Expedition to Antarctica - Chapter 1

After all the crazy ups and downs from my last entry, I finally arrived at the port in Ushuaia and immediately found my crew and my bags!  It felt like absolute glory.  I was exactly where I needed to be, on time with a newfound appreciation for the adventure ahead.  I greeted Edmund and Dan, the friends that I’ve known for years; the ones who miraculously swooped my gear up for me and saved the whole trip! I also met the others who would be joining our expedition and I could barely believe that it was all really happening!

This was my captain.  He’s a Dutch old salt from the Netherlands and he’s been sailing the sea since he was 14 years old.  He built this 15 meter boat, The Jonathan with his own two hands and those same two hands were completely responsible for sailing us across Drake’s passage, known to be one of the most unpredictable and treacherous bodies of water on earth. 

Our expedition crew was a very interesting mixed bag of it’s own.  Sponsoring the whole journey was Edmund Jin.  To say that he is a successful entrepreneur is an understatement.  But many people don’t know that he actually started out as a newspaper delivery boy before opening up his own business with his wife Eva.  Their hard work and bold risks paid off and one business turned into many and over the years they became multimillionaires together. After reaching what felt like the top of their lives however, Edmund was diagnosed with terminal cancer and everything they had worked so hard for came to a life-shattering halt.  Edmund then took every ounce of energy and focus that he put into building his empire and invested it into rebuilding his health instead.  He learned to be a master at meditation as well as reiki and a year later, he was miraculously cured of all disease and became completely cancer free. 

This chapter of life created a shift in Edmund’s priorities and he found himself no longer satisfied with the idea of spending the rest of his days working simply for profits.  He instead decided to make a bucket list like no other.  Anything he ever had wanted to learn or experience in life, he put his energy and resources into it wholeheartedly and surrounded himself with the best of the best teachers to help him reach his desired goals.  He’s learned horseback riding from the top polo players of Argentina, who he now does matches with quite regularly.  He’s also taken up hang-gliding, snowboarding, kite surfing, freediving and much more.  He’s committed himself to using his resources and tenacious determination to quite simply say yes to life in the most extreme forms possible and he likes to inspire and help others along the way.

He planned this particular trip and he chose the team. 

The three ocean athletes he recruited for his crew were Dan Silveira, Jessea Lu and myself.  Dan is a national champion spearfisherman and certified freediving instructor.  He is also a professional underwater cinematographer. 

Jessea Lu obtains a PhD in medicine and is also a certified freediving instructor.  She is China’s national champion in apnea diving and holds six different records for various disciplines. 

With his water team appearing to be well stacked, Edmund wanted to fill the final seat on the boat with someone who along with having ocean knowledge, was also an expert on land or rather -ice.  Enter polar explorer, Dixie Dansercoer.  Dixie is a Belgian endurance athlete turned record-breaking polar trekker. He trekked for over 100 days on ice from Siberia to Greenland via the North Pole.  He also did a record breaking crossing of Antarctica executing scientific missions all along the way. 

We all met up in Ushuaia, Argentina -drowsy and jet lagged yet excited to get to know one another and start our journey.

The confusingly tempting thing about the Drake is that one can actually catch it on some tranquilly calm and beautiful days. And if you have a bigger motorized boat, which most people who cross the Drake do, you can plan accordingly, get lucky and make the crossing in two glassy days, experiencing nothing but smooth sailing.  However we wanted to do this expedition a bit more old school and with a wooden sailboat the size of The Jonathan, it was predicted to take us four days to complete the crossing from South America to Antarctica.  In four days time, we would really be taking a chance with Drake’s erratically fluctuating temper, therefore heavily increasing our odds of encountering some violent weather. Quite simply, Captain Mark was the only guy we could truly trust with these odds to get us there safely.

Mark however is a true sea dog.  He is someone who would probably never take guests into his nautical home unless he absolutely had to.  –and that’s exactly how we got in. He had spent the last couple of years sailing the world with his first mate and girlfriend Caroline.  The rugged maritime couple needs very little to get by and thoroughly enjoy their sea-gypsy life abroad.  And though they would’ve loved to keep on keeping on just like that, after two years of sailing solo, they had finally come to the point where they’ve exhausted their resources and needed to replenish their budget accordingly by taking on chartered clients.  And moments after meeting Captain Mark at the port in Ushuaia, it became unquestionably clear that he was doing so, absolutely grudgingly.  

He immediately was agitated by the amount of gear we brought.  Together as a group we had wetsuits, long fins, camera equipment, kite boards, snowboards, sleds and more. Mark explained to us that we would have to now surrender one of our cabins with two bunks to hold the gear because he would strap down absolutely nothing to the outer deck of the boat whatsoever.  It didn’t matter if it was waterproof; crossing Drake’s passage means that everything must be stored inside, including the zodiac dingy itself!  So Dan and Edmund agreed to sleep on the couches in the galley for the next few weeks to acommondate the rules.  Mark did not seem at all impressed and still looked very irritated by us.  But what he lacked in guest services, hospitality, and social finesse, he certainly made up for with seasoned seaworthiness and high seas know-how.  And for a crossing like this, we’ll take it!

