Antarctic Adventure, Part I

With all the focus directed on ‘good old Santa’ readying himself up in the Arctic at the North Pole, we’re turning our compass to the South Pole and the Antarctic.
Although I’d travelled to the Southern Ocean region before, nothing compared to an extraordinary, 4-month long experience we had at the turn of the millennium which brought us to Antarctica for New Year’s Eve, 1999. Anyone who has the opportunity to visit this part of the world comes back with a ‘unique’ experience.
Ours began when an ambitious Canadian travel promoter, who’d run a company sending passengers to Antarctica for several years, decided to charter a larger ship for an around-the-world-voyage. I won’t give a play-by-play of our trip, that would cover 10 blog posts at least, but the ship in question was re-named “Ocean Explorer I”, in short “OEI”. The voyage was a complete circumnavigation, lasting 127 days.

My role on board was Guest Artist & Lecturer, accompanied by Natasha, my indispensable assistant. The ship had a remarkable history. She was built during WWII as a troop transport carrier, the “General W.P. Richardson”. Very sturdy, she had an extra-thick, reinforced steel hull, and two engine rooms in the event one was torpedoed. She was a steamship, last of a breed. As a result, very quiet. Average speed on our journey was 15 knots.
Over the decades she had been owned by many different companies since she first took to the seven seas. But all along she had the same Chief Engineer, which accounted for her longevity. I won’t go into all the details about our departure from Athens, which was unbelievably chaotic to say the least. However we finally got underway, lifting anchor in Pireaus, Greece. It was 27 November, 1999, with some 680 passengers, most of whom were well-seasoned seniors, average age in the ‘70s.  All the officers were Greek.
The westbound itinerary called for several stops in remote ports-of-call such as Pitcairn Island, Easter Island, and of course the Antarctic. By the third week in December we approached Ushuaia at the tip of South America. There, a major logistical operation would occur: we’d completely “switch passengers”. Why? The Canadian operator had dreamt up a daring and ingenious “double-itinerary” to mark the Millennium. Those doing the full world cruise got off the ship for one week in Ushuaia and were flown to Santiago, the capital of Chile. There they celebrated the Millennium.
Meanwhile, a very small number of us stayed aboard the ship, and were joined by members of the Young Presidents Organization (YPO), businessmen and their families from all over the world. In addition to our ship “OEI”, the operator had also chartered three smaller vessels to carry additional YPO passengers since their group numbered almost 1,000 in all.
With clockwork precision, this changeover went ahead without a hitch. We departed Ushuaia with the new passengers, who were much younger than the world cruise passengers.

Before arriving in Antarctica, you have to cross the notorious Drake Passage, one of the roughest bodies of water on the planet. And our crossing lived up to the Drake’s reputation, two and half days of pitching and rolling. We were headed for Deception Island (more on this later), where the actual Millennium Eve festivities would take place.
The entertainers on board for this Millennium sailing were Diana Krall, the Chieftains, Dan Aykroyd, Art Garfunkel, the Moffats, Natalie MacMaster, along with guest speakers Robert Kennedy Jr. and F.W. DeKlerck who won the Nobel Peace Prize with Nelson Mandela. To be continued . . . Signing off for now, Henri