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The Drake Passage

     The Drake Passage is a one-thousand kilometer bottleneck that lies between Cape Horn at the tip of South America and the frozen expanse of Antarctica.  Notorious for its violent seas, it is a place where the cold water from the southern ocean and the warmer water from the north converge to create powerful currents and huge waves that have taken countless ships to a watery grave.  Named after the 16th-century English explorer Sir Frances Drake, old salts and sea hands at the bottom of the world would often boast of surviving the ‘Drake Shake,’ or of having sailed ‘Around the Horn.’

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     Several years ago my wife and I flew from Toronto to Santiago, Chile where we boarded a Holland America cruise ship that would carry us around the Horn to our destination in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  Along the way there were some interesting ports-of-call, including Punta Arenas, Ushuaia, and the Falkland Islands.  When we arrived in Punta Arenas a number of shore excursions were recommended by the cruise line.  Popular among them was a one-day return flight to King George Island in Antarctica.  It was a two hour flight each way and provided for a one hour walk-around on the ice of the southernmost continent.  We found the idea very appealing, but the cost of the adventure in U.S. dollars was so steep that we decided to take a pass.  However the idea had taken root, and now a decade later I find myself aboard another vessel which is currently sailing south traversing the Drake Passage.

     My name is Henry Morshead, and on this occasion I am travelling with my best friend David Whitaker.  Each year, Dave and I journey to an interesting destination in search of adventure.  We have travelled to some of the most remote locales on earth, including six of the seven continents.  The only exception thus far has been Antarctica.  So this year we signed up for a twelve day cruise with Seabourn Expeditions out of Ushuaia (pronounced oo-swai-uh), Argentina.  The plan is to cross the Drake Passage to Elephant Island, which became immortalized as the scene of the incredible survival story of Ernest Shackleton’s ill-fated Antarctic expedition.  From there we would briefly visit King George Island before sailing south along the Palmer Archipelago to the Antarctic Polar Circle at latitude 66.5 degrees.  After circling Adelaide Island we would return to King George Island and catch a flight back to Ushuaia.

     When I first broached the idea with Dave, he balked saying, “I get seasick in a rowboat, never mind an ocean liner.” I responded by pointing out that when Karen and I did the cruise, the Drake Passage was as calm as a millpond.  Besides I added, “The Seabourn ships have stabilisers and you won’t even know you’re on the water.”   Thus assured, Dave finally agreed to the plan and we proceeded to book our reservations.   The ship we would sail on was named the MV Vespucci; it had a reinforced hull, stabilisers and a passenger to crew ratio of 88 to 76.   Dave and I shared a decent sized cabin with twin beds and all the amenities you might expect from a high end cruise line.  Our cabin was situated at mid ship on deck number four, and although there was no balcony, our room had an oversized window to provide an outside perspective.  

  I had pointed out to Dave that a Polar cruise on a smaller ship like the Vespucci was really the antithesis to regular cruising in the sense that the focus was on ‘getting off’ the ship most days.  There are no hotels in Antarctica, and in their absence the ship was really our floating hotel and base camp.  Accompanied by onboard Polar experts, the objective would be to get up close to the unique wildlife and scenery, exploring both by zodiac and on foot.  Dave and I had opted to go in November, as it was considered to be the shoulder season, and the cost of the cruise was more reasonable.  What I may have failed to mention to him was that this was the beginning of the summer period which often brings stronger winds and rougher seas.  Always the optimist, I was hoping for good weather.  But as they say, hope is not a strategy.   

     Veteran explorers claim that crossing the Drake Passage is the price of entry for going to Antarctica.  The rule of thumb is that you will experience either the ‘Drake Lake’ or the ‘Drake Shake.’  On the morning of our departure from Ushuaia, conditions were calm as we proceeded on the 1,043 kilometer voyage to Elephant Island.  Cruising at about 16 knots this would take approximately 35 hours.  The plan was to arrive late on the following afternoon, and then go ashore where we would spend the night in insulated yurts.  We had already been several hours at sea when the weather began to deteriorate.   The ship was sailing through perhaps the most optimally negative convergence point of east/west currents when the storm descended.  A short time later the sea was raging.

     Dave had long since retired when the captain broadcast an order for all passengers to return to their cabins.  I’ve never been one to fall ill due to motion sickness, but this storm would be a true test of my usual faculty.  I staggered along the companionway to our cabin, reeling from side to side like a drunk.  When I opened the door the putrid smell of vomit almost bowled me over.  I gagged and rushed into the small bathroom where I dropped to my knees in front of the toilet.  As I crawled into the room I could see that Dave was lying face down on his bunk, holding on tight to the sides as if his life depended on it.  The motion of the ship was now so extreme that it was dangerous just to stand on your feet.  It seemed for several seconds that the vessel would be in a steep descent, then it would violently correct and rise up like it was taking flight.  This continued on relentlessly!

