Glossary for the Cold Country

13 Sep

Sailing to the deep south means learning a new language. They say the Eskimos have a hundred words  for snow. In the deep south you don't need that many, but if you call a growler an iceberg you'll be laughed right out of the Drake Passage. Many of these are the same in the far north and far south, but some are unique to   Patagonia/Tierra del Fuego and have Spanish names, then the names get carried over to the Antarctic Peninsula. Some of these aren’t easy to get correct definitions for…it took picking some expert brains:


Spanish word for cove or creek, but pertains to these little nooks where you can tie a boat in with shorelines.


The literal translation is sound, which in English means a long, relatively wide body of water, larger than a strait or a channel, connecting larger bodies of water. The many things called senos down there don’t resemble this definition in any way, but nonetheless this is what they are called. A more accurate English description would be fjord, which is a Norwegian word. This word exists in Spanish, fiordo, but is never used, so seno it is.


The Beagle Channel, or Canal Beagle in Spanish, the most famous in the region

I regularly botched this one, but now I’ve got it strait (ha ha). In Spanish it's canal,  with names like Canal Messier, Canal Ocasion, etc. Canal, in English, is a man-made channel, so to call any of these things canals in English is incorrect, but with the carry-over from Spanish, most of us regularly made the mistake. In English, they are in fact channels.

Iceberg (in Spanish, témpano):

An often misused term. For it to actually be an iceberg, it’s got to be pretty big, like as big as a large building or a city block. Icebergs ‘calve’ (break off) from the tongues of glaciers or ice shelves. It's tempting to call it an iceberg when it's towering over your mast, but it's probably just a…

Bergy Bit:

This is every piece of ice that’s bigger than a growler, but smaller than an iceberg. In my mind, a standard bergy bit is as big as a house–the part above water, that is. As we know, 80% is underwater, so it’s best to just think about the above water part.


The next size smaller than a bergy bit, say the size of a car or truck, give or take. Actually the most dangerous for navigation, because a growler can disappear among the waves or be awash, yet still weigh thousands of pounds and be easily capable of holing an unwary sailboat. Anything smaller than a growler is just floating ice.

Brash Ice:

Think trash ice. This is all the little bits of ice from glaciers that tend to float together forming drift lines. Notice I didn’t say ice floe. People tend to call these drift lines ice floes, but to be a floe it must be much more substantial. Some of the pieces of brash can weigh a ton, and growlers can be among the brash, but generally you can plow through brash ice, slowly and carefully.

A line of brash ice will have a deafening crackling sound, and floating ice of all sizes crackles if you get close enough to hear it. This is because over the centuries the immense pressure of the thousands of feet of ice in a glacier has compressed various gasses. Once the ice calves from the glacier, the pressure is released. As the ice melts these gasses expand again and release, giving off a jaunty popping sound. It’s just like your can of Coke: it doesn’t fizz until you open it and release the pressure, but once you do, voila.

Tabular Ice:

This is not a very representative photo of tabular ice, but I had it on expert authority that these were the remnants of a tabular iceberg, because they were so big, about 300-feet tall.

These are the biggest icebergs, and only happen a few places in the world, like Antarctica or Greenland. This is where a piece of a floating ice shelf breaks away, and has a characteristic flat, tabular, shape. That is, instead of a glacier, an ice shelf is a massive tract of ice with no land under it–it has extended itself out to sea and floats, even though it may still be hundreds, or even thousands of feet thick. Right now there is a piece of tabular ice the size of Ohio broken off in the Weddell Sea.

Tidewater Glacier:

This is a glacier that actually extends into the ocean, so that part of its tongue may be floating, and thus extra large icebergs can break off and float away. Most of the glaciers in Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego are tidewater glaciers, but a few have receded and now fall a little short…global warming, you know.


More from the AIM Marine Group