23 March, 1999
March 23, 1999
Hi from the Nathaniel B. Palmer! We've had a great day for continuing our travels across the Drake Passage -- the winds were light, the sun was out, the sky was blue, and the waves were minimal. This afternoon, Julia even took me outside to show me a great rainbow. We are so fortunate to have such a good crossing from Antarctica to South America. Vladimir says that he's seen one crossing that was calmer . . . and that was in 1994. Of course, we've had some waves; after all, we're in the open ocean. Yesterday, we had waves comparable to some of our worst days in Antarctica (over 20 feet) . . . which are referred to as an average day in the Drake Passage. Today, however, the seas are calmer with waves closer to 6 feet in height. The winds are starting to pick up this evening, but we should be far enough north by the time the next storm comes through that we will be protected by the land. John and Peter did a great job of deciding when we should leave Antarctica in order to squeeze in-between two low pressure systems.
So, let's look at the first of yesterday's questions, "Why is the Drake Passage known for commonly having very rough seas?" There are actually two parts to this answer: the first has to do with the ocean currents, and the second has to do with the atmosphere. If you look at a globe, you will notice that there are no continental land masses to block ocean circulation at 60 degrees South latitude. This means that the ocean currents circle the entire globe in this location. The ocean waters move from the west to the east, and this current is called the West Wind Drift. The Drake Passage is the narrowest place for the waters to pass between two continents throughout this entire latitude. As the large volume of water squeezes through such a narrow passage, the speed of the current intensifies.
The winds between about 30 degrees and 60 degrees South latitude are primarily from the west . . . belonging to a wind belt known as the Westerlies. These winds actually drive the West Wind Drift that we have already mentioned. These winds tend to be the strongest in the austral autumn and austral spring. In addition, there is a large zone of storm formation and intensification that can be found at about 50 degrees South latitude. These storms are frequent all year long, but during the winter their frequency increases. We have seen one low pressure system after another throughout our entire trip. Most of these storms have formed in this location and moved gradually southward under the influence of the westerlies. Of course, storms cause the winds and the waves to be higher than normal. Frequent storms in the Drake Passage cause very high waves for many of the voyages across these waters.
Now, let's look at our second question for today, "What kinds of things should be done on a ship in order to deal with such conditions?" As you already know, we can have very high waves without ever seeing the Drake Passage (see the journal on March 2). Ships have to be built with this in mind, and the Nathaniel B. Palmer is no exception. To begin with, all equipment and gear is strapped down. Boxes of cargo have large straps to make sure that they don't move around with the rocking of the ship. Many large items are actually bolted to the deck. Even the anchor has a steel cable around it, and the lifeboats have straps (with easily removable hooks) that keep the boats from swinging while they are suspended from the side of the ship.
For our personal comfort and safety, there are many other precautions. There are handrails that line every hallway and set of stairs. We also have a handrail in each of our showers. We even have a bar across our beds to keep us from rolling out while we are sleeping. In the galley, there are removable metal plates that can be placed around the burners to make sure that pots stay on the stove. In really bad seas (which we haven't seen on this trip), they galley doesn't even cook hot meals . . . except for maybe warming up some soup. Also, our tables have side rails that can be locked in place to help keep plates on the tables. The condiments in the center of each table are secured in a wooden rack that's bolted to the table. Both the tables and the chairs in the mess (where we eat) are also bolted to the floor.
Velcro is also a popular way to secure lighter items. Most of the telephones that are hanging on the walls have the receiver held to the phone with velcro. Trash cans are strapped to a more stable item such as a cabinet or pole. On the bridge, the trash can is tied to the side of a drinking fountain (which is, in turn, bolted to the wall). In the 02 Lounge (with the large television and the video library), all of the videos are in racks to prevent them from spilling onto the floor. In the 03 Conference room (where the library is located), all of the books are also in shelves that have metal rails to keep the books in place.
The outside doors are also made to protect the ship from the water that sometimes crashes on the decks with high waves. The doors are very heavy, with several latches around the perimeter to make sure that the door is securely shut. Rubber gaskets provide a watertight seal around the door itself. In order to get in or out of a door, you must step up and over a threshold that is nearly a foot high (this prevents water from constantly sloshing against the bottom part of the door and its seal). In really rough seas, you aren't even allowed to go outside on the decks -- not that you would want to go out in those conditions!
Well, we have one more day in the Drake Passage, and then we will be entering the Strait of Magellan from the eastern coast of South America and heading west toward Punta Arenas. That should happen sometime in the early morning of the 24th (about 30 hours from now). We've been traveling very quickly as a result of the good weather and calm seas. That just means we'll have a few extra hours to spend in Chile before returning home!
Two days ago, I saw both Gentoo and Chinstrap penguins. How are they different from the Emperors and Adelies that I saw earlier in my expedition? We'll find out tomorrow. See you then!
Latitude: 55 degrees 39 minutes South
Longitude: 64 degrees 45 minutes West
Temperature: 5.2 degrees Celsius
Barometer: 995.2 mb
Wind Speed: 35.1 knots
Wind Direction: 206 (from the Southwest)
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