     At one point the lights in our cabin winked out, but the dull sky outside still illuminated in through the window.  I was panicked as I watched the spray wash across the glass, and began to think that the ship and all those aboard were doomed.  The stabilizers which controlled the side-to-side motion were ineffective in this kind of sea.  The captain had obviously turned the ship into the approaching waves and our movement forward was like a stomach-churning rollercoaster ride.  We had all been ordered to put on life jackets, but they would be useless in this cold water as you would quickly succumb to hypothermia.  The life boats were equally useless as there was no way they could be launched in such a violent sea.   Dizzied by the wild ride, I looked out the window and watched in horror as a giant wave engulfed us.


     Captain Paulo Vaconcellos was an Argentinian seaman of Portuguese descent.  He had only commanded the MV Vespucci for the past two seasons, but had sailed these waters for almost forty years.  The Captain had crossed the Drake Passage countless times and was considered an old hand when it came to navigating the southern ocean.  Vaconcellos had weathered many storms in his career, but the one they now faced was one of the worst he had ever seen.  As conditions rapidly worsened he had taken over from the Officer of The Watch, and now personally controlled the ship from the wheelhouse at the top of the ship.  He had changed the heading in response to the storm and was now steering directly into the oncoming waves.  Any thought of visiting Elephant Island was long forgotten as the ship moved further in the opposite direction.

     The continual concussion of waves breaking over the ship was causing any object not screwed down to be flung about, creating a serious hazard for both the passengers and crew.  Vaconcellos could just imagine the chaos down in the galley.  The passengers were now all secure in their cabins, but he had no doubt that numerous injuries would be reported once the storm passed.  Meantime, this would be a frightening experience that these land lubbers would never forget.  In truth, even the Captain felt a shiver of fear as he grasped the wheel and navigated the angry sea.    The grim faced First and Second Officers were both there with him, each having difficulty maintaining their footing as they grasped hand holds and looked out towards the advancing waves.  Suddenly the Second Officer pointed and shouted out, “My God, look at the size of that……!”

     The Captain looked up in disbelief as a monstrous rogue wave washed over the ship.  He was temporarily disoriented as water crashed down onto the window of the wheelhouse, and then the glass burst and a tremendous flow of seawater carried him across the room.  The ship listed to starboard and might have foundered, except the First Officer lunged for the wheel.  He fought to control the ship and managed to keep it directed towards the next swell.  As water drained from the compartment the Captain was sprawled unconscious on the floor.  The Second Officer lay close beside him with his neck twisted at an impossible angle.  Cold wind and spray now blew in through the unprotected window, and all the lighting and navigational instruments had been rendered inoperable.

     The First Officer stood at the helm feeling like a block of ice.  A strong wind was blowing through the wide expanse of exposed window, and with an outside temperature of -8 Celsius the wind chill factor made it even colder.  He had the ship under control, but was mindful that they were sailing blind without radar or navigational aids.   They were about two hundred kilometers out to sea, and at this latitude the odds of running into ice floes or another ship were slim.  Still he thought, we must take some precautions.  Just then the Boatswain’s Mate entered the wheelhouse and after quickly assessing the situation he bellowed out, “What are your orders, sir?”  Teeth chattering, the First Officer said, “Go and fetch the doctor, and get me a winter jacket, waterproofs, gloves and a watch cap.”  He added urgently, “And be quick!”

     Meantime on Deck 5, Cabin C, Henry and Dave were both sprawled out on their respective bunks.  Dave croaked out, “Whose bloody idea was this?” Henry didn’t respond.  Dave continued, “Hank, next year I definitely get to choose.”  Henry said, “We’ll probably both be dead in half-an-hour, so don’t worry about it.”  A short time later they began to feel that the motion of the ship was a little less extreme.  Dave made his way to the toilet again, and although he retched noisily there was nothing left in his stomach.  Hank opened the door and looked out into the passageway.  There was no movement, but he noted the rug was completely saturated and that water was beginning to seep into their room.  He thought to himself, what a shit show! 

     The ‘doctor’ was actually a highly trained paramedic.  He quickly determined that Captain Vaconcellos had suffered a mild concussion and although now conscious, the ship’s Master was taken to the infirmary for observation.  The first officer had changed into dry, warm clothing and a junior officer was now assisting him at the wheel.  The sea had calmed somewhat in the last hour, and he was hopeful that the worst of the storm had passed.  He instructed the Boatswain’s Mate to tour the ship and report back with an assessment of any damage.  As well, two men had been sent to the bow with the unenviable task of keeping watch.  They had been issued a bullhorn to communicate with the bridge in the event of any sightings.  The ship’s Chief Engineer was busy checking the instrumentation in the wheelhouse and was hopeful that he could soon restore its function.

