Drake Passage

Drake Passage

Drake Passage is a sea strait between the southern coast of South America and the Shetland Islands, connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Drake Passage is one of the stormiest and most dangerous sea lanes in the world because of its strong winds and waves. The rough waters of the Drake Passage near Cape Horn have buried hundreds of ships beneath them, earning it a notoriety among sailors.

History and geography

The narrow Strait of Magellan is protected by the islands of the Tierra del Fuego archipelago, so it is much safer than the Drake Passage near the fearsome Cape Horn, which sailors dubbed Cape Storm, Cape Devil and “the old ogre”. But they were no less proud of successfully passing the dangerous place than mountaineers were of climbing Mount Everest.

Before the Panama Canal was officially opened in 1920, the Strait of Magellan, Beagle Channel and Drake Passage were the main sea routes for returning to England from the Pacific coast of America, the Pacific Islands, Australia and New Zealand. As a rule, ships of regular voyages moved within the “roaring forties” degrees of south latitude in a west-to-east direction, taking advantage of the stable and strong Antarctic Circumpolar Current (West Winds). Now near the “devilish” Cape Horn, where the west winds blow at a speed of up to 35 m/s, waves can be up to 15 meters, and powerful storms occur at least once a week in summer, twice a week in spring, and practically never stop in winter, there are no regular flights. But in the era of geographical discoveries it was the route usually followed by sailing ships that ventured around the Atlantic side of South America. Theoretically, the labyrinths of the Straits of Magellan and Beagle are safer than the Drake Passage and shorten the way, but they are more suitable for steamships, and for sailing ships moving against the wind to the west there is little room for maneuvering under the wind. In addition, in winter, these narrow straits often turned out to be bound by ice, and then the ships had nothing to do but to go on the open for hundreds of kilometers (not counting the small islands Diego Ramirez in 100 km from Horn Island) and never frozen entirely Drake Passage, despite the fog, rain, strong winds and the constant danger of storm and collision with an iceberg.

Drake’s Strait is named after the “Elizabethan pirate,” the English privateer, later Vice Admiral Sir Francis Drake, who rounded Cape Horn in 1578 during his voyage around the world. It was essentially a pirate raid on the Spanish colonies of the Pacific coast. In pursuit of gold, silver, precious stones, spices and slaves, truly great geographical discoveries were made. At the same time, seafarers sought to conquer the oceans exactly where they expected the greatest profit – closer to the tropics. “Useless” lands were discovered accidentally, usually because of deviations from the route in a storm, and immediately forgot about them. So Drake’s Strait was probably first “discovered” half a century before Drake by Spanish captain Francisco Oses in 1526 (the records note that “the crew thought they saw the edge of the world”, i.e. open sea space. This discovery was not given much significance at the time, but in Spanish and Latin American cartography, Drake Passage is commonly referred to as the Oses Sea.

Acquaintance with the Drake Passage occurred literally “spontaneously” – by the will of the elements. The official discoverer of the strait, Sir Francis Drake (as well as the Spaniard Francisco Oses), planned to pass through the Strait of Magellan known to him – and passed, but on the way out the storm scattered his ships. Only the flagship “Pelican” was able to make its way to the Pacific Ocean (the second ship died, the third returned to England). The ship was carried far to the south, and there behind the nameless basalt cliff opened the vast expanse of the ocean. “Pelican” for joy was renamed “Golden Doe”. She returned after plundering and pillaging the Pacific coast, laden with gold and spices.

The boundary between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans in the Drake Passage is usually drawn along the conventional line from Tierra del Fuego Island to Snow Island of the South Shetland Islands. The total width of the strait is from 820 to 1200 km. Although it is the widest strait in the world, it is simultaneously the narrowest for the Southern Ocean. The oceanographic community has been making continuous observations and measurements in Drake Passage since 1993, as this “bridge” between the two oceans is the most convenient place to study the hydrology of the Antarctic Circumpolar Current.

Powerful westerly winds prevailing between 40 and 55° S. are called “roaring forties”. Reaching South America, they hit the wall of the Andes – and the only loophole for them is the Drake Passage. The result is a giant “draught”, complicated by cyclones and headwinds coming down from the Andes.

The westerly winds produce the Antarctic Circumpolar Current, known as the West Wind Current, a kind of giant “river” girdling Antarctica. At these latitudes, there are no significant land areas anywhere that would interfere with the powerful current, which is about 600 times larger than the Amazon in terms of water flow. The speed of the current reaches 2 km/h. The islands of the Tierra del Fuego archipelago narrow the channel of the “river”, forming a kind of rapids: if above the depths the current is mainly surface, in the area of the islands above the mainland shoal, the waters are mixed almost to the bottom.

The first passage through the Drake Passage recorded in travel notes and on maps was made by the Dutch in 1616. Then they named the southern tip of the archipelago Cape Horn in honor of the hometown of Captain Willem Schouten. Another Dutchman, Billem Janszon, had discovered Australia in 1606. It is noteworthy that before the discovery of the wide Drake Passage to the south of America and before the southern coastline of Australia was mapped, people were convinced that both South America and Australia were parts of a huge unknown southern continent (Terra Australis). The world received precise information about the outlines of Antarctica and confirmation that it was a separate continent only as a result of the expedition of Thaddeus Bellingshausen and Mikhail Lazarev that circumnavigated it in 1820. And the first explorers of Horn Island and other unfriendly islands and straits of Chilean Antarctica were in 1831 the Englishmen from the ship “Beagle”, making their five-year round-the-world voyage. Among them was the young naturalist Charles Darwin, who traveled by dinghy to the most inaccessible places and described the fire-earth Indian tribe of the Jagans (by now there are no purebred Jagans left).

