At the Helm

A lot of work goes on behind the scenes to deliver a captivating Antarctic experience. Captain Kai Albrigtsen offers a rare insight into how his team pulls it all together.

JUSTIN MENEGUZZI

5 min read

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From the bridge of the MS Roald Amundsen, Captain Kai Albrigtsen cuts a calm and steady figure. Outside the panoramic windows, towering waves crash against the ship as it carves its way south to Antarctica. This is the infamous Drake Passage, a thousand-kilometre stretch of water between the southernmost point of South America and the Antarctic Peninsula. It’s known for its heaving seas that make quick work of queasy stomachs, but the captain is unfazed.

From the bridge of MS Roald Amundsen, Captain Kai Albrigtsen cuts a calm and steady figure. Photo: Agurtxane Concellon

“I never get seasick,” he explains. “I haven’t got the time. I’m too busy looking to find the absolute best course through it.”

Captain Albrigtsen has sailed to Antarctica more times than he can count in a 30-year career spanning both ends of the planet. In that time, he’s learned to read the weather, the way ice moves on the water, and to always have a dozen back-up plans in case the first falls through. He’s also learned if you’re just patient enough, things will eventually come good. Drawing on his experience and intuition, he’s able to navigate the 21,000-tonne ship through the Drake to find calmer waters.

“This ship is quite a major step into the future”

— Captain Kai Albrigtsen

Sailing the Lemaire Channel, Antarctica. Photo: Andrea Klaussner

MS Fridtjof Nansen. Photo: Oscar Farrera

MS Roald Amundsen navigating the icy waters of Antarctica. Photo: Dan Avila

The captain at the helm.

The captain at the helm.

Captain Kai Albrigtsen welcomes guests on board MS Roald Amundsen. Photo: Andrea Klaussner

Captain Kai Albrigtsen welcomes guests on board MS Roald Amundsen. Photo: Andrea Klaussner

The life of a sea captain

Kai’s day usually begins around 6am, when conditions are calmest and Antarctic waters turn to rippling sheets of gold. He’ll savour the view from the bridge with a morning coffee and chat with his crew while they review the latest weather reports. Once he and the expedition leaders are satisfied conditions are safe, he’ll manoeuvre the ship into position by 7.30am, just as travellers begin to emerge from their cabins and sit down for breakfast, blissfully unaware of the detailed logistics that took place while they were sleeping.

Even though the ship is in position, Captain Albrigtsen doesn’t sit idle. With a sly grin, he insists it is a very necessary and important part of his job to know every landing site intimately – so he can educate passengers on what to expect, of course. That’s why he’ll don a life jacket and join shore landings and expeditions, zipping past enormous glaciers and historical whaling stations, and exploring squawking gentoo penguin colonies. In the evening, he’ll return to the bridge and begin planning for the next day.

Kai’s favourite route to Antarctica departs from Punta Arenas, in southern Chile, which takes in the sprawling mountain ranges of Patagonia before attempting (usually successfully) a landing at Cape Horn before sailing to Antarctica. Whichever route you take, Kai says, you’ll ultimately arrive at Antarctica – a glittering, wondrous moment that never gets old, no matter how many times you visit: “I could be away from Antarctica for just a few days, but I’m still always excited to go down there again.”

70 Degrees South, MS Roald Amundsen. Photo: Werner Kruse

Leave no trace

For intrepid travellers dreaming of visiting Antarctica, Kai highly recommends reading the stories of famous explorers, like Sir Ernest Shackleton and Roald Amundsen, before visiting. Knowing the history of the continent and the trials of early explorers, he believes, adds a certain awe to the experience and appreciation for what they endured.

Like those early explorers, Kai says every traveller has an important role to play in keeping Antarctica pristine, for the wildlife that live there and for future generations.

“When you visit Antarctica, you understand how everything is reliant on each other, from the tiny krill up to the whales, and that it is vulnerable,” he explains. “We need to protect it from the outside world.”

You can join Captain Kai Albrigtsen aboard the MS Roald Amundsen in Antarctica, with a range of Antarctica departures and itineraries for 2022 currently available.