The notoriously rough Drake Passage — the body of water between Cape Horn, at the southern tip of South America, and Antarctica — will soon be easier than ever to cross.
In October, adventure cruise company Aurora Expeditions will launch a new, state-of-the-art ship, the Greg Mortimer. Named after the company’s co-founder, the ship will sail Antarctica and the Arctic Circle, as well as select itineraries in Central and South America, Scandinavia, and the British Isles.
A major feature of the new expedition vessel: the patented inverted bow, called the X-Bow, which provides more stability than traditional designs. The X-Bow allows the 340-foot, 120-passenger ship to pierce through choppy waves, like those in the Drake Passage, with unprecedented ease and speed — while also reducing fuel consumption and emissions.
Does this mean sea sickness while crossing the Drake will be a thing of the past? I recently spoke with Robert Halfpenny, managing director of Aurora Expeditions, to find out. “No,” he told me. “But it will be more comfortable.”
While it’s not a new invention — the X-Bow has been used in shipping and scientific vessels for the past few decades — the launch of the Greg Mortimer will mark the first time it’s been used for adventure tourism. Other high-tech upgrades include a “virtual anchoring” system, using satellite geo-positioning to keep the ship stationary without a real anchor — thus leaving the delicate ecosystem of the sea floor undisturbed. Two hydraulic platforms on the sides of the ship will allow passengers to take in the landscape from multiple levels.
“They hang out over the front of the ship like tongues,” said Halfpenny, his excitement palpable. “When you’re crushing ice up in the Arctic, for example, polar bears will hear it and come right up to see what’s going on. They’ll stand there and reach up. We can open up the platforms, and you’re going to be no more than 12, maybe 15 feet from a polar bear.”
While the Greg Mortimer’s predecessors — refurbished Russian research vessels — were comfortable enough, the new purpose-built ship is decidedly more luxe, combining the necessary features of a polar vessel with elements of a high-end cruise. “A lot of this we’ve kept kind of quiet until now,” says Halfpenny, “because we want people to get on board and go, wow.”
All cabins are sea-facing, and 80% have private balconies. There’s a wellness center with gym and yoga studio, plus a sauna with a picture window for gazing at the wide Southern Ocean. There are two outdoor hot tubs with sweeping views. The artwork has been meticulously curated, featuring museum quality nature and wildlife photography from some of the world’s most respected photographers. (The pieces will be available for purchase from an onboard catalog.)
Other creature comforts include a 360-degree, open-air viewing deck; a passenger lounge with floor-to-ceiling windows, offering unobstructed 180-degree views; and a library and media center with topical books, nautical maps, and photography equipment like Canon and Olympus lenses available for loan.
The luxury aspects of the Greg Mortimer will be a draw for many guests new to expedition cruising — but, as Halfpenny noted, the real draws are the destinations, where Aurora Expeditions excels. “We’ve always been a little bit different,” he told me. “We pioneered polar diving and snorkeling. We do the Shackleton Crossing, retracing Robert Shackleton’s steps in Antarctica. We offer skiing in the polar regions, on virgin slopes that maybe nobody has ever skied before.”
One region, in particular, where the Greg Mortimer is a game changer: Antarctica. A maximum of 100 passengers at a time can land at any given time, which means at least 20 can opt for kayaking, diving, or snorkeling instead. Still, having only 120 passengers provides a clear advantage over other, larger ships. During your turn on land, you can stay there for hours without having to rush back to give other people a turn — allowing guests to take the necessary time to experience the landscape and wildlife.
“There’ll be, maybe, 4,000 penguins there,” Halfpenny reminisced, “and dozens and dozens of fur seals. Everybody gets excited. You aren’t allowed to approach within 50 meters of an animal — but they will come to you. They don’t know the rules, right? Those are the magic moments.”
Aurora Expeditions makes an effort to bring experts on board to deepen the guest experience. They work with celebrity photographers, each of whom do two or three voyages every year, helping people with their shooting technique and running photography courses on sea days. There are also hands-on activities with research scientists from institutions like the Scripps Institute of Oceanography and talks by polar explorers and adventurers.
“The whole point is to be immersed in where you are and not be in a hurry,” he continued. “That’s what Aurora has become famous for.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Greg Mortimer’s maiden voyage has been sold out for months, and you’ll have to act fast to make a booking for the 2020 season. Good news if you choose to book further out: Aurora Expeditions recently commissioned the construction of a second X-Bow ship, launching in 2021.
To book: auroraexpeditions.com.au; sailings on the Greg Mortimer start at $4,800 per person.