How a New Line of Expedition Ships Is Turning the Tides on Polar Seas

High-tech features are making treacherous ocean passages feel tame

Viking cruise ship in Antarctica
In order to build ships strong and technically savvy enough to traverse through some of the most remote and challenging landscapes on Earth, several cruise companies borrowed designs from other parts of the shipping industry. Viking Cruises

The first time I found myself in the waters surrounding South America’s southern tip, in 2013, I spent hours each day in my cabin, fighting off constant nausea. We were navigating the sea around Cape Horn, a notoriously rough passage, and winds were sweeping our “polar approved” vessel from side to side, whipping up massive waves and sending my stomach into a frenzy.

I swore that I’d never even consider taking a ship through these waters again, let alone the Drake Passage, the approximately 600-mile stretch that lies between the bottom tip of South America and the Antarctic Peninsula with a reputation for being one of the most perilous on the planet. The passage has claimed the lives of some 20,000 sailors over the years. But when an opportunity came for me to sail to Antarctica a decade later, I couldn’t say no. Thankfully, I found that polar expedition vessels had come a long way in those ten years. Not only was I able to enjoy the scenery, thanks to a bevy of tech-savvy features that helped steady both the ship and my stomach, but I even returned to Antarctica for a second go—braving the Drake Passage crossing a total of four times after swearing it off for good.

While navigating polar waters remains extremely tough, a new line of expedition cruise ships—smaller vessels that are purposely built by various companies for navigating remote areas—has been turning the tides on these treacherous seas and making them much more manageable for both vessels and passengers alike. By combining comfort and efficiency with overall safety through an abundance of high-tech features, and maximizing everything from speed to stability, these purpose-built vessels are making the dreaded “Drake Shake” (the passage’s less-than-savory nickname) feel more like the “Drake Lake,” even on its wildest days.

Why repurposed research vessels weren’t the best fit

When traveler expeditions first started heading to Antarctica in the late 1960s, most of the ships being used were old Russian research vessels and converted car ferries that had been outfitted with guest cabins. They were rugged and far from luxury, but each of these ships had been “polar approved.” This meant they’d undergone substantial modifications—such as rebuilding the entire body of the ship from sheets of metal to thicker, highly durable steel—to allow them to operate in polar waters. Still, they were a far cry from the purpose-built ships of today.

A zodiac returns to Lindblad's Resolution at Peterman Island in Antarctica
A zodiac returns to Lindblad's Resolution at Peterman Island in Antarctica. Ralph Lee Hopkins

Even Lindblad Expeditions’ Explorer ship, one of the company’s still-operational expedition ships, which launched in 2008, began service as a coastal Norwegian passenger and ice ferry. “She was already ice class,” a term meaning it was built to safely navigate through sea ice, says Tyler Skarda, Lindblad’s chief maritime officer. “Lindblad then equipped her with mud rooms to store excursion equipment, and outfitted her with an ice-strengthened hull.”

It wasn’t until the last decade that some of the major players in the cruise industry—companies like Lindblad, Viking Cruises, Aurora Expeditions and Ponant, which includes ships used by Smithsonian Journeys—began purposely constructing expedition ships. According to Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), the world’s largest cruise industry trade association, 2023 saw a record 81 expedition cruise ships operating, a number that more than quadrupled from a decade ago. Many of these ships have been intentionally built for the expedition cruise industry. With passenger capacities ranging anywhere from 60 to 375 or even more, these smaller vessels are designed specifically for crossing waters like the Drake, as well as the ice-laden polar regions of both Antarctica and the Arctic.

“Antarctica is where the money is,” says Jason Flesher, an expedition operations director with Scenic Luxury Cruises and Tours who’s been involved with expedition cruising since 2010. “It’s still that unattainable, unreachable frontier for so many.”

The technology of purpose-built ships

In order to build ships strong and technically savvy enough to traverse through some of the most remote and challenging landscapes on Earth, several cruise companies borrowed designs from other parts of the shipping industry. For example, both Lindblad and Aurora Expeditions turned to Ulstein, a family-owned and internationally renowned shipbuilder, to create their innovative hull design. Ulstein first launched its patented X-Bow concept in 2005 as a way for shipping vessels to service the huge offshore oil and gas industry in the exceptionally rough North Sea.