However then we were told that our whole expedition would be delayed.  Apparently some unexpected weather had come in from all directions and there was no chance of departing on time as planned.  We saw this as a great opportunity to explore the town of Ushuaia and get our fix of the great food and wine that Argentina offers. 

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We then met up with a local diver who took us on his boat and we used the rest of our day to test our freediving gear.  We had new 9mm wetsuits that some of us had never tried on before and so we thought it would be great to do a trial run in the waters around Chile and Argentina before heading to the frigid south. 

As great as our gear was, the ocean still felt extremely cold to me.  This made me worry about what it would feel like diving the ice of Antarctica.  The first sensation was the skin of my face burning and stinging as if a thousand needles were piercing it.  Then I got a painful brain freeze that made me want to instantly lift my head out of the water.  But I knew the drill; you must stay submerged until the brain freeze subsides and my face goes numb.  That’s when my dive window starts. 

I love exploring new waters.  The fear of the unknown creeps in but combines with the sense of wonder that always meets it halfway and together they become the most eerie and intriguing form of exploration I’ve known.  But what made this dive even better was that the waters we explored with our local guide were crawling and absolutely littered with big beautiful king crab! I never even knew it was possible to freedive for king crab!

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Our departure was set for 7am the next morning, so that evening I decided to roam the town and find some wifi to say goodbye to a few loved ones back home.  With all of my adventures and expeditions, I have to admit though don’t want to sound dramatic, that I always think of death.  It feels like it would be reckless and uncalculated of me to not consider it in my line of work and hobbies.  So every time I’m packing up my bags, I always look around the room, admire my surroundings, feel joy I have for the many plants, animals and people that I love and take the time to consider that it might be last chance to appreciate it all in this physical dimension.  It keeps me in check and always keeps me grateful. 

I wasn’t hungry as I roamed the streets so I looked for a bar that I could go to and buy a beer in trade for some internet.  I found a little hole in the wall called the Banana Bar and sat myself right at the countertop in front of the bartender –a young man, short, slender and handsome with long dark hair and soulful eyes.  I ordered a really yummy dark beer, asked for the password and connected. 

The first text I got was from my boyfriend Justin who sent me photos of the stormy weather systems surrounding Antarctica with some worried words about my departure.  The next message was from Malinda Chouinard, a mother-like figure to me, wife of Yvon Chouinard, both owners of the clothing company, Patagonia who have sponsored me for the past seven years.  She too had looked into the weather and her email begged me “not to get on that boat!”  The third message was from my sister Christy, who in a fashion so true to herself simply asked, “How are you feeling? What does your gut say?”

The truth is that I was feeling fine and really excited, which surprised me because for some reason, when I had been at home packing for this trip I got a very nervous and unusual feeling inside of me.  I worried that something was going to go wrong and I felt fear that I usually don’t experience when preparing for an adventure.  But due to all the airport drama, lost bags and watching a dream almost slip away, now that I was finally here, all I could think about was going!  I was so excited to have made it this far, there was no stopping me now. 

I wrote them all back and tried to sound as reassuring as I could.  I sent them photos of the crabs and told them I was excited and in great hands.  As I finished my beer, I chatted with the bartender; his name was Juan Pablo and his personality was just as kind and soulful as his eyes.  He was great.  He told me all about his many travels and life changes and past careers and his dreams.  He just seemed so genuinely joyful to be having a conversation about his passions that someone was interested in.  I loved being that someone. 

Juan Pablo spoke of the far away places he’s lived and the different languages he learned before returning to Argentina.  He also taught me some local history about this southern most tip of South America. Ushuaia, located on the Grande Island of the Tierra Del Fuego archipelago, is a place commonly known as the “End of the world and the beginning of everything.” He told me that long before these islands underwent Chileans and Argentine influence, the earliest settlers and true indigenous people of this land were the Yaghan.

The Yaghan were nomads.  They were hunters and gatherers. -with canoes!  They would travel back and forth from island to island and gather food.  The Yaghan men hunted sea lions while the women would dive for shellfish.  Oh my heart rejoiced as he told me stories and saturated me in adventure and culture.

Juan Pablo then said a word to me in the Yaghan language that absolutely stopped me in my tracks.  “Can you say it again please?” I asked.  –and he did.  I still couldn’t repeat right.  “Again please.”  I tried over and over again, stumbling and stuttering and butchering the word to pieces, until I finally got it right.  Juan Pablo went silent with his coaching but beamed his big warm smile and looked so proud.  “Mamihlapinatapai!” 

“Yes Kimi! Mamihlapinatapai! Do you want to know what it means?” 

