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Food & Wine

Couple tell a tale of the roughest seas on earth

Los Altos residents Ben and Helen Kuckens set off in January on a 23-day trip through Antarctica on the cruise ship Nordnorge. They recount their adventures on the high seas for the Town Crier.

Forty-one hours after sailing from Ushuaia, Argentina, and crossing Drake Passage, we arrived at Deception Island on the Antarctic Peninsula and made our first landing in Antarctica. Those of us with no sense could go swimming in the Antarctic Ocean - so, of course, Ben did.

During the next few days we made four more landings on the peninsula. One evening the captain called a meeting of the 250 passengers and informed us that our sister ship, the Nordkapp, ran aground on Deception Island. We were to proceed immediately to take on some of the passengers and return them to Ushuaia.

This cut short a day and a half of our Antarctic visit, but, after five landings, we were quite satisfied. So, off we went to the rescue.

We reached the island in inclement weather and boarded all 300 passengers, their luggage, 100 spare mattresses and most of the food from the Nordkapp.

Fully loaded, eight-person zodiac boats shuttled the passengers and supplies from the distressed ship to ours. Due to the inadequate cabin space aboard our ship, about 100 refugees slept in the forward part of deck 4 on mattresses strewn on the floor. We thought this was the end of our excitement, but it was just beginning.

At the beginning of our voyage, it took us 41 hours southbound from Ushuaia to reach Deception Island. On the return, it took 52 hours because we hit the fiercest storm of the season, classified as a Force 10, which meant winds from 55 to 63 mph and swells up to 70 feet. For comparison, a Force 8 defines a gale and a hurricane is a Force 12.

The ship pitched so badly that those trying to sleep on the extra mattresses on the floor experienced negative g-forces. They floated off their mattresses as the ship pitched down, only to be pressed deeply into them on the way up. Helen's seasick patches worked for us, so we tried to find the fun in it and played bridge in the height of the storm - unlike many others.

The next day we were finishing a late dinner in the dining room when the ship lost lights and the propeller stopped. As a former officer in the U.S. Merchant Marine, Ben considered the possible consequences if we lost power during the storm. The ship would eventually turn broadside into a wave, a dangerous position with swells rising higher than the main deck. Fortunately, a half-minute later we regained primary electricity and the screw began turning.

We learned later that the ship had been pitching so badly the propeller came out of the water. A safety mechanism shuts it down in such instances because, with no resistance from the water, it speeds up and could suffer severe damage.

During this leg of the trip, one fellow passenger hit his head when his chair flipped over, resulting in three stitches to his scalp.

That night the captain slowed the vessel to 2 to 4 knots, just keeping her headed into the swells and wind, to prevent the violent pounding. We arrived in Ushuaia about 9 p.m. and off-loaded our temporary passengers.

There was another cruise ship in port, The Prinsendam of the Holland America line. She was larger than us, about 670 feet in length to our 404 feet. While we had headed north back toward Ushuaia, she was sailing south into Drake Passage from Ushuaia. She ran into the same storm. Her captain decided to turn back and wait it out in the Beagle Channel near Ushuaia. The Prinsendam had 46 people injured. On arrival, they were sent to a hospital.

Our service crew talked with friends on The Prinsendam who said they thought the ship would capsize. Our guess is that while they reversed course they were broadside to the swells for several minutes and experienced some extreme rolls. We were told the Prinsendam lost all her dishes and glassware - several tons. We were very grateful for our captain.

Now, Ben has gone around Cape Horn, as his father did five times on a large sailing ship from 1912 to 1914. At that time, ships were dependent completely on the wind. It is difficult to imagine what that must have been like.

The Drake Passage between South America and Antarctica is said to have the roughest ocean in the world. Everyone on our ship or The Prinsendam certainly believes that.

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