The ship rises again. A little more, a little more – it hovers for a moment that feels like eternity – then it crashes back down onto the water. A tremor runs through the hull. The sea spray reaches as high as the sun deck. There’s another wave – this time the MS Bremen just rattles. But the sea is already gathering itself once more…
We’re lucky. A heavy storm is raging across the Antarctic Ocean. The captain of the Bremen, Mark Behrend, explained the situation with the weather two days ago. There’s a major area of low pressure approaching, and we have two options: go east or go west. Just don’t go through it. The waves at the centre are apparently ten to fourteen metres high.
So nobody had any objections when the captain said he was going to skirt westwards round the storm, as the waves in that direction would only be up to six metres high.
And yet, as we’re being buffeted back and forth, up and down, day and night, we realise how relative luck is.
There are many things we have to relearn: sleeping at sea; brushing our teeth at sea; showering at sea; getting dressed at sea; and eating and drinking at sea while glasses are perpetually threatening to tip over and bread is constantly sliding off the plate. Still, there are some amusing moments: as you walk past someone else finding their sea legs, you tend to wobble into each other, a smile on your face. You don’t take yourself so seriously any more, at sea.
It suits our style of travel. Our five-month trip around the world has been a search for five experiences on five continents: enduring loneliness in Canada; sensing the breath of history in Portugal; learning humility in the Himalayas; encountering the animal kingdom in Australia; and – with the MS Bremen – travelling into the Antarctic.
Our once-in-a-lifetime journey into perpetual ice begins five days before the storm, on a grey November day in Montevideo. The ship is lying in an equally grey harbour, white and sparkling, with the words ‚Expedition Cruises‘ emblazoned in enormous letters on the hull. We’re greeted with champagne.
It’s a small ship, 111 metres long, with space for 164 passengers. There’s no entertainment programme, but it’s got the highest ice class a passenger ship can have.
As the ship departs from the greyish-brown Rio de la Plata into the South Atlantic, we get acquainted with our cabin. It’s sixteen square metres, with a narrow bath, a large double bed, a real window, a seating area with a table, chair, sofa and television, and a minibar. There’s more welcoming champagne. This is our home for the next twenty-three days. We get comfortable. But we’ve hardly had time to unpack before the emergency drill begins.
Rituals and recaps
The first ritual is an evening one: eating. We’re in luck there, too. We’re sitting at a round, eight-person table with a doctor from the Allgäu, in southern Germany, an electrician from Vienna, a couple from Berlin – civil servants – and a hotelier couple from Switzerland. We’re going to have a lot of fun at table 42.
The next ritual is the information session in the ‚Club‘, later also referred to as the ‘precap’ or ‘recap’. The captain introduces his team: navigator, chef, hotel director and cruise director. It’s surprising how many of the employees at the floating Hotel Bremen are from Austria, that sea-faring nation in the Alps.
Our route will take us to the Falkland Islands, South Georgia, the South Orkney and South Shetland Islands, and finally through the Lemaire Channel. On the way back we’ll pass through Drake Passage, past Cape Horn and onwards to Ushuaia in southern Argentina, where our journey will end. So far, so good.
‘At least, that’s the plan,’ says the captain. The weather changes quickly, he tells us, so it’s best to see it more as an intention than as an itinerary. The catalogue adds the caveat, ‘subject to decisions made by the captain, based on weather and ice conditions,’ and the man with four golden stripes on his shoulders explains, ‘it’s my job to take unpopular decisions sometimes.’
During the first few days that’s hard to imagine. The sky is blue, the sun is shining, and the guests are snoozing on loungers on the helicopter deck. We explore the ship. There’s a gym, a hairdresser’s, a sauna and a small pool, as well as a lounge, two restaurants and a lido deck behind the ‘Club’, with tables beneath electric heaters. Mostly we’ll eat outside, swaddled in blankets, enjoying the world.
The Bremen is an open ship. If the doors aren’t locked, visitors are welcome on the bridge. We get to know Mark Behrend. The captain lives in Bergisches Land, in western Germany, but spends about eight months of the year on the ship. He’s a friendly man with a beard and laughing eyes, who always wears short-sleeved shirts and often strikes a thoughtful note. He shows us where he works, and the weather chart.
There’s a storm in the offing. Will it catch us?
The captain slowly shakes his head. Maybe.
The passengers are much preoccupied with the weather. If it’s too unpleasant we won’t be able to go ashore everywhere as planned. But that’s the special thing about expedition cruises like these – that you can cross over to small islands on black rubber dinghies called Zodiacs.
For these Zodiac excursions we’ve been kitted out with parkas and wellies, so that our feet will stay dry even if we have to make a ‘wet landing’, where you slide out of the dinghy and walk to shore. How many landings are wet and how many are dry? Every landing is a wet landing. Right.
Later we’re standing on deck. A gossamer strip of pink separates the steely blue evening sky from an ocean that stretches out before us like ink. It’s colder than it was; when we speak our breath condenses into thin, cotton-wool clouds in front of our faces. At a rate of fifteen knots, the Bremen approaches the Falkland Islands.
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