Drake Passage: a dangerous sea route that is home to 65-foot-plus waves and rough weather | Photo: Shutterstock

Welcome to the Drake Passage, the world's most dangerous sea route, home to 65-foot-plus waves. Here's why the 620-mile stretch between Cape Horn and Antarctica is treacherous and has become the ultimate extreme sailing adventure.

The infamous gateway between the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans is an oceanic and meteorological nightmare.

Large swells, abnormally strong winds, and choppy waters make it a hazardous way for cruise ships and cargo ships.

You've probably seen it on YouTube videos or in the news.

Discovered in the 16th Century

It's called the Drake Passage, even though it was Spanish ocean explorer Francisco de Hoces who first discovered it while sailing south from the entrance of the Strait of Magellan in 1525.

Ultimately, privateer Sir Francis Drake, while on his raiding expedition, gave the English name for the passage between South America's Tierra Del Fuego and the South Shetland Islands.

In 1578, after navigating through the Strait of Magellan with his ships Marigold and Elizabeth and his flagship Golden Hind, Drake was pushed far south by a fierce storm upon entering the Pacific Ocean.

During the extreme weather event, Marigold was lost, and Elizabeth was abandoned by the fleet.

Drake's Golden Hind was the sole vessel to venture into the passage's entry, revealing to the English that open water existed in the south of South America.

However, the English ocean explorer did not cross it.

The earliest recorded individual to navigate through the turbulent waters of the Drake Passage was a Dutch explorer named Willem Schouten.

In 1616, Schouten successfully crossed it, accomplishing this feat nearly four decades after Sir Francis Drake's pioneering Antarctic expedition.

The truth is that humans have long speculated about the existence of a continent in this region - Terra Australis.

Golden Hind: the galleon in which Francis Drake circumnavigated the globe in 1577-1580 | Illustration: Royal Museums Greenwich

Captain Cook's Failed Crossing Attempt

In the 18th century, British explorer Captain James Cook embarked on a quest to locate this southern landmass.

Although Cook's expedition crossed the entire Atlantic Ocean and ventured into the Southern Ocean, it did not encounter Antarctica.

Instead, his ship became trapped in the treacherous currents of the Drake Passage on its return journey, and the naval officer narrowly escaped with his life.

Despite being hailed as the greatest explorer of his era, Cook refrained from further voyages to this sea.

Reflecting on the perilous nature of the southern continent's discovery, Cook wrote in his journal:

"The risk of discovering this southern continent was so great that hardly any human would ever come here as far as I have come."

Drake Passage: the dangerous and stormy 620-mile stretch between Cape Horn and Antarctica | Photo: Creative Commons

Why Is Drake's Passage So Rough?

Oceans converge in various parts of the world, yet what sets the Drake Passage apart?

It's where the warm currents of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans collide with the icy waters of Antarctica.

This clash accelerates water circulation to a staggering 200 million cubic yards per second.

To put things into comparison, consider that the flow in the Drake Passage is 600 times greater than that of the Amazon River, the mightiest river on Earth.

Such immense currents give rise to waves towering between 60 to 80 feet (18.2-24.3 meters) in height.

Additionally, the meeting of warm and cold currents spawns numerous cyclones in this region.

Moreover, in this harsh reality, the influence of Antarctic waters plunges temperatures to below -5 °C (23 °F).

Drake Passage is also located in the heart of the Roaring Forties and the Furious Fifties, two regions of strong westerly winds in latitudes between 40 and 60 degrees south.

Drake Passage: huge waves are a threat to cruise and cargo ships | Photo: Creative Commons

Shipwrecks and Death

In one of the most remote corners of the globe, with Antarctica to the south and the dangerous sea to the north, accidents can leave ships isolated and crews alone in facing the elements.

The Drake Passage is believed to be the final resting place for approximately 800 shipwrecks, claiming the lives of roughly 20,000 sailors throughout history.

The most recent documented shipwreck in Drake's Passage occurred in 1819 when the Spanish vessel San Telmo sank en route to Peru with reinforcements during the War of Independence.

Tragically, 644 individuals lost their lives at sea in this incident.

Before the construction of the Panama Canal in 1914, the route that goes through Drake Passage served as the primary corridor for all commercial ships traveling to Western South America and North America.

With the completion of the Panama Canal, however, usage of this route dwindled significantly.

Yet, in light of recent concerns surrounding the security of the Panama Canal, there's a resurgence of interest in this traditional passage.

Consequently, it's anticipated that this route will again witness a surge in ship traffic. And, believe it or not, tourism.

The typical depth of the Drake Passage averages around 11,150 feet, although it's believed that the ocean floor may plunge to depths of up to 15,700 feet near its northern and southern boundaries.

Influence in Oceanography and Weather

The Drake Passage plays an important role in global oceanography and weather due to its influence on oceanic currents, climate patterns, and mixing processes.

Direct measurements in the passage provide valuable data for understanding oceanic properties and climate dynamics, complementing satellite observations.

Antarctic Circumpolar Current (ACC)

It serves as the narrowest connection between the three major ocean basins (Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian), allowing the formation of the ACC, which is the strongest oceanic current.

This current, estimated to transport 100-150 million cubic meters per second, facilitates large-scale exchange between the global oceans.

Climate Development

Major features of the modern ocean's temperature and salinity fields, as well as global climate patterns, develop after the opening of the Drake Passage.

Its presence influences thermal asymmetry between hemispheres, deep water salinity, and the transequatorial conveyor circulation.

Oceanic and Climate Interactions

The Roaring Forties and Furious Fifties winds around Antarctica, driven by the ACC, result in Ekman Transport, which transports water northward from the ACC.

Approximately 23 million cubic meters per second of water from the Drake Passage is transported to the equator, contributing to the global mass balance and meridional circulation.

Influence on Oceanic Circulation

Studies have shown that the shape of the Drake Passage affects the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC).

An open Drake Passage is necessary for the global thermohaline circulation, including the North Atlantic Deep Water (NADW) cell and the ACC.


Words by Luís MP | Founder of SurferToday.com

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