Stormy Antarctic Passage for Door County Couple

When Sturgeon Bay’s Bob and Susan Kohout booked a trip to reach their seventh continent they knew there were risks, but even these experienced travelers got more than they bargained for.

The Kohouts were passengers on the Clelia II, which was slammed by a rogue wave in the midst of a treacherous storm as it returned to South America after visiting Antarctica.

The Clelia II, as seen from the Antarctic shore during Bob and Susan Kohout’s recent visit to the continent.

“When you sign up for a trip to Antarctica, they make it very clear what the risks are,” Susan said. “You should expect to get seasick and bounced around a bit any time.”

That’s because the Drake Passage, between South America and Antarctica, is extremely rough sailing that takes two to three days to cross in good conditions. The Kohouts expected to see whales, penguins, and sea lions, but on this trip they also saw towering waves that “had the sea above us one minute, and way below us the next.”

A massive rogue wave ripped a railing off the 290-foot ship and slammed it through the window of the pilot house, flooding the communication and navigational systems. The captain used a hand-held CB radio to mayday for help, drawing the National Geographic Explorer to the scene, which shot a satellite radio to the ship with a harpoon-like gun. Video taken from the Explorer shows the violence of the storm the ship encountered and was picked up by national news networks.

For 48 hours, the 77-person crew and the ship’s 88 passengers rode out the storm. The Kohouts lauded the crew for their calm in handling a very difficult situation.

“We can’t overstate how well this crew handled this,” Susan said. “They did their jobs with a smile and stayed calm. The experts on board continued to give lectures – though they had to sit down and hold onto something.”

A Penguin greets the Kohouts on a calmer day before their treacherous return to South America.

Bob said the passengers didn’t panic. The type of people that take a vacation to the Antarctic, the Kohouts explained, are not novice travelers. “We all thought we had our best traveling battle story already, but this topped them all,” Bob said.

Still, there were moments of fear that left Susan wondering, “is this what it’s like when you’re on an airplane and the pilot says, ‘we’re going to crash’? But I just thought there’s nothing you can do at that point, so I’m just going to sit here and learn about whales. Plus, at that point we had a lot of confidence in the crew.”

The YouTube video of the seas is stunning, but the Kohouts didn’t see it until they got home Dec. 20. “We were really glad we didn’t see those until we got back,” Bob said. “When we did, we got scared all over again.”

The retired teachers are now settled back into the relative calm and comfort of the Door County winter, where Susan volunteers with the Door County League of Women Voters, and Bob drives for the Door County Trolley, guiding tours of a much less treacherous kind.