     The following morning the Vespucci sailed through calm seas towards King George Island.  The electrical issues had been resolved and the carpenter had jury rigged a temporary sheet plastic window in the wheelhouse.  The staff had cleaned up the breakage, and had somehow managed to serve breakfast to the now hungry passengers.  There had been a number of injuries reported which occurred during the storm; the injured and a few other overwhelmed passengers had opted to fly back to Ushuaia.  The majority though wanted to continue on with the cruise as planned.  Hank and Dave both agreed with rose-colored hindsight, that the storm hadn’t really been so bad.  They opted to stay with the ship.  Neither of them in their wildest dreams could imagine what lie ahead.        


     A total of eleven passengers from the MV Vespucci who had either suffered broken bones or were emotionally overwhelmed by the terror of the storm, flew from King George Island to Ushuaia.  There they would reroute back to their home destinations.  Most of them were delayed for a few days while arrangements were being made, but would find Ushuaia to be a relaxing place to pause and begin to recover from their ordeal.  Situated at the end of the Beagle Channel, the town had the distinction of being the most southernmost city in the world.  It was also the beginning (or end) of the Pan-American Highway which stretched all the way up to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska.  The eleven evacuees had no way of knowing that when they left this haven of tranquility, they would be jumping from the frying pan into the fire.

    While some of the Vespucci passengers were returning home, NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory Satellite was reporting some disturbing data from its orbit 36,000 kilometers above the earth.  For the past several days there had been an unusually large number of dark spots on the sun, which were eruptions of electromagnetic radiation.  The Gran Telescopias in the Canary Islands and the Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope in Maui observed the same disturbing data.  While this information was being analyzed, there was a giant explosion on the surface of the sun which sent energy and particles streaming off into space.  From a distance of 150 million kilometers, an unprecedentedly massive solar flare was sent hurtling towards earth.  With less than ten hours to react, there was nothing that could be done to prevent the impending catastrophe.

     The impact of the solar flare was immediate and devastating.  When it entered the earth’s atmosphere there was a blinding light, and although much of the geomagnetic force was dissipated, all satellite systems and world-wide electrical grids were knocked off-line.  Submarine transmission cables were rendered inoperable, and all cell service and internet communication abruptly ceased.  Cars and trucks stalled on the roadways as any conveyance or modern device relying on electronic circuitry was compromised.  Advanced civilization had suddenly gone dark, and in the ensuing mass hysteria it was impossible for leaders to explain to the populace what had happened, or to have any influence over events.  In a matter of days there was widespread looting and violence as desperate people scrambled for a share of fast dwindling resources.  There would be no surviving record of who initiated the first nuclear strike.

     The MV Vespucci had sailed south past the Antarctic Circle and was making its way along the inner passage of Adelaide Island.  The Captain planned to circle the island and then return north to King George Island where the remaining passengers were scheduled to board a flight back to Ushuaia.   Dave and I were having a wonderful time, and repeatedly congratulated each other on choosing this trip.  I can only describe the food and amenities on board as being suburb.   Each day we had been ferried ashore in zodiacs to observe penguins and to get a closer look at unique ice formations and the magnificent scenery. The passengers had been issued with orange cold weather jackets and waterproof boots, while the crew wore blue jackets for ease of identity. With the earlier departure of several of our companions, there was now a ratio of 77 to 77 passengers to crew members, after accounting for the unfortunate death of the Second Officer.   

     At that time of year in Antarctica it never got really dark, but there were a few hours each day of what is called nautical twilight.  It was about ten p.m. one evening and Dave and I were sitting in the lounge drinking scotch.  Looking through the windows we could see the snow covered mountains looming beyond the near shoreline.  Suddenly there was a dazzling light, which temporarily blinded us.  The extreme brightness lasted for just a matter of seconds and then the sky returned to its previous dull shade.  I looked at Dave with spots floating in front of my eyes and said, “What the hell just happened?” It was then that we noticed that lights in the lounge had blinked out and the vibration from the ship’s engine had ceased.  Later we would learn that the diesel-electric engine was really a huge generator that provided all of the ships’ electricity, including the electrical power which turned the twin propellers.  The unexplained solar flare had fried all of its internal components, which left us floating without propulsion. 

     The Officer of the Watch sent a crew member to summon the Captain.  When Paulo Vanoncellos arrived at the wheelhouse, the only luminance was from the flashlight he held in his hand.  He quickly determined that none of the navigational instruments or communication systems onboard the ship were functioning.   He tried to contact the Seabourn Cruise’s office in Ushuaia using the satellite phone but found that it too was dead.  The Captain’s main concern now was the ships position in the Adelaide Channel, and how close they might be to any floating ice or possibly running aground.  He dispatched a crew member to summon all officers.  While he waited for them to assemble, Vaconcellos and the other man discussed the bright light and the effect it obviously had on the ship’s electronics.  Neither of them had experienced anything like this before.

     When the officers had gathered in the wheelhouse, the Chief Engineer stated that he might be able to start the engine, but because the electronic components were all fried, it wouldn’t be able to perform any of its functions.  He cautioned that restarting the engine would be at the risk of igniting a fire.  The Captain’s main concern was how to safely secure the ship.  Someone suggested that they could launch the ship’s tender and attach a tow cable, but then it was pointed out that the propulsion system of the smaller vessel was based on electricity and it too would be inoperable.  The Captain ordered the Boatswain’s Mate to take one of the zodiacs and scout out the immediate coast for a sheltered bay where they could anchor the ship.


