Photo: Jamie Jordan

You Can Sail to Antarctica on This Tall Ship - but It's Nothing Like a Cruise

by Morgane Croissant Jun 14, 2024

If you dream of traveling to Antarctica, but you balk at the idea of having to take an opulent and environmentally problematic cruise to get there, or worse, a first-class charter flight, there’s an adventure that’ll suit you perfectly: sailing to the seventh continent on board Bark EUROPA.

Bark EUROPA is a 1911, modernized, three-masted tall ship that takes intrepid travelers on sailing expeditions to remote parts of the world, including in the South Pacific, across oceans, around Cape Horn, and to Antarctica. But when you’re on board this impressive tall ship, you’re much more than a mere passenger. As soon as you step foot on Bark EUROPA, you become a ‘voyage crew’ or ‘trainee’ and fully participate in the handling on the ship — day and night.

“The voyage crew helps with sail handling, furling, rig maintenance, lookout, standing at the helm, and all other aspects of sailing. Our expeditions, unlike a cruise, are a real active sailing holiday!,” explains Leentje Toering, director of Bark EUROPA team.

Three-masted tall ship Bar Europa in Antarctica

Photo: Jamie Jordan

Needless to say that even though this impressive tall ship has all the modern conveniences to accommodate 16 to 18 crew members and a maximum of 48 guests, it’s not what one would call palatial. Unlike on a cruise ships, there’s no internet, spa, or a choice of dozens of specialty restaurants, and while all cabins have an en suite shower and toilet, they are all shared accommodations fitted with bunk beds. (There are four two-person cabins, four four-person cabins, and four six-person cabins on board.)

“Inside the ship, you will find spaces for meals and social activities, such as the deckhouse and lounge, as well as more quiet areas for reading or writing, such as the library. We would qualify the ship as comfortable. While we might not be the most luxurious vessel we offer the best bar, with a breathtaking 360-degree view of Antarctica on deck,” Toering says.

Photo: Arnoud Apituley
Photo: Arnoud Apituley
Photo: Arnoud Apituley

Since the year 2000, Bark EUROPA makes an average of five voyages to Antarctica every season (from December to March), with each expeditions lasting a minimum of 22 days and a maximum of 52 days. The 22-day Antarctica expeditions, from Ushuaia to Antarctica and back to Ushuaia, are the most popular voyages and start at $14,250 (13,200 euros). During this trip, Bark EUROPA sails across the infamous Drake Passage twice — an experience that’s not for everyone but that’s incredibly gratifying for travelers.

“The Drake Passage is really part of the adventure, it feels even more rewarding to reach Antarctica after crossing the Drake. Many of the voyage crew comment that they feel like they have earned their way to Antarctica,” explains Toering.

We talked at length with Toering about what it’s like to sail to Antartica, and other remote destinations, on such a unique ship as Bark EUROPA.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Matador: Why travel to Antarctica by tall ship rather than by cruise ship?

Antarctica wildlife

Photos: Jamie Jordan and Jordi Plana Morales

Toering: For each traveler there is a suitable ship. At team Bark EUROPA, we are looking for the more adventurous travelers and those who want to share the experience with a smaller sized group. We focus on slow travel, visiting this magical continent with the utmost respect for our surroundings and its wildlife.

Traveling to Antarctica by tall ship is like following in the footsteps of early explorers but with modern technology. The experience of walking around on deck, surrounded by massive icebergs and towering glaciers is something that is difficult to describe in words; it is like becoming one with the area we sail in, experiencing nature at its rawest.

How hands-on can passengers be on board Bark EUROPA?

Crew on board Bark Europa in Antarctica

Photo: Jordi Plana Morales

Upon embarkation, everyone on board is assigned to a watch in a rotating system. As a trainee on board EUROPA, your primary duties include steering the ship, keeping lookout, and assisting with sail handling, all with instructions from the permanent crew. Participating in these watches is a key part of the overall experience of a voyage on EUROPA. At all times, voyage crew are working side by side with the experienced sailors of the permanent crew, who teach them the basics of sailing, as well as their own tips and tricks.

If guests want to help out more during their time off watch duty, they can lend a hand in the deckhouse peeling potatoes for dinner or apples for pies, or help out with the research projects and citizen science projects.

In Antarctica the watch system stops for the voyage crew so the guests can fully experience Antarctica and enjoy the landings and exploring the continent.

In general, who are the people who travel on Bark EUROPA?