What he said next felt like sweet poetry flowing through my veins.  Apparently “mamihlapinatapai” is a moment in our lives, of knowing but not talking.  It’s a moment caught between two people in complete silence.  They are staring at one another, each hoping that the other will initiate what both parties desire.  They both know exactly what they are hoping for, yet both people are unwilling to be the one to initiate it.  He explained that it could be anything, any moment! Two guys wanting to fight, two people wanting kiss, two strangers wanting to meet. -anything.  But it never happens.  Only the moment exists; a small fraction of time, where nothing is said but so much is felt and all is understood. 

Wow.  I love that there is a word for this.  I’ve definitely felt that moment before in various forms but have never heard it defined or even described in conversation.  How beautifully complex is it to create a word to explain a certain silence, a knowing, a moment that is so powerful yet so human?  I felt humbled to learn that a nomadic culture from long ago would craft such a word to perfectly articulate this intuitive form of expression. I asked Juan Pablo to write down the word for me so that I’ll never forget it and I took his wonderful handwriting on the torn piece of paper and ran back to the boat humming and brimming with satisfaction. 

And that humming and satisfaction all ended abruptly as soon as I got back to the boat.   Apparently Captain Mark decided to call an impromptu meeting and boat briefing and I was the only crewmember not aboard.  Shit.  And I think the carefree, so-satisfied-with-myself grin on my face only made things worse, as I burst into the galley.  Everyone just stared at me with the same stunned expression that I interpreted to say “Blowing it!”

“Thank you for joining us,” Captain Mark said gruffly. “Now I will have to find the time to catch you up on all you’ve missed.”  Whoops.  I sat down immediately, shoving the torn piece of paper into my pocket and trying to look as serious and concerned as I could to match the new vibe I had just entered. 

“So moving along, did you all bring your seasickness medication?” the Captain asked. 

Jessea and Dixie immediately said “Yes” and were the only ones to get a gold star on that one.  Captain Mark looked at the remaining three of us and demanded, “What about the rest of you?!”

Edmund simply said, “No, I don’t get seasick.”  Dan immediately took that statement to a whole ‘nother level and proclaimed “I never get seasick!  Never been seasick once in my life!  You ever heard of the Cortez Banks?  I’ve been out there in high seas on a little boat with a group of guys, each one of them throwing up.  They’re all falling over and puking but I’m only swaying because I’m drinking scotch and having fun the whole time!”

Captain Mark looked extremely unexcited by Dan’s claims and turned to me for a final answer.  “Well I rarely ever get seasick and I’m at sea a lot. But I have gotten seasick a couple times.  I got seasick once in really rough conditions in a dive tournament and then once again a boat.  I didn’t really puke but I kinda spit but then I caught a fish and I immediately felt better! But yeah, I might get seasick.” Wow, what kind of explanation was that? 

Mark looked stormier than the scary weather system charts.  It appeared at first that he was trying to hold his frustration in but a second later he roared,  “Why would none of you bring medicine for this crossing??! I don’t care if you don’t get seasick; this is the Drake Passage!!! This is something different!  Caroline who lives on this damn boat takes her seasickness medication every time we do a crossing like this! Why would you not bring medicine?!”

For some reason I felt like it might be a good idea to speak again and be even more honest.  It wasn’t.  “Well I thought about it and knew that I probably should but then I just thought that this is a personal journey for me and I really want to see what I’m capable of and what I’m not.”  I even felt irritated with myself by the time I was done with that one and sure enough, it set him off, again.

“And what good will you be when on your little personal journey, you are sick and puking and of no worth to your crew?!!”  Mark shouts.

I just stopped talking, as every time I opened my mouth, I just made it worse.  I looked at him with respect and acknowledgement and tried to say sorry with my eyes.  I don’t think his eyes accepted the apology.

“Next question! You are all willing to take watches, yes?  Either Caroline or I will always be on watch.  We do four hours on, four hours off alternating the entire time.  We need each of you to take turns doing two hour shifts so that someone else is always on watch with us helping.  If not, it won’t be very safe and we will take days to recover from this trip.” 

That didn’t really sound like a question to me.  But I piped up immediately in synchronized unison with Edmund, Dan and Dixie and said “Yes.  Yes Definitely!”

The captain looked at Jessea and she almost nonchalantly said, “I get seasick. I will have to take my medicine and sleep for a long time and then see how I feel.  If I end up feeling better along the way, I’ll see if I can do a watch.”  Mark’s whole face dropped; I swear I even heard him growl.  There went her gold star. 

He was done with us for the night and went to his cabin shutting the door behind him.  We stayed up and quietly chatted and tried to preserve whatever was left of good morale, until the Captain burst out of his room and told us to be quiet because he couldn’t sleep and reminded us that we had a long day ahead of us.  We all went to bed immediately hoping for a smoother tomorrow.