     Propelled by the oceans current and assisted by four zodiacs powered by 70 horse power motors, the MV Vespucci was slowly guided into a quiet bay where the port and starboard anchors were dropped.  The cold was already seeping into the now unheated ship as the passengers assembled in the main lounge.  Captain Vaconcellos explained the situation to the best of his ability, and then attempted to field questions to which he had no answers.  The Captain instructed everyone to return to their cabins and dress as warmly as possible.  He said, “The ship’s officers will immediately meet in conference to develop an action plan, and this will be communicated to each of you shortly.”  Finally, he thanked them for their calm and cooperation.

     Hank Morshead and Dave Whitaker returned to their cabin to tap into the bottle of single malt that Hank had squirreled away in his bag.  As they poured shots, Dave said tongue in cheek, “How’d you ever talk me into this?  I told you I don’t like boats.”  Hank responded, “A least you’re not going to drown, you’ll probably just freeze to death.” Dave wondered, is our situation just a weird one-off, or is this more wide spread?  He was thinking of his wife Sheila back at home with the kids.  Dave was a former Ontario Hockey League player who didn’t quite make the leap to the NHL.  After two seasons with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, he returned to the University of Western Ontario where he graduated with an MBA.  While in London, Ontario he met his sweetheart Sheila, and they had been together ever since.  Now in his mid-forties, Dave was a successful portfolio manager with a major Canadian investment firm.

     Hank was worried too as he thought of his wife Karen back home.  He had a really bad feeling about the current situation, and wondered how on earth he and Dave were going to survive it.  The two of them had been in a few tight corners before, but this thing was crazy.  Hank and Karen were both Brazilian jiu jitsu enthusiasts; that was how they had originally met.  Hank was now a 3rd degree black belt, and still devoted much of his spare time to martial arts.  He and Karen were partners in a real estate firm, and had enjoyed considerable financial success.  They had no children, but were parents to a loveable English springer spaniel.  As Hank poured Dave a second shot, he joked, “Dave, we might have to sleep together to conserve heat.”  Dave said, “In your dreams, baby.”  Both of them had donned their orange parkas, and wondered how soon the booze would run out.

     The Captain was also wondering about the supply of food, beverages and water.  As the cook pointed out, they had been in the latter part of the voyage when disaster struck.  The inventory of meats, fruit and vegetables in the ship’s larder had been substantially reduced, although there was plenty left to provide for the menu as originally planned.  However, if they were delayed for an extended period of time, the supplies would soon be depleted.  The group of officers collectively agreed that a rationing program must be implemented immediately.   The Captain asked the cook to develop a basic menu plan based on 2,000 calories per day.  Henceforth, there would be just two meals each day, served in a cafeteria style with the portions carefully doled out by the cruise staff.  All beverages including bottled water, soft drinks, beer, wine, and liquor were to be inventoried and stored in a locked room.

     Providing heat and preserving fresh water were other critical issues that were discussed.  The Chief Engineer thought he could build a stove in the main lounge area, and supply it with diesel from the fuel tanks located at the bottom of the ship.  This could produce a reasonable amount of radiant heat in the lounge, but would do nothing for the passenger cabins.  Venting such a stove would be a challenge, and to complete the project might take a couple of days.  Meanwhile, one of the gas stoves from the kitchen could be moved temporarily into the lounge and fired up.  The preservation of fresh water was now a top priority.  Passengers would have to make drastic adjustments, ranging from personal hygiene and showers to the frequency of flushing toilets.  Clearly, any perception of this being a pampered luxury cruise would quickly end.  

     A further issue discussed was their proximity to the nearest research station, and the possibility of seeking rescue.  The First Officer pointed out that the Rothera Research Station was only about 30-40 kilometers away.  Rothera was the British Antarctic Survey, a very substantial establishment that had its own airstrip.  Supplied from both the Falklands and Punta Arenas, there were upwards of one hundred people living there at any given time.  To reach Rothera over land would be a daunting proposition.  They agreed however, that sending a small crew in a zodiac was a logical action to take.  It would be a dangerous mission, but at least it offered the possibility of delivering them from their current situation.  They still weren’t certain if the solar flare was just an anomaly effecting the Vecpucci, or was more wide spread.

     When Captain Vaconcellos announced the action plan to the passengers there was a collective groan.  Many of them were already quite chilled, and the prospect of going back to their cold, dark cabins after a light meal was not appealing.  When he announced that the bar was closed until further notice, there were angry exclamations.  For Hank and Dave, this wasn’t of immediate concern. Hank had slipped down earlier and removed three bottles of scotch from the poorly attended bar.  Thus provisioned, the immediate few days were not a completely bleak prospect.  By now, everyone was wearing their winter coats; the passengers in orange, and the crew in blue.  Dave, taking inspiration from the play Westside Story referred to them as the Sharks and the Jets.  He had no idea of how prescient his observation would be.