The X-BOW® explained

From its inception, the X-Bow was a hit. Its sloped design offers a smoother ride both by splitting the energy of the waves as they hit a ship and by reducing the slamming impact that comes with water hitting the underside of the bow. “The X-Bow mitigates any pitching through creating buoyancy, so that ships like Lindblad’s Resolution and Endurance can basically glide through eight meter [26-feet-high] seas,” says Skarda. “It also allows these ships to keep up speed, unlike traditionally bowed ships, where you have to slow down in order to keep the back end of a ship from coming out of the water.”

Tomas Holik, vice president of operations at Aurora, says the revolutionary design also comes in handy during severe weather conditions. “While other ships may have to wait for conditions to improve,” he says, “the X-Bow allows our expedition ships to continue.”

Companies such as Lindblad, Scenic Eclipse and Viking have also outfitted their expedition vessels with Azipod, a gearless, steerable propulsion system that allows ships to maneuver 360 degrees with superb precision. First developed in the late 1980s for vessels maintaining Finland’s coastal fairways, these electric units permit a ship’s main propellers to act as thrusters, eliminating any need for separate thrusters, which can add drag, or extra resistance, to the hull.

“One of the amazing capabilities that Azipods give us,” says Skarda, “is that rather than having fixed shafts and propellers, which are typically the first things to get damaged in the ice, we’re instead able to get into a situation where the ship sees an ice ridge, and then they can almost turn around on a dime. It then uses the Azipod propulsion system to actually flush the ice to the side. If a ship with a conventional propulsion system hits the ice with one of their propellers or the shaft or the rudder, they’re going to have a problem.”

Three decades of ABB's revolutionary Azipod propulsion system

Another game changer is the computer-controlled Dynamic Positioning (DP) System, used to automatically maintain a ship’s position without mooring lines or anchors. Ships like Scenic Eclipse I and II and Viking Polaris and Octantis use it in shallow, fragile areas to minimize harm to seabeds. “With the DP system, all it takes is the push of a button, and the computer takes over everything,” says Flesher, of Scenic. “The thrusters, the propulsion, the stabilizers—so no matter what outside forces are against the ship, she holds point and she won’t move.”

While all high-end expedition cruise ships are equipped with stabilizers to smooth out the ride, the custom-built ones on Scenic Eclipse I and II are 50 percent larger than those on other vessels. They’re also zero-speed, meaning they minimize drag by maximizing lift, greatly reducing any rolling caused by rough seas. A computerized system allows them to move up and down automatically, counteracting any winds or swells that the ships encounter. Actually, the stability of the ships when they’re stationary is so good, it’s akin to treading water.

When it comes to sustainability, all new cruise ships debuting between 2023 and 2028 will be primarily powered by liquefied natural gas, according to CLIA. Launched in 2020, Ponant’s Le Commandant Charcot even became the first luxury hybrid electric polar exploration ship powered by this cleaner fossil fuel, which emits very little sulfur. Artificial intelligence is another tool that can make modern expedition ships more efficient by forecasting sea ice before it forms, allowing vessels to strategically plan routes around it.

All of these technologies mean a smoother ride for passengers, who get the adventure of navigating rough seas without putting their lives in peril like their precursors.

Weighing options

Although converted polar-class vessels are still the best option for budget travelers heading to Antarctica, Flesher says it’s going to include “a lot more bounce” to get there. “These are the ships where the dining room chairs are chained to the floor,” he says, “and the movement? Believe me, you feel it.”

Viking Octantis
Ships like Viking Polaris and Octantis (shown here) use the computer-controlled Dynamic Positioning (DP) System in shallow, fragile areas to minimize harm to seabeds. Viking Cruises

While today’s purpose-built expedition ships may have oversized stabilizers to help steady them in winds and waves, and strengthened hulls to protect their cargo and machinery, they’re not entirely foolproof. Unforeseen natural occurrences (like the rogue wave that hit a ship on its return from Antarctica in 2022) are extremely rare, but they certainly can happen. “Something like a [rogue wave] will have an impact on a vessel, regardless of its size and technical prowess,” says Holik, of Aurora Expeditions.

Crossing the Drake Passage may still have its risks, but they’re minimal in comparison to the days of legendary polar explorers like Roald Amundsen and Ernest Shackleton. In the case of today’s purpose-class expedition vessels, it’s also a lot more comfortable to boot.

As someone who’s prone to seasickness, I only felt the slightest bit queasy (thanks, in part, to some ginger tablets and Dramamine) while traversing the infamous sea. Definitely not enough to keep me from taking in the breathtaking scenery while following the sea paths of legends.

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