Cruising the high (and cold) seas

00:14, Mar 19 2014
Antarctic expedition ship MV Ushuaia.
COLD COMFORTS: Penguins are on hand to greet the Antarctic expedition ship MV Ushuaia.

Today's cruising schedule: the weather will be a little brisk, with temperatures ranging from -15 degrees to a lovely high of -6; seas will be moderately calm, with swells of up to 14 metres; morning entertainment will be provided by your fellow passengers, as you watch to see who succumbs to seasickness first; today's exercise class will be attempting to walk from the lounge to your cabin without falling over; snacks, in the form of seasickness tablets, will be provided after lunch; evening cocktails, which today are cans of Quilmes beer that will cost US$3, will follow; and finally, tonight's entertainment will be a lecture on geology provided by a scientist.

Sounds like fun, right? A barrel of laughs. The sort of holiday you might go on if you really don't like holidays.

But this is cruising. Well, my kind of cruising.

You can keep your sumptuous buffet breakfasts, your calm Mediterranean seas, your crooner bands and children's entertainers, your sun-loungers and day spas - this is what being on a passenger ship is all about.

Today we're cruising the high seas and boy are they high. They've been known to get up to 18 metres.

This is the Drake Passage, after all, a patch of sea that separates Argentina from Antarctica, protecting the beautiful southern continent from all but the hardiest adventurers.


These are the seas upon which Ernest Shackleton famously sailed. They hosted Antarctic pioneers Roald Amundsen and Robert Falcon Scott.

Over the years since they've transported a vast array of explorers and daredevils, adventurers and gamblers.

Today they're playing host to about 80 wildlife and nature enthusiasts, 10 scientists, two chefs, one bartender and a whole lot of working sailors.

It's a cruise, but it's a little different to the standard version of a cruise - or at least the version that appears in my head when I think about cruising. I see those colossal vessels that inhabit Sydney Harbour, the high-rises of the seas, the luxury cruise liners in which you could get lost for weeks.

So it was a slight shock, worthy of a small raising of eyebrows, when we rolled up at the docks in Ushuaia, southern Argentina, to board our vessel of the same name.

It's not a luxury cruiser, the MV Ushuaia. It's a 280-foot expedition ship with an ice-hardened hull, 41 basic cabins and a lecture theatre.

This thing was about to carry us across one of the world's most notorious sections of ocean before ferrying us around Antarctica for five days (though it would turn out to be 4½ days - after losing power in one of the propellers we would have to leave the continent early in order to tackle the passage at half steam).

Ultimately, there's no "right" or "wrong" way to cruise. If you like your buffet meals and professional entertainment, or your tropical island interludes, then big-boat cruising is definitely for you. If, however, you fancy a little less comfort and a little more adventure, the MV Ushuaia could be your thing.

Today the MV is rocking and I don't mean in a party sense. I mean in a small-ship-in-big-seas sense. It's pitching and rolling wildly, and the onboard doctor has been doling out seasickness tablets like he's a clown with candy, so most passengers are glazy-eyed and sedated.

Things to do on board the MV Ushuaia while at sea include: read a book about Antarctica; play cards with fellow passengers; attend lectures from scientists; walk outside and marvel at how cold it is; and visit the bridge to see how far we've got to go.

Meals here are basic affairs, dishes served up on rubber mats to ensure a big wave won't tip them into your lap.

Socialising is done in the lounge area, where people sit on velour-covered seats, or stand up and chat to Alvaro, the Chilean barman who's a little annoyed by the fact none of his Anglo passengers can properly pronounce "Alvaro". ("Aaaaaalvaro", apparently.)

The lectures serve to build anticipation, as we learn more about the environment and the animals we're about to see.

We're rocked to sleep each night dreaming of breaching orcas, of sunbathing elephant seals and the flight of rare birds.

On the fourth morning we awake to a welcome sight: land. Snow-covered mountains. White glaciers. Dark smudges of pebbly beach. We'll rug up and go ashore for the first time today, straight into a penguin colony, stepping upon a melange of thousands of waddling animals.

This is adventure, a dream come true.

For the cruisers, or the explorers, or whatever you want to call the passengers of the MV Ushuaia, this is what the whole experience is about. It's not about the boat, but where the boat can take you.

For us, that's the way cruising should be.

Sydney Morning Herald