     After a couple of days it was clear that things weren’t going well.  Most of the passengers were older couples in the 60-75 age group, and they had difficulty transitioning from a luxury cruise mentality to the harsh reality of basic survival.  They were accustomed to being served multi-course gourmet meals, and now objected to lining up cafeteria style with a plate in their hands.  Many of them had food preferences or allergies that were not being catered to, and they found the modest fare based on 2,000 calories per day was less than satisfying. Their other complaint was that the wine and other alcoholic beverages were being doled out very sparingly.  The only moderately warm place on the ship was the main lounge, and when all of the passengers crowded in, it was like being jammed into a subway car.  The individual cabins were like ice boxes, and no one wanted to spend any time in them except when required to sleep.

After a third day of wide non-compliance to the new rules, the water to all individual cabins was shut off.  The toilets were now inoperable, and both the passengers and crew were directed to use the new outhouses on the deck that had been built by the ship’s carpenter.  The human waste was dumped daily into the sea.  For some of the passengers, ascending and descending the stairs to cabins on the upper decks were a major challenge.  The elevators were out of commission, and a number of people actually had to be rescued after being trapped when the power first went off.  There was no end to the bombardment of passenger requests, demands and complaints.  The line up in front of the guest service’s desk was lengthy, and as the days passed the frustrations continued to grow and exchanges became hostile in nature.

     Captain Vaconcellos was a skilled seaman and a proactive problem solver, but his talents didn’t extend to dealing with whiney passengers.  For the first several days of their confinement, he held a daily meeting to keep the passengers informed of developments.  But he had nothing positive to report, and the meetings often turned into a forum for the passengers to vent their frustrations.  Throughout the day the Captain was accosted by disgruntled passengers at every turn.  Finally he removed himself and set up a desk in a corner of the kitchen.  He turned over the day to day administration to the First Officer, and let him adjudicate issues with the passengers while he concerned himself with logistical matters.  His most pressing concern was the whereabouts of the three men he had sent off in the zodiac.   

     Like the other passengers, Hank and Dave were uncomfortable and bored.  There was nothing to do all day, except wait around for the next meal to be served.  It was gloomy in the lounge with limited light finding its way in from the outdoors.  People were packed in like sardines and many of them were forced to sit on the floor.  Those sitting close to the stove were reasonably warm, but it was chilly in the outer perimeter of the large room.  Two of the older men had suffered heart attacks in the past week, and innumerable passengers were suffering from colds and pulmonary issues.  Over the low hum of conversation there was a constant sound of coughing and hacking.  Arguments broke out as desperate passengers made impossible demands.  The First Officer and the Purser were now surrounded by security personnel to buffer them from unruly passengers.

     By the end of the second week three of the passengers had died, and several others were in very poor condition.  The medical responder was stressed to the limits, as there was little he could do to ease the suffering, due to the scarcity of medicines on board.  Food supplies were also running low, and this prompted a further reduction in the number of calories allocated.  Even then, the food supplies were projected to run out entirely in two weeks. There was still no word from the men who had left in the zodiac.  The Captain had to assume that they had either been lost at sea, or had run out of fuel and drifted up on the frozen shore.  The success of their mission had been the ships only hope of salvation.  Meanwhile, there was a mutiny brewing among the crew.  They resented the preferred treatment the passengers were receiving, while they shivered below decks and were given, what they believed was a less generous portion of food.

     The chief agitator among the ‘blue jackets’ was the Boatswain’s Mate Lionel Morales.  He had the support of the majority of the crew, who knew that the current situation was untenable.  Some hard decisions had to be made, and be made soon or all of them would perish along with the passengers.  The first step would be to break into the locker where the firearms were stored, followed by the arrest of the Captain and First Officer.  Once the blue jackets were in control of the ship, the passengers would be forced at gunpoint to remain in their cabins.  Without food or heat they would undoubtedly die.  It was a drastic measure, but most of the crew agreed this was an either them or us situation.  Despite these actions, the future for the crew appeared bleak.  But, at least in the meantime, there would only be half as many mouths to feed.  They planned to acquire the firearms later that night.

     When they broke open the locker they found two Remington 12 gauge shotguns, four Glock 9 mm handguns, handcuffs and several night sticks.  Morales immediately armed his cohorts and then proceeded to bang on the Captain’s door.  After the Captain and First Officer had been seized and handcuffed, two armed guards were posted in the stairwell at each end of the ship.  Their orders were to let none of the passengers descend and migrate to other areas of the ship.  They were to use whatever force was necessary to prevent this from happening.  Their first contact was made when a passenger came down the stairs on his way to the outhouse.  When the guards attempted to turn him back, the man became belligerent.  A shot was fired.


