying upright in the shower was next to impossible.

It quickly became apparent why you must be certified fit by a physician prior to booking the trip.

When we boarded the ship in the southernmost town in the world, Ushuaia—which is at the tip of Argentina—we found ourselves in the company of passengers from 20 countries. Some were seasoned travelers who were down to the seventh continent on their geographic to-do list. Some were people with an environmental fascination who were intensely interested in all the onboard lectures. Some were simply adventurers, anticipating yet another thrilling challenge. A few were experiencing a lifelong dream to visit the continent, having no interest in visiting any other country.

One of the great Antarctic explorers, Ernest Shackleton, said, “Men go out into the void spaces of the world for various reasons. Some are actuated by love of adventure, some have the keen thirst for scientific knowledge, and others again are drawn away from the trodden path by the lure of little voices, the mysterious fascination of the unknown.” Shackleton’s nephew was on board our 10-day cruise, hired by the cruise operator to mingle with the guests and tell stories of his uncle’s adventures.

This was not a large, luxury ship, but a former Russian ice-breaker, which held only 100 passengers and 50 crew members and was outfitted for serious exploration, not entertainment. No casinos, dancing, piano bar or midnight buffets. Instead, there were scholarly lectures on all aspects of the environment, including everything you ever wanted to know about icebergs and penguins, as well as the history of exploration and voyages, along with a library crammed with technical books on these subjects. People go on these cruises to learn, explore and marvel, not to party. However, we did note several people, including Katrina and me, dozing at various times during the lectures.

On most of my trips, I like to make contact with the locals. Here, that wasn’t going to happen. The only human inhabitants of the islands are those sponsored by various governments to do research. They stay only for a year or two and are then rotated with others who arrive to continue the work. No one could take the isolation for more than a year or two.

We learned that cruises to the Antarctic have increased during the last 15 years for one reason: the breakup of the Soviet Union, which freed up many of these small Russian ships that were converted into cruising vessels.

While not as rocky as the first two days, the rest of the trip could not be called smooth. But it was exciting to observe the captain and his crew anxiously conferring and continually changing course to avoid icebergs. We were able to make only three of the scheduled five landings because of the weather (this was the middle of summer!) and on two of those landings, we fought powerful winds and driving rain, along with the icy water and the cold. Getting to shore meant rafting in groups of eight until we were close enough to shore to jump out and wade in knee-high insulated rubber boots for the remaining 20 feet or so to land.

You might wonder whether this cruise was worth the turmoil, time and expense. Had I answered that question during the first three days, I would have said no, but then we gazed upon the awesome views of the most spectacular ice formations on the planet in an isolated, pristine environment and the answer is definitely yes.

Post-script: The ship we sailed on later sank when it hit an iceberg near Greenland with 100 passengers aboard, all of whom were rescued.•

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Basile is an author, professional speaker, philanthropist, community volunteer and retired executive of the Gene B. Glick Co. Basile can be reached at Frank_Basile@sbcglobal.net.

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