We welcome people from all over the globe on board, both males and females, from ages ranging between 16 up to 73 years old, all from different walks of life, different nationalities, different professions, but with one thing in common: a thirst for adventure!

Many of the people who sail to Antarctica on board Bark EUROPA travel there for the first time, some have little to no sailing experience while others are life-long sailors. It is the mix of people that make our voyages even more memorable. Not having internet on board, allows for better human connections. Many sailors embark as a solo travelers and leave the ship with friends for a lifetime.

Who is the crew on board Bark EUROPA?

Our crew members come from all over the globe, male and female, from 18 years old up to 65. The crew consists of a captain, a first mate, a bosun, a cook, a cook’s assistant, deckhands, a doctor, and scientists/researcher and expedition guides.

Considering this is an adventurous trip where travelers are put to work, are there specific physical and health criteria required from guests?

While no sailing experience is required, some physical requirements are important for you to get the most out of your voyage. Good balance and core strength are crucial to be able to cope with the motion of the ship while on deck, in the shower, or to climb into the bunk. In order to participate in sail handling, climbing, and other activities on board, it is also important to be agile and in overall good shape.

Are there age restrictions to be a passenger on board bark EUROPA?

The minimum age requirement for kids traveling on their own is 16 years old. If a family wants to join with their kids, we ask that they are at least 12 years of age and all able to swim. Prior to taking youngsters on board we schedule a call with the parents. Bark EUROPA is a ship that embarks on challenging voyages in tough conditions; therefore, it is important to be fit enough. We have decided to restrict our remote, long, and physically demanding voyages to guests under the age of 73.

What is the most challenging part of sailing to Antarctica on a tall ship?

Bark Europa tall ship in the Drake Passage

Photo: Richard Simko

The most challenging part of sailing to Antarctica is the Drake Passage.

As with all remote places in the world, the route to our destination is long and before we arrive to Antarctica we have to cross the Drake Passage. Named after the explorer Sir Francis Drake, known for his circumnavigation of the world, the Drake is a passage between the tip of the South American continent and Antarctica. With no land to interrupt either the strong Antarctic Circumpolar Current nor the high latitude atmospheric circulation, the seas here have the reputation to be stormy, but in between the low-pressure systems they can also be relatively calm.

When speaking of the Drake we often speak either of the Drake Shake or the Drake Lake. The former obviously providing movement and hopefully good sailing conditions; the latter describing an absence of wind as a lake like ocean. Either way, the route to Antarctica is adventurous and we are accompanied by wildlife that have the open ocean as their territory. Cape petrels, white-chinned petrels, and albatrosses glide on the wind while the hourglass dolphins like to play around our bow every now and then.

The crossing takes approximately four days of sailing and during these days Bark EUROPA shows off her strength and resilience. At this time, the watch system is in full force.

Do guests get sea sick and scared during the Drake Passage crossings?

Everyone feels safe on board. During the Drake Passage, seasickness is something that happens to some sailors at the start of the voyage but most will get used to the motion of the ship after a few days. From then on, it doesn’t stop anyone from enjoying being surrounded by an enormous pack of water, the impressive height of the waves, and the way EUROPA makes her way though it all.

Do passengers on board bark EUROPA get to land in Antarctica?

Zodiac expeditions in Antarctica

Photo: Richard Simko

When in Antarctica, we try to organize one to two landings per day. During landings, guests step from the ship into Zodiacs and go ashore in small groups led by an expedition guide. The groups then explore the terrain, go for hikes, while the guides talk about the wildlife visible along the way, as well as the places being visiting and their history.

All sites are different, and some are more biodiverse than others. We also visit research stations, although we never know beforehand if the ice will allow us to go through the Lemaire Channel, or if the stations will be open to the public. Every day our route and activities depends on wind and weather, this makes it a true Antarctic Expedition.

Is Bark EUROPA the only tall ship sailing to Antarctica?

Three-masted tall ship Bar Europa in Antarctica

Photo: Jamie Jordan

We can proudly say we are the only tall ship to sail to Antarctica on a yearly basis. The sailing expeditions we offer are real sailing adventures and we are aware that we don’t cater to everyone. Our trips are for travelers who wish to explore Antarctica in an authentic way, through slow travel, becoming one with the elements of nature. We only have a few berths available (40 per expedition to Antarctica, 48 for other destinations) and we seek out active people for a unique voyage.

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