     At 5:42 a.m. a loud noise awakened many of the passengers, and several of them left their cabins to investigate.  Soon a crowd had assembled at the bottom of the aft stairwell where they were confronted by two husky crew members in blue parkas.  One of the men brandished a shotgun and the other was waving around a pistol.  On the floor in front of them was a dead man whose chest had been bloodied and destroyed, apparently by a shotgun blast.  The blue coats were shouting, “Return to your cabins!  No one can enter here!”  When no one moved, one of the crew members fired his pistol into the ceiling.  Stunned by what they had witnessed, a few of the people in front turned to escape.  But by then, the stairwell was choked with passengers who were pushing and shoving in a confused fashion.

     Hank elbowed his way to the front and said, “What the hell’s going on here?”  When one of the blue coats attempted to push him back, using the length of the shotgun as a baton, he was promptly thrown to the deck by the martial arts expert and lay there stunned.  His shotgun was now in Hank’s hands.  The second man, astonished by what had happened fired his pistol hitting the woman next to Hank, killing her instantly.  Hank responded with two blasts from the shotgun and the blue coated gunman was blown across the foyer where he landed in a bloody heap.  As the first man began to stir, Hank grabbed his hand and did something with the man’s fingers causing him to scream.  He shouted, “Tell me what’s going on!”  The man croaked out, “The crew have taken over the ship.” Hank picked up the Glock and handed it to Dave.

     Hank pointed at two men nearby and said, “Tie this guy up.” Then he turned to Dave and asked, “Do you know how this pistol works?”  Dave responded, “Sure, with the safety off, I just point and shoot.”  They were proceeding cautiously towards the lounge when another blue coat approached with a pistol in his hand.  He had heard the gunshots and was coming to investigate.  As the man raised his weapon, Dave fired three rounds and was surprised when their adversary jerked back and collapsed on the floor.  Dave picked up the dead man’s Glock and now advanced with a pistol in each hand.  When they entered the lounge they found a large number of crew members gathered around the stove.  One man fired a wild shot at them and then bolted into the adjacent library.

     A man who Hank and Dave recognized as the Chief Engineer stepped forward.  He said that he had been trying to talk some sense into the crew members who had mutinied at the urging of the Boatswain’s Mate, and now the Captain and the First Officer were being held against their will in the Pursers office.  Several of the crew were armed, and had been sent to seal off the stairwells.  Hank asked him, ‘Would you consider going into the library and asking that man to give up his pistol?  Tell him if he hands it over, he’ll come to no harm.”  The Engineer reluctantly said he would try, and a few minutes later they overheard a heated exchange followed by a gunshot.  Hank and Dave looked at each other grim faced.  They knew that it was now up to them to confront the armed mutineers, or there would be no safety for them or any of the other passengers.

     Then amazingly, the shooter emerged from the library with his hands in the air.  The Engineer followed closely behind carrying the man’s handgun.  Apparently they had struggled for the weapon and the Engineer had somehow managed to disarm him.  He pushed the man in the direction of the other miscreants and said to Hank and Dave, “Now, let’s free the Captain and First Officer.”  A few minutes later, Dave kicked in the door to the Purser’s office and they found the two senior officers handcuffed wrist-to-wrist.  Captain Vaconcellos thanked the men for releasing them, observing that the Boatswain’s Mate had the key to the cuffs.  As the Engineer updated the Captain on what was happening, two more shots rang out from the forward section of the ship.  Vaconcellos said, “My God, we’ve got to stop this before more people are killed!”

     Hank suggested that they go slow and approach the remaining armed men carefully.  While they paused, the Engineer sent a man below decks to fetch a bolt cutter to separate the two handcuffed men.  The Captain said the mutineers at the bow stairwell were armed with one shotgun and one Glock pistol, otherwise all of the remaining firearms were on hand and accounted for.  They checked the weapons locker and were amazed that most of the ammunition had been left untouched.  When the chain on the handcuffs was cut, Dave gave one of his Glock’s to the Captain and the Engineer gave his handgun to the First Officer who claimed to be a practiced shooter.  The Captain led them along the passageway leading to the stairwell.  As they approached they could hear sounds of crying and people clearly in distress.  At the foot of the stairs, a crowd of stunned men and woman were anguishing over the bodies of two fellow passengers.    

     Two blue coated mutineers emerged from amongst the crowd and focused their attention on the approaching threat.  Upon seeing the Captain and a heavily armed group of men, they promptly dropped their weapons and surrendered.  Later it was determined that it had been the Boatswain’s Mate, Lionel Morales, that Dave had gunned down earlier.  Now leaderless, the crew members reluctantly dispersed to resume their duties.  The three blue coats who were responsible for murdering four of the passengers were handcuffed and detained in a locked cabin.  The Captain gratefully invited Hank and Dave to join him for a libation at his desk in the kitchen.  He paused in mid-pour when Hank suggested that we were prepared to make an overland attempt to reach the British installation at Rothera.  Vaconcellos said, “Who do you think you are, Shackleton?”


