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Taming the Wild Zodiac by Pam Mandel

Posted April 15, 2011 @ 6:38pm | by TravelWild

On my March trip to Antarctica, we went ashore twice a day, almost every day.  On the surface, it seems like a simple enough thing to do.  Get dressed, board the sturdy little inflated boat, buzz to shore, get out.  No problem.  And yes, it was no problem.  But the first time negotiating the gangplank, waddling around in boots not yours and a bulky layer of clothing topped by a life vest, it can seem a bit…awkward.

Trust me, it takes a day, maybe two, to become an expert at this process.  I mastered it so thoroughly that first day, I was admonished by our expedition leader.  “Oh no!  You can’t be ready yet!  I’M not ready yet!”

Let me break it down for you.

  1.  Listen for your departure call. In order to mitigate crowding in the boarding area and to disperse our impact on land a little, our 100+ passenger group was divided into two groups.  We alternated “who’s first” days.  At the beginning of the trip, I’d drop what I was doing, rush down to the cabin to dress, rush to the deck and…wait.  By day three, I’d learned that the call meant I should finish my coffee, brush my teeth, make sure my camera batteries were charged, get dressed, find a buddy for the day’s trip, use the loo, and only then would I head to the boarding area.
  2. Get dressed. Layers.  You’ve heard it before, I’ll tell you again.  I was never cold.  Blissfully, I was too warm once, when climbing a steep snowy grade.  Regardless of  how you dress, make sure that your outer layers are all waterproof—it’s essential.  In addition to your waterproof wrapper, the other essential item is your life vest, properly tightened.  Adjust your vest before you put your gloves on, and get used to doing this—it seemed I was never able to get the same life vest twice.
  3. Scrub your boots. There were bins of disinfectant solution on the boarding deck.  Each time we left (and returned) to the ship, we stood in the disinfectant bath and scrubbed the remains of the previous day’s penguin poop, algae, dirt, whatever, off our boots.
  4. Wait your turn and don’t crowd. Everybody who wants to go to shore gets to go, conditions permitting.  Each boat held 10-12 passengers, plus a driver—you’ll never get left behind.  And even if your field trip buddy isn’t in your Zodiac, they’re right behind you, so chill.  I kept forgetting that I was bigger around, because of my backpack, and I would whack into some poor unsuspecting person when I turned around.
  5. Pass your life vest check. At each boarding, a crew member would give my vest a little tug to make sure I was buckled in properly.  Get it wrong?  Back to the end of the line for you.
  6. Board the Zodiac. There was always one person at the end of the gangplank and one in the boat to help with this process.  Sometimes, if there was a bit of swell, we’d have to wait for the water to be doing The Right Thing.  There’s no glory here in doing it yourself—I always let the crew help me get in (and out) of the boat.
  7. Hold on. Our excursions were never a thrill ride, safety was always first.  There were (wet) ropes to hold on to.  If the water was flat—which it was, on several occasions—it was fine to stand to take photos, but only after checking in with the driver.  One day it was windy and there was some chop.  “You’re going to get wet,” said our driver, “there’s nothing I can do about that.”  Did I mention those waterproof layers really matter?
  8. Stay put until you’re told it’s okay to move. No leaping out of the Zodiac, okay?  Just because the boat is on land, doesn’t mean you can leap to shore.  Nope.  There’s a whole balance thing, and the tide, and the rocks are slippery, and your backpack full of camera gear is messing with your center of gravity.  There are crew members at your landing to help you out of the Zodiac—let them.  For the record, I got in the boat okay, I got out wrong almost every time.  Oops.  (Okay, I didn’t master the process that 100%.)
  9. Do it again in reverse. There was always a Zodiac waiting, ready to return passengers who were hungry, tired or cold (or had consumed too much coffee) to the ship.  Always.  Upon return, we’d scrub our boots again, peel off all those layers, and go for tea or lunch.  And then, it would start all over again…
  10. Listen for your departure call…

You really do get used to it and, while it seems like a lot of work, it turns into fun in no time.

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