Although the idea from the early period of the Great Discoveries of the existence of the super continent of Terra Australis is certainly not true, it once was. Studies of the chemical composition of fossilized bones of ancient fish have confirmed that the strait opened about 41 million years ago. Before that, the southern mainland was completely separated by the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. In those prehistoric times, Antarctica had no ice cap, as the climate was much warmer.

In the historical era, the Southern Ocean is very cold; Drake Passage on the Antarctic side is covered with ice for eight months (April through November) over a quarter of its width, and the drift ice boundary reaches to the southern tip of Chilean Antarctica. The climate is not suitable for permanent human habitation on the islands, but the fauna is extremely rich and diverse: marine fauna is represented by a large number of mussels, balanus, octopus, crabs and shrimps; dolphins and whales can be seen from ships; numerous colonies of penguins, albatrosses, giant and other petrels and other sea birds can be seen on the islands and coast.

General Information

  • The world’s widest strait connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans (often referred to as the Southern Ocean).
  • Location: between Cape Horn in the Tierra del Fuego Archipelago and the South Shetland Islands (Antarctica).
  • Washes the countries: Argentina, Chile (Antarctica does not belong to any state).
  • Islands: Horn, Diego-Ramirez, Snow Island, Livingstone, etc., South Shetland Islands.
  • Currents: A powerful Antarctic circumpolar current – the West Wind Current – passes through the Strait. The main direction of the current is northward.
  • Ice cover: In the southern part up to 25% of the Strait is covered with ice from April to November.
  • The boundary of drifting ice reaches South America.
  • Length: 460 km.
  • Width: from 820 to 1120 km (the widest in the world).
  • Depth: up to 5249 m.
  • Salinity: 34%o.
  • Average current velocity: 1-2 km/h, at depth up to 0.4 km/h.
  • The main direction is to the north-east.

Climate and weather

  • Subantarctic.
  • Cold winters and cool summers.
  • From April to November in the southern part of the Strait the minus air temperature is kept in the southern part of the Strait.
  • The climate is windy and rainy.
  • Storms.
  • Icebergs.
  • Mean annual water temperature in the north: from +12 to +15°C.
  • Average annual water temperature in the south: +1 to +2°C.
  • Average air temperature from December to April: from +14°C in the north to +1.5°C in the south.
  • Average air temperature from April to December: +7°C in the north to -5°C in the south.
  • Average annual precipitation: 1000-1500 mm.


  • There is no industry and agriculture on the sub-Antarctic islands; there are scientific stations and nature reserves.
  • There are no regular flights.


  • Natural: fogs and rainbows, as well as the strongest winds and the strongest storms in the area of Cape Horn; icebergs; colonies of sea birds (since 2005 Cape Horn is an ecological reserve); whales and dolphins.
  • Cultural and historical: Cape Horn has a legendary lighthouse maintained by a Chilean family.

Fun facts

  • In past centuries, sailors who rounded Cape Horn were entitled to wear a gold earring in their left ear. Today, sailing around Cape Horn is the dream of every extreme yachtsman; for them, it is akin to a mountaineer’s dream of conquering an impregnable peak. Thus, recently the Kosin Marine Club reported about passing through the Drake Passage near Cape Horn on a collapsible sailing catamaran “Narval”, as part of a sea voyage to the islands of Tierra del Fuego in January 2012 – February 2013.
  • There is evidence that Drake planned to circumnavigate North America from the north and thus make another great geographical discovery; the “Golden Doe” reached approximately the latitude of Vancouver, Canada, but, seeing that the coastline turns not to the east but to the west, the navigator decided not to risk it and sailed across the ocean, carefully avoiding Spanish and Portuguese colonial possessions and ships.
  • After Drake’s pirate raid, the Spanish made an unsuccessful attempt to fortify the Straits of Magellan in 1584, and this is a tragic page in local history. Virtually all of the colonists of the then established settlements of Jesus Town and Philip’s Town on the northern shore of the Strait died of starvation and disease. They were unable to grow and harvest any crops on the sub-Antarctic islands, and the metropolis, busy preparing for war with England, forgot about them. In 1587, Drake’s “follower” privateer Thomas Cavendish, who discovered the ruins of the City of Jesus, renamed the place Puerto Ambre – “port of famine”. Only in the XIX century. Chileans were able to establish on the peninsula Brunswick the southernmost city of the Earth – Punta Arenas; at Cape Horn there is no settlement, but works legendary lighthouse, and with him – a few people serving.
  • Strictly speaking, none of the first circumnavigations of the world did not initially set out to circumnavigate the globe. Thus, the purpose of Magellan’s Spanish expedition in 1519-1522 was commercial: to find a western route to the Spice Islands through the strait, the existence of which the captain learned from the astrologer Ruy Falleru, and return back the same way. Having discovered the Strait of Magellan and going west across the Pacific Ocean for spices, Magellan did not even realize how huge it was and that the expedition would end tragically for him…. Well, the circumnavigations of the Englishmen Francis Drake in 1577-1580 and Thomas Cavendish in 1586-1588 were pirate raids; accordingly, their purpose was to rob Spanish ships and rich colonies of the Pacific coast; both marauders did not risk returning back, justly fearing a meeting with the Spanish squadron.
  • A general scheme of interoceanic circulation was proposed in the 1980s by the American oceanologist Wallace Broker. He called it the global ocean conveyor belt. From the southern tip of Greenland, cold and salty deep water moves southward with the Western Boundary Current, where it is picked up by the Antarctic Circumpolar Current, which runs along Antarctica, and carried into the Pacific Ocean. This 40,000 km journey of deep water takes about 1,000 years.
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