     A seaman ferried Dave and me in one of the zodiacs to the icy shore of Adelaide Island.  Captain Vaconcellos had been receptive once we explained about our considerable experience trekking over difficult terrain in places like Nepal, Chile and Alaska. Both of us were physically fit, and with the proper gear we would have a reasonable chance of reaching the objective.  We also thought that, it was better to take a risk doing something, than just sitting around waiting to starve to death.  The Purser had outfitted us with a light sled, a small propane burner, a plastic tarp, an aluminum shovel, some rope and a couple of bed comforters wrapped in canvas to serve as sleeping bags.  The Cook provided us with a small supply of food, to which the Captain added a bottle of brandy.

     A light snow was falling as we set out, with the temperature hovering around the freezing mark.  We began to slowly ascend a steep glacier with the intention of following its contour around the deep bay from where we had come ashore.  There was a brisk wind blowing from the northwest, which would be at our backs once we reached the top of the glacier and turned towards Rothera.  The First Officer had provided us with a sketchy map which he had torn from the ship’s chart book.  It appeared to show that the distance from A to B to be about forty kilometers as the crow flies, but it would be extremely rugged terrain and we figured we’d be doing well to hike ten kilometers a day.  And of course, the weather was always a wild card.  

     In spite of the cold we were both sweating as we ascended to higher ground.  Dave and I took turns pulling the sled as we alternated breaking trail through the snow.  The sled and gear probably weighed about seventy pounds, the heaviest objects being two ten liter containers of water that weren’t quite filled to the top as we wanted the contents to slosh around to prevent freezing.  We didn’t have enough fuel to melt snow along the way and were aware of how important it was to stay hydrated.  The snowy slope up the glacier was quite steep, and it was grueling work hauling up the sled.  It was difficult to maintain traction and we would often take three steps and slide back two.  The hiking poles that had been provided by the Purser proved to be a godsend.  Finally after three hours of exhausting effort we reached a level plateau and turned in a southerly direction.

     The Adelaide Passage was in sight to our left, and as we looked down from a high elevation the MV Vespucci had the appearance of a toy boat floating in a bathtub.  It was a picture-perfect setting which gave no hint of the life threatening circumstances faced by those aboard the ship.  By now it was almost mid-day, and we wanted to cover a lot more ground before stopping for the night.  According to the First Officer’s map, our immediate objective would be the McCallum Pass some ten kilometers distant.  The pass was of indeterminate length; beginning where the glacier ended and leading through a mountainous area towards the Wright Peninsula.  The Rothera Station was situated at the far end of that peninsula, on a headland that jutted into Ryder Bay.

     Traversing the surface of the glacier was like walking through a minefield.  With every step there was the possibility of slipping into a deep crevice, many of them were covered over by and concealed by snow.  We crept along probing with our walking sticks, roped together with about twenty feet separating us.  Our advance was slow as we navigated around ice towers, deep caves and melt water ponds.  The irregular surface of the glacier was rolling, rugged, slippery and treacherous.  When we descended a slope, we dug in with our heels to prevent uncontrolled sliding, and when climbing back up we did so in zig-zag fashion.  Often two of us had to pull the sled up a steep slope with the aid of the rope.  Our progress was slow, and all the while we worried about the integrity of the glacier.  There was much evidence of recent slides and there was the real possibility that at any moment the unstable surface we were walking on could collapse and carry us away in an avalanche.   

     Several hours later exhausted, we decided to set up camp and rest for a while.  We found a deeply packed slope that was sheltered from the wind, and commenced to dig a snow cave with our shovel.  Once we had hollowed out a sizeable depression we triple folded the tarp over the floor and then crawled inside.  We pulled in our gear and placed the sled across the entrance.  Both of us guzzled some water and then had a couple of shots of brandy.  For dinner it was half frozen bread and salami.  Afterwards both of us removed our boots and crawled into our makeshift, but very serviceable sleeping bags.  I thought to myself, we only advanced about four kilometers today.  Not great!  But, it had taken us three hours just to climb to the top of the glacier.  Tongue in cheek Dave said, “If we don’t freeze to death, maybe tomorrow we can make it to the pass.”  We figured we’d sleep for five or six hours and then continue on.  It never really got dark here, so it was irrelevant what time we started out.

     Under way once again, we navigated along the glacier until the entrance of the pass came into view.  Two hours later we began to climb up to the snowy heights of a saddle, which we assumed then descended to the Wright Peninsula.  Judging from the map, the total distance through the pass was about two or three kilometers.  The elevation gain was about five hundred meters through deep snow, and it was slow going because with each step we would break through the crust and sink up to our knees.  Climbing up to the saddle that day would prove to be the most arduous part of the journey.  We finally made it to the top, and were rewarded with an inspiring view of the distant plateau.  After sliding down to the far end of the pass, we found a suitable spot and once again set up camp.


