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Pre-Race Dispatch 2: Going South from the End of the World

Matt Cavanaugh

Ushuaia, Argentina doesn’t ever let you forget where you are. Everywhere you go, you see signs that say “fin del mundo,” meaning “end of the world.” The city looks like South America’s Valhalla, or a sort of extreme Alaska, with the blue blue water surrounded by sharp steep mountain peaks. 

We boarded our ship, the MV Hondius, on November 22nd at 4 p.m., and headed south for Antarctica. But before we get there we have to get through the Drake Passage, which is known as one of the world’s worst sea crossings. It’s at the intersection of the world’s strongest current and the narrowest passages in the region. Sometimes it feels like we’re a mouse riding atop the water stream fired out of a fire hose, while aiming at a keyhole. Bound to be a bumpy ride.

We are headed for the Antarctic Peninsula, the “tail” of the continent that points back to Argentina. (We’re likely to land at Portal Point, in Charlotte Bay, for the first stage.) The entire continent is about the size of all the U.S. plus Mexico, making it the fifth largest continent on Earth, as well as the coldest, driest, and windiest continent. It’s protected with a set of rigid rules that will make it tough to run, but keep it what it is—in effect, the world’s largest nature preserve.

The ice pack on Antarctica is more than a mile deep all over, which represents 90 percent of Earth’s ice and 70-80 percent of the world’s freshwater reserves (if this melted, sea levels would rise 200 feet around the world). 

And yes, Antarctica is classified as a desert due to such low precipitation. It is the world’s largest desert, by far. 

The ship is excellent but I’m still seasick. I’m not as bad as others who are doing you-know-what, but I have had to use the scopolamine patch on my neck. It helps with seasickness but it also makes me sleepy, dilates my pupils so it’s hard to read and write (everything is blurry and I can’t focus), and my throat is so dry I’ve been using throat drops near constantly.

We depart the ship at 4 a.m. tomorrow on the Zodiac boats for the race start. We still don’t know how long the stage will be. We’ll certainly have light, as there’s 18+ hours of daylight here. We won’t know much about the course until we hit the beach.