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Meeting a Different Kind of Cruising Challenge

September 10, 1989|PATRICIA P. GUSTKE | Gustke is a free-lance writer living in San Jose.

Cape Horn may seem like an odd destination choice for a cruise, but for my husband and I it was the culmination of a longtime dream.

We'd first talked about it in the halcyon days of our youth, when we labored together sailing our Star boat. We made the promise again and again, while sailing on San Francisco Bay or in the warm waters of the Caribbean. But raising a family, business responsibilities and then a progressive muscular disease I contracted delayed the plans.

What fun, then, to find that we could make this voyage by cruise ship, on the Royal Viking Sky. For even though years had passed, the desire to "round the Horn" had not.

It presents the same challenge to a sailor as Mt. Everest does to a climber. And the 20,000 miles we covered getting there and back was a wheelchair saga that left me feeling as adventurous as a Magellan or Chichester.

Even on the Sky, with its radar and satellite position finder, there's still no promise of seeing this rugged sentinel that marks the boundary between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, just 600 miles from Antarctica. The itinerary cautiously says "weather permitting," and we knew that on the previous cruise it had been too rough to attempt.

Well, we were lucky. The gods and nature smiled on us, for we did fulfill our promise on a dark and forbidding morning. Rising at 5:30, hoping for an early glimpse of this rocky island, my husband Bob headed to the deck bundled up like a sailor from clipper ship days.

That's the captain in him, and he stayed on deck every cold moment until the Horn was far behind us.

I, as the imaginary first mate, was delighted to discover that our promenade deck windows looked out at exactly the same vista. So I did my rounding of the Horn, snuggled into my warm bunk, sipping hot coffee from my bed tray, happily aware that for me, at least, the luxurious ship offered a lot more comfort than a 45-foot sloop.

En route to Cape Horn, we first visited friends in Santiago, then flew to Rio for a Royal Viking pre-cruise stay. Our two-week cruise was slow-paced, with stops in Santos, Montevideo, Puerto Madryn (near a nature preserve on the Patagonian coast), a transit of the Strait of Magellan, then on to Ushuaia, the most southerly city in the world, Cabo de Hornos and a leisurely four-day sail back up to Buenos Aires.

What we did and what we saw in the course of those 20,000 miles would make a good itinerary for anyone. We just happened to do it with me sitting in my wheelchair. The special difficulties we faced and the special efforts we had to make showed our South American neighbors our true desire to learn about their countries and their cultures.

Pre-planning: In wheelchair travel it's best to accept the fact that there will be problems. But advance planning can minimize them. Our travel agent contacted Royal Viking Lines, explaining my medical problems (muscular dystrophy) and the fact that I needed full-time use of a wheelchair.

I followed this with a personal call to again alert the cruise line that I could not climb steps; that's important because buses are the normal mode of shore transport. Many passengers have lesser mobility problems, using a chair just as an aid, so it's necessary to let them know that you're a "permanent occupant."

Select the best cabin you can afford--it means more space, a larger bath, wider hallways. I cut corners on my grocery budget for months to splurge on the promenade deck because of the scenic view from its big windows. I love to watch the constant parade of walkers, joggers and strollers.

Try for mid-ship location, close to an elevator. Make your dining room selection well in advance. We prefer a table for two by the window, but you may have to beguile the maitre d' once aboard to get one.

Arm yourself with what reading material you can find. There are good general books on South America, and Royal Viking provides excellent shore excursion descriptions ahead of time, as well as daily sightseeing highlights in their on-board newspaper.

Airline reservations should be made early. Again, try to budget for business- or first-class. Buenos Aires to San Francisco is a long flight, and the comfort of reclining chairs and leg room was invaluable. I gave up shopping for gems in Rio and furs in Buenos Aires, and it was a good trade-off.

If flying tourist-class, request bulkhead seating. You'll be boarded first and deplane last. And the wonderful passenger agents will become instant best friends; they know all the elevator secrets and usually whip you through customs so fast that agile passengers enviously eye your wheelchair.

If you arrive a day or two early to rest up before your cruise, all the better. And if you can break a long trip with an overnight, consider that, too. Be prepared for any kind of carry-on and carry-off if there's not a jetway.

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