     The trek across the plateau took two days and proved to be the least demanding part of the journey, although by then we were worn down by the cold and fatigue.  It was only knowing that we were close to our destination that kept us going.  On the morning of the fifth day we topped a ridge and saw a group of buildings in the distance.  Approaching closer we observed a couple of boats at anchor in the harbour, and there was a snow covered six passenger airplane parked on the apron of a landing strip.  Oddly, there were no one walking around, nor was there any evidence of footprints or tire tracks in the recently fallen snow.  Dave said, “Where the fuck is everybody?”  The only sound came from the Union Jack that was snapping in the wind atop a flagpole.  The whole place had an eerie feel to it.  Then, as we walked up to the main building a dog began to bark.  

     Dave and I looked at each other with surprised looks.  A barking dog!  We both thought, that’s a promising sign.  When I walked up and opened the door a half-crazed dog ran out and began to run in circles, barking excitedly.  After about a minute of frantic activity, the dog stopped and approached us cautiously with its tail wagging.  It was a medium sized brown and white male of indeterminate parentage.  We both petted the friendly animal, and asked the usual unanswerable questions like, “Hey, what’s your name?  Where’s your owner?” There was a blast of heat coming from the open door, so we stepped inside followed closely by our new found friend.  After days of suffering from the cold, the inside of this building felt like a sauna.  It was a welcome feeling, except there was no one there to greet us.  

     There was a pale light filtering through the windows, just enough to see that the place was deserted.  Dave flicked the light switches and got no response.  We were standing in a sizeable room, with exit doors leading to both wings of the building.  Another double set of doors led to an extensive kitchen.  There was a well-stocked bar and the pantry off the kitchen was loaded with food supplies.  We would later find three freezers outside of the building that were filled with frozen food items.  To us, this was an alcohol and gastronomical bonanza!  Even the dog was eating well.  Someone had sliced open two 2.4 kilogram bags of Pedigree dog food, and placed it alongside a large tub of drinking water.  The heat came from an oil stove in the middle of the room that was connected to a large outdoor fuel tank.  Dave and I had a double scotch at the bar, and then went on an investigative tour of the facility. 

     We discovered that the dog’s name was ‘Oliver’ from a letter that had been pinned to the staff bulletin board.  The dog had been left by its owner – one Richard Mycroft – who had departed just six days earlier on an Australian frigate bound for the naval base at HMAS Albatross, south of Sydney.  He wrote, the frigate had been sent on a mission to investigate the status of the U.S. naval base at Point Loma, San Diego.  All communication with the Northern Hemisphere had gone dark after a huge solar flare had impacted them a few weeks earlier.  Since then, there had been evidence of massive nuclear exchanges between the NATO allies, Russia, China and the Middle East.  Most of the world was on fire, although Australia and New Zealand had been spared in their distant sanctuaries.

     The Australian frigate had sent a boat ashore in Santiago, Chile and at several other prominent cities on its voyage north.  Without exception they witnessed a chaos that had been brought about by the destruction of the electrical grid.  Populations were in a panic, dominated by armed gangs of looters and rapists who had reverted to a brutal anarchy and tribalism.  In these circumstances ‘might was right,’ without any reference to the rule of law.  As the ship steamed further north they detected the first readings of radiation, and by the time they reached Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, it was so extreme that they had to reverse course.  They made their way back around the tip of South America and crossed the Drake Passage, continuing on to the Rothera Research Station on Adelaide Island.   

     Hank looked up from the letter with a blank look and whispered, “Karen?” Across the table Dave put his hands to his face and sobbed silently.  They now knew for certain they could never go home, and both thought of their loved ones who were either already dead or facing a terrible end alone without them.  Oliver, perhaps sensing Dave’s anguish, came over and rested his head in his lap.  Dave stroked the dog’s head, and after a time Hank continued to read the letter.  Richard Mycroft explained that the naval vessel had been instructed to stop at Rothera to retrieve two important Australian atmospheric physicists who had been temporarily assigned to the British Antarctic Survey.  The Captain also agreed to rescue all of the other residents, but could not permit any animals to board the ship.  Mycroft was then faced with the most difficult decision of his life.

     Later, Hank and Dave sat in club chairs by the warm stove sipping brandy.  Hank had thawed steaks from the freezer and cooked them over the gas range in the kitchen.  Oliver was curled up in front of them, no doubt happy that tasty pieces of steak had been mixed in with his kibble.  They had discovered all kinds of useful things during their walk about; including fresh clothing, flashlights and even a box of Cuban cigars.  They puffed on cigars now as they reflected sadly on the hopelessness of Captain Vaconcellos and all the people aboard the Vespucci.  On a brighter note, Hank had been particularly interested to discover that a Hinkley Bermuda 40 foot sailboat was moored along the pier in the harbour.  Who it belonged to or why it was there would forever remain a mystery.  Hank, an inveterate sailor, was already considering the possibilities.

~                         ~                         ~

     Five weeks later the sailboat approached a green haze on the horizon.  Later they would discover that they had missed Australia and had arrived in New Zealand.  A few miles off shore the sailboat skimmed over a reef as the two men and a dog approached their final destination.

By Michael Barlett


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