The Drake Passage is the stretch of ocean between the south tip of South America, also known as Cape Horn or Tierra del Fuego, part of Chile, and the South Shetland Islands of Antarctica, off the coast of the Antarctic Peninsula. The Drake Passage is famous for being the site of some of the roughest and most unforgiving waters of the world, also among the world’s coldest, as they are part of the Antarctic Circumpolar Current, a freezing current that endlessly circles the world’s southernmost continent, Antarctica. It is this current that is responsible for turning Antarctica from a temperate forest continent into a frigid wasteland covered by mile-thick glaciers over the course of millions of years.
The Drake Passage is named for the 16th century privateer (state-sponsored pirate) Sir Francis Drake, who traversed the passage after his ship was accidentally blown far south during an attempt to cross at the Strait of Magellan, a smaller passage between the Pacific and Atlantic located to the north. The passage was actually probably discovered first by the Spanish navigator Francisco de Hoces, who found it under similar circumstances, but did not end up traversing the passage, instead going through the Strait of Magellan. For this reason, the passage is sometimes called the Mar de Hoces by Latin and Spanish historians.
The latitudes at which the Drake Passage exists are somewhat unique is that they are among the only consistent east-west stretches of unbroken ocean on the planet, the only other latitudes with this quality being those of the Arctic Ocean, most of which are almost always blocked by sea ice. The only islands at the latitudes of the Drake Passage are the South Sandwich Islands in the South Atlantic and the South Macquerie Islands south of New Zealand, land bodies too small to seriously influence the flow of ocean currents.
Despite being the largest passage between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, the Drake Passage has relatively little ship traffic, as most shipping routes between the two oceans go through the Strait of Magellan. This was not the case for much of history, as it is easier for sailing ships to maneuver within the Passage than the Strait, which is narrow and often icebound or so windy that a safe passage is impossible. Today, using ships with engines that can be maneuvered precisely, the Strait of Magellan tends to be a faster route.