EDITOR'S NOTE: Retired Daily News reporter Frank Dougherty, who for many years wrote the popular "Phantom Rider" column focusing on SEPTA, rode out a near-disaster Dec. 6 and 7 when wild waves struck the cruise ship he was on in the dangerous passage between Cape Horn and Antarctica. This is his account of the adventure.
THE STORM STRUCK in turbulent Drake Passage south of Cape Horn when we were returning on the Clelia II from our exploration of the seals and sea birds and penguin rookeries of Antarctica.
We were sailing north through the passage toward Ushuaia in southern Argentina, the southernmost city in the world and the embarkation point and port of return for 90 percent of all Antarctic expeditions.
The Drake Passage is 1,000 kilometers of storm-prone open water separating Cape Horn from Antarctica. Old salts and sea hands at the bottom of the world call it "The Drake Shake." It's one of the most turbulent bodies of water in the world.
The constant low-pressure systems that circulate around Antarctica and the Drake Passage generate winds with the force of driving pistons, creating waves that frequently crest from 30 to 40 feet high.
Clelia II Captain Idar Petersen, a skilled and taciturn skipper, employed a technique worthy of Chuck Yeager to reassure his 77 crew members and 88 American tourists while battling the elements for control of his ship.
During this horrible ordeal, the soft-spoken Danish national never raised his voice or expressed uncertainty. Idar Petersen had the "right stuff."
The Clelia was thrashing about in the high seas. The cresting waves smacked the vessel as if it were a shuttlecock. Then one wave leaped to the fifth deck and ripped away the handrail, flinging it against the pilot's compartment windshield.
It broke the window, and seawater roared into the compartment, knocking out our communications, including radar. In a matter of seconds we went "blind" in a raging storm hundreds of miles from shore.
The National Geographic Society Explorer, another nature-tour boat in the passage, responded to our distress signal.
Explorer crew members fired a contraption that lobbed electronic communication devices attached to ropes across the raging waters to the upper deck of the Clelia II. Later I was told the devices were global satellite telephones.
For a couple of anxious hours, I feared that the ship would go down. Passengers were being thrown out of beds and flung across cabins. We were being rattled like dice in a casino. Other than bumps and bruises, however, there were no critical injuries.
A rescue at sea was out of the equation. There was no chance of lifeboats being launched in a sea so turbulent. And forget life jackets! Death from hypothermia was a given in these frigid waters.
The ship shrieked and moaned with the violent twisting as we were buffeted by winds gusting from 50 to 70 knots per hour, and waves three to four stories high.
The creaking created by the constant battering was the cry of a ship in pain. It sounded like a death rattle. I thought it was just a matter of time.
But Petersen remained undeterred. "We have steering and our engines," he announced. "We are pointing the front section of Clelia, its front, its strongest feature, directly into the wind at 2 to 3 knots per hour, to ride out the storm."
About 20 anxious hours later, we did.
A scheduled voyage of two days turned into one of almost five days as we limped into Ushuaia on a Thursday night.
Digital video of the storm went around the world. The ferocity of the disturbance and the vividness of the images commanded international attention.
Back on land, Captain Petersen displayed the right stuff one more time. "That wasn't so bad," he said of the storm. "I saw worse when I sailed between Greenland and Iceland!"
A couple of days later, while waiting for a plane to Buenos Aires, I came across a quote attributed to Sir Francis Drake, the British adventurer whom the passage honors. It was drafted in 1587:
"There must be a beginning of any great matter, but the continuing unto the end until it be thoroughly finished yields the true glory."
I continue to wonder if this observation is in fact a warning to global vagabonds bound for Antarctica who challenge this infamous passage that bears his name when sailing to that strikingly beautiful frozen wilderness unlike any other place on earth.