The Drake Passage: one of the world’s most treacherous sea crossings

Few water crossings inspire more fear than the Drake Passage, the infamous stretch of water between South America’s Cape Horn and Antarctica’s South Shetland Islands. The powerful currents, icy waters, ferocious winds and enormous waves have given the passage the reputation of being one of the most treacherous in the world.

What is the Drake Passage?

At about 800 kilometers (500 miles) wide and 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) long, the Drake Passage is the shortest distance from the Antarctic continent to any other landmass. The incredibly harsh water is one of the reasons why people didn’t set foot in Antarctica until the 19the century.

The passage is named after the 16ecentury English explorer Sir Francis Drake, known for his circumnavigation of the world between 1577 and 1580. To complete this feat, he and his fleet sailed through the Strait of Magellan, a passage through the rugged islands and icebergs at the tip of South -America. Although Drake never sailed the passage himself, his expedition taught the English that there was open water south of South America, making circumnavigation of the world by boat possible.

In Spanish, however, the passage is known as the Mar de Hoces, named after the Spanish navigator Francisco de Hoces, who encountered the water in 1525 while sailing through the Strait of Magellan.

It was not until 1616 that Willem Schouten of the Dutch East India Company led the first crew to sail around Cape Horn and through the Drake Passage.

A map of the Drake Passage Waterway connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans between South America and Antarctica.

A map showing the Drake Passage connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans beneath South America.

Image credit: shubhamtiwari/

Why is the Drake Passage so dangerous?

Some of the world’s strongest ocean currents flow through the Drake Passage because they encounter no resistance from any landmass, allowing water currents to ‘rip’ and generate a tremendous amount of force.

Likewise, strong winds can hit land unhindered for thousands of miles at this latitude, bringing violent storms and colossal waves. Some accounts of passing through the Drake Passage report waves up to 25 meters (82 feet), about the height of an eight-story building.

What is it like to sail the Drake Passage?

On Christmas Day 2019, a brave crew of six explorers became the first people to ever row through the passage in a 13-day battle against the elements.

“It was quite distressing. By the end we had all lost a lot of weight and were delirious from lack of sleep,” Colin O’Brady, one of six men on the boat, told the Associated Press after the trip.

Today, countless people have made the adventurous journey across the Drake Passage, mainly on their journey to Antarctica. Large, modern ships make the journey considerably smoother than in times gone by – although there is one piece of advice if you plan to make the journey: take motion sickness tablets.

“Crossing the Drake Passage is the price of admission to Antarctica. The peace and serenity of Antarctica is matched by the turbulence and drama of the Drake. They are two sides of the same coin: one cannot exist without the other. Conditions on the Drake are somewhere between bad and terrifying, depending on the weather gods, but worth every moment,” said Lyndon File, customer experience manager at G Adventures, a travel company that offers trips to Antarctica, in a blog post about crossing the passage .

“I felt like a wet, dirty sock in the washing machine during a 36-hour spin cycle. I have never been one to suffer from motion sickness, but this trip home would be a real test of that,” said company media manager Kyle Jordan.

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