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Drake Passage - Venturing into its rough water and variable weather and winds

Strong fair winds blew as soon as we left the coastal area off the Beagle Channel. Together with the characteristic long swell of the area, it all made for the ship to heel to Portside and roll.
Night watches were decimated by it, and the few still around had to deal with steering, lookout and giving a hand now and then to the permanent crew to set or strike canvas under the capricious weather. 

Although not easy, forecasting wind strength and direction on seas and oceans like the famously rough Drake Passage, is crucial for all vessels venturing into its cold waters. 

Nowadays this task is facilitated by the modern electronic equipment and communications, a great help for Captains and Mates to plan itineraries, routes to follow and  steering directions. But it wasn’t always like that and before their invention the ships had to rely on the experience of the crew, observe the weather changes as they happened and keep good readings of the barometer. And those old methods not always were precise enough for a safe navigation… as many lands and geographical features in these areas, the passage between South America and Antarctica was discovered by a ship blown off her route by unexpected stormy winds. 

In 1578, Sir Francis Drake on board the Golden Hind, tried to follow Ferdinand Magellan steps along the Straits of Magellan, but a storm pushed him off southwards. A vast expense of water in sight instead of a continuous coast towards the South, revealed that Tierra del Fuego was not connected to any other landmass. Nowadays this oceanic stretch between Cape Horn and the Antarctic Peninsula is named after him. 

Meteorology and weather forecasting, specialties of utmost importance, were initiated by the same Captain Robert Fitz Roy who discovered and mapped the Beagle Channel. During his extensive naval career he developed great interest on the subject, knowing by own experience the value of advance warnings of storms at sea. Pioneer on that field, he designed and used the first weather-stations, creating a system of meteorological warnings including the first daily weather forecasts. Science has progressed on some giant steps since  his times on the 19th Century, but as the years passed, his ideas germinate on the computer simulations that we use nowadays, which give us pretty accurate information about the weather systems all over the world and their evolution, all ready available on-line. 

Weather previsions of the utmost importance for us, trying to maximise the use of the winds for our progress to different planned destinations. On the present trip, sailing first the 500nm of open ocean at the latitude of the Furious 50’s, known by their strong wins and raging seas. Every time one dare into its waters the experience is different, and even winds and sea state may change by the hour. Making for adapting course and sail setting to those changeable conditions. Usually under Westerly winds, the passage acts as a sort of conveyor belt for Low Pressure Systems on their Eastwards path over the continuous expanse of water around the world that the Southern Ocean represents. 

Sailing southwards across the Passage, is usual to heel and roll, waves breaking over the ship’s rails and often tough sailhandling. Today, the variable conditions, with wind continuously changing between 20 to 30kn made for setting and striking Top Gallants a couple of times. Soon also the Outer jib join the other sails to pull the ship towards our destination in Antarctica. Big and powerful sail, it works at its best in moderate winds, but it is also one of the first ones to douse and furl when blows rise strong. 

A forecasted wind shift to the South has been luckily delayed for a bunch of hours, but during the night Europa’s engines had to roar again, pushing her against it. Not for too long, as by daybreak of the new journey she makes progress under sail once more. 

Written by:
Jordi Plana Morales | Expedition Guide